Showing posts with label action movies. Show all posts
Showing posts with label action movies. Show all posts

Sep 6, 2020

FORCE OF NATURE (2020)



By now, whether we want to know or not, it’s become depressingly clear the industry that produces the movies we love, which enables us to lose ourselves in worlds of fantasy and engage with other like-minded movie fans, is filled with closets, and those closets are filled with skeletons, and those skeletons are hideous. Some of the most revered people in Hollywood have had their falls from grace become very public, becoming a hashtag on Twitter or a criminal charge that eventually leads to litigation. Sometimes these people escape mostly unscathed, and after a few years of chemical and reputational rehab, they can return to us and re-obtain both greatness and the respect from audiences and colleagues they lost. For others, their past misdeeds seem damn near unshakable, and no matter how many apology tours they make and teachable moments they profess to learn and movies they make to widen the time between their unfortunate past and their hopeful present, those misdeeds won’t vanquish. I speak, of course, of Mel Gibson.

For the record, I hate having to include this journey back down Shitty Memory Lane, and normally I abhor any other article or review that feels the need to shoehorn Gibson’s past misdeeds into said article or review and make it a talking point. Separate the artist from the art, as people often say, and ideally, that’s the way it should be. After all, Polanski still gets to make films that win Academy Awards, and Robert Downey Jr. still gets to play Iron Man 37 times and make 37 billion dollars at the box office. (For the record, I’m not equating them for their past misdeeds, as they're not even in the same league. I’m more pointing out that our favorite artists have engaged in varying degrees of terrible behavior and should be judged accordingly.) Which brings me back to Mel Gibson, and his newest endeavor as an actor, Force of Nature, which also brings me to my point: had Gibson not so dramatically, offensively, and disturbingly fallen from grace a decade ago, there’s no way in bloody hell he’d be appearing in something so ham-fistedly stupid and incompetently made as Force of Nature. Somehow directed by Michael Polish, who developed somewhat of a small, underground following after his two quiet and quirky indy dramas, Twin Falls Idaho and Northfork, Force of Nature feels like a script that would’ve been politely rejected by Gibson somewhere in the late ‘90s following his string of his warmly received thrillers Ransom and Conspiracy Theory. The reason I say that is they already made this movie in the late ’90s. Hard Rain, with Christian Slater, Morgan Freeman (his first of what would be many forays into mediocre genre entertainment), and the crazy Quaid brother, became legendary during its production and following its release because every single person creatively involved never missed a chance to describe how miserable a time they had making it. As far as’90s action flicks that don’t star Van Damme go, it was...a movie. The genre was kinda on its way out by then and would soon be revamped by The Matrix and Universal’s long-running Cars Go Fast series, and when genres die for a little, they go out neither with a whimper nor a bang, but a long and sustained whine that you wish would just shut the fuck up. That’s where stuff like Force of Nature belongs.


Emile Hirsch plays a cop named Cardillo too young to be burned out and cynical, but we know he’s burned out and cynical because he discourages his new partner, Jess (Stephanie Cayo), from responding to calls on the police band and also says “fuck” a lot. Following a meat-related disturbance call at a local grocery store (I’m not lying), Cardillo crosses paths with Gibson’s retired cop, Ray, who seems to be dying of cough and not that likeable. The Boston accent he’s trying on and the stories he tells about being a cop that don’t exactly paint his past in the best light immediately establishes that he’s going to be stubborn, violent, and tough as nails. You also know that he’s an asshole, because at one point he mutters to himself, “I’m such an asshole.” In the face of a growing hurricane, Cardillo and Jess force-evacuate Ray from his apartment and naturally run afoul of some pretty bad men, led by John “the Baptist” (David Zayas, playing a villain almost as boring as the one he played in The Expendables), attempting to pull off a heist of some rare black-market artwork. Naturally, Cardillo, Jess, and Ray are the only ones who can intervene, save the day, uphold the rule of law, and yadda yadda yadda – rest assured, had Gibson said no to this movie like he should’ve, Force of Nature would’ve been a Nicolas Cage vehicle through and through, because that’s exactly the kind of thing you’re getting.

The script is dreadful, finding ways to split up all the different occupants of the Puerto Rican apartment building where the majority of the film unfolds, which means that – yep, Gibson’s face prominently displayed on the cover isn’t as prominent as his role in the movie – leaving the film’s other bland characters to have heart-to-heart conversations about sad things which is supposed to make them feel like real people. The machinations of these well-worn tragedies feel so trite that you halfway expect Gibson to break down in a sad monologue about that one time on the force when he accidentally shot a kid and he’s been looking for redemption ever since. That doesn’t happen. Instead, Hirsch’s Cardillo takes the reins of the tragic backstory, which comes damn close to killing a kid, while Gibson’s Ray mutters about being poisoned by his own shit (literally), hence all the coughing. Meanwhile, in another apartment, a man named Griffin (William Catlett) is recovering from the wounds inflicted by his real lion named Janet he keeps locked in his closet and being cared for by Bergkamp (Jorge Luis Ramos), who may or may not be an escaped Nazi, and if you’re reading all that and thinking, “how on earth could Force of Nature be boring?,” well, my friend, that’s because you haven’t seen Force of Nature. (And if you think Janet the lion doesn’t figure into the bad guy’s comeuppance at the end, you’ve never seen a movie in your life.)


One would be tempted to think, and I wouldn’t blame them because I was hoping for this too, that Force of Nature might be good, at the very least, for watching Mel Gibson be old and irascible and shoot lots of bad guys in violent ways. While that does happen, it doesn’t happen nearly enough to make the overall experience any more than tolerable. Not as engaging or suspenseful as Dragged Across Concrete, nor at least as consistently if vapidly entertaining As Blood Father, Force of Nature, let’s hope, is the worst movie Gibson makes between now and the end of his career. Whether or not he deserves better than something like this kind of dismissible bilge is for you to debate, but what I can say, conclusively, is that audiences definitely deserved better.

In addition, the 1999 Sandra Bullock movie Forces of Nature is currently available via HBO On Demand. I’ve never seen it, but it’s gotta be better than this.




Jun 14, 2020

DANGEROUS MEN (1984 / 2005 / 2015)


Filmmaking is the most communal artistic medium there is. The impassioned spend years watching and studying films, then attending film schools, and then striking out on their own and working on guerilla-style film sets just to hone their craft. And when everyone comes together, bringing their own specific expertise--whether it be writing, cinematography, or editing--a film happens, and it's through everyone's combined efforts that such a thing were possible.

The opening credits for Dangerous Men prove that everyone's been doing it wrong, as it proudly displays the names man that helped bring Dangerous Men to fruition:

A John S. Rad film.

Created and written by John Rad.

Original music, songs, & lyrics by John Rad.

Producer: John Rad.

Executive producer: John Rad.

Directed by John Rad.

A joke surely made a hundred times by now, that opening credits list perfectly sums up Dangerous Men: Rad. Rad all over. Rad through and through. Every inch of film, every stick of production design, every B♭on the keyboard is pure, 100%, unfiltered Rad. But you'll somehow realize this before a single Rad ever flashes on screen, because you'll already have witnessed the title--DANGEROUS MEN--roar onto the screen, only to crash into each other and explode. Following this, you will know there was only one man capable of creating what you are about to witness. Neither David Lean, Howard Hawks, nor Martin Scorsese, literally, could have ever made Dangerous Men. 


If you clicked on this review already having heard of Dangerous Men, then you likely know the backstory of the very complicated and unorthodox production. Entirely self-funded, auteur John Rad shot portions of the film when he had the money to do so. When there was no money, there was no film. The shooting just...stopped. As you can imagine, this approach made the shoot last just a little longer than usual--like, 22 years longer.

Do you know what happens over the course of 22 years?

EVERYTHING.

Actors quit; technology upgrades; "plots" can become lost over the haziness of time; calendars (seen prominently in the background) can say 1985 in one scene, and 1994 the next.

Haphazardly rewritten to conform to the changes that occur over time (like, say, a lead actress who quits after becoming injured on set), Dangerous Men's plot makes very little sense. Characters are introduced and then completely forgotten. Other characters are introduced at nearly the end of the film and somehow become essential catalysts to the resolution of the conflict. Even Wikipedia, which knows everything about everything, has no fucking idea how to explain it: "The plot of Dangerous Men is somewhat unclear, and changes abruptly towards the middle of the film."


Dangerous Men has something for everyone: unsexy sex scenes, terrible karate, ageless fathers, wet kissing, buttcrack knives, badly obscured accents, repeated attempted rape, childish/murderous bikers, tedious strangling, the line, "sweet like cake!"; multiple scenes of knee love; a stabbing-murder sequence shot entirely from the point of view of the human ass; an inadvertently sociopathic heroine; endless scenes of a naked British man dancing in the California desert; poor, poor, poor...just, the poorest acting; funky, upbeat, joyful synth scores used for scenes of rape, stabbing, murder, or, you know, whatever; zero-hour appearances of albino villains; inescapable scenes of belly-dancing; near-cunnilingus; and so so so much more.

Dangerous Men is completely incompatible with the art of film criticism. There'd be no point in calling out the horrendous acting, writing, directing, etc., or the numerous continuity errors, when you're dealing with a film that feels like a fever dream. It doesn't matter that shot composition is worrisome, or that the movie is clearly comprised of multiple film grades, when there are literally instances of actors reading their lines from on-screen scripts, or the same punch sound/"agh!" yell is used fifteen times in a row between two different characters during a fight scene, or the avenging heroine is obviously holding a boom mic almost-but-not-quite out of the shot, even pointing it back and forth to whomever is speaking at that moment. Critiquing Dangerous Men is like going to PetSmart and complaining that it's a shitty zoological exhibit. It's like licking the inside of a Chinatown dumpster and wondering why you feel so ill. Dangerous Men aims a nuclear-propelled rocket at a planet called "Merely Satisfactory Filmmaking" and falls short by thirty million light years. Dangerous Men trails in every election poll except the one called "Hilarious Tits and Stabbing." Dangerous Men shows up to your mother's funeral in Crocs and board shorts, but you honestly don't care because you LOVE Dangerous Men. Someone once tried to battle Dangerous Men with nothing but hyperbole, at which point hyperbole was added to science books as an official unit of measurement.

Dangerous Men can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop. Ever. 


Being that Dangerous Men was shot in chunks over the course of 22 years, some portions of footage look better than others. As you can imagine, the look and integrity of the film gradually improves as it plays on, being that it was shot in mostly chronological order. There are also signs of your usual mistreated footage--print damage, marring, speckling, etc. There's even a cigarette burn or two, which will serve as your befuddling reminder that, yeah, this fucker actually played in a theater. Along with that, the audio on this thing...it ain't great. If someone is sitting in a quiet room, dialogue is clean and clear. If someone is outside on the beach, say, getting almost-raped, or stabbed to death, dialogue is likely muffled by exterior elements, like crashing waves or steady winds. In the film's opening scene, set in a restaurant, all audio has been completely removed between dialogue exchanges, which also contain your usual amount of restaurant ambiance. The very very repetitive and tonally inappropriate synth score by (you guessed it) John Rad can also overwhelm dialogue at times. To summarize, Dangerous Men is capable of offering any kind of consistency when it comes to how it looks or sounds, but seriously, who gives a shit? You didn't even know this thing existed until a month ago, and now you're going to complain? 

For years now, people have asked me, "Why do you love bad movies so much? What's the point of watching something bad...on purpose?" Films like Dangerous Men are my answer. And it needs to speak for itself. If you're a bad movie connoisseur, run--don't walk--to the phone in your hand probably right now and order up this bad boy. You will not be at all disappointed.

Dangerous Men is now available on Blu-ray from Drafthouse Films.


Jun 10, 2020

THE SEVEN-UPS (1973)


Gritty cop thrillers from the late ‘60s and ‘70s are among some of my favorite films. The French Connection, Bullitt, Dirty Harry — hell, I’ll even throw a bone to the Dirty Harry-inspired John Wayne flick McQ, even if it’s the weakest of the bunch. Put McQueen or Eastwood in a trench coat; give him a cynical attitude, fast car, and a talkative gun; mix in a little Lalo Schifrin jazz flute; and I’m yours. The Seven-Ups hails from this same school, this time seeing JAWS’ Roy Scheider in the lead role of Buddy Mancino, leader of a secret police force investigating organized crime. It presents with the same kind of gutsy gusto as it predecessors, this time with the novelty of seeing Scheider in a lead role — a rarity for an actor who was usually part of an ensemble, or as director William Friedkin once called him, an actor more appropriate as “a second banana.”

The Seven-Ups was directed by Philip D’Antoni, who had previously produced Friedkin’s classic crime thriller The French Connection, though that’s not the only commonality between them. In fact, The Seven-Ups feels like a French Connection spin-off, this time focusing on Popeye Doyle’s partner, also named Buddy (and played by Scheider). There’s also the New York setting, along with, again, the grittiness of the real New York; the expertly executed car chases choreographed by legendary stunt driver Bill Hickman; the extremely atypical musical score by Don Ellis; and the essential presence of writer/former NYPD detective Sonny Grosso, whose exploits would go on to inspire the aforementioned films.


The Seven-Ups occasionally gets derided by critics for its loosey-goosey plot, which isn’t unfair; there are many moving parts within its running time, including lots of double-crossing, duplicity, and the eeriest car wash you could ever visit, and I can’t say with confidence it all comes together into one streamlined story. But, being that 1968’s Bullitt has an even more nonsensical plot and is even more celebrated, I’m totally fine with celebrating The Seven-Ups — warts and all. 

What’s most important is that The Seven-Ups is absolutely entertaining as hell, and Roy Scheider excels in this kind of role, along with the immensely talented and underrated character actor Tony Lo Bianco. In terms of D’Antoni’s presence, The French Connection may be the more well-regarded and more confidently plotted crime classic, but give me The Seven-Ups any night of the week. It’s viscerally thrilling in the same way as its counterparts, aided by a score by Don Ellis that’s so unexpectedly eerie you’d think he were instead scoring a horror film. And the car chase scene — holy shit. If Bill Hickman doesn’t have a lifetime achievement award, posthumously or otherwise, shame on the entire Academy.


May 29, 2020

JASON BOURNE (2016)


For a while, the Bourne series managed to avoid falling victim to the scourge of diminishing returns. If anything, the series got better with each subsequent entry. The initial film directed by Doug Liman was a perfectly entertaining if somewhat forgettable bit of spy pulp, featuring a scene in which Matt Damon surfed a dead body down several flights of stairs while shooting bad guys. Once director Greengrass came aboard to helm the next two entries, the franchise found its footing, inventing a bad-ass James Bond Jr. who was one step ahead of his pursuers nearly all the time. Things got a little wacky with The Bourne Legacy, Universal’s attempt to resurrect their money-making franchise once star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass seemed perfectly satisfied with The Bourne Ultimatum, which put to bed any further necessity for Jason Bourne to walk briskly through cities while the camera zoomed in frantically on the back of his head. Jeremy Renner did a fine job in a film that, while controversial for both its story choices and its existence in general, still manages to be a perfectly acceptable entry, even if most fans cite it as their least favorite.

Well, consider yourself relieved of duty, The Bourne LegacyJason Bourne is here to out-mediocre you in every way.

For a long time, even after the saga of Jason Bourne/David Webb seemed satisfied as he swam to freedom while listening to Moby, Damon and Greengrass were asked about more Bourne. And for a while they both gave the same but perfectly understandable answer: that, as far as they were concerned, the story was completed, and unless they could come up with a very good reason to unretire the character, their tenure in the franchise was done.

That’s why The Bourne Legacy happened, which made everyone miss Damon and Greengrass even more.


I’m not exactly sure what it is about Jason Bourne which made both star and director return to the monster they had created, as it’s nothing more than a greatest hits of the series rolled into one film, with a finale that unfolds in the same city where Con Air did.

Con Air.

As Jason Bourne, Matt Damon looks bored, and for the first time evidently uncomfortable in the role. His performance suggests that Damon still can’t quite understand why Bourne is back, even if the script concocts a half-assed story relying on tired family drama to drag him out of retirement. Tommy Lee Jones as CIA Director Robert Dewey, the new suit-wearing villain, somehow manages to look more bored than the franchise’s star while also giving a performance more lifeless than the one he gave in the direct-to-video Jason Statham actioner The Mechanic 2: Resurrection. Alicia Vikander, who exploded onto the scene after her chilly performance in Ex-Machina, plays another CIA operative who must be breathing the same sedation air as her boss, because she also seems completely bored to be doing…whatever it is she’s doing. Is she a friend to Bourne? Is she a foe? Does anyone care? (The CIA’s employee retention rate is pathetic. Maybe everyone should stop doing corrupt things and getting killed by their own version of Frankenstein’s monster!)


As celebrated as the Bourne franchise has been, the mainstay complaints remain unfettered: Greengrass still shakes the camera during close-quarter action scenes, leaving the choreography that someone was paid to teach, and which the actors were paid to learn, come off as indecipherable. Falling victim to the same pitfalls of other long-running franchises, new conflicts that are supposed to be way worse than previous ones are introduced to give Bourne something to do, only there’s one problem: the previous conflict, a black ops government program that turned soldiers into brainwashed assassins controlled by their superiors, is way more interesting and deadly than the new conflict, which is — wait for it — government surveillance. AKA, real life. Jason Bourne, in an effort to be about something, says the name “Snowden” over and over in hopes that the audience will think, “wait, that’s kinda like what’s happening now!” The problem is the idea of the government surveilling its people had been an old topic for years before 2016. In a world where people railed against the Patriot Act, but then willingly posted the most personal and intimate details about themselves on social media, the concept of a government spying on its people feels less high stakes and more business as usual.

And yeah, once again a Bourne film ends with Moby’s "Extreme Ways" playing over the end credits, only it’s an alternate, remixed, and lesser version...and in a way it perfectly sums up Jason Bourne: somewhat different, mostly familiar, and not nearly as good.

Still, the action — the driving point behind the series — works quite well. Jason Bourne is bookended by two exciting chase sequences — both which manage to initially fool you into thinking you’re about to watch a good film, and later make you wonder if the bloated, tedious middle portion was as dull as you remember. The opening elongated sequence in which Bourne and a returning Julia Stiles as Nikki Parsons navigate the rioting streets of Athens while being pursued by government operatives is an excellent and exciting sequence — perhaps one of the best of the franchise. It gets a little Twister-ish at times in terms of the sudden ridiculous hurdles that the duo must overcome during the chase, but it’s still a striking sequence and one that allows the film to open with a bang…before it soon deflates. Additionally, the finale chase in Las Vegas, too, makes for effective popcorn entertainment, even if once again coming dangerously close to silly and unrealistic.

The problem is that whole middle part called the rest of the film.


Jason Bourne made a bajillion dollars at the box office, so of course Universal is amped up for Bourne to Kill, with Damon and Greengrass keen to come back. Recently series producer Frank Marshall has come out against the idea of teaming up Bourne Legacy’s Aaron Cross with Jason Bourne, but at this point, the filmmakers would be wise to consider it. Jason Bourne has proven there’s nothing left for the character to do besides retcon upon retcon, so maybe Bourne and Cross can hunt down Edward Snowden only to let him go and they can all jump in a river together and listen to some Moby.

Jason Bourne may as well have been two hours of Matt Damon shrugging at the camera. With Universal now having released a second underwhelming Bourne entry in a row, they need to do two things: either come up with a radical but organic dynamic change to the series (I’m telling you — buddy team-up: The Depressing Brothers!), or just let it be, despite the conclusion of this one being obviously left open for another sequel. 

May 27, 2020

ESCAPE FROM L.A. (1996)


Escape from L.A. is the punchline in John Carpenter’s career, and there’s all sorts of reasons for this, which we'll get into in a second. It's not just the only sequel he’s ever directed, but it's a sequel to one of his most celebrated (and you know how sequels go...). Escape from New York, made in 1981 during the beginning of Carpenter’s directorial career, was a scrappy, low-budget, grindhouse-lite action/sc-fi romp that seemed like the first time Carpenter made a film that showed his true voice and passion as a filmmaker. Sure, by then, Halloween had come along and, after a few false negative first impressions, finally caught on with audiences and critics, making his career one to follow. That Carpenter hasn’t made a film that feels like Halloween since then shows that his worldview was a bit more audacious. His interest in earlier western filmmakers like Howard Hawks and John Ford, and those particular films which saw a small motley band of gunfighters working together in isolated environments to fend off siege-like attacks from a larger, deadlier threat has been a major part in a dozen of his films. In a way, Escape from New York is his thesis statement as a director, as it contains all his technical hallmarks, boasts all the different storytelling facets through which he would express himself during his entire career, and finally, stars his longtime actor collaborator, Kurt Russell.

While Escape from L.A. is almost the antithesis to Carpenter as a director, which sees him applying a big studio, bullshit approach to the same story he was able to tell with better results at a tenth of the budget, it’s right on par with his tendency as a storyteller to skewer certain societal aspects, whether it be religion (Prince of Darkness), pop culture (In the Mouth of Madness), or the unholy alliance between politics and the media (They Live). Though Escape from L.A. isn’t interested in tackling such heavy topics, it’s still successful in its goal, which is to skewer the superficiality of Hollywood and the culture of the greater Los Angeles area while telling the kind of story that Carpenter likes to tell: a band of gunfighters up against impossible odds. Whether or not you consider Escape from L.A. a failure (most people do), there’s a certain romanticism of the film that can’t be denied...but that’s only if you take the film as just one small part in a long career of its three main collaborators: co-writer/director Carpenter, co-writer/co-producer/actor Russell, and co-writer/co-producer Debra Hill. All three (mostly) reprise their roles and responsibilities from Escape from New York, only now they’re doing it after having found success in the studio system, alongside its many pitfalls and trappings that can ruin the enthusiasm and idealism of young, budding filmmakers. Following his pre-classic release of The Thing, Carpenter learned the hard way how quickly a career trajectory can change once studios begin to view you as a wild card director who may not deliver a film to an audience that’s ready for it. Escape from New York was the result of three collaborators making a movie with the enthusiasm and idealism of uncorrupted filmmakers. Escape from L.A. was the same story retold with an organically accumulated hostility toward the very industry that took this thing they once loved and made it harder and harder for them to do it. Once Snake “agrees” to his latest search-and-rescue mission and is sent via underwater into the prison known as Los Angeles, one of the first images the audience sees is the appearance of a battered sign for Universal Studios and a great white shark trying to take a bite out of Plissken’s sub. It’s hard not to read between the lines at what Carpenter and co. are saying: ever since JAWS brought about the advent of the big summer tentpole movie, working in the studio system has never been the same.


Of course, if you’re examining Escape from L.A. as nothing more than a standalone movie without reference or knowledge of the people who made it, their relationships to each other, or their various endured hardships over the years, then yes, it’s a cartoonish, underwhelming, at times incoherent title that struggles to maintain that line between high-stakes sadistic action and audience-pleasing studio product. The visual effects are bad, the basketball sequence is worse (in spite of Russell’s purportedly genuine full-court basket shot), and most of the characters seem to be taking over for their counterparts from Escape from New York. (Steve Buscemi succeeds Ernest Borgnine while Valeria Golino succeeds Adrienne Barbeau and Season Hubley.) It should come as no surprise that Kurt Russell’s as good as ever as the eye-patched antihero Snake Plissken, and his Clint Eastwood sneer hasn’t diminished in any way in the fifteen years between entries. The problem is the hero can’t be nearly as interesting if he’s not up against a viable foe, and unfortunately, Cuervo Jones (George Corraface) is the least interesting villain in Carpenter’s body of work, even when recognizing that very few of his villains were human. There’s nothing wrong with the actor’s performance; it’s just that the character is a pale shade of Isaac Hayes’ Duke from Escape from New York, who didn’t need large, explosive scenes to embody his tough-guy swagger. 

If Carpenter has ever been good at one thing, like the best science fiction writers, it’s been foretelling the future of society. They Live presented a future where people were mindlessly controlled by the media while living in squalor, accepting that it was all part of the plan. With Cliff Robertson’s unnamed role of The President, Escape from L.A. easily foretold the arrival of Donald Trump in the highest office. While Carpenter’s version of the President was of a religious fundamentalist building walls to keep out a certain element, Trump is doing nearly the same, only his own narcissism won’t allow him to recognize a force out in the universe that’s greater than himself. That both the fictional and real president each have a daughter to whom the underrepresented populace of the United States were looking for some kind of hope, it’s sadly ironic that only the fictional one had the wherewithal to stand up to her fascist father and reject his fundamentalist leadership. And, that Robertson very subtly quotes infamous nazi leader Joseph Goebbels in the film’s final moments is a stark reminder to the current reality we’re all being forced to share in which the real so-called president goes on national television and defends...nazis.

As time goes on, and Carpenter teases us with film projects that are probably never going to become reality, his fans are forced to accept that he’s more content to be a producer and a rock star these days, and that’s fine. His body of work speaks volumes and he’s already inspired the next generation of filmmakers who aren’t ashamed to admit it. While I’d love to see him and Kurt Russell collaborate on the long-mooted Escape from Earth (seems like a good way to work climate change into the mix, since Planet Earth is pretty well fucked anyway), both of them have already gone on record as saying they’re simply too old to entertain such a notion. Though it’s natural to take a filmmaker’s body of work and war its films against each other, I’ll always be grateful for every film bearing the name of John Carpenter, Director—even the so-called duds like this one.



[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Apr 15, 2020

24 HOURS TO LIVE (2017)


The unexpected success of action flicks like Taken and John Wick directly inspired a host of vigilante imitators, all which saw an engaging lead (or once engaging…cough cough John Travolta) taking on hordes of anonymous henchmen with slick style while committing lots of violence. Sean Penn’s The Gunman, Kevin Costner’s 3 Days to Kill, Pierce Brosnan’s The November Man, Travolta’s I Am Wrath, and pretty much every action movie Liam Neeson did post-Taken — not a single one of these was any good. So when Ethan Hawke’s 24 Hours to Live was released, quietly, it seemed like yet another tired John Wick clone, and Hawke’s spotty mainstream action/thriller record wasn’t an advantage. (Getaway is one of the worst movies you’ve never seen.)

Happily, and surprisingly, 24 Hour to Live is pretty fun, showcasing a seldom seen bad-ass Hawke as Travis Conrad, a retired shadowy government agent pulled out of retirement for one last yadda yadda. As you can see, there’s really nothing that makes 24 Hours to Live unique or innovative beyond the time-tabled life thing (although this had been done previously in Crank). Otherwise, you’ve definitely seen this sort of thing before, with the same kind of character machinations and motivations: Conrad lost his wife and son a year prior, so he’s a heavy-drinking cynical mess. Again, this character trope is absolutely nothing new to the genre. Hawke was barely a pre-pube member of the Dead Poets Society when Martin Riggs was garbage-firing it up in his trailer with a loaded gun in his mouth. But, as I’ve said time and time again, I’m totally fine with seeing the same concepts being re-explored, in any genre, so long as it’s executed with a little showmanship, enthusiasm, and sense of excitement.

24 Hour to Live offers all three.


Much of this comes from director Brian Smrz, who, like John Wick’s directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, got his start as a stunt coordinator on big silly action films. Though he gets a little overwrought during the “be sad/dead family” montages, the action sequences work very well and are confidently executed, and for this kind of movie, that’s all that really matters. And the violence — hoooo, boy! Thank you!

Not everything in 24 Hours to Live is a success, whether it’s the hamfisted dialogue, the occasional plot hole, or the severe under-usage of Rutger Hauer (he deserved his own official “Frank” spin-off), but enough of it works that it makes for one of the better quiet Lionsgate action flicks that the studio seems to dump every month. Don’t let this one get lost in the spate of other LGF action releases that showcase a tired Bruce Willis or a bizarre Steven Seagal. 24 Hours to Live won’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s still a fun ride, and will temporarily satiate the action junkie patiently waiting for John Wick: Chapter 4.


Feb 1, 2020

TERMINATOR: DARK FATE (2019)


[Contains spoilers for the Terminator series.]

Following the first round of advanced screenings for Terminator: Dark Fate, there were, understandably, mixed opinions, though all of them echoed one general reaction: it was “the best Terminator sequel since Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” The major studios behind Dark Fate’s production, Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox, were probably ecstatic at this pull quote, because nothing sells a sequel better than a close association with the originals in terms of quality and audience expectations (see 2018’s Halloween). That new car smell wears off pretty quickly, however, once you realize making a Terminator sequel that’s better than all the non-Cameron sequels isn’t that high of a bar. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was occasionally okay, even if it was nothing more than a soft retread of Judgment Day that mostly felt made for television. Terminator: Salvation had interesting ideas but was plagued with major script rewrites to cater to Christian Bale’s interest in playing John Connor, whose status as a cameo was beefed up to a major role following his involvement, and which threw off the tenor of the story. Then came Terminator: Genisys, which, holy shit, I don’t even know. I just know that it was dreadful, not helped by its lame PG-13 rating. By then, general audiences seemed very over the franchise, so even when it was announced that a new sequel was going into production that would retcon every sequel since Judgment Day, be directed by Deadpool’s Tim Miller, bring back Arnold Schwarzenegger, and also see the return of creator James Cameron in a consultant/producer role, the Internet barely cared. However, when it was revealed that Linda Hamilton, gone from the franchise since Judgment Day, would also be returning, the Internet finally raised an eyebrow. It would seem there was still interest after all.


Those initial reactions were right: Terminator: Dark Fate is, indeed, the best Terminator sequel since Judgment Day. It’s also an underwhelming effort that squanders the opportunity to wipe the slate clean in this franchise’s second attempt at a cinematic “okay, for serious this time…,” which it had previously wasted on Genisys. It also squanders the return of Linda Hamilton as the legendary Sarah Connor by misusing her character thanks to the very unexpected story changes that rock the established mythos – not because it was needed, but because it was easier than continuing the story arcs for every character left standing at the end of Judgment Day. The opening scene, utilizing the best use of de-aging techniques I’ve seen yet (seriously, one might think they were deleted scenes from Judgment Day’s production), is staged to be a shocker when a Terminator wearing Arnold’s face waltzes on screen and kills young John Connor. The sequence is meant to conjure the realization that shit’s about to get real. And it does—while also asking fans to make the hugest leap yet in terms of retconning a story by asking them to accept a major change in the series’ dynamic: 

For two films, the continued existence of John Connor would make or break the entire world.

But according to Dark Fate:

 ‾\_(ツ)_/‾ -{“Nah, don’t need him.”} 

That decision is a huge pill to swallow on its own, but there’s more: multiple Terminators (who for some reason looked like Arnold, which makes zero sense being that he was the protector in Judgment Day) were sent back during that particular timeline to make mincemeat of John Connor. I’d love to know what this particular Arnold-faced Terminator, a hunter killer machine imbued with all kinds of technology for seeking and destroying targeted prey, was up to while the T-1000 was blowing up half of Los Angeles – perhaps his CPU was ransomwared and he had to scrounge up the money to unlock himself. 


To its credit, Dark Fate tries to be different from what’s come before. The problem is this is a Part 6 that’s also a Part 3, and also the third Part 3 in this series. No studio will ever be daring enough to return the series to the grounded, gritty, grindhouse style of 1984’s The Terminator; no matter which studio had the rights, they were all intent to remake Judgment Day over and over instead. The first two Terminators are more than just great movies; they’re legendary watershed moments in cinema history and keepsakes that can’t be replicated. With Cameron having pushed special effects into new, uncharted territory, both of his Terminators invoked awed questions of, “How’d they DO that?” In this new era, the audience isn’t asking that question anymore because they already know the answer: CGI. And it’s so boring. Even though, according to this newest timeline, Terminator: Genisys no longer exists, the damage has already been done. Not only did it up the ante in terms of action extravaganza, leaning heavily on CGI, but it also used up another take on the same old story: trying to prevent a future war with sentient A.I. Rise Of The Machines claimed that Judgment Day was always inevitable. Genisys repackaged Skynet with a new name (that sequel’s title), a new global operating system that basically made Google and iPads the bad guy. Dark Fate says Judgment Day was avoided, but in effect, led to the creation of a new evil A.I. company called Legion with the same end result. It doesn’t matter if our heroes are battling Skynet, or Genisys, or Legion if it all feels like the same old shit, and it really does feel like the same old shit. Added to that, Genisys’ sins continue by also having squandered Arnold’s return to the series after a fifteen-year absence. For all these reasons, Dark Fate would play better if the previous sequel never existed, because even though it goes in a mostly different direction, their third acts feel almost identical when the spectacle hits the most ridiculous highs. Once a Humvee filled with people is pushed out of a midair Gulfstream and parachutes down into the Hoover Dam, where it then rides its falls all the way down to the bottom of the reservoir, coming to a rest underwater where the action continues, you can’t help but remember, in spite of all the spectacle and CGI and millions of dollars that sequence alone must’ve cost, how much better and more thrilling this series used to be back when it was just one plucky young girl fleeing from a robot in a factory, or when our heroic trio was being pursued by a liquid metal cop driving a tanker trunk down an L.A. highway. 

Though I’ll forever be an Arnold aficionado, my man love for him barely flared when his name appeared in the announcement for Dark Fate. No, I was much more eager to see Hamilton return to the series after her nearly thirty-year absence. Except for television work and obscure movies, Hamilton hasn’t appeared in anything prominent since 1997’s Dante’s Peak (where she played the hilariously named Rachel Wando). I wish I could say her return was a triumphant one, and even though she strikes an incredibly interesting image with her short-cropped silver hair and her aviators, her performance can be summed up by Dark Fate’s overall final product: okay, not bad, but should’ve been a lot better for what this was supposed to be. Thankfully, Mackenzie Davis as Grace, the new Terminator Protector, offers the film’s best performance, and not by default, but because of her actual thought-out, dedicated take on, essentially, the new Kyle Reese. Sadly, Natalie Reyes as Dani, “the new John [Connor],” barely registers as a presence let alone the future leader of the resistance against the robotic scourge. Her miscasting echoes that of Emilia Clarke’s miscasting as the rebooted Sarah Connor in Genisys. In The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, I easily buy Hamilton’s pluckiness and her badass warrior take on the character, respectively. Reyes gives it her all, but she never feels comfortable in the role she was given. As for Arnold, well, it’s not that he offers a poor performance, because he’s basically been doing the same thing since Judgement Day – it’s more that the limits of the character don’t allow him to do anything new, and it’s not much of a novelty to watch anymore. Even sadder, Dark Fate, which rides a wave of well executed action sequences and mediocre drama, slows to a halt once his character appears in the third act, as the audience waits for his return to feel more than what it is, which by now is obligation. By now, his presence is expected, so much that he was literally CGI-ed into Terminator: Salvation, but again, there’s a problem: no one knows what to do with him anymore to make him more interesting than what’s already been done, and if that’s not happening, why include him at all?   


Terminator: Dark Fate also tries to be current and “woke,” but solely in an acceptably mainstream way: it suggests that women can be tough (which many male members felt was pandering, even though the strong female angle has been a mainstay of this genre since the 1970s), and that the leader of the resistance isn’t just a girl but a Mexican girl (whoa!). There is, however, one moment that works, and that’s when Davis’ Grace asks a prison guard at a Texas/Mexico detainment center where illegal border-crossers are held, and the guard replies, even in the midst of all the Terminator shit hitting the fan, “we call them detainees, not prisoners,” and Grace looks ready to backhand her simply for that response. 

Even though it pains me to say this (while also acknowledging that the world doesn’t need further Terminator sequels), the only path forward for this franchise is to start entirely from scratch – no Arnold, no Hamilton, no Cameron, and an entirely new storyline. To whichever studio is the next to land the rights, please, I beg you: hand over the reins to a new generation with new ideas, let them do what they do, and stop meddling. Otherwise, if there really is no fate but what we make for ourselves, then we are fated to see the same movie over and over until the franchise is dead for good.


Dec 31, 2019

NEW YEAR'S WATCHING: ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (2005)


Remakes of John Carpenter’s films so far haven’t really yielded anything considered a total success in that they were both critically and commercially successful. Even though Rob Zombie’s awful Halloween remake somehow has its defenders, the 2005 remake of The Fog is universally derided, and rightfully so (though both made obscene money at the box office). Meanwhile, the maiden voyage of the Carpenter remake trend was 2005’s Assault on Precinct 13, directed by French filmmaker Jean-François Richet (the similarly underrated Blood Father with Mel Gibson) and boasting a pretty excellent cast of Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, Gabriel Byrne, Brian Dennehy, Maria Bello, Drea de Matteo, John Leguizamo, and lots more recognizable faces. It came and left theaters quickly, doing moderately well with critics, who apparently were the only ones who saw the thing, which is a shame, because—remake of a beloved cult film or not—it’s pretty damn entertaining.


Like any good remake should do, Assault on Precinct 13 takes the basic concept of the original, maintaining the setting, the characters, and the siege-like component, and throws it all into a blender along with some shake-ups to the story. This time, instead of gang members descending on a decommissioned police precinct, it’s a horde of corrupt cops trying to assassinate gang leader Marion Bishop (Fishburne), who has done his fair share of dirty dealings with those cops and has the power to put them away for good—if he survives New Year’s Eve and testifies against them in court. (Bishop was the name of the hero in the original, played by Austin Stoker; though Fishburne steps into the villain role, it’s without the name “Napoleon Wilson,” which I guess didn’t sound as bad-ass thirty years later.)  Naturally, once the corrupt cops descend on the police station, which lacks any kind of communication lines since the place is no longer “on duty,” and with a blinding New Year’s Eve snowstorm isolating them even further, the precinct’s cops and crooks must band together if they want to survive the night.

The screenplay was handled by James DeMonaco, who had just written the very successful hostage thriller The Negotiator with Samuel L. Jackson and then-beloved Kevin Spacey. Interestingly, DeMonaco would become a force ten years later in Hollywood alongside Blumhouse by writing and directing the Purge series, which DeMonaco had said from the very beginning was inspired by Carpenter and his penchant for siege and anti-order films. Obviously, the original Assault on Precinct 13 was a very low budget affair bordering on grindhouse cinema, made by an unknown and untested director (who in typical Carpenter style also wrote, edited, and scored the film) and starred a cast of unknown or obscure actors. Meanwhile, 2005’s remake is big, glossy, and made with as much spectacle as director Richet can get away with while remaining faithful to the claustrophobic setting. Carpenter has admitted over the years that the original Assault on Precinct 13 was a loose remake/combination of Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead, referring to it nearly as a zombie movie, and the redux maintains that same kind of claustrophobic environment where hope for rescue dwindles by the hour.


Appropriately, Richet and DeMonaco are very aware of Carpenter’s overall career as a horror director, even though he’d wandered away from that genre several times to make action-thrillers (Escape from New York), comedies (Memoirs of an Invisible Man), dramas (Elvis), and, as Carpenter likes to put it, “girly movies” (Starman). Because of this, even though this Assault on Precinct 13 is still well within the action-thriller genre, it unfolds almost like a slasher movie, in that several members of its ensemble cast are picked off one by one in violent ways, with many of them not being characters (or actors) you’d ever expect to see bite the big one.  

Ethan Hawke jumps from genre to genre as well, never hanging his hat too long in any one place, though he seldom played the role of action hero even in his youth. Besides the terrible Getaway and the obscure but decent 24 Hours to LiveAssault on Precinct 13 sees Hawke in a rare full-on popcorn action role and you can tell he’s having fun with material that doesn’t require as much psychological pathos as the parts he ordinarily likes to play. (He was phenomenal in last year’s First Reformed, for example.)  Like the geekiest of directors, Hawke respects and enjoys different kinds of films, and he puts in a laudable amount of effort to make his character of Sgt. Jake Roenick more than just your typical apprehensive hero.  As for Fishburne as the “bad guy,” well, as most actors will tell you, it’s always much more fun to play the villain, and he knows it, and he does it well. Fishburne’s intensity and swagger has always cast an intimidating pallor over many of his roles, even when playing the good guy, so it’s not exactly necessary to suspend disbelief when seeing him in this kind of role. 


Carpenter has been sly over the years when asked for his opinions on remakes of his films, saying that though the remakes were based on his movies, those remakes belong to other filmmakers and it wouldn’t be his place to comment. (Me thinks this was mostly his way of having to avoid publicly calling Rob Zombie’s Halloween a piece of shit considering they were friends, even though he basically did that very same thing later on.) Still, Carpenter had kind things to say about Assault on Precinct 13, saying in an interview, “I thought it was terrific. I thought the cast was sensational. I just loved it.” 

He’s not the only one.

Dec 28, 2019

RAMBO: LAST BLOOD (2019)


One of the most consistent complaints I’ve seen regarding Rambo: Last Blood, the newest entry in Sylvester Stallone’s long-running Rambo series, was that it “didn’t feel like a Rambo” movie, and in the most superficial of ways, I would agree. Stallone’s shaggy hair is long gone and it feels odd to see him lording over a home that he’d spent the previous 40 years feeling that he could never go back to. Beyond that, though, the claims of Rambo: Last Blood feeling like an outlier is, to be blunt, a misguided outlook. Thanks to pop culture, when you say the name “Rambo,” it conjures certain images that come not from 1982’s First Blood, the legitimately great original where John Rambo kills ZERO people, but the increasingly goofy sequels that veered further and further away from the whole point of the character, which was created to embody the horrors of war-caused PTSD and to highlight the distrustful, aggressive society Vietnam War soldiers came home to. Appropriately, even the naming convention of all the sequels seemed to mirror what the sequels were doing. 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II tried to maintain some of the pathos from the original, personified by Stallone’s steely question, “Do we get to win this time?” 1988’s Rambo III drops the “First Blood” portion of the title altogether because, by then, all pathos and subtext was gone in favor of your generic ‘80s action movie that was most certainly a direct response to 1985’s massively successful Commando. And then came 2008’s Rambo, just one of many long-delayed sequels to drop all roman numerals in hopes of luring in a new generational audience who have no idea there are previous films in the franchise, while the brevity of the title also alerts franchise fans that they know exactly what they’re getting. Rambo: Last Blood is probably the most appropriately titled of the sequels, because despite what you may have heard, it’s the sequel that feels the most like First Blood, while also taking one very wide step back from it. 


As tends to happen with all “action” movie franchises, each subsequent sequel feels the need to outdo the previous one’s sheer size and spectacle until the situations become so outlandish that they take you out of the movie. Look no further than the Die Hard or Death Wish series, the latter of which was based on a film that didn’t come close to being an action movie. The Rambo franchise is a perfect example of this. No, Rambo: Last Blood doesn’t feel like the previous few Rambo flicks because the character isn’t engaging in war in some kind of militaristic capacity. He’s not in some third-world country saving POWs or well-meaning missionaries. He’s back at home in Arizona, on the Rambo family ranch, doing his best to quell his demons and focus on the only family he has left – caretakers of the ranch, Maria (Adriana Barraza) and her granddaughter, Gabriela (Yvette Monreal), whom Rambo considers to be his  daughter. It’s when Gabriela becomes kidnapped by human traffickers in Mexico while trying to find her birth father that Rambo: Last Blood essentially becomes Taken mixed with a western while still falling back on John Rambo’s utter hopeless view on the goodness of man and the world at large. 

Rambo: Last Blood, actually, begins on a melancholy note, in that, though John Rambo has been trying to come home ever since the war, even when he finally did, he never really did. His PTSD still looms large, and he spends most of his time in the labyrinthine tunnels below his ranch, alongside his cache of weapons bought and made. While this could simply be a coincidence, or meant to mirror the foxholes in which he’d spent his time as a soldier in Vietnam, it could also be the most direct connective tissue with First Blood, during which he spent a large portion of the second act hiding in an underground cave because it was the only place he felt safe from the world – this along with his homage Home Alone-like booby-traps that litter the third act, and which he'd similarly crafted to use against some angry Washington State cops  almost 40 years prior. Yes, the family angle—the personal, take-revenge angle—doesn’t gel with the character of John Rambo as we know him, but it does gel with this idea that Rambo doesn’t believe the world is capable of good and isn’t worth fighting for; there’s always some kind of instance where injustice weighs heavily on his heart and he can’t not act – he can’t not react and achieve justice for those that weren’t strong enough to obtain it on their own, and who were taken hostage by the evils of the world. 


Being that this is a Rambo flick, and being that it boasts a screenplay by Stallone, it maintains the typical amount of overwrought dialogue and sensibilities audiences have come to expect from him (along with an alarming dip into xenophobia, in that, apparently, all of Mexico is a death trap and should be avoided whenever possible). As a writer, whether throughout his Rambo or Rocky series, Stallone has always been willing to write from the heart, even if he’s making a particular character say or do something corny or unrealistic. He’s always been willing to risk covering his characters in cheese so long as they were coming from a genuine place. Rambo: Last Blood is a continuing example of this philosophy, and there’s an earnest attempt to elevate the material into a drama with action elements rather than the flipside. (Unfortunately, most of this whispered, overwrought dialogue comes from his character, and Stallone’s old age has worsened his lisp to the degree that some of his lines are nearly incomprehensible.) By doing this, audiences who wanted a shirtless Rambo firing double AK-47s into enemy faces were likely disappointed, but those going in with an open mind—who remember and point to First Blood as the truest embodiment of the John Rambo character—stood a better chance of appreciating the experience. I think it’s less that Stallone no longer understands the character, but more that he understands who John Rambo has become in his twilight years. A search-and-rescue mission doesn’t necessarily jive with the Rambo aesthetic, but if John Rambo were facing that conflict head on, Rambo: Last Blood is pretty much what John Rambo would do. He is a warrior on loan to the world, stepping in wherever necessary and bringing his adept skill at taking lives along for the journey. That’s who John Rambo is.

Rambo: Last Blood had been in development since 2008’s Rambo (it currently boasts twenty-eight producers), and went through a couple different early iterations, including one really wacky plotline that saw Rambo being brought in by the U.S. military to hunt an escaped, genetically-engineered panther (this is real), which was based on the book Hunter by James Byron Huggins. (Stallone owns the movie rights and has been trying to adapt it since the mid-‘90s.) Rambo V’s production was plagued by so many false starts, at one point with Stallone saying the movie was probably never going to happen, that it seemed unlikely his version of the character would ever return. In spite of that, Rambo: Last Blood survived a critical drubbing to become the second-best opening of the series at the box office, and you know what that means… Is Rambo: Last Blood truly the last blood? Well, as Hollywood likes to say, never say never. According to Wikipedia, “Stallone has expressed interest in having Rambo take refuge in an Indian reservation for the sixth Rambo film.” If it takes another ten years to develop this sequel, it’s likely that Rambo: Last Blood will live up to its title after all. 


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Dec 3, 2019

THE 'DEATH WISH' SERIES (1974-1994)



1974’s Death Wish, directed by Michael Winner, is nowadays considered a minor classic. While it achieved only a modicum of critical success, it certainly landed much better with audiences and was a box office hit (none of which the pitiful Eli Roth remake from 2018 managed to do). Death Wish was one of the last of the guy-in-a-suit-with-a-gun films of the 1970s, which were a temporary stopping point between the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s and the gloriousness of the 1980s. These ’70s comprised guys like Clint Eastwood, Roy Scheider, Lee Marvin, and even Walter Matthau, domestically, and blokes like Michael Caine, internationally, all doing their thing with a single pistol tucked somewhere between their tweed sport coat and their brown turtleneck. Physically, the men were rather average — even scrawny — and so they depended on their performances to exude intimidation rather than ludicrous musculature. 

Also born during this era was the realization that Charles Bronson, despite his tiny-uncle-like stature and his strange anonymous hybrid of ethnicities (dude looks Mexican, Asian, and Native American all at once), was a remarkable bad-ass. Though he never achieved the same level of critical acclaim as his fellow suit-wearing bad-asses, as he often fell victim to just playing Charles Bronson on-screen, his name is one that often comes up in conversations akin to old school action flicks.


Given Death Wish’s financial success, you might think that a sequel was inevitable, but you must remember that during this era, sequels weren’t nearly as commonplace as they’d eventually become. Death Wish 2 was actually one of the first sequels to be made in what would eventually become a very marketable franchise. It’s also the worst sequel in the series. Based on the finished film, it’s clear Death Wish 2 was eager to hit all the same beats as its predecessor without too much deviation. And its version of Paul Kersey (Bronson) was eager to get to his vigilantism, this time not even giving law enforcement the chance to fail him before he slipped on his knit hat, grabbed a revolver, and took to the streets — this time hunting down the actual punks responsible for the defilement and death of his daughter, hereby eschewing the “any punk’ll do” mentality that gave the original film its voice.

As tends to happen with franchises, the Death Wish sequels were very silly (though not incrementally – Death Wish 3 out-sillies them all), but unlike most other franchises, these sequels barely resembled the groundbreaking first film when the series was only halfway through. This unexpected tonal change in the Death Wish series very much mirrors that of the Rambo: First Blood series, in that their increasingly absurd entries succeeded in not only becoming so removed from their first films’ original ideals that they barely resembled each other, but also somehow established a precedent of cartoon violence for which those series would ultimately be known. As far as Death Wish goes, this can be likened to the involvement of the legendary Cannon Films, who produced all four sequels, and who are responsible for perhaps some of the most iconic B-action films of all time.

Death Wish 2 is the grindhouse entry of the series. It’s grimy, slimy, violent, and discomforting, courtesy of the returning and controversial Michael Winner. For those unfamiliar with the deceased British director, he was the 1970s/80s version of Michael Bay: his talents were hardly ever commended, and not many good films can be found in his filmography, but he always turned a profit for studios, so they were eager to keep him employed. In an almost spiteful reaction to some of the critical drubbings he received on its predecessor, he ups the cruelty for the sequel: the rape scene lasts longer, with more graphic detail and softcore flourishes, and with the added taboo of the victim being mentally handicapped. It also ends in her equally graphic suicide. The reactionary violence perpetrated by “mourning” Paul Kersey that then unfolds results in more bodies dropped, right down to a completely unrealistic mano-a-mano finale set within a hospital (which allows for a small role by Carpenter regular Charles Cyphers).

Death Wish promotes private justice!” those 1974 reviews stated with condemnation. Winner responded with his middle finger that he later nicknamed Death Wish 2. 


And then there’s Death Wish 3, again helmed by Winner, and considered by many to be the standout of the series for just how ridiculous it is. It’s the equivalent of a live-action “Itchy & Scratchy” cartoon — a hyper-violent marriage of Grumpy Old Men and Home Alone that includes a third-act extended finale where more time is dedicated to people dying than people not dying.

Those people who call Death Wish 3 the series standout are kind of right…depending of course on how seriously we’re considering the rating system. Because Death Wish 3 is kind of a masterpiece. It’s Charles Bronson meets Merry Melodies. It’s an unabashed series of vignettes in which people are killed in extremely disparate ways, loosely connected only by one common thread: they deserve it. Kersey knows they deserve it, the audience knows they deserve it, and the audience wants Kersey to make it rain bodies. And by gosh, does he ever. While the previous two Death Wish films, each in their own ways, wanted to make killing ugly, and revenge conflicting, Death Wish 3 wants you to eat your fucking popcorn and enjoy the carnage, you assholes. Out of sight is any commentary or sense of confliction. There are no warring minds re: revenge versus justice. Kersey barely needs a reason to begin unpacking all of his weapons of mass destruction. Evidently he can’t wait to do it. He’s no longer haunted by the change that’s taken place inside him, turning him from mild-mannered architect/widower to a nonplussed bachelor/accomplished killing machine. His ease at life-taking has come to define him. In previous Death Wish films, the vigilante murders had been committed in response to the frustration spurred by feelings of helplessness; in Death Wish 3, they are cathartic release. They are the unleashing pent-up blue balls of a mentally exhausted neighborhood so beaten down and regressed by daily victimization that rioting in the streets and blood in the gutter is tantamount to ejaculatory celebration. To come away with the message “violence isn’t the answer” at film’s end, where Kersey grasps his suitcases and heroically marches down a street littered with flaming cars, dead bodies, and screaming police sirens — it’s the lone rider leaving that Old West town at sun-up — is to embrace your delusion. Death Wish 3 makes one thing very clear: violence works — works well, works often, and should be utilized for every possible conflict.

Death Wish 3 so changed the overall tenor of the series that there would be no returning to semi-respectable ground, which is why the remaining sequels don’t hold a candle, either in terms of being a rock’em sock’em silly time, or of actually attempting to be engaging, thoughtful films. But the Cannon Group, enjoying another hit, obviously had dollar signs in their eyes and typically premature Death Wish 4 posters floating around in their brains…


Following the “disaster” (read: genius) that was Death Wish 3, a minor shake-up occurred behind the scenes as Death Wish 4: The Crackdown moved ahead without series director Michael Winner. The why of this is unclear. I’ve seen this attributed to Bronson refusing to work with the director ever again after Winner had allegedly secretly shot additional violent inserts on Death Wish 3 while the conscientiously objecting Bronson wasn’t on set. Another story had Cannon claiming that Winner simply wasn’t interested in further sequels (which will seem suspect soon). Whatever the reason, replacing him was J. Lee Thompson, a far better filmmaker (he directed the original Cape Fear, for one) with whom Bronson had previously worked six times, and with whom he would collaborate twice more following Death Wish 4 for an overall total of nine films. (One of these is the bonkers Bronson crime thriller/slasher flick Ten to Midnight, which is required viewing as far as I’m concerned.)

Being a Cannon Films production, Death Wish 4 is still pretty silly, but following the gonzo previous sequel, there’s at least an effort on behalf of Thompson and screenwriter Gail Morgan Hickman, who had written the Thompson/Bronson flick Murphy’s Law, to ground the Death Wish world back in reality. Although this is called Part 4,  the events of Death Wish 3 go largely ignored, and I can see why. If one’s goal with Death Wish 4 is to adhere to a more realistic world, best not mention the time your lead hero literally killed an entire neighborhood of painted, unionized punks.

Death Wish 4 thankfully feels different from what’s come before, although it still embraces the silliness that would come to define most of Cannon Films’ output. Retired from the vigilante life and living with his replacement wife and daughter, Kersey embraces his old deadly ways when his nu-daughter is killed by drug dealers thanks to her shady, drug addict boyfriend. But this time, instead of taking to the streets and murdering any punk he encounters, Kersey is embroiled in a mystery — one that has him infiltrating two competing drug operations and serving up some serious Yojimbo-style double-cross, all at the request of his mysterious benefactor (played by Cannon go-to guy John P. Ryan).

Thankfully missing from Death Wish 4 is the grit and grime from the first two films. Also thankfully, it’s a sequel that preserves the “let’s have fun!” mentality from Death Wish 3, which was quite honestly that sequel’s only selling point. As mentioned, Death Wish 3 had so changed the trajectory of the series that there was no reverting back to the path of the original’s respectability. Death Wish 4 pretty ably straddles that line between actually showing off an engaging plot while trying new things, but also blowing up chunky looking dummies that had, just seconds before, been real, living character actors. (And I love a good dummy.)


Following the release of Death Wish 4, Cannon Films was sold to Pathé, and the Golan-Globus cousins were fired. Golan soon joined 21st Century Film Corporation, who immediately kick-started the redundantly titled Death Wish 5: The Face of Death, the worst sequel in the series since the second entry and the film that Golan hoped would save the ailing company. (It didn’t.)

Death Wish 5 is the most bizarre entry in the franchise, even if the mainstay of Kersey the vigilante remains its chief narrative hook. Again enjoying a quiet life (this time under a new name) with his new girlfriend Olivia and her daughter Chelsea, shit goes sour when Olivia is killed and Chelsea is kidnapped by a maniacal mobster named O’Shea (Michael Parks). Complicating the matter is that O’Shea is Chelsea’s biological father, so the cops (one of whom is played by a generally terrible Saul Rubinek) can’t do anything about it.

Enter the vigilante.

Bronson was 72 when he made Death Wish 5, which was the main dig most critics got in when the critically savaged sequel was released — that the aging action star was far too old to be engaging in something so silly and violent. Not only that, but much of the sequel feels cheap, offering the kind of small scale environments prevalent in direct-to-video features. There are very few city exterior sequences, which had been a stalwart of the series up to that point. The actual cities of New York and Los Angeles had become part and parcel with the stories being explored in those entries; sorry, I have to say it: they became characters. Death Wish 5 was the series’ only Canadian production, and it’s evident that director Allan Goldstein was eager to hide this whenever possible.

Death Wish 5 offers a fair share of entertainment strictly on two terms: the presence of Michael Parks, who absolutely excelled at villainy, and the lunacy involved with Kersey’s murder methods, whether they be remote-controlled soccer ball bombs or poisoned cannolis borrowed from The Godfather III. Beyond that, Death Wish 5 has absolutely nothing else going for it — even the presence of an aging, puffy-faced Bronson, who had been completely over the Death Wish franchise since Part 2, is a serious bummer, because you can tell he’s not at all into it — and, as the critics noted, definitely showed his age.

Director Michael Winner, who helmed the first three Death Wish films, once said, “I’d have Charles Bronson starring in Death Wish 26 if I thought it would make a profit.” From the point of view of someone strictly looking for a silly, B-movie good time, I’ll say it’s a shame that the series ran out of steam far before that projection — that is, of course, assuming that some of those never-to-be sequels would have reached the same lunatic heights as seen in Death Wish 3. Because at that point, there was no turning back — no sense in trying to end the series before it jumped the shark, because that shark had most definitely already been jumped. So long as Bronson had been willing, I’d have easily taken 21 more entries in spite of how terrible the last official sequel had been. Over Charles Bronson’s storied career, he made far better films than the original Death Wish, but the long-running vigilante series would eventually define his career. It’s a shame this was the final theatrical note on which he had to go out.