Free Fire (Ben Wheatley, 2016)

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There are brief moments within its 90-minute running time, where Free Fire succumbs to tedium, which slowly takes you out of the movie while you wait for something to happen. Then it goes back to business, then slows down again. For the most part, the movie alternates between bang and silence, hit and miss, limp and roll, dash and crawl, funny dialogue and stupor. I myself almost passed out one time from all my imaginary non-fatal wounds.

It could have been a one-hour movie. But with its 30 minute set-up and character sketches, and the meticulously planned and staged shoot outs that followed—unfortunately between guys and one girl who kept missing from mid-range—director Ben Wheatley is able to underline what’s wrong with most action films nowadays. They (e.g., Fast & Furious and Transformers series) are overloaded, incoherent, lack suspense and characterization and gives the audience 360 degrees of action every five minutes just to keep those with ADHD from walking out or falling asleep.

Free Fire is a well made shoot ’em up comedy, brought to life by its characters, a handful of rogues trapped inside a warehouse in an unscrupulous arms deal, and Ben Wheatley’s scrupulous direction and attention to details (i.e., there’s a very graphic scene where one character’s head get ran over by a van done with minimum to zero CGI). It absorbs you into the action (otherwise, you won’t get bored when there’s nothing happening for long stretches). Among the cast, Cillian Murphy’s IRA agent Chris, Armie Hammer’s middleman Ord, Sharlto Copley’s South African arms dealer Vernon (whose thick accent is comic gold), Sam Riley despicable Stevo, and Brie Larson’s Justine, whom I thought could have fired a couple of shots more, take the cake.

While Free Fire gives you one hour of gunfights happening in real time (if I remember correctly, slow motion was used only once—in the scene right after the first shot was fired), it never overloads your senses; it gives you time to recover, regroup, before the bullets come zinging again. It never gives you everything all at once, instead Wheatley stretches your patience for a couple of minutes, then rewards you on the next (this is true, especially, when the movie slows down to a crawl). Some movies use shaky camera and rapid-fire editing to get you “in” the action. Oftentimes, these also used to hide non-hits, weak choreography or poorly staged action. Also, oftentimes, they’re just confusing. In Free Fire, there are also times when you’re not sure who’s shooting whom, times when things just happen so fast that you lose track of things. But not because of nauseating camera movements or poor editing. This, is what I’d assume as Wheatley’s idea of getting the audience “in” the moment. And it just makes sense. There are more than ten people inside the warehouse and it’s not easy to take account of everything and everyone amidst all the banter and the gunfire. Like that one character in the movie, there was also a time when, “I’ve forgotten whose side I’m on”.

Baby Driver (Edgar Wright, 2017)

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Edgar Wright was supposed to be the perfect director for Ant-Man, the perfect director for comic book movies. His movies are delightful mixes of action, comedy, in some cases, special effects and music. I didn’t expect Baby Driver to be any different. That’s why the grittier parts of the film left me stunned, the in-sync loud music got me distracted, disoriented even. There are times when the characters on screen, whether good or bad, innocent or ruthless, are in grave danger. And I’m not sure if I’m supposed to care for them, or should I just enjoy the ride. I expected something that’s more like a dance, Baby Driver threw me in a mosh pit. I also expected some sort of humor. Too bad Simon Pegg isn’t part of the cast. And only Jaimie Foxx’s Bats is funny… well, because he’s bat-shit crazy. That’s why his early exit came as a shock and there wasn’t enough time to gather fear for the Mad Man, except to take as it is what she said. She, by the way, was extremely hot and dangerous, whether she’s with her two smoking barrels or not. Oh, I’m not talking about Lily James’ character by the way. By the time Brian May’s guitar solo goes blaring from one car’s sub-woofers and Baby loses his ears, I was just starting to find my footing. This movie threw me off balance, to say the least. And yes, that’s a compliment.

Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver takes its cue from serious stuff: 70’s crime movies, gritty, realistic car chases. On camera effects, no CGI. The only difference is, he does it MTV-style. Which is to say Wright has set himself some pretty tough hurdles. Intense loud music plus intense action sequence doesn’t always work together. The opening sequence featuring “Bellbottoms” by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion was easily the movie’s most impressive song + car chase number. Syncing intensely choreographed action scenes with The Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat” and “Tequila” could be exhilarating, numbing and frustrating at the same time. It throws you in and out of the movie. Blur’s “Intermission” segueing to “Hocus Pocus” was my favorite part of the film, when the in-sync sound and scenes don’t detract from each other. Barry White’s “Never, Never Gonna Give Ya Up” was also quite perfect for the movie’s quietly intense moments. The rest of the songs work out fine, except for Queen’s “Brighton Rock”, which was distracting, instead of highlighting that one key stunt pulled by Baby near the movie’s end.

Baby Driver had me thinking about Ant-Man—y’know, that small movie within Marvel’s gigantic franchise? I thought Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man would have been so much better than the one we ended up with. But after seeing Baby Driver, maybe not. Assuming it is 100% true that the finished movie we got from Peyton Reed is based on the same script Wright was working on, plus, some “things” added by Reed and Paul Rudd, which I believe improved the movie (e.g., Luis’ tip montage, the quantum realm, Hope Van Dyne, etc.), we can also assume then that if Wright’s Ant-Man would be the better movie, it would be only in terms of execution: style, direction, editing, the action sequence and pacing perhaps. In theory, we would have a better looking, more stylish, more dynamic action movie, but without the things that I actually liked in the movie, like Hope’s relationship with her father, or Scott going sub-atomic to save his daughter. Wright is arguably the better director but Peyton Reed’s movie has the better script.

Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn, 2010)

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With great firepower comes great kick-ass finale

Damon Macready (Nicholas Cage) was a good cop out to get NY kingpin Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong)—who in turn framed him for drugs and got him incarcerated. Macready lost everything while in prison, save for his little girl—thanks to his buddy Sgt. Marcus Williams (who showed up in the movie for a few minutes just to read Macready’s first graphic novel and reveal what this movie is all about: Macready’s revenge). Of course, Macready has since returned. This time as the masked vigilante known as Big Daddy. Big Daddy together with Hit-Girl a.k.a. his now 11-year old daughter Mindy (Chloe Grace Moretz), are on to destroying D’Amico once again. They’re no super-heroes; they’re only out for blood.

Elsewhere, there’s Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his friends wasting time geek-talking about superheroes—how no one’s attempted to wear the mask and fight crime in real life. When Dave finally decided to don the green unitard and take on the streets, the results ranged from “nothing happens” to downright bone-crushing. In other words, he got his own ass handed to him a few times. And then he went viral and eventually conquered MySpace. (MySpace, of course, would eventually lost to Facebook, as can be seen in David Fincher’s brilliant Mark Zuckerberg movie, The Social Network.)

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I can make my own graphic novel out of screenshots from this movie!

On the side, there’s Lyndsy Fonseca as Katie Deauxma, the requisite (not that I’m complaining) love interest, Dave’s long-time crush and Kick-Ass‘s own MJ (an improvement over Spider-Man‘s Kirsten Dunst). Continue reading “Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn, 2010)”

Blind Fury (Phillip Noyce, 1989)

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The idea seems ludicrous enough—that of importing Zatoichi to Hollywood and have a blind man fight gunmen with a sword. Thought it would be no different than those clumsy and unintentionally funny American Ninja movies I liked as a kid. So I gave Blind Fury a pass one time it was airing on cable. Turns out, it’s by Philip Noyce, the guy responsible for no-nonsense thrillers such as Clear and Present Danger, Salt and, uhm…Sliver. And with Rutger Hauer as the blind sword-wielding war veteran, giving it a try the second time was not so bad an idea. Blind Fury doesn’t take itself too seriously. I mean, there’s one sequence where Hauer’s character drives a car like he isn’t blind. The action scenes were typically slower than the average action flicks of today, but at least they weren’t confusing or over-edited beyond recognition. The movie was able to throw in a few laughs as well: during a sword-fight, Hauer touches the face of his opponent (Sho Kosugi) and exclaimed, “Ha, Japanese!” And it has some surprisingly poignant moments too. It’s hardly a great action movie; but for something borne out of seemingly silly idea, it’s surprisingly well executed and fairly entertaining.

The Punisher (Jonathan Hensleigh, 2004)

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There are a few things in The Punisher that I wish were part of a totally different movie. The movie’s white on black title sequence and score was perfectly fitting. Thomas Jane, who did look the part, was almost perfect as Frank Castle; only ruined by the movie’s hackneyed script, inconsistent tone and ho-hum set pieces. There’s the guitar playing assassin named Harry Heck (who turns out to be a really slow shooter) and the car chase and fight sequence that started in the diner which had glimpse of suspense that’s quite elusive for the rest of the film. The big fight with Russian that ended in the kitchen, could have been a riot if the parts where his neighbors lip-sync and dance to an opera song had been cut. Frank Castle getting beaten to a pulp by a bigger opponent was already funny enough. And of course, Rebecca Romijn.

Of course, all of the above weren’t enough to save the movie. As a supposedly throwback to the gritty crime-action movies of the ’70s, The Punisher‘s got the look and feel partially right, but doesn’t have the weight to begin with. In the comics, the mob killed Frank Castle and his family because they witnessed a hit. It was senseless violence; they were just collateral damage. In the movie, it isn’t like that, The Saints are just settling the score. Thomas Jane is good as Punisher, too bad the movie his in, sucks.

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Rants/Raves: Top 10 Superhero Movies

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Spider-Man 2 (2004). In the comics, later in the story, it is revealed that Aunt May knew all along that Peter is Spider-Man. That she secretly knew his secret. That this is hinted at in the movie, is one of those little things that made this adaptation great. That Aunt May is given her own kick-ass moment, teaming up with Spidey to beat Doc Ock, is another. Of course, there’s the great train sequence, the bank heist, Doc Ock’s Evil Dead moment, and don’t forget, J.K. Simmons as the blustering  J. Jonah Jameson.

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Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008). This is one visually stunning film. The troll market is a hoot. The fate of the last forest god is both tragic and beautiful. On top of that, the film’s main conflict isn’t just simplistic good vs. evil—Prince Nuada has good reasons to break the truce. Remember the part where they drink beer and sing along to Barry Manilow? Yeah, this movie’s quite funny too.

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Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014). It’s a good mix of action, comedy and drama—not over serious but not just mindless fun either. From the opening song and dance number down to the other song and dance numbers before and mid-credits, this movie about a band of misfits saving the world is a winner! And probably the danciest superhero movie of all. The best MCU movie? Yes—beats The Avengers by a hair and way way better than Civil War.

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Batman Returns (1992). Tim Burton isn’t much about inventive fight scenes than he is about texture, the elaborate Gothic sets, the quirky and oftentimes grotesque characters. What it does lack in action, it makes up with style and wit (i.e., Penguin’s weaponized umbrella, Selina Kyle’s taser-kiss). Add to that the deliciously insane script and the great cast—Danny De Vito, Christopher Walken, Michelle Pfieffer—and you got the best adaptation of the Caped Crusader’s plight.

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Spider-Man (2002). Compared to more recent movies, this may seem a little too straightforward now—more like a comic book primer, a one-shot. But that’s only because it is the prototype, which others would later try to improve on. Some movies upped the action (Kick-Ass), some, the comedy (Deadpool) but Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, where Peter Parker learns that “with great power comes great responsibility”, remains the all around better origin movie.

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The Avengers (2012). After two Hulk movies that were just okay, here’s that Hulk movie we all really need. I remember not being so excited about this before it came out. That all the movies that lead to this movie were just okay—the talky Iron Man sequel, Cap’s WWII origin and Thor‘s uneventful Asgard—was enough for me to lower my expectations. Thus, seeing the Earth’s mightiest in one awesome movie—thanks to Joss Whedon—was such a huge marvelous surprise.

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Deadpool (2016). Merc with a Mouth’s origin story is part Spider-Man redux, part corrective to the atrocious Wolverine origin and the closest a comic-book movie comes to approximating Monty Python and the Holy Grail-type of craziness (though it’s not even close). Green Lantern is quite good as Deadpool and he’s got Serenity‘s feisty muse as his girl next door.

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Kick-Ass (2010). Also known as Big Daddy’s Revenge (With A Little Help From Kick-Ass). Because. It’s all about revenge. And Matthew Vaughn’s stylish action sequence. Never mind the premise; or the first half; or Dave Lizewski’s thought balloons about being a superhero. You’ll forget about them anyway, once you see Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) take on Big Boss Frank D’Amico in a brutal hand-to-hand combat in the movie’s kick-ass finale.

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Super (2010). The genre deconstruction that Kick-Ass hardly was—James Gunn’s pre-MCU superhero black comedy features the pipe-wrench wielding vigilante who calls himself The Crimson Bolt and his far more unhinged side-kick Boltie. It’s dark, funny and gritty. Tired of the family-friendly and passable entertainment from Disney? Or the trying hard to be dark and edgy DC movies? This one’s for you.

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Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back (2001). I was one movie short of making this a top ten list. So I thought of another movie which I really like. Then, I remembered this—Kevin Smith’s movie about Jay and Silent Bob going to Hollywood to stop the adaptation of Bluntman and Chronic into the big screen. It’s trashy and amateurish, which is typical of Smith’s movies. A must-see if you’re a fan of Smith’s.

Captain America: Civil War (The Russo Brothers, 2016)

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Captain America: Civil War finds the Earth’s mightiest heroes split in two. One led by Captain America and the other headed by Iron Man—two evenly matched teams going head-to-head in a mid-movie battle seemingly inspired by the opening sequence of the X-Men cartoons from the ‘90s. While Iron Man got Spider-Man, Captain America’s team is the more exciting one, with Wanda, Hawkeye and Ant-Man on his side. Still, this doesn’t make it significantly more interesting than the other similarly themed summer flick from DC, especially when most of the superheroes left to team up with either Cap or Tony, are the predictably dull side characters in the Marvel Universe—War Machine, Falcon, Winter Soldier, Vision and a likewise banal newcomer in Black Panther.

I thought we should at least have Nick Fury in the middle, make him give long Tarantino-esque monologues that would illuminate why Cap and Tony were on different sides. (Looks like Tony is just jealous because Cap’s got a new boyfriend and he’s got no one else since Pepper left him.) Also, they could have given Agent 13 more screen presence this time, because honestly, they couldn’t make Black Widow any more alluring and her signature takedown gets tiring already. Another thing, the camera tends to get too shaky during her fight scenes—actually, most of the fight scenes, not just those with Black Widow.

Captain America: Civil War starts with The Avengers foiling a terrorist attack somewhere in Africa. They were able to retrieve the biological weapon from the terrorists, but not without collateral damage—something they might have avoided, if only Vision wasn’t so busy in the headquarters kitchen. So Tony Stark has to do a Bruce Wayne this time; taking fall for the death of innocent people when they tried to save the world from Ultron. Captain America, on the other hand, just can’t afford to lose Bucky for the third time, even if his disagreement with Stark could lead to Civil War.

Of course, it didn’t. No Civil War, just a smaller version of Mark Millar’s serial, which has twelve superheroes fighting each other in Leipzig/Halle Airport. With Hawkeye just being funny, delivering one-liners in between punches; Ant-Man getting inside Iron Man’s suit, then later turning into Giant-Man; and Spider-Man throwing banters while webbing up Falcon, sparring with Cap, and swinging around Giant-Man. Then, there’s Elizabeth Olsen, who gives Wanda Maximoff the vulnerability—both emotional and physical—that’s kind of rare in this type of movie. Olsen’s Wanda is both fragile and fierce, like a kitten with special powers, caught in the middle of a slugfest.

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Said airport scuffle is easily the best part of this movie. But since it happens somewhere in the middle, right before the “more” important events are about to unfold, it makes the last third of the movie drag, not just a bit. And I couldn’t even care less, especially after Wanda, Ant-Man and Spidey left off the screen. And I think, it asks too much of its audience when they killed Rhodes. Almost. It’s not like he (almost) died trying to save people. And both teams seem to be having a fun pick-up match just right before that, with Spider-Man referencing Star Wars and Ant-Man asking for orange slices (probably to nurse a massive headache) after he gets knocked down. Unlike the death scene in Joss Whedon’s Age of Ultron, the tone here is just, off.

At long last, the final fight between Cap and Iron Man boils down to Tony doing another Bruce Wayne—as he turns vengeful for the death of his parents. The fight gets a bit clearer near the end—lesser camera movements, lesser cutting but in the same gloomy blue-grayish tone (would have been nice to see Cap’s bright costume contrasting nicely with Iron Man’s metallic gold and red). And in case you forgot, in the pure Marvel tradition of having boring half-villains, this movie also got one: Baron Zemo, who gets to carry out his very complicated plan, just because the plot needs him to.

Again, that airport scene is probably the coolest thing ever…or maybe, just until the next Marvel movie comes.

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John Wick (Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, 2014)

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There are no ad campaigns out there against animal cruelty, that would do better than John Wick, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch’s pulpy noir action film about a retired assassin, who’d let hell break loose on a Russian mob, just because the boss’ son killed his dog and stole his 1969 Mustang. But it’s primarily because they killed his dog – you know, because a car is just a car, even if it’s a Mustang.

Keanu Reeves’ last memorable screen role since The Matrix was in Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly back in 2006. After that, he played the villain in the underwhelming Man of Tai Chi and a half-blood samurai in the semi-enjoyable 47 Ronin. Here, he’s Jonathan Wick, the titular assassin who’d go out of his retirement to hunt down those who wronged him. It’s arguably the best action film of 2014 (arguably, since there’s Edge of Tomorrow and The Raid 2 – the latter, I haven’t seen yet), and definitely one of the best of the decade. While it’s no better than Walter Hill’s Bullet to the Head and Kim Jee-woon’s The Last Stand and more recent fares like Sicario and Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s a fairly excellent action movie – way better than any movie in the Fast & Furious and Taken movie series.

John Wick had just recently lost his wife, who, out of sheer love for him, gave him a cuddly puppy as her final gift. John was still in deep mourning when he got the pup and so he spent time with her (the puppy), took her wherever he goes – even when he went drifting one time with his vintage Mustang. If you’re wondering if somebody finally made a Punisher movie and got it right, this is that movie. You know, if somebody killed Frank Castle’s dog, he’s definitely gonna go after them. Even if that somebody is the son of Russian mob boss, who happens to be an old associate of him and knows him very well. But in this movie, his name’s not Frank and he wears jet-black suit instead of shirt with a skull.

So, after the dog died and John has dug out his old guns, what happens next should be pretty much predictable by action movie standards. Like in Hitman, he’s just gonna kill them one by one until he finally gets to the boss, right? Well, in this case, it’s far from predictable. And while he actually went killing the bad guys one by one until he gets to the guy who killed his dog, the plot in John Wick is surprisingly well thought out. While he has to deal with the ins and outs of his former world, which is, the underworld, while repeatedly denying that he’s back to his old life of killing (I’m retired, he’d say), Viggo, the mob boss (Michael Nyqvist, excellent as always) placed a bounty on him, making him a target for his fellow assassins. One of them is Ms. Perkins, a cunning female contract killer played by Adrianne Palicki, who kind of reminds me of Archer’s Lana Kane.  Another hit-man in on the bounty is Marcus, an old friend of John and a Deus Ex Machina played by Willem Dafoe, who also provided the film with the much needed gravitas.

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What also adds to its pretty straightforward plot, are the minor characters and those little details (i.e., the gold coins, John keeping the dog’s leash) that help make this imagined (under) world more plausible. There’s the team of “cleaners” who would clean up the dead bodies after a fight, a very accommodating hotel concierge who’s also in the know of the workings of the underground, and then there’s the cop who showed up at John’s door and just backed away after he saw the dead bodies on the floor – because he knows John’s line of work. It also helps that the dialogue is more than serviceable, with some clever moments (i.e., the exchange between John and Viggo) and is convincingly moving when it needs to be. We’ve seen the dog killed early in the movie, so when John said that they took away the last thing that gave him hope, I just can’t help but believe him, feel for him.

One minor complaint I have is the choice of some music used in the film. While the directors showed a lot of restraint in staging the various stylized gunfights and fisticuffs – they were mostly functional while blood and gore rarely draw attention to themselves – some of the songs in the movie don’t. Do they really need to put a song with the word “kill” in the lyrics?

Near the end of movie, there’s a scene where someone is playing a first-person shooter game, which is probably the filmmakers saying that they’re aware of John Wick’s proximity to such games. Also, in the movie, killing an assassin earns you a gold coin, same gold coin to pay the “cleaners”. In most video games you earn coins, points or gems while playing, then spend them on weapons, magic or maybe an extra life. While John Wick may look like a video game for a good chunk of it – a gracefully rendered one, I might add – it doesn’t feel like one. The revenge story is not there just to serve up a series of elaborate shoot ’em ups.

For every dozen mindless action flicks that go by the Michael Bay school of action film-making (i.e., the incomprehensible fast-cut-shaky-cam action sequences, the tiresome explosions) there are a few that swim against the current – John Wick is one of them. Which I think is enough for fans of old-school action films like me, to think that there is still hope. Like the pitbull John took with him at the end of the movie, this movie is our pup.

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