Posted on July 16, 2014


No essay this week. Just jumping right in.

Desperate Hours (1990)


Michael Bosworth (Mickey Rourke, when he was young and pretty) is a criminal on the run. He and his gang (Elias Koteas, David Morse) hole up in a suburban house overnight. The house belongs to the Cornells (Anthony Hopkins, Mimi Rogers, Shawnee Smith, Danny Gerard).

While the police race to find Bosworth, he manipulates the Cornells with psychotic precision and the adult Cornells fight to protect themselves and their family.

Famously, director Michael Cimino locked the main cast into the set of the Cornell house for the duration of their shooting together. I’ve heard Mimi Rogers tell stories about how physical Rourke and Hopkins were in real life, and how frighteningly tense the set got.

Unfortunately, my experience is that it takes a long time before either of the adult Cornells becomes a sympathetic character. I just didn’t care until late in the movie.

My advice is that you should watch The Desperate Hours, with Humphrey Bogart, instead.


Sneakers (1992)


I had forgotten just how good this movie is. Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, David Strathairn, Dan Ackroyd, and River Phoenix play members of a security company. Most have shady pasts. They get coerced into stealing something, only to discover their employers were not who they claimed to be. As the only ones who can make things right and clear their names, they go to work.

The other cast includes Ben Kingsley, Mary McDonnell, James Earl Jones, Stephen Tobolowsky, Donal Logue, and Timothy Busfield. That’s a huge amount of star power in one cast.

The suspense in this movie comes from how the team will accomplish anything, not from whether or not they will ultimately succeed. The betrayals and lack of identity are good choices by director and writers, as limiting the audience to what the protagonists know enhances the suspense.

That said, this light-hearted spy movie gets by on the charm of its cast.


Passchendaele (2008)


The only reason that I am putting this in with action movies is because there are big action pieces set on WWI battlefields. Otherwise, this is a drama about a soldier (Paul Gross) suffering from PTSD at a time when “battle fatigue” was a synonym for “cowardice.”

The battle scenes in this movie are intense specifically because the movie spends so much time emotionally investing us in the characters.

This is not for the faint of heart, but it’s a fine film and I recommend it.


Lebanon (2009)


This is an Israeli movie about the horrors of war. I couldn’t watch it to the end, so I won’t spend a lot of time on it.

I know this was a very personal film for Samuel Maoz, who was an Israeli conscript in Lebanon in 1982. That said, he needed to distance himself more from the script so that he could explain more to the audience. We do not know who the characters are. We don’t understand their relationships. We do not understand what is going on in the tank (and I say that as a tank platoon leader from the First Gulf War).

Skip it.


13 (2010)

A young man trying to support his family and take care of his father assumes a dead man’s identity and involves himself in a “game” in which men kill each other and gamblers bet on the outcome.

This is a remake of a nihilistic, suspenseful, French film, and it doesn’t cut the mustard.

Don’t get me wrong – Sam Riley, as the main character, does a fine job. The script gives us time to understand the young man’s desperation and the choices he makes. We even sympathize with him, to some extent.

However, we also know that he’s not going to die. The elaborate and ritualized mass Russian roulette “game” isn’t suspenseful, because we know our main character will continually survive each round.

The rest of the acting is all over the place. Michael Shannon and Mickey Rourke apparently thought they were in an absurdist farce. I don’t even know why Jason Statham bothered to be in it.

I think this movie could have been great, if it played up the inequality between the participants and the gamblers. It would have served as a metaphor for the larger economic scene of our times, where the wealthiest people seem to escape financial and economic consequences while the poorest are too busy killing each other to address the larger issues.

However, it doesn’t, and its attempts to please an American audience just water down the suspense and meaning.

The Grey (2011)


Ottway (Liam Neeson) is a hunter paid by an oil company to keep its workers safe. When he and the rest of the crew rotate out of the wilderness and back to home, their plane crashes in route. Ottway uses his skills to keep the survivors alive, while a pack of wolves pursues them.

Taken reinvented Liam Neeson’s career, making him an action star. It’s too bad that Taken is so racist. What made it suspenseful was that we did not know what Neeson’s character would do, or how far he would go, to rescue his daughter. That’s a one-trick pony. I’m dying to see the sequel, so I can see how boring it is.

This movie is pretty boring. The color palette gets visually monotonous early. Ottway is not a sympathetic character. The wolves are a constant threat, without variation in intensity, and that’s boring.

Because Neeson was a big action star when he made this, his casting alone made it obvious he would survive at least the majority of the film, further killing the suspense.

Plus, the movie has no internal logic. Ottway himself points out that wolves don’t attack humans unless they are desperately hungry, or protecting their dens. Yet these wolves relentlessly pursue the oil workers from the beginning.

It’s monotonous, boring, nonsense.

Kill List (2011)


A year after botching a job, a hitman takes on another assignment. The three targets seem simple, but the job gets more and more complex as the hitman executes each piece.

Okay, writers, here’s another movie that I couldn’t watch to the end. In fact, I couldn’t watch fifteen minutes of it. Don’t start your movie with two people we don’t know screaming at each other more or less constantly. We need time to get to know the characters and to understand why they are so unhappy.

Watching this on DVD, I just turned it off. If we want random unpleasantness, we can just live our lives.

The Raid: Redemption (2011)


An Indonesian action film about a SWAT team that invades an apartment building used as a safe house by a drug lord.

This movie has one sequel coming out this year and another in the works. Apparently, they are massively popular.

Unfortunately, it fails my main test for all action movies: I didn’t care about the characters. I did not know who they were or why I was supposed to care. None of the revelations or betrayals made any sense to me.

If you want to watch some great, brutal, fight sequences, then by all means see this film. Otherwise, pass.

Warrior (2011)


Tommy Conlon (Tom Hardy) comes home from war and visits his father Paddy (Nick Nolte). Tommy expects to meet the same guy who drove Tommy to run away with his mother years ago. In fact, he needs that abusive drunk. Paddy, however, has given up the bottle and regrets the awful person that he used to be.

The people who wrote Kill List should watch this movie just for the opening scene. That’s how you do a tense scene with two characters who haven’t yet gained the audience’s sympathy.

Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton), Tommy’s brother, teaches high school science. Money is tight. He’s underwater on his home, one of his daughters was very sick and that used up all their savings. His wife, Tess (Jennifer Morrison), is working two jobs trying to make ends meet. So Brendan goes to a smoker, an MMA match in a strip club parking lot, and fights for money.

Unfortunately, a relative of one of Brendan’s students records the fight on his cell phone, and the recording makes its way around the school and to the school administrators. They promptly lay Brendan off, administrative leave without pay.

Tommy and Brendan, independently of each other, decide to the way out of their difficulties is entering a massive, multi-day, MMA tournament.

Wow, is this a good movie. It focuses on emotions and motivations, rather than action. It’s about relationships, and some of the kinds of people driven to enter the ring. It’s about the ghosts of our past, and about forgiveness.

Strongly recommend, as long you don’t mind a little violence with your drama.

Bad Karma (2012)

In this movie, Ray Liotta plays Molloy, a drug-abusing criminal who has a heart-attack on his way to be a wheelman for a robbery. Because he never shows up, Mack (Dominic Purcell) goes to jail. When Mack gets out of jail, he’s looking for revenge.

I often complain about movies that give the protagonist a weakness that only plays a role when the plot needs it to. I felt that Molloy’s heart condition was a more consistent presence in this movie, and that’s better.\

That said, I think Liotta’s past body of work worked against the suspense in this movie. After Goodfellas, you wonder why Molloy doesn’t just shoot Mack. Of course, he can’t. He’s gone straight. He was never a killer. He was just a guy who stole stuff so he could get high.

Mack, on the other hand, is completely nuts. Dominic Purcell is a big guy, too, so considering Molloy’s weak heart, it doesn’t seem like much of a match-up. The reason for the cat-and-mouse stuff isn’t clearly explained, so we don’t care.

It’s a well done movie, but I think it could have been better.

Premium Rush (2012)


Joseph Gordon-Levitt doesn’t just make dramas. Sometimes he steps up to big-budget action movies (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises) like this.

Wilee (Gordon-Levitt) is a bicycle messenger in New York. He’s well-liked in the messenger community. One day he picks up a package from his girlfriend’s roommate, Nima (Jamie Chung). A guy claiming to be an IRS agent (Bobby Monday, played by Michael Shannon) tries to get the package from Wilee. Wilee rides off, and the chase is on.

The movie jumps back and forth in time, often revisiting scenes from different points of view. We get to see Monday’s story, Nima’s story, and Vanessa’s (the girlfriend, played by Diana Ramirez) story and how they all intersect.

That’s important, because Wilee initially comes off as arrogant and flippant. As we see his impact on others’ lives, we start to like him. As we see the community that cares about him, we come to root for him.

The thrills in this movie come from the environment, riding a bike through Manhattan traffic. The suspense comes from all the puzzle pieces in play and not knowing the limits of Wilee’s endurance.

I was pleasantly surprised by how good this movie was. It’s no classic, or anything, but it gets the emotions right and that counts for a lot.

Red Tails (2012)


The Tuskegee Airmen were African-Americans trained to be fighter pilots during WWII. It took decades of pressure to force the War Department into providing opportunities for African-American aviators. Even then, their units were segregated and their commanders were white.

This movie tells the tale of some of those pilots, picking up in 1944 as they are first assigned P-51 Mustang aircraft and given bomber escort missions. The bomber crews, all white, called the aviators “Red Tail Angels” because they followed orders and defended the bombers rather than seeking personal glory in individual dogfights.

This movie was the dream child of George Lucas and I am not a big fan. That said, this movie hit all the right notes for me.

Red Tails takes the time to introduce all the characters and build emotional interest in each of them as individuals.

I won’t lie to you. The movie is a bit predictable in terms of its plot points. That said, it’s well-acted and fast-paced. It throws light on some heroes who should be better known and on some shameful racist policies and behaviors.

See this one.

Safe (2012)


Luke Wright (Jason Statham) is a cage fighter who does something to irritate the mobsters he owes. So they kill his wife and tell him that whatever he does, for the rest of his life, they will kill anyone he gets close to. Anyone he’s kind to, anyone who becomes his friend, will die.

Jump ahead in time, and Luke is living in a homeless shelter and trying to keep his head down to protect others. Then he sees a little Chinese girl being abducted, and he steps up. Once he starts protecting Mei (Catherine Chan), he can’t stop. As long as the mobsters are after him, they’re after her, too.

Pretty typical Statham action movie, broken up by telling Mei’s story in addition to Luke’s. I felt like there wasn’t enough done to make the action sequences suspenseful. In fact, the contrast between scenes with Mei and scenes without really threw into contrast the lack of suspense in the “without” scenes. With her, there was always the chance that Luke would defend himself but lose her. Without, there was no chance Luke would fail to defend himself.

It’s just meh. If you like watching Statham, watch it.

Total Recall (2012)


In the opening of this movie, text on the screen says something so nonsensical that my head exploded. I just gave up on the movie making any kind of sense, and settled in for the ride.

Turns out, that was a good decision.

This is a visually striking film, with strong performances, but it could have been better. Neither this version nor the 1990 Paul Verhoeven film with Schwarzenegger, really develop the idea that the main character has no idea what’s real and what’s not. They touch on it, briefly, but they never really develop it.

Instead, they play it straight as an action movie. This movie does not get its ass to Mars, but it does stage elaborate chase sequences and actually kept my interest despite the total lack of suspense (and the lack of chemistry between Colin Farrell and Jessica Biel).

Oh, and as for the nonsense, the movie is set in a world devastated by chemical contamination, with only Australia and parts of Northwestern Europe spared. Because, you know, chemical contamination never travels with dust particles in the wind.

Then the movie tells us that most people commute back and forth from Australia to the UK every day through the center of the Earth!

Just roll with it and enjoy the pretty, if you must see it.


Action is not suspense. Charm and real human emotions go a long way toward making a movie watchable.

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Posted in: Movies