Category: Crime Action & Adventure


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I have a confession to make. I am a Westerns junkie. I obviously don’t think it’s the best film genre, but whether I can intellectually rationalize it or not, Westerns are my ultimate guilty pleasure genre. The elegant simplicity of the Old West mixed with gorgeous on-location shooting and the most mythic of American heroes, the Western gunslinger, make for a reassuring and consistently enjoyable experience. Even when it’s a by the books “oater,” I still find myself able to sit down and enjoy a movie and turn off the critical faculties that I’ve trained myself to have on at every juncture with other films. 1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is very much a traditional and conventional Western with virtually no regard for historical accuracy, but as far as classic Westerns go, it’s a fun take on the Wyatt Earp/Doc Holliday legend.

I really can’t overstate enough just how little historical accuracy is portrayed in this film. It’s virtually non-existent. Other than the fact that Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp were real people (as well as Wyatt’s brothers) and the fact that there was indeed a gunfight at the O.K. Corral with the Clanton brothers, I’m pretty sure that most of the stuff that happened in this movie was totally made up. That didn’t actually bother me any when I was watching it because at the end of the day, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is a fun little “oater.” But, if you want a little historical accuracy in your films about real people, you should probably keep that in mind if you sit down to watch this movie.

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In the late 1800s, lawman Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) finds his way into the town of Fort Griffin chasing criminal rustler Ike Clanton. While there, Earp saves gambler/gunman Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas) from a lynch mob after Holliday kills a man in self-defense. Later, Earp settles down in Dodge City, Kansas where becomes the town Marshall and it isn’t long before Doc Holliday makes his way there as well. Doc Holliday feels he owes Wyatt Earp his life, and he repays his debt by becoming Earp’s deputy and saving Wyatt’s neck on more than one occasion. After catching wind the Clantons have set up shop outside of Tombstone, Arizona, Earp and Holliday make their way to Tombstone which sets up the titular gunfight that serves as the film’s historical climax.

Kirk Douglas was fantastic as Doc Holliday. I’m not sure if his performance was as great as Val Kilmer’s almost effete take on the character in Tombstone (which became arguably the finest performance of Kilmer’s career), and it’s weird to me (as a kid bred on Tombstone) to never hear anybody say “I’ll be your huckleberry,” but Kirk Douglas finds the darker and mercurial side of the Holliday character. As opposed to Wyatt Earp’s more moralistic traditional hero, Kirk Douglas plays up how much of an anti-hero Doc Holliday really was. And there are scenes where he allows himself to become angry with his prostitute girlfriend Kate (Jo Van Fleet) where Douglas becomes legitimately menacing. It’s easy to see where his son Michael got his acting chops. Burt Lancaster was good as well although the part of Wyatt Earp required much less.

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I’ll keep this review short because I want to maybe try to finish Season 1 of Star Trek: The Next Generation today and I honestly don’t have much more to say about this movie than I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot although I also recognize that there’s nothing special or unique about it (other than Kirk Douglas’s performance). So, if you’re a fan of classic Westerns and white hats versus black hats (though ironically enough, Wyatt Earp wears a black hat the entire film), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s a fun way to pass two hours. And on one last side note, I just did some quick research about the actual events leading up to and surrounding the titular fight, and it’s kind of hilarious just how inaccurate this film is.

Final Score: B

 

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It is rare for an American remake of a film to be remotely as good as the foreign film it’s based on, let alone be better. Let Me In is one of the only ones I can think of off the top of my head and it still isn’t the instant classic that Let the Right One In has become in my mind. Usually, American remakes dial down any sexual or disturbing content (barring violence) that made the original stand out, and because they almost never improve upon the original piece in any way, they are simply redundant at best and bastardizations at worst. With that said, am I a terrible person for thinking that The Departed is vastly superior to Infernal Affairs, the 2004 Hong Kong film it is based on?

I watched Infernal Affairs for my film studies class (where we’re watching nothing but gangster movies) and we’ll be watching The Departed next week (although I watched that film last semester during that several month hiatus where I wasn’t reviewing movies to work on my screenplays). And other than the film’s ending (no, I won’t spoil it for anyone. don’t worry), I’m not sure if I can name a single area where Martin Scorsese’s remake isn’t simply a much better product than this film. From the script, to the characters, to the direction, to the editing, to the cinematography, Infernal Affairs has now become in my mind the go to example of how a good story can become a great film when given to the right hands.

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I will give the film credit for coming up with the clever story that is at both the heart of it and The Departed (although the latter so greatly expands on the themes and the characters that this film almost just seems like a sketch in comparison). Two different men are chosen to go deep undercover into the organizations of their boss’s biggest enemies. Lau Kin Ming (Andy Lau) is hired by the Triad to infiltrated the Hong Kong Police Department while police cadet Chan Wing Yan (Tony Leung) infiltrates the Triad. And as each goes deeper and higher into their undercover ops, their job becomes to find out who the mole is in their ranks.

And that’s really it. I’m going to keep on bleating on about how much better The Departed is than this film, but I’ve always thought of The Departed as one of Scorsese’s slightest films. It’s one of his films that relies the most on style over substance, but if The Departed is slight, Infernal Affairs is just anorexic. Although the film is a terrific example of non-stop intelligent pacing (the film really manages to ratchet the tension up and never let up right out of the gates), the characters are paper-thin, and you are given absolutely no reason to care about anyone involved. And when characters die or are betrayed or reveal shocking allegiances, none of it matters because you don’t feel any emotional attachment to the individuals involved.

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The direction and editing of the film though are what lead me to think of this film as being so amateurish (although I suppose any movie would pale in comparison to something Martin Scorsese touched). The opening sequences of the film are an endless stream of cross-cuts which lend no sense of direction or meaning to the story and it took me far too long to even realize what was happening and who was good and who was bad. And the film employs so many cheesy scene transitions and unnecessary expository flashbacks (not to unseen events in the film but things that have already happened once already) that you begin to feel like the director doesn’t trust the audience’s ability to keep up with the action on scren.

I’m going to keep this review short and sweet. I enjoyed Infernal Affairs, and maybe, if I hadn’t seen The Departed first, I would have liked it a lot more. As it stands, Infernal Affairs is a good movie with a great concept, and it took a more talented creative team to really bring fruit to the story. If you like foreign cinema, it’s certainly a must see, and if you’re a big fan of its American successor, it’s interesting to see just how many of the scenes were lifted straight from this film. But ultimately, it’s just a serviceable action thriller.

Final Score: B

 

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Ridley Scott is one of Hollywood’s most hit-or-miss directors. For every Blade Runner or Thelma & Louise, he makes a Hannibal or Black Hawk Down (seriously Black Hawk Down is awful). Although even his worst films are visually dynamic and interesting movies; sometimes, he just gets bad scripts to work with (or the studio meddles too much with his final product, ala the underrated Kingdom of Heaven). I think the man just doesn’t know what movies to pass on. Or perhaps it’s just an ability to constrain himself in his films. Anyways, his 1970s to early 90s productions were generally pretty great, and for a very 1980s style action flick, 1989’s Black Rain was a compelling, smart, and stylish action thriller with just enough original gimmicks going for it that you didn’t care that the story followed a fairly predictable path.

Nick Conklin (Fatal Attraction‘s Michael Douglas) is a semi-dirty cop with the NYPD. With a penchant for fast motorcycles, Nick is also under investigation from internal affairs for skimming money off the top of a drug bust. When he and his partner Charlie Vincent (The Untouchables‘ Andy Garcia) bust a Japanese crime lord for murder, they are tasked with escorting him back to Japan. However, the crime lord’s associates pretend to be cops and help the crime lord escape at the airport. Now, it’s up to Nick, Charlie, and Japanese inspector Masahiro (Ken Takakura) to recapture the criminal Sato  and get at the heart of a Yakuza-fueled gang war that is tearing the Osaka criminal underworld apart.

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I thought I was going to have trouble buying Michael Douglas as a bad-ass biker cop with an attitude. He’s such a stereotypical Hollywood pretty boy (not an insult. just a fact), but then I remembered that Romancing the Stone existed, and his turn as the cocksure Nick was a pleasant surprise. Douglas has just the right sensitivity to make the character more than just a one-note caricature of arrogant American swagger, and a natural chemistry arose between him and Andy Garcia as well as Ken Takakura. Andy Garcia brought the necessary comic relief to the movie and provided one of the film’s most memorable sequences when he and Ken Takakura did a Ray Charles number at a karaoke bar. I’m unsure if Ken Takakura is a native English speaker, but regardless, he also turned the initially unsympathetic Masahiro into a three-dimensional figure as well.

It’s odd (knowing my usual tastes in movies) that I truly enjoyed Black Rain as much as I did. There was nothing especially insightful about the film. But, the way that it painted the differences in demeanor between the brash hotshot New York detective and the traditional, group-oriented Japanese inspector was something that hadn’t been overdone to death yet at the time, and most films of the same ilk that I’ve seen since don’t do it half as well. As someone who’s lived abroad, the film captures quite well how easy it is to get lost in other cultures and the clashes that can occur when two very strong-willed people/groups collide. Ridley Scott’s direction is also great. Like his whole ouevre, Black Rain is gorgeous to look at, and when the story hits more predictable lulls (cop says he can’t help Nick. comes back to help Nick at key moment, etc), you can always count on the film grabbing your attention visually.

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I’ll keep this review short cause this isn’t exactly an art-house piece. If you’re looking for a really fun and smartly made movie that you can watch and not have to think too much during, you could do a lot worse than Black Rain. Michael Douglas continues to solidify his reputation in my mind as one of the great stars of the 80s and 90s, and I’ve always wondered why Andy Garcia didn’t become a bigger star. The only thing about this film that makes me sad (besides a certain decapitation scene… poor guy) is that it reminds me how great Ridley Scott can be when he isn’t trying to be Mr. Highbrow. With the exception of Blade Runner and maybe Alien, he’s not actually talented enough to be Mr. Highbrow. But, when he’s making great, crowd-pleasing popcorn pictures like Black Rain, he hits ’em out of the park.

Final Score: B+

 

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Although it’s easy to forget, what with my love of Glee, musical theater, and more feminine venues of artistic expression, I am a man. And occasionally, I need visceral, testosterone-fueled outlets for my more masculine urges. That’s likely why I can enjoy stylized, hyper-violent video games. Something in me as a man inherently appreciates a chance to vent that sort of aggression that evolution instilled in me somewhere but that society has more or less made unnecessary. It’s the same with how I can enjoy professional wrestling (and yes I know it’s fake) and also like Terrence Malick or Federico Fellini at the same time. It’s nice to see displays of masculine athleticism. And the visual poetry of well-choreographed martial arts explains why legions of men have loved “kung fu” movies (even when it’s a different school of martial arts) for decades now. It’s machismo with actual talent.

Long-time readers know my love of the burgeoning martial arts scene coming from Southeast Asia over the last decade or so, particularly the film’s involving Thailand’s muay thai master Tony Jaa (Ong Bak). I took martial arts lessons for a long time when I was younger (although I was pretty terrible at it), and I’ve always loved watching bad-ass men prove how athletic and talented they are destruction with just their fists and feet. I’m not sure if it’s possible to watch a well-choreographed martial arts film and not at least get an adrenaline rush from the skill these guys show with their body. It’s a true mastery of mind and body, and it’s  a talent that should be celebrated. 2011’s The Raid: Redemption starts out and worries viewers by making you think that it’s just another guns-blazing action film, but when everyone finally runs out of ammo, the movie becomes a martial arts extravaganza that’s a feast for the eyes.

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An elite swat team has orders to infiltrate a heavily guarded tenement building in the slums of Indonesia. The building is the home of the operations (and soldiers) of one of Indonesia’s most feared and brutal drug lords. Led by the honorable Jaka (Joe Taslim) and the sketchy/scheming Wahyu (Pierre Gruno), the team of 20 or so rookie swat members storm the drug den unaware of the hell they are walking into. When 75% of the force is wiped out after the group fails to kill a child who is a scout for the drug dealers, it’s up to the four remaining members of the team to fight their way out of the building. And most of the duty for escape falls on the shoulders of rookie Rama (Iko Uwais) whose martial arts skills prove to be the only thing that’s keeping him and his squadmates alive.

The characters in the film are paper thing and almost without definition beyond their ability to be weapons of mass destruction with just their fists. And the story doesn’t provide any twists that you didn’t see coming besides a minor plot point about Rama being the brother of one of the drug lord’s top lieutenants. The acting isn’t bad, but it certainly isn’t anything to write home about. But, when you’re watching The Raid: Redemption, you don’t care about any of these things. The sheer spectacle of the film as the silat fighting style is shown off like never before is enough to keep you glued to your seat for the entire running time. Whether Rama is fighting off 30 thugs with just a nightstick and knife or he and his brother attempt to fight against just one superhumanly athletic man, The Raid will serve as a future lesson on how to do gorgeous fight choreography.

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I’ll keep this review short. It’s an action film and if you don’t like martial arts movies, you’re not going to like this one. But for anybody who is a fan of the theatrics of martial arts wizardry, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a film more bad-ass than The Raid: Redemption. The film seemed a little disappointing at the beginning when everyone was still using their guns, but that’s because gunplay is almost never as gorgeous as fists of fury. But, when the fighting becomes more brutal and in-your-face, The Raid becomes a literal non-stop fight for survival that displays some of the most innovative and adrenaline-pumping martial arts action this side of Tony Jaa. Watch it now.

Final Score: B

 

Scarface1983-1

After two movies in as many weeks, it might be too early to say that Brian De Palma is a hack of a director, but that’s where my heart is beginning to lean. In my film studies class, just one week after watching the 1932 Scarface, we watched the De Palma helmed remake (which was itself only a week or so after I happened to watch De Palma’s later film The Untouchables). Regular readers know how much I disliked the Howard Hawks Scarface, and as my gut memory was telling me, Brian De Palma’s version isn’t much better. A gory and expletive filled ride into the cocaine crime glory days of the 1980s, 1983’s Scarface is as hollow as Tony Montana’s heart.

Take Tony Camonte, make him Cuban, and have his business be cocaine instead of booze, and you get an idea of the kind of man that Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is. Fresh off the boat from Cuba, Montana is a career criminal that has his eyes set on capturing his slice of the American dream, even if it means killing scores of men to get to the top. With his best friend Manny (Steven Bauer), Tony works his way up the cocaine business, first under the tutelage of Frank Lopez (Big‘s Robert Loggia).  Tony’s take-no-shit attitude and almost psychopathic fury make him a natural player in the cut-throat world of the booming cocaine explosion.

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But it’s the same qualities that make Tony such a natural as an enforcer and paid tough that prove to be what propels him to the top of the business and then cause his ignominious downfall. Tony quickly falls for Frank Lopez’s beautiful wife Elvira (The Age of Innocence‘s Michelle Pfeiffer), and when he sees the chance to stake out on his own with the help of a true Bolivian drug lord, Tony plants the seeds of a massive drug empire that Frank Lopez could barely imagine. But his insane jealousy surrounding his sister Gina (The Color of Moneys Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and his own perverse code of ethics prove to be his undoing.

I’m a big Al Pacino. Along with Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson, he’s easily one of the greatest actors of his generation. And it pains me to say that Scarface is one of the worst performances of his entire career. Maybe it’s the god-awful Cuban accent (which sounds so unnatural coming from his mouth) or the way that Pacino’s usual explosive intensity seems so artificial. Nothing about Tony Montana, from the performance to the writing, feels natural or realistic. There are small moments here and there where Pacino is able to remind you why he’s one of the greatest actors of all time, but he spends too much of Scarface chewing up the scenery without revealing any of Tony’s depth.

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And the supporting performances are equally atrocious. Robert Loggia has proven himself time and time again to be one of Hollywood’s most capable intimidators (just watch Lost Highway if you need proof of that), but his Frank Lopez seems to be a soft balloon and not always in the intentional sense. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio wowed so much in The Color of Money which makes Gina’s vacuity in this film that much more disappointing. Steven Bauer finds the cocksure swagger that makes Manny such a ladies man, but much like Pacino, he ultimately reduces the character to a tired racial stereotype.

The film’s best aspect is the killer score and a sense for the fashion and visual dynamics of the early 1980s which it managed to both represent as well as ultimately shape because of the film’s huge influence on how the 1980s are perceived. The period songs that are used in the soundtrack are in fact so great that Grand Theft Auto 3 had a 1980s station that played nothing but songs from this movie’s soundtrack and Giorgio Moroder’s score was a beautiful evocation of the sun-soaked Miami that became Tony’s cocaine playground. Throw in the bright colors and pastels of the film’s costumes and sets, and the movie just feels like an archetype of the 1980s.

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Much like The Untouchables, Brian De Palma just over-directs virtually every sequence of the film with unnecessary frills and flourishes that don’t enhance the viewer’s interaction with Scarface but rather remind you that you’re watching a nearly three-hour bloated bit of cinematic artifice. Although I distinctly remember enjoying De Palma’s adaptation of Carrie, both Scarface and The Untouchables paint De Palma as a man who is unwilling to put even the most basic of trust in to his script and his storytelling and that he must instead beat the audience over the head with over-the-top visual stimulus.

De Palma’s Scarface is at times a nearly scene-for-scene remake of the original. Oliver Stone wrote the script for the film (I can only imagine how much better this film would have been had he directed it) and so it will occasionally contain a bit of the political commentary that Stone later became known for, but De Palma sucked the life out of any intelligence the script might have originally had by shooting it with such a blunt and merciless style that is devoid of either cinematic poetry or cinematic truth. The movie tends to be shockingly violent and crude almost only for the sake of being shockingly violent and crude without any message to back it up.

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All of those major complaints aside, Scarface is still visceral and stimulating enough to keep you engaged for its nearly three hour long running time. Had a more capable director been at the helm and had the excess fat been cut, this could have been a great film. As it is, Scarface is a fun reminder of the excess of the 1980s and perhaps the shallow soullessness that defined a decade when Ronald Reagan was president and cocaine was king. This is not a film that deserves to rank aside the all-time great crime classics, but if you don’t find yourself roused by its explosive finish, you should probably get your adrenal gland checked.

Final Score: B-

 

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It’s always disappointing to return to movies that you have very fond memories of from when you’re younger that fail to live up to the high expectations memory has endowed them with. It doesn’t happen often. Usually the sheer nostalgia factor tends to overwhelm the senses and make me push aside any shortcomings I have towards a film. This is particularly true of children’s films and the reason why you could pop in any episode of any 90s cartoon and I would be lost in joy for as long as you put it on. But for a film presumably for grown-ups which I watched first as a young teenager, my mature self (and certainly more knowledgeable of good vs. bad cinema) can pick out the flaws in films I used to enjoy so completely. And although The Untouchables can be a rousing adventure story; it is just that. While trying to capture the feel of the classic crime films of yore, The Untouchables comes off like an overly romanticized (and overly directed) boys tale.

In the 1930s, Prohibition is in full-swing and bootlegging alcohol is the key to making a quick buck. And in the corrupt streets of Chicago, nobody does it better than Al Capone (Robert De Niro). A self-made millionaire, Capone was a murderous gang leader who held the illegal alcohol racket under his boots through a mix of intimidation, murder, and great press relations. After one of his thugs accidentally murders a ten year old girl as part of Capone’s racketeering schemes, federal agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) makes it his personal crusade to bring down the most powerful man in Chicago. And when Ness quickly discovers that Capone has most of the Chicago police department in his back pocket, he forms a small team, including wise Irish beat cop Jim Malone (Sean Connery), crackshot rookie George Stone (Andy Garcia), and G-Man accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), to get the job done.

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I have a litany of complaints about the film but at the end of the day, it’s still enjoyable as long as you realize that this isn’t an especially serious take on one of our nation’s most famous criminal investigations. The film’s script came from the inimitable David Mamet (Wag the Dog), and either his famous ear for dialogue was completely broken for this movie or director Brian de Palma intentionally dumbed the script down. I don’t know who to blame. But at the end of the day, the film sounds almost comically noble. Whereas White Heat or The Public Enemy succeed because their dialogue sounds realistic and gritty, The Untouchables makes Eliot Ness and his crew sound like superheroes. The only exception, of course, being Sean Connery’s Jim Malone (but more on that shortly). Certain scenes ring with the typical Mamet brilliance (a great speech from Al Capone before he murders an associate rings to mind), but the majority of the film features hilariously overblown theatrics.

And this is going to sound crazy, but Ennio Morricone’s score for the film is also downright laughable. He’s a man that is perhaps one of the top three or top five beloved scorers in the history of cinema, but the score for the film is laughably over-the-top. It was holding the audience by the hand and telling them exactly how to feel in every single scene without a hint of concern for subtlety or not being laughably obvious. Though, to be fair to Morricone, certain numbers worked very well. Although one can’t blame him for his score being over-the-top and noble in a strained sort of way when virtually everything about the film screamed of simply trying to hard.

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And, boy, did Brian de Palma just over-direct the hell out of this movie. I love Fellini. I love Terence Malick. I love Akira Kurosawa. I love directors that put themselves into every frame of their films. But, you have to know what you’re doing in order to make that kind of constant visual flourish work. And, at least for this picture, Brian De Palma did not know what he was doing. And, if he did, he was clearly trying to frustrate trained viewers with almost unending, unnecessary visual quirks. One of the film’s most famous moments (and arguably the climactic shoot-out) nearly made me start laughing, not because the scene was supposed to be funny, but because De Palma was so desperately trying to channel Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin when it was totally not needed. And about half of the film consists of such over-the-top silliness.

The movie does have one absolutely perfect thing going for it, and it’s the delicious performance of Sean Connery as Jim Malone. As the foul-mouthed, uncomfortably racist, street-wise cop that helps Ness break up the whole Capone operation, Sean Connery breathes a breath of life and realism into a film that is otherwise something a bunch of wide-eyed teenage boys would tell each other around the camp fire as they recount the feats of heroism of “the Untouchables.” The way that Connery makes you forget how terrible his dialogue can be (and boy can it be bad) is a marvel. Compared to the stone-faced performance of Kevin Costner (who, let’s face it, isn’t exactly an Oscar-caliber performer), the Academy Award-winning performance from Sean Connery lights up the screen and your imagination, and if you’re anything like me, you likely spend much of the film simply wishing there was more Jim Malone.

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After so many harsh words (and so few good ones), you might think that I really hated this film. But I didn’t. I enjoyed it. As a cops & robbers movie, it’s fun. You just have to know that it isn’t a serious look into this fascinating period. It, in fact, reminds me of a conversation Jesse James and  Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James about Robert Ford’s love of the dime novels about Jesse’s exploits. This film is the 1980s version of a 1930s story. And that’s ok. For what it is, it’s a fun movie. Just don’t expect it to be anything more. Because otherwise, you’re going to be greatly disappointed. It’s just sad because you expect so much more from the pairing of David Mamet and Brian De Palma.

Final Score: B

Just because you prefer the films of Federico Fellini or Terrence Malick doesn’t mean you can’t just sit back and enjoy a good, old fashioned hyper-violent action movie every now and then. They’ve got to be ultra-stylistic or a glorious celebration of action cliche excess (Shoot ‘Em Up), but it’s great to have a movie that’s a purely visceral experience (as opposed to cerebral or emotional). These films almost never qualify as “great” movies, but for fans of film technique, stylistic action movies can give your mind a break while simultaneously stimulating your love of visually exciting film-making. 2007’s Smokin’ Aces is one of those films. And although it starts tripping over its own feet with its unnecessarily serious ending (which clashes with the mood of the rest of the film), if you can look past that failing, it’s remain a high-octane thrill ride ever since it was released.

In the realm of the Guy Ritchie films such as Snatch or Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (though with only half of Ritchie’s wit), Smokin’ Aces is a crime action thriller where the only thing higher than the body count is the number of players and schemes along for the ride. After Mafioso Primo Sparazza puts a hit on mob informant and Vegas showman Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven), just about every assassin worth his weight comes out to take him down. FBI Agents Richard Messner (Ryan Reynolds) and Donald Carruthers (Ray Liotta) race to the Lake Tahoe penthouse suite where Israel is holed up, hoping to catch up with him before the army of hit men bears down on him. On the opposite side of the law are heavy hitters including three psychotic nazi brothers, two African American female assassins (including the sultry Alicia Keys), and a man notorious for changing his face to make the perfect kill.

The film’s almost absurdly star-studded cast has to be the biggest selling point behind the clever and visceral visual style of the film. Like the disaster movies of the 1970s, it’s almost a question of “who isn’t” in this movie. You have Ryan Reynolds, Andy Garcia, and Ray Liotta as FBI Agents. Jeremy Piven is the target and rapper Common is his primary bodyguard. There are three cast members from Lost in major or minor roles. That’s Matthew Fox as hotel security guard. Nestor Carbonell as one of the primary hit men and Kevin Durand as one of the inbred psycho assassins. Alicia Keys and Taraji P. Henson are the female assassins. Ben Affleck is a bail bondsman hoping to capture Israel alive before the hit men smoke him. And none other than Captain Kirk himself, Chris Pine, plays another one of the psycho brothers. Just to round things out, Jason Bateman is a cross-dressing lawyer hoping to not lose the bail he put down on Israel.

In the cast, a few stars obviously push their way to the front. Jeremy Piven is a wonder as always. Although he starts the film out in what can be kindly called “Full Ari Gold” mode, he generally finds himself beaten down over the course of the movie by the possibility of his impending doom and the fact that he is likely about to sell out all of his closest friends. Inhabiting the coked out, arrogant, regretful, and, ultimately, terrified Buddy Israel is simply further proof that Jeremy Piven is a talented actor who got his big breaks far too late in life. Common proves that he is a capable actor in his flirtatious scenes with Alicia Keys as well as the moments where he confronts Israel about his portrayal. Ryan Reynolds also admirably acquits himself as the FBI Agent who regularly learns that there are more and more layers to this seemingly simple case.

The film’s influences are fairly obvious. Trying to pair the quick and snappy dialogue of a Tarantino film with the gambit pileups of a Guy Ritchie movie, writer/director Joe Carnahan’s actual achievements are more of a mixed bag. When the film hits its marks, it’s a wonderful thing. Whether it’s the darkly comic (but inexplicably hilarious) moment where Chris Pine’s Tremor brother forces a corpse to mime out his apology for killing him or Taraji P. Henson’s assassin opening fire on a room full of feds with a 50. sniper rifle, the movie finds the magic balance between dark humor and a wee bit of the old ultra violence. However, when the film tries to be remotely serious, it simultaneously snaps the comically violent tone of the film while also simply failing to actually be dramatic. The awful twist ending is the ultimate example of this flaw in the film’s system.

The film isn’t going to please the art-house crowd (although I consider myself to be a part of that crowd. I can just also appreciate more broadly appealing films), but if you like smart and witty action films, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Smokin’ Aces. Sometimes all that matters for a movie is whether or not it’s fun. And if you can’t find anything fun about Smokin’ Aces, you need your testosterone levels checked (unless you’re a chick and just naturally don’t have any. Still think women can find the film appealing though). It may not be as good as stylistic thrillers like La Femme Nikita or Leon: The Professional, but not everybody can be a Luc Besson. If you need your fix of hyper-kinetic, over-the-top action, you can start here.

Final Score: B

This review is dedicated to the memory of everyone who lost their life in the senseless violence in Aurora, CO.

It’s been eleven years since the 9/11 tragedy left its immeasurable imprint in the American psyche. With a seismic shift in American foreign policy and the lengths that Americans were willing to go to guarantee their own safety (even if it meant sacrificing their own liberty), the terrorists changed the American way of life whether we’d like to admit it or not. With the PATRIOT Act, unmanned drones, and a government with the power to assassinate its own citizens (if and when they’re considered foreign enemy combatants), the America of today is radically different than the America pre-that fateful Monday morning. It isn’t just our political culture that reflects the post 9/11 world. It is our arts and popular media. Would Jack Bauer have been so beloved in a world where his questionable tactics weren’t deemed (by some) a rough necessity? More than any other superhero, Christopher Nolan’s Batman has become the the superhero of the post 9/11-world, but the very British (and cynical) Mr. Nolan (Inception) turns the concept of the American hero completely on its head.

Starting with Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One as well as his iconic The Dark Knight Returns (which TDKR‘s title is a more than apt homage/subversion), Batman has seen a slow, steady disintegration from the stalwart hero of the Silver Age to a more morally and psychologically complex anti-hero. Some writers even went so far as to paint Bruce as an aristocratic vigilante whose crime fighting masked serious mental illness (or at least highly repressed neuroses). What else is Watchmen‘s Nite Owl but a sexually repressed playboy/Batman stand-in who decides to fight crime because he’s bored? When Christopher Nola resuscitated the Batman franchise in 2005 (eight years after Joel Schumacher nearly destroyed it), he took the darker Batman mythos as a jumping off point for an examination of one man who represented both the best and worst in the American character.

The Dark Knight hinged thematically (the Joker without question drove the plot) entirely on this debate as framed between Harvey Dent and Batman. Dent was the idealistic crusader. He would stop at nothing to battle crime even if it meant crossing moral lines to get there. Bruce hadn’t become quite so cynical yet. The tipping point (which began Nolan’s almost too subtle commentary) was the arrival of the Joker who pushed Dent to his limits. He broke the man Gotham had invested considerable authority in and turned him into a force of nihilistic destruction. And although the Batman was able to stop Joker’s reign of terror, the Joker won. He made Bruce compromise. Batman took the blame for Dent’s death (and kept his transformation into Two-Face a secret) and went into hiding. Bruce even turned into a recluse because without Rachel Dawes and without Batman, he had nothing. Gotham chose to invest all of its power (as we find out in TDKR) into stopping criminals and honoring the legacy of Dent. It turns out the Joker knew what he was doing after all.

The Dark Knight Rises picks up eight years after the death of Harvey Dent. Although the streets of Gotham are safe, organized crime has simply moved from the mob to the boardroom. In one of the film’s best scenes, a young and highly capable cat-burglar, Selina Kyle (Brokeback Mounain‘s Anne Hathaway), breaks into Wayne Manor to steal finger prints from Bruce Wayne (as well as a pearl necklace that caught her fancy). After she’s betrayed by those that she was working for in the first place, we quickly learn that one of the largest shareholders in Wayne Enterprises is one of Gotham’s most merciless killers. It is, in fact, this same man who has hired the film’s Big Bad in the first place to wreak havoc on the streets of Gotham in an attempt to wrest control of Wayne Enterprise from Bruce Wayne. Unfortunately for Mr. Daggett, Bane is not an animal that can be controlled.

Bane (Inception‘s Tom Hardy) is a hulking brute with no code other than to watch the world burn. His malicious and unyielding penchant for evil even managed to get him excommunicated from the same League of Shadows that wanted to destroy Gotham in Batman Begins. In the film’s opening set piece (which isn’t fully understood until much later in the film), Bane intentionally hands himself over to the CIA in order to capture a Russian nuclear scientist in a mid-air hijacking where one of his men gladly volunteers to die in the wreckage so there’s proof who committed the crime. After a daring robbery of the Gotham Stock Exchange which effectively brings Batman out of retirement, the fight between Batman and Bane can barely be categorized as such. In their first physical confrontation, Bane doesn’t just beat Batman. He destroys him, breaking his back and tossing Bruce in an inescapable eastern European pit to force Bruce to watch the destruction of Gotham.

Which leads to the heart of the film. Before Bruce went into seclusion, he had been working on a nuclear fusion energy source that could completely power Gotham forever. He was doing this with the financing of wealthy philanthropist Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). However, after studies showed how the device could be weaponized, Bruce and Lucian Fox hid the reactor away beneath the city. After Bane breaks Bruce, he commandeers the reactor and turns its core into a slowly ticking time bomb. After blowing the bridges out of the city (and trapping most of the police in the sewers), Bane takes control of Gotham, and it’s up to Commisioner Gordan (Nil By Mouth‘s Gary Oldman) and the few remaining cops, including idealistic and driven young cop John Blake (Brick‘s Joseph Gordon-Levitt), to lead the resistance as the city prays for the return of the Batman.

It’s difficult to discuss the thematic turning point in the film where it suddenly became more clear that Nolan was trying to recreate the superhero story as a post 9/11 allegory (which led to the retroactive recognition of all of the other themes I’ve already pointed out) without spoiling the end of the film. Here goes. It finally struck me that Batman was meant to stand for the unchecked power and vigilantism of the post 9/11 America when he (probably not a huge spoiler) finally returns to Gotham after escaping the pit. Bruce failed to stop Bane because Bane represented a force that the Batman couldn’t defeat on his own. His complete lack of faith in the decency of others and his refusal to ask for the help of anyone else (including isolating his closest friend, Alfred) meant he was doomed to failure. As soon as he returns to Gotham, he immediately enlists the help of everyone he can which shows Batman’s transformation into a leader who isn’t too proud to admit when he needs help.

All of the franchise’s villains represent some breed of modern terrorist (which should have been painfully obvious) though the series subverts traditional conservative propaganda by showing what true (near) nihilism looks like as opposed to religious/state-sponsored terrorism. R’as Al Ghul was a cynic who thought the only way to fix the world was to destroy it. The Joker committed violence for violence’s sake. He was more interested in making everyone recognize what he saw as the futility of existence and the absurdity of morality. Bane saw himself as the successor to R’as Al Ghul’s legacy but instead wanted a vicious anarchism through a destructive cleansing. While the franchise has created a world of good vs. evil, it’s also a world of flawed heroes versus grand existential philosophies on the meaninglessness of modern life.

As fascinating as the film is at a thematic level, it’s also still a superhero movie, and, thankfully, it also succeeds in that era (though it’s length becomes a bit of a problem). The film is overflowing with masterfully staged action set pieces. Whether it’s Batman leading the entire GCPD on a manhunt when he first returns (before his good name is cleared), Batman and Selina Kyle fighting off Bane’s men or a shoot-out between the GCPD and the forces of Daggett and Bane, the film has enough action to counterbalance it’s overt social themes even before the marked shift in pace in the film’s final half. The film’s last half sees The Dark Knight Rises transform as much into a war film as it is a superhero movie. Gotham has been occupied, and Batman and all of the decent forces left in Gotham have to take up arms in a gorgeously constructed and choreographed fight to the death.

Nolan’s dedication to character-driven storytelling is just as great in this film as it has been in the past. With TDKR as his last chance to speak on these characters, it is great to report that he brings all of the remaining characters full circle in their respective arcs. Without wanting to spoil the film, it’s safe to say that Bruce’s arc is immensely satisfying and brought to an acceptable close. No matter where the Batman franchise goes from here, Christopher Nolan will always have left his mark on the Batman mythos. The most surprising aspect of the film was Nolan’s totally original creation, Joseph Gordon Levitt’s John Blake. An orphan like Bruce, Blake was an instantly endearing and charming creation that showed the human decency that Bruce Wayne thought was mostly extinct in Gotham. In a film with so many established characters, it was wonderful that a new character made the deepest emotional impact.

Not everything about the film is a winner though. As effective a villain as Bane is (he accomplishes far more damage than the other two Big Bads combined), he is pretty dull. Ignoring the fact that his breathing apparatus makes it impossible to understand half of what he says, he simply lacks the presence of the Joker or even Ra’s Al Ghul. It’s probably unfair to compare him to Heath Ledger’s Joker which will likely go down as the all-time greatest superhero villain in cinema. Yet, I couldn’t help feeling that with such a grand and epic film, Christopher Nolan could have done better than a hulking brute with no real personality other than a terrifying evil. He nearly reminds one of Marlo Stanfield, the cold and calculating killer from The Wire who could never live up to the high bar set by Stringer Bell. Except Nolan’s rendition of Bane makes Marlo Stanfield look like a nuanced creation from a Jonathan Franzen novel.

Similarly, despite her major role in the film’s final act, I still firmly believe that The Dark Knight Rises could have done without Marion Cotillard’s Miranda Tate. It’s not that Cotillard isn’t a wonderful actress. She’s phenomenal (and incredibly gorgeous), but Miranda was just another female placeholder until the film’s end. Her romance with Bruce in the film’s first act made about zero sense even if you take into account that he had been mourning the loss of Rachel Dawes for eight years. Where The Amazing Spider-Man deftly explored romance with Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy (which was ultimately more interesting than the film’s actual heroics), The Dark Knight Rises shows the same romantic understanding and life as George Lucas in Revenge of the Sith (which is to say not at all). I will for the life of me never understand why writer’s try to shoehorn romances into stories when they have no idea how to write a good love story.

In surprisingly American fashion, the Brit Nolan also tries to have it both way when he both lampoons and defends the modern economic strife in America. I have heard people refer to Bane as an allegory for the “militarm of the Occupy movement” and have also heard people read into the greed and corruption that would foster that sort of resentment in the first place. Nolan doesn’t handle economic malaise with the same sure-eyed clarity that he uses to take aim at terrorism, national security, and unchecked power (benevolent or not). Also, the simple fact that he tries to please both sides of his audience rather than coming out and just saying what he believes is a bit of Hollywood commercialism that he is usually better than.

Despite the film’s flaws, Nolan’s film is so ambitious that only the most hardened cynic would focus so hard on them as to not see the forest for the trees. Yes, the film is too long. Yes, Bane is a mush-mouth of the highest order  and simply lacks an imposing emotional presence. But, with the entire Dark Knight Trilogy, Nolan has reshaped the possibilities of the mainstream superhero movie. He aims a little higher. He believed that you could entertain and educate. He took the risk that you could transform the modern American myth, the superhero, into a reflection of the society that spawned the myth in the first place. The Dark Knight Rises may not be perfect, but as a summer American blockbuster, you couldn’t possibly ask for much more.

Final Score: A-

A sniper who has shown no hesitation to kill a man for money has in his sights the Mafia don who has ordered his execution. Suddenly a bird lands on the barrel of the high-powered rifle obscuring the scope. Rather than getting angry, the sniper pauses to enjoy the beauty of the smaller things in life. In fact, prior to the arrival of the mafioso, the sniper had passed the time using his rifle’s scope as binoculars to bird watch. Such quiet moments are the rule and not the exception of Jim Jarmusch’s cerebral crime drama, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. As a darkly comic subversion of the noble assassin picture, Ghost Dog manages to have its cake and eat it too by poking fun at the archetypes of films like Leon: The Professional or Le Samourai while still painting a well-chiseled existentialist portrait of one man’s attempt to rise above the meaninglessness of life.

It may seem surprising to characterize a film about an inner-city assassin who lives his life by the strict code of the bushido as “art house,” but long time fans of Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man) expect no less. Taking a pastiche of three popular turn of the century genres as inspiration (the assassin film, the “gangsta” film, and the mafia movie), Jarmusch avoids simply producing a hackneyed amalgamation of the genres and instead creates a piercing look into the social and cultural identities at the heart of each culture. Except that barely begins to do justice to the nimble ways that Jarmusch not only explores genre archetypes but cleverly spins them on their heads (including a hip-hop loving Mafia boss or a 10 year old inner-city girl reading Rashomon). While the film is often meant to be satirical, Jim Jarmusch’s own insights into obsessions with faded cultures nearly undermines his own sense of humor.

After being saved as a young man by Mafia capo Louie (John Tormey), Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) takes on the mantle of a samurai and lives his life according to the rules and philosophies of the ancient Japanese text, Hagakure. As payment for saving his life, Ghost Dog becomes the “retainer” to Louie who pays Ghost Dog to act as a mercilessly efficient hit man for the mob. A samurai is loyal to his boss, and although Ghost Dog is basically a kind soul, he has no qualms about killing to repay his debt to the man who saved his life. When Ghost Dog is assigned to kill a disloyal capo to local mob boss Roy Vargo, the hit features a major road bump. Roy Vargo’s daughter witnesses the kill. To deflect the fact that he ordered a made man to be killed (and to try and save face with his daughter), Vargo orders Louie to kill Ghost Dog which sends our noble assassin on a quest to save his own life without causing any harm to his retainer.

While the mobsters and Ghost Dog all leave a stream of bodies in their wake, the film never leaves you excited or titillated by the violence. Ghost Dog’s assassinations are methodical and often over before they even begin. While he has what some would categorize as a vain habit of twirling his gun as if it were a samurai sword before he puts it back in its holster, it’s all part of the ritual that is so important to his lifestyle (and a potential symptom of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). As a basically decent human being, you may find yourself shocked by how coldly Ghost Dog commits these contract murders, but by the film’s end, you finally see the psychic trauma his murders have taken on him. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai lives in a world where violence begets more violence and stone cold mafiosi killers get their jollies by watching cartoonish violence like Itchy and Scratchy.

The first sign that you’re not watching a typical action movie should come when you realize Jim Jarmusch plans to have Forest Whitaker read several pages straight out of the Hagakure with the words as a visual backdrop as a recurring framing device for the themes of the film. Nearly every scene is bookended with a new homily from the Hagakure which goes on to either explain what just happened or what will happen. While these sections can be a little too obvious (and Jarmusch regularly becomes so philosophical that you can forget that at least half the film is meant to be satire), it allows the film to ask grander questions that aren’t always apparent in other assassin films which lend an air of faux-philosophy to their proceedings. There’s another moment where Ghost Dog carries on a conversation with a little girl named Pearline about their shared love of classic books that contributes to the film’s overall literary tone.

As a long-time fan of the Wu-Tang clan, it shouldn’t be shocking that the film’s urban and atmospheric score by the RZA was one of the film’s most powerful assets. When you listen to Enter the 36 Chambers, RZA’s production always made you feel like you had stepped right into New York City in the 90s. Along with the on-location shooting, RZA’s score accomplishes the same goal. Considering the prevalence of Caribbean characters (and familiar streets), I’m fairly certain the film is meant to take place in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Although certain elements of the film felt slightly ridiculous (an Asian man kung-fu kicking away a thief), it felt like the Brooklyn I know and love. RZA’s score isn’t just a hip-hop production to match the urban setting but something far more ambitious which nails inner-city culture but aspires to something higher.

Forest Whitaker was well-cast in the title role (though his slightly over-weight nature does make it difficult to believe that he is a fastidiously trained assassin). Whitaker has always possessed one of Hollywood’s most subtly emotive faces. Particularly when he was younger, if you needed a young man who looked like he was carrying all of the weight and pain of the world on his shoulders, Whitaker was your guy. Like the rest of the film, there is nothing flashy about Whitaker’s performance. When all of his pigeons (which he uses to deliver messages) are murdered by the Mafia, Whitaker turns in a wonderful scene with no grand outbursts. He just becomes a man who is slumped over by the weight of the world that’s coming after him and when he starts speaking to his last pigeon, you know that he means serious business.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is a wonderful, smart, and often pensive film, but if you read too deeply into it, you’re falling right into Jim Jarmusch’s seriocomic intellectual games. His own subtlety and existentialist queries work to undermine his own attempts to show how silly these types of films are in the first place. I guess it’s “Truffaut Was Right” in action. If you’re looking for a stylized action-thriller where the bullets rain as much as so called “deep thoughts,” look elsewhere. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is nearly the anti-Boondock Saints. Yet, if you like films that ask a little bit more (even if doing so violates one of the main conceits of the film), Jim Jarmusch should keep you entertained.

Final Score: B++

With my love of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and Terrence Malick (yes I consider him worth of putting in the same conversation as the first two legendary directors), it may come as a surprise that I was a big fan of Robert Rodriguez’s and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse double feature when it first came out several years ago. Planet Terror was a pitch-perfect recreation of the “classic” B-horror film (though it dripped with more style and humor than those films could ever hope to attain), and Death Proof… well my feelings about Death Proof are a little more complicated. I hated it the first time I saw it and I still think it’s Tarantino’s least memorable film, but it contains some of his most memorable dialogue and if you watch it apart from Planet Terror, it’s much more enjoyable. It’s just too slow-paced and “talky” to be watched immediately after Planet Terror. I consider the blaxploitation parody Black Dynamite to be a spiritual successor to the Grindhouse films, and once again, I’m a huge fan of that film. However, there have now been two films made from the fake trailers shown in Grindhouse. Robert Rodriguez himself directed the less than impressive Machete (though I have to cheer a movie where illegal immigrants massacre racist rednecks). I’m unfamiliar with the maker of the outrageously violent Hobo With a Shotgun (other than knowing he wasn’t involved with Grindhouse and is from Canada), but it certainly puts the grindhouse in Grindhouse. However, unlike the three films I mentioned enjoying, Hobo With a Shotgun plays the ultra-violence straight and without an ounce of the wit, humor, and style that made Grindhouse such a fun ode to the B-movies. Hobo With a Shotgun is just a B-movie.

Rutger Hauer plays the nameless Hobo who has arrived in the misnomer known as Hope Town, a lawless hellhole ruled over by the barbaric and indescribably evil “The Drake” (Brian Downey). The Hobo tries to mind his own business amidst the filth and depravity of Hope Town until he witnesses the near rape and kidnapping of young prostitute Abby (Molly Dunsworth) by the Drake’s son, Slick (The Patriot‘s Gregory Smith). When the Hobo intervenes and beats the holy hell out of Slick, he drops Slick off to the police only to find that the police are as dirty as the criminals. They mutilate his chest and throw him in the garbage. As the Hobo tries once again to ignore what’s happening around him, a robbery of the pawn shop (where he’s trying to buy a lawn mower to start his own business) finally pushes him over the edge. He grabs a shotgun off the wall, kills the robbers (who were threatening to shoot a baby), and goes off on a gore-filled revenge-fueled quest to clean up the streets of Hope Town. And to quote the film, he’s going to do it one shell at a time.

This is going to be a short review because… Jesus Christ this movie… I stand corrected about something I said earlier in this post. Jason Eisener actually made the original Hobo With a Shotgun fake trailer from Grindhouse. Sorry about that misstep. But, back to the review. It’s a fine line between being an exploitation film parody and being an actual exploitation film. The only movie I can think of that tread the line in a finer way (without directly winking at the audience with visible boom mics or other nodding jabs at the cheapness of old films) was Shoot ‘Em Up (which I love). That movie made me laugh out loud on multiple occasions and contained a thinly veiled allegory about the danger of the arms industry. It was smart and stylish. Hobo With a Shotgun is just an exploitation film that happens to have been made in an era where (outside of the torture porn horror subniche) exploitation films stopped being made a long time ago. There’s nothing ironic or witty about the violence. The violence simply is. And boy is it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more grotesquely violent film. I don’t have a weak stomach and I giggle with glee in video games when I commit heinous acts of violence, but Hobo With a Shotgun didn’t just cross the line once, or twice. It crossed the line several dozen times. There was nothing deeper or visually striking about the film (except for the buckets of blood). Actually, the film left me so cold (and disgusted) that it retroactively makes me question why I like Planet Terror. If it ruins Grindhouse for me in reverse, I’ll be very pissed.

However, I can’t fall the film for being exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a movie about a Hobo With a Shotgun, and it’s my fault for expecting anything better from that. The only reason Planet Terror, Death Proof, and Black Dynamite are watchable is because they were made by very capable and intelligent film makers who chose to work in a silly and ridiculous genre. Jason Eisener is no Quentin Tarantino. The only good thing I can say about the film is that Rutger Hauer is surprisingly good in this part. It’s easy to miss because of all of the ridiculous shit he does (and all of the ridiculous shit happening around him), but his performance was actually kind of subtle and nuanced. Nothing else in the film was.

Final Score: C-