Saturday, March 8, 2014
A dark, Gothic comic book to begin with, Spawn never had an easy transition to the big screen. At the time, when you said "comic book movie" you obviously meant something like Superman: The Movie, or Tim Burton's Batman. Both well respected movies. Both relatively family friendly. (In Superman's case, maybe excessively so...) Then you try to pitch the head honchos a comic book movie... about a hero who gets his powers straight from Satan? The more you try to explain, the worse it would seem. See, he's an assassin who's a borderline psychotic who gets killed and winds up in Hell and makes a deal with the devil to lead his satanic army against god and his angels in exchange for seeing his wife again... and then there's John Leguizamo's character. Oh boy.
There is no part of this that sounds PG-13 or even remotely family friendly. For movie studios looking to make some money, this is a very uncomfortable prospect. After all, their #1 priority is to maximize the appeal of this movie- of any movie -so that more people will see it. Obviously. More people = more money. Would Spawn have been better without studio imposed restrictions? Most likely. Would it have been that much better? I doubt it, and... this is the first time I've doubted it. In a roundabout way, I grew up with this movie- although I wasn't allowed to see it as a kid, it's always one I wanted to see. Much like Small Soldiers, and Mars Attacks. My parents lumped it in with that 'edgy' group of movies that was just out of reach for a kid like me.
I saw the toys in stores, the ads on TV, the trailers, the box art at the video stores, the posters, the comic book adaption. I wanted to see Spawn very very badly. It looked awesome. So when I finally saw it, I was 14 and admittedly, it was a pretty cool experience for me. So when it came time for me to assess the movie with my underdeveloped movie critic sensibilities, I blamed all of it's flaws on the studio interference. Honestly, it's quite easy to do because without studio interference this movie might have been Rated R. I would've like that, and fans would've too. Yet, the Director's Cut is Rated R, and that doesn't fix any of it's problems. Mainly because it was still shot with PG-13 in mind, so a little Director's Cut can only restore what was altered or cut our prior to it's release. Sigh.
Anyways, the problem does not solely lie on the studio involvement, much blame can be placed squarely on the shoulders of first time director Mark A.Z. Dippe. As I read what I'm writing here in my head, I say his name with a slow and over-articulated draw that is dripping with disdain. Yeah, the guy has done good visual effects work on movies like Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park, but why on Earth they handed him a forty million dollar summer blockbuster like this will always escape me. You need a tried and true director for stuff like this. Dippe is out of his league and it shows. This sophomoric effort is disjointed and lacks and real bite. A movie like Spawn needs teeth, so to speak. You have all this wonderfully dark and grim thematic content, yet you squander it on the most banal humor that only a five year old would find funny, and you shortchange the movie in the action department as well.
Spawn is a mess. Entirely. There are some cool parts, no doubt. Michael Jai White makes a good hero, and he has several really cool scenes in the movie. The alley fight with the giant demon-gecko, The Violator, springs to mind as one of the few times this movie worked really well. The setting is another example. Much of Spawn's journey has him returning to an alleyway that the homeless have turned into a makeshift city. It's a grim set and filthy, yet it's also interesting and fully realized. Something that most of this movie isn't. When it comes down to it, I argue Spawn needed more action scenes to qualify as a guilty pleasure. It's stunning that this movie is so short on action. So much of the movie is chewed up by awful voiceovers that overly explain everything, and stupid scenes between Leguizamo's Clown and (a horribly misused) Martin Sheen, that Spawn is almost a leftover character- scrambling to find time to make use of his new powers and kick some ass.
He's relegated to operate under some terrible pacing issues that makes the film suffer so badly that it can't even scrape up enough energy to be a fun bad movie. For anyone who owns the movie, and has willingly sat through it more than once, it's appeal must lie in some warped sense of nostalgia. I know it does for me. It's an hour and thirty eight minutes of wasted potential in all areas, save a few. Like I said, there are some scenes that work so well, you're almost impressed. In those scenes you get a glimpse of what Spawn could have been, and sadly wasn't. But first and foremost the one aspect of this movie I find absolutely awesome, is the design aspect. Spawn looks really damn cool. The way his armor activates and adheres to him like a second skin, the look of his mask, his cape. He looks awesome. The movie does him justice, if nobody and nothing else.
Unfortunately, this is not the "special effects event of the year!" anymore, and I doubt it ever was. The computer effects in this movie for the most part, are just... painfully outdated. I'm not one to rag on old effects, but these are so bad, someone should've reconsidered making this movie like they did. The scenes of hell are entirely computer generated and it's bad looking. Objects float around looking like a Windows 95 screensaver, textures are of such a low resolution they look flat and fake, pixels and other artifacts crop up frequently, oh and they couldn't render hair worth a damn. The devil himself, Malebolgia, looks just as awful as the setting he's trapped in. If I was him, I would most certainly enslave Michael Jai White to try and murder God so I could finally escape that flat 2D looking Hell and find myself some better looking CG accommodations in... maybe a Pixar flick?
So, in closing, Spawn has all the ingredients there to have at the very least be a guilty pleasure movie. Fantastic design, some cool scenes, Michael Jai White, some occasional cool effects, and that's about it. It's up to you to decide if that's worth the stilted acting, gross humor, terrible pacing, and amateurish direction. For me? Eh. I watched it as an excuse to review it. Or... did I plan to review it as an excuse to watch it? It's such a misfire of a movie, but one that I have nostalgic feelings for. A movie that is nothing like what it should've been, yet still so different from anything else of it's time. It's a mixed bag, and one that I'd love to remember fondly, honestly, yet I just can't.
Ladies and Gentlemen...
Saturday, February 8, 2014
Starship Troopers: Invasion, the franchise's side-movie. (Not the lack of a number in the title...) It looks nothing like the previous movies, sadly, taking on more of a Halo look and design. Who can blame them though? This one takes place almost entirely in space, and on starships. Is Invasion a bad one? Not really. If that's not the rousing self-assured answer you were hoping for... too bad. Invasion suffers the pitfalls of the second movie, and then some. Wooden acting is replaced by wooden CGI (a complaint mainly limited to facial expressions to be fair) and again any satirical edge is completely absent. This is a movie about two things, troopers and bugs. They spend the movie killing each other. I do have to admit, the story is better than I thought it'd be, and the characters end up being fun to watch- so if anything... this is, well, not bad.
I don't like the design shift. I loved the visual aesthetics of the Mobile Infantry as it was. Their helmets, body armor, visual motifs. The designs in this movie feel like generic 'edgy' video game designs. Like someone whipped up a batch of ODST and misplaced them right into the Starship Troopers universe. Better body armor makes sense, mech suits make sense. Preserving the damn visual aesthetic makes sense too. Apparently they didn't want to. I know it's possible. Anything is possible except for them to get one of the movies movie right, from top to bottom. However... the best thing about Invasion is the sheer spectacle. Given the fact that it's a CGI movie, that affords them a bigger sandbox in which to play around in. They do make good use of the space setting, and extra good use of the zero gravity environments. Some moments made my jaw drop. Something which doesn't happen unless I'm watching the outpost sequence from the first movie. (Every... damn... time.)
Maybe not preserving the design motifs is a fanboy gripe, but this is apparently supposed to follow continuity. I don't get it. Anyway, the CGI is a little stiff at times, and the dialog is trite, but the movie makes up or it in terms of sheer scope and action. However unlike the first and third movies, and much like the second, Invasion is claustrophobic and confined. All of it takes place on Starships and not on alien planets and in big expansive deserts. This I think made it hard for me to really get into. I like the alien planets and such. Those big barren deserts lent a perfect aesthetic to the bug wars. Invasion is cold and polished. It feels more like Aliens, and that's just not the way to go with a Starship Troopers movie. It irritates the hell out of me. Yet, if you came for troopers vs. bugs, this movie doesn't disappoint. There's plenty of creative and exciting action scenes that highlight the movie, including the most exciting opening sequence from any of the movies.
A lot of the novelty and flair of Starship Troopers is absent in this one, yet it manages to be it's own beast. Something that both sequels never fully invested in. Hero of the Federation was marred at every turn by budget restraints, and even it's story seemed born out of a small budget. Marauder tried it's damnedest to be like the first movie. Neither movie had the means or motivation to cut their own path. Invasion actually does this. To an extent. It knows what it wants to be and it goes for it. Unfortunately, it's not high-concept sci-fi or anything intellectually engaging (which, a Starship Troopers movie, unbound by canon and continuity to the first three movies is MORE than capable of providing-) it's just a straight forward action movie. The action is good. It's fast, slick, explosive, and exciting. It even gives us some creative stuff we haven't seen before. However, at the end it feels like a demo reel of action scenes to show off, saying "Hey! Isn't this cool?". Yes, it is, but that's all it is.
Invasion edges out the most re-watchable sequel because it's sheer action. It doesn't have the low budgeted restraints of Hero of the Federation, and it doesn't have the distressingly bad CGI of Marauder. It may or may not be the best sequel, but it's flawed liked the rest of them. It's a mixed bag, but a surprisingly watchable one that gets better as it goes. I'd like to own it eventually, but I don't consider it a priority. I also wouldn't buy it before 2 or 3. Yet if you're a completionist like me, you won't have any reservations about purchasing Invasion. It proves it's mettle with gusto and flair, and enough to at least outweigh it's flaws. Which include a total lack of any satirical elements. No propaganda abound in this one, not many quotable lines either. Just saying, kinda disappointing. However, to reiterate, the troopers vs. bug scenes here are plenty exciting. Sadly, in the end, this is a thin review- for a thin movie. There's not much to Invasion, and I fully believe there could've been. Ah well. Maybe next time?
Thursday, February 6, 2014
"It's a good day to die!" says the propaganda in the movie, yet I'd argue it's a good day to let the franchise die instead. If that sounded like a disheartening first line, well, you're right... but not entirely. Starship Troopers 3: Marauder blasts it way onto home video with quite a bang, in my opinion. First, and foremost, this movie marks the return of Casper Van Dien as Johnny Rico. Colonel... Johnny Rico. Van Dien came under fire in reviews of the first movie as being wooden and in general, a sore point of the movie. Personally, I felt his soap opera-esque performance fit the tone of the satire quite well. I think people missed that point. Which was intentional, so sayeth the director. Who knew though that people would get so hyped about his return to the franchise? Only one movie away and already he was sorely missed.
I can't say that Marauder is head and shoulders above Hero of the Federation, but hot damn I wish I could. People didn't realize how badly Starship Troopers would miss Casper Van Dien, and apparently the makers of Marauder didn't realize how badly they needed better special effects. Van Dien alone isn't enough to sell this movie 100%. The CGI bugs in Marauder look awful, in a word. They're plastic-y and they move like archaic video game graphics. One tends to forget how bad they are in comparison to the overall forgettable 2nd movie, but geez. Rewatching the 2nd one made me respect it a little more, due to the fact their CGI was admittedly on point, and looking very good. By contrast, Marauder's CGI looks like crap. No way around it. That seriously harms this movie. Because amazing to at the very least, decent special effects have been the hallmark of this franchise. Not good acting, or good stories. People like the bugs, and seeing them slaughter the troopers. Which looks... odd here.
The return of Johnny Rico is cause to be excited. He looks like he's back in his element, and the movie is better off for it.Van Dien lends a bit of seriousness to this movie as without him, I feel like it'd be a bad joke. This is an effects heavy movie, but their computer generated effects aren't so hot. They instead rely more on animatronics and practical effects to achieve their goals. Those effects are actually pretty damn good. It's a shame the warrior bug looks like a computerized toy by comparison. There is more of what you loved about the first movie in this one though. Johnny Rico shouting his lines "C'mon you apes! You wanna live forever?"
and leading the charge against the bugs, decked out in the classic Mobile Infantry armor. You can't help but smile and get this warm and fuzzy blast of nostalgia when you see this. Whenever they're in the thick of things, shooting bugs, I have no issues with the movie. It excels whenever Rico is the main focus. Oddly enough, the same can be said about the original honestly.
However, the supporting cast of Marauder isn't fun to watch. Most of these actors are even slightly annoying. None of them have the charisma that Casper Van Dien brought back to the franchise. At best, they're passable, at worst, they make it feel like a SyFy movie of the week. Ugh. I do have to give props to Stephen Hogan who plays Sky Marshal Omar Anoke. He has all the charm of a televangelist, and none of the good intentions. This guy oozes weird, and his on screen presence just gives you the willies. You can't tell if he's just a bureaucratic sleazeball, or a fame junkie, or if something more is going on. His presence certainly adds something to the movie. Whether or not that something pays off in a satisfactory manner or not... eh. However he is the (only) other actor of note in this movie. It strikes me funny that most of the actors playing troopers in this movie, were probably teenagers or preteens when Starship Troopers came out. It's not a stretch to imagine more than a few were fans, and getting to act alongside Casper Van Dien as Johnny Rico? That must've been awesome. In a way that mirrors the movie as well. Hundreds of young M.I. Troops getting to fight alongside the legendary Col. Johnny Rico? Talk about a morale boost.
Starship Troopers 3 tries hard to replicate the tone and scope of the original. Sadly, it just... can't. Budgetary restraints hold this movie back and almost cripple it. Despite having two million more to work with than it's predecessor, that's still only 9 million dollars. (Compared to Starship Troopers 100 million budget) For that, this movie was rather exceptional. They put a lot of money into sets and practical effects and those things were, visually, the highlight of the movie. All in all, Marauder is an easy movie to compare to Hero of the Federation because Marauder seems to be a direct response to the negative criticism of the first sequel. Hero of the Federation was lacking any sort of satirical edge, it lacked any familiar characters, the tone was very claustrophobic and the scope was confined. Marauder was almost the exact opposite. It brought back the satire, brought back hero Johnny Rico, the tone reverts back to a big war movie, and the scope was opened up considerably. The tradeoff is obviously the special effects. Hero of the Federation had effects on par with the first movie, Starship Troopers 3 has CGI on par with... well, a SyFy movie of the week. I hate to bring up those crap-fests twice in one review, but... damn.
My next point is the satire. They try too hard here, and often miss the point. The satirical commercial breaks in the first movie gave you a slick insight into this warped and fascist society. They'll censor a cow being butchered, but seconds later they'll eagerly show you the mangled and bloodied corpses of hundreds of mormon colonists. It was fascist propaganda. In Marauder, they play it all for silly laughs. Aside from one or two moments of spot-on satire, a lot of it seemed to be handled by people who didn't quite... get it. Clever and perverse propaganda is often reduced to sex jokes or slapstick ridiculousness. Not to mention the movie's shoehorned and absurd stab at satirizing religion. The entire last act revolves around religion, and frankly... it's awkward and uncomfortable, because clearly, the makers had no idea how to do it properly. The whole point of satirizing something is not to make it look goofy, but to kinda sell it how it is, but showing how inherently silly it is. Like fascism, and propaganda ads. They miss the mark so badly with their take on religion and come off like amateurs fumbling around in Paul Verhoeven's sandbox.
Marauder is truer to the first movie, and it's not entirely bad! It can be fun at time, no lie. Yet, in it's ambition, it stumbles. Which is unfortunate, because better effects and a stronger third act could've made this movie miles better. It does however mark the return of Johnny Rico, which makes this a must-see for fans, but I don't think anybody else could regret missing this movie. Just play the game, or watch the first movie. Maybe even read the book! Yet there is a certain unmistakable charm to this movie. It's ambition and goals place it head and shoulders above most DTV sequels, it's attempts to remain true to the original place it way above Hero of the Federation, and the return of square-jawed Johnny Rico make it the only true sequel thus far to the sci-fi juggernaut of the late-90's, Starship Troopers. So if you're dying to see a proper... ish (at least, well intentioned) Starship Troopers sequel, and you don't mind some clunky CGI- I suggest you 'Join up now!', 'Do your part!', and watch Starship Troopers 3: Marauder!
Lord knows I've recommended worse movies before...
Monday, February 3, 2014
Taking a one movie hiatus from my impromptu Starship Troopers reviewing marathon, I decided to pop in an old VHS tape, recently acquired from a thrift store. So old in fact, one could call it... prehistoric. Maybe not literally that old, but those good ol' puns seem to write themselves in this clever, chuckle-filled piece of 90's nostalgia. Rolling it's way back into my life, straight out of my childhood, last seen some 15-odd years ago... I had almost forgotten all about this odd (not-so-)little movie. The theme song is catchy as ever and The Flintstones are faithfully brought to the big screen in this, live-action, larger than life sitcom presented by... "Stephen Spielrock". It even says so on the cover. I guess I never really stopped to think how strange this might be to some people. Including people who very well might not have ever known there was a live action Flintstones. Let alone two. However, one can hardly hate on this movie seeing as how it does exactly what you would expect. It is a live action version of the beloved 1960's cartoon. That's more than just a description, it's a summary, and a compliment. Yet basically, this movie is nothing more than a novelty...
Adapting cartoons into movies was never a solid business. Masters of the Universe didn't fare so well, Speed Racer had mixed reviews, and I could keep listing epic misfires like this for a while. Yet alot of these movies have found a cult following. Speed Racer most notably. I see no reason why The Flintstones can't have it's own quaint little cult following. It's not a bad movie per se, it's just kind of a puzzling one. I can imagine a lot of money was invested in this movie, and surprisingly it made it back. Yet it received a critical whipping upon it's release. For a long time not even audiences spoke fondly of this movie. Yet as I was digging through some internet forums threads about this movie, I found more people than not defending this movie. Whether it was because of the spot-on casting choices, or purely nostalgic reasons, people were sticking up for The Flintstones.
As a movie it was never destined to be revered in the annals of famous comedies, nor was it going to pull down any serious accolades for special effects. It was intended to be a piece of nostalgia for fans of the cartoon. A novelty. "Hey look at this! They really brought it to life!" In 1994, fans of the 1960's cartoon would be well into adulthood. I have no doubt many of them thought it was a neat idea, or blasphemous. Yet it seems like the makers of this movie forgot that the cartoon persisted to find a young audience. The children's fanbase was just as big. There were tie-in toys, McDonalds' specials, et cetera. Yet so much of this movie is simply not for kids. It's for the thirty somethings who at the time were around when the cartoon was first airing. The movie's plot would sail clear over any kid's head. Mother-in-law problems? Cutbacks? Getting laid off? Embezzlement schemes? Infidelity? The Incredibles springs to mind as another movie that deals with all this stuff, yet it handles it delicately. With subtle suggestions and finesse.
Halle Berry in a skimpy bikini crawling across Fred's (played by John Goodman) desk, trying to seduce him isn't exactly something for the whole family to see. This movie is played for laughs, as Fred's tie snaps and curls up, gawking at this seductress crawl about on his desk. You can tell the whole movie has a very grown-up tone. It'd be uncomfortable if I had to watch that with my kids. People would seriously object if that was in the cartoon, and now I know this is one of the reasons my parents had issues with me seeing this as a little kid. I'd say a good 90% of all the laughs to be had, would be lost on anyone under 13. It's a shame then that a movie like this was unavoidably be pandered to all ages. This isn't Disney, folks. A character in the movie actually points that out. He laments, 'I should've signed with Disney, they never would've made me do this'. Much can be said about a lot of content in the movie, though it's not as racy as I'd make it out to be, it's simply not a kids movie either.
Disney has a knack for blink-and-you'll-miss-it innuendo, yet The Flintstones isn't so graceful. I suppose one could easily make a pun here, likening the movie to a boulder or a rock since neither are graceful either, and if you would laugh at a pun like that, congratulations, you'll probably like this movie too. That's not a bad thing, mind you. I like the movie too. I chuckled to myself as Fred and family went to the drive in, and the sign outside read: "George Lucas' TAR WARS". This movie is all about the pop-culture references, the in-jokes, the innuendo and the puns. OH the puns! They come cheaper than a dime a dozen here, but they're also handled quite well. I'm not too familiar with the director, but he knows how to play the dumbest pun for straight laughs. It works. What more can I say?
The casting is rather brilliant I think. Goodman is simply the perfect Fred, and Moranis is a spot-on Barney. They both do the voices with ease, as if they'd been practicing for a lifetime. They find a good balance between full-on cartoonish panache and self-aware nods. Rosie O'Donnell as Betty is something of a serious issue... for some people. I thought she did fine. Most complain about the actress being too heavy for the role of such a skinny character. Or that she's a terrible actress and a horrible person. On one hand I get it, I wouldn't want someone I hated playing a character I loved. Yet, A, most of these people simply wanted Betty to have sex appeal, and B, the rest just don't like O'Donnell. I fall into neither category. This movie did not need sex appeal of any sort, and I have nothing against O'Donnell. Elizabeth Perkins as Wilma was great, and the rest of the cast was as well, great. If you wanted to see the Flintstones brought to life, this is the best cast you could hope for. They do amazingly well. All of them seem to really put heart into their roles, whereas this could've been a 'paycheck' movie for some, with phoned in performances. Surprisingly and thankfully, that's not the case.
If only the Scooby-Doo movie was this good. By comparison, The Flintstones is head and shoulders above it in terms of how faithful it was to the source material. The makers involved seem to have a real affection for the cartoon, yet I wonder why they made it so adult since the cartoon was so innocent. Did they miss the mark? Not entirely, but the movie exists as an oddity. It's too child-like to go in the regular Comedy section of the video store, and too Adult to go in the Family section. Yet, because it's based on a cartoon, it will inevitably go in the Family section. This is an issue for the movie as I believe it's ideal audience is one that would rediscover it now. People my age who remember when this came out in the 90's. People who still get a kick out of these live action cartoon-based movies. A forgiving and nostalgic audience is what this movie deserves, and as it happens, that's the category I fall into. Yabba dabba- d'oh, you know how it goes.
Sunday, February 2, 2014
Well. I certainly didn't expect to like this movie upon my second viewing in the past five years. However... string me up and give me ten lashes, I did. I liked it. Nobody could be more surprised than me. I kid you not. I saw this movie ages and ages ago. I rented it from a Hollywood Video along with Starship Troopers 3: Marauder, and had a double feature that night. I was not fond of this one. Yeah, it was gory and there were the trademark bugs but... it was lacking, in my opinion. In fact, I think it still is. It's thin. Starship Troopers doesn't function well without some sort of political or society commentary. It becomes just an inert, and hollow piece of sci-fi. Which is ultimately what Hero of the Federation is. Inert and hollow. Yet as much as it is nothing like the 1997 sci-fi blockbuster, helmed by the maestro of satire-action movies, Paul Verhoeven, it's not a bad movie when all is said and done.
It's paper thin budget shows sometimes. Yet go figure, the CGI in this movie is head and shoulders above the third movie. I don't even know how that happened. I don't really wanna look at the budgets. It's just unfair. The worst part about the third movie, is the CGI. The best part about this one, is the effects. This is actually probably one of the last good DTV movies. It gets bashed like no other, and trust me, I understand. However, this is not bad. There are a few big mistakes it makes, one is the dialog. Some of it is just... nails on a damn chalkboard. Secondly, there are too many annoying characters. Especially that Psi-Ops guy. I was really hoping he'd die in the first half hour. No such luck. Third is the story. This is also where the budget shows. They had to confine the plot to a single location, which in effect, robs the movie from having the satirical elements it needed to thrive.
You'll notice the movie is bookended by the franchise's trademark propaganda commercials, yet there's none throughout the film. Because in the first movie, those commercials would serve as a bridge, transitioning from one scene/location, to something else happening elsewhere. Starship Troopers 2 all takes place in one location, focuses on a very singular and small scale story. But by god, they worked with what they had. I guess the biggest problem with this movie is that it feels like it only needs to be thirty minutes. It feels like it could be absolved into a bigger movie because it's so thin on it's own. Yet that doesn't mean there aren't some awesome action sequences, some creative horror situations, and some fun one-liners. I get why people were so sore over this movie, but I think it was a collective over-reaction. It's nowhere near as bad as people, even myself made it out to be.
The movie has a fair share of decent actors, and it makes use of them for the most part. However it's fairly obvious the movie is padded out to the max. It's a survival horror movie, best likened to movies like Resident Evil or Alien Resurrection. I know those are harsh and confusing comparisons for a movie I just said wasn't bad, but look at the scores. Resident Evil currently holds a 6.7 (out of a possible ten) on imdb. Alien Resurrection has a 6.3. Starship Troopers 2? Has a staggering 3.4. It's not that bad. Honestly. There have been many times I've been flipping through channels on TV, found Alien Resurrection and just watched it for a bit. It's a disappointing movie in the grand scheme of things, but it's not painful to watch or anything. That underwater scene is awesome as well. Hero of the Federation has a handful of decent and creative things in it. Stuff I'd argue elevates this movie above either of the other aforementioned movies.
If you're in the right mindset, with the right expectations, it can be fun. If this was the pilot for a TV show for instance, nobody would be bitching. I think what sets it at a disadvantage is how distant it is from the first movie, yet it tries to keep connections and a continuity, despite not having any returning characters. Starship Troopers was a sci-fi/satire, Starship Troopers 2 is a sci-fi/horror. So very very different when you dig into it. I suppose the bookends of propaganda were just tacked on to pay homage to Verhoeven, but... I never felt like they really worked. All in all, there are better DTV sequels, but don't be fooled this isn't one of those godawful ones. It's a serviceable action/horror movie with a familiar theme. It's still soldiers vs. giant alien space bugs. But in a very different tone. Much more like Aliens, but at the same time... not. It's not a great movie, or even a particularly good one, but damn. It's no 3.4 either. The amount of practical effects and creativity that went into somethings here deserve a fair shake.
I'll reign in the sequel bashing whenever Hero of the Federation comes up in conversation in the future. It deserves, at least, that much. Yet being as thin as it is, I can't possibly write up a longer review. The content of the movie dictates the body of a review, and this one was rather anorexic, sadly. Edit: (2/5/2014) In retrospect, no matter how much I enjoyed this one, which was marginal at best, it was still disappointing. Starship Troopers pulled down good money at the box office and a lot of people liked it, it's very baffling to me that this is the best sequel anybody could come up with. On the other hand, it does funnel plenty of new and interesting ideas into the franchise, although those ideas seem born of budget constraints and necessity, not creativity. Hero of the Federation is a mixed bag for sure, it's a bad sequel, but not a bad movie. It's above average with it's special effects and action scenes, which I found more enjoyable than your average DTV dreck, yet at the same time... it's still a bad sequel. Take that as you will.
If there's anything that the 1997 sci-fi satire sold to it's audiences in spades, it was how friggin awesome the concept of soldiers vs. giant alien bugs was. It's not as if the concept hasn't been around for eons, but Starship Troopers, both the original novel, and it's subsequent franchise of spin-offs and adaptions have really cornered the market on it. However, most visible out of all the iterations and adaptions and what-have-you was the 1997 movie. In an era where video games were flourishing and the industry was booming, it was only a small leap to imagine what it would be like... stepping into the boots of a Mobile Infantry trooper, and killing some bugs. Only, a movie based game wouldn't come out in the late nineties. Thankfully, one didn't come out until 2005. I say thankfully because the graphics and gaming engines required to faithfully present the overwhelming swarms of arachnid Warrior Bugs wasn't available back in the 90's. The 2000's however...
When I would hear of a Starship Troopers game, I wanted to 'join up!' Hell, I wanted to 'do my part!'Honestly, I just wanted to shoot alot of giant alien bugs. I played Lost Planet for a while back on the PS3, and I thought, "Heyyy this is the closest I'm gonna get to a Starship Troopers game!" Then I played Borderlands, in which you have to fight some giant arachnids at a few points in there. I thought, "Heyyy this is even better. Even closer to Starship Troopers!" Yet clearly, watching the movie inspired a desire to suit up in that body armor, and shoot some of those bugs, in that world. I'm making it very clear how quickly I tired of substitutes and how very very badly I wanted an actual Starship Troopers game. Now, I had a fortunate turn of events a while ago, and I was blessed with a decent gaming computer. Thus I began a hunt for all the PC games I never got to play on my Playstations 2 and 3. Heavy Metal: F.A.K.K. 2, Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy, Left 4 Dead 2, and others. Only recently, did I remember, "Oh shit! A Starship Troopers game exists!"
I found... a way to get it, and I went through hell trying to install it and fix it and tweak it to work right- but I did and it was Christmas morning all over again. I'm pretty sure I would've heard an angelic choir denoting the moment in the background if I wasn't so knee deep in bug carcasses, going deaf from the sound of my own Morita MK 1 assault rifle... It's remotely possible that I'm... slightly exaggerating. However, suffice it to say, I was a happy camper. The game does one thing exceptionally well: give you bugs to shoot. It captures the feeling of the movie with massive, eye-popping swarms of arachnids coming after you to rip you limb from limb. It's up to you to lock and load and start spouting movie quotes. "C'mon you apes, you wanna live forever?" Furiously clicking away on the mouse as the bugs close in, you feel like a real M.I. trooper. Well, short of actually being in one of the movies anyways. Anybody who wanted a game based on this movie, wanted to shoot bugs. We weren't looking for complex level design and intellectual gameplay. We wanted to shoot bugs. Lots of bugs. This game, if anything at all, lets you do that.
Unfortunately... this doesn't exactly mean it's a good game. As far as gaming itself goes, this has it's fair share of issues. For one, the bugs aren't nearly as tough as they were in the movie. It took a regular arachnid warrior all of two seconds flat to kill an average trooper. Slice, bite, impale, stab, decapitate. Whatever your preferred means of death was, the bug was happy to accommodate you. Yet in the game, you can get hit like thirty times and not be dead. Bullshit! I call bullshit! Not to mention, it's also really easy to kill the standard arachnid warriors. With the regular assault rifle you're given, it takes only a few short bursts to put one down for good. Dead. Bullshit! MORE bullshit! In the movie it took like three to four troopers, firing consistently, a good thirty to forty seconds to kill one of these things. You feel WAY too powerful. I can imagine this is to make up for a lack of co-operative A.I. in any of the other troopers. You're called a "Marauder" in the game, which means you're like a mega badass. I think this was supposed to explain why you're essentially a one man army going Commando on the entire arachnid empire... but it's a cheap excuse.
Those are very big flaws. The game does seem kind of like it was made in a hurry, and on a tight budget too. Part of the problem of coming out in 2005 was how out of the blue it was. I can't imagine it got a lot of support or funding. Starship Troopers came out two years shy of a decade earlier, and the 2004 sequel was a direct-to-video dud that nobody much liked. At all. So... there wasn't exactly a demanding market for this game. Even at the height of the franchise's popularity, I can't imagine a proper Starship Troopers movie game would garner much interest anyways. This arrived and died without so much as a death rattle to bid the spotlight farewell. I guess you can call it a cult hit now since fans seem to like it a lot. Why is that? Because the game, despite it's glaring issues, manages to faithfully emulate the big bug wars of the movies.
It takes a few levels right from the first movie, more or less. The important ones anyways. Plasma mountain, the compound on Tango Urilla, etc etc. Details and settings have been swapped around so it's not like you're playing -the- movie, but you'll find some locations incredibly familiar. As a fan, I could do nothing but flash a big smile and enjoy it. The game also introduces alot of new bugs. Which in concept (and proof if you count 99% of all the shitty video game movie tie-ins and adaptions) could be dumb if handled improperly. However, they strike gold more often than not, serving up fresh and unique challenges that expands on the movie's world, not screws with it. I think they get sorta carried away with the different Warrior bug types, but that's not even really a fully formed complaint. It's just kinda like... Really. A new one? Again? No biggie though. It's still loads of fun to run around with the troops, hold the front lines, clear out a few bases, and well... kill bugs. Kill em' all. Not gonna lie, the game isn't great. Barely qualifies as good, if at all. But, by god, it's fun. Infectiously fun. Ridiculously fun. It's "Kill em' all!" fun, it's one-liner, boot stomping, "Nuke em' Rico!"-fun.
You won't find a better 'Troopers game. They may make another one someday. I doubt it. So for now, if you wanna kill some bugs, save the world, and be a hero... I suggest you Join up! Do your part! Enlist in the mobile infantry! They have the ships, they have the weapons, all they need now is troopers like Lieutenant Johnny Rico, Captain Carmen Ibanez, Private Ace Levy, Captain V.J. Dax, and YOU. So if you think you have what it takes to be a citizen, join up now and play Starship Troopers, the game!
Saturday, February 1, 2014
There was a time I would argue tirelessly against those people, who are still kinda wrong, but I slowly realized that this movie's appeal will never lie in the satire. When I sit down to recommend this movie to a friend, the first thing I always talk about is the action and special effects. There's something about seeing hundreds of soldiers in their well designed, Nazi-esque, futuristic, combat armor fighting giant alien bugs that is simply loads of fun. It appeals to the young boy in me who would love drawing stuff like that all the time. Space soldiers versus giant alien bugs? Sold! Try pitching that to a more matured crowd. "Oh hey, this movie with the space soldiers fighting the giant bugs? Yeah it's also a satire." You're gonna get a lot of unsure sidelong stares.
You can't market this movie to anyone outside of the group of people who're only coming for the special effects and the violence. It just doesn't work like that. The massive droves of preteens that saw and loved Starship Troopers have grown up to appreciate the satire and such because they've seen it so many times. They find new things to love about it. And the ones who haven't discovered the satirical elements, see this as a legitimate war movie. A personal friend of mine holds this movie in the same regard as Full Metal Jacket. If you gave him a chance, he'd personally sign up for the mobile infantry. Which... is basically what the movie is preaching against. Yet, all the good looking, cookie cutter heroes in the movie, that we're encouraged to root for... are in the mobile infantry. They march around with gusto and military pride, the blast their way through thousands of killer aliens, and they look good doing it. Go ahead. Convince a 13 year old kid that these guys are the assholes.
For a movie that's trying to say these guys are essentially heartless Nazis... isn't doing a good job convincing the only audience it has of that. There were even action figures and toys released to tie in with the movie. Even further undermining it's shred of intelligence and wit. Yet, all that is irrelevant. Why? Because these cool space soldiers are fighting giant alien bugs! Some can bite a grown man in half! Some have wings that can cut your head clean off! Some spray fiery acid from their head! ...aaaand therein lies the lasting appeal of Starship Troopers. Not the wit, not the satire... the special effects and gore. I hate to say it, because the satirical elements are what make this movie worth watching, but without it's slick, polished, bloody counterparts in it's war scenes and special effects... it wouldn't be memorable at all. This is how it is. Simply because it's done so damn well. It has the kitsch of an 80's B-movie, but the budget of a Roland Emmerich movie. The war scenes are fantastically entertaining, in fact, all the action scenes are and when you're old enough to get it, the satirical side of the movie provides something to chew on intellectually.
The movie excels on a technical level. The special effects are a wise and timeless blend of cgi, animatronics and miniatures. Just like Jurassic Park, some of this stuff is still breathtaking in scope and scale. It looks fantastic, and even looks fantastic in hi-definition. Plenty of 90's effects-heavy movies don't hold up well, and even less so under the unforgiving scrutiny of HD. Not this flick. Starship Troopers passes with flying colors and holds up it's one lasting appeal with gusto and pride. The action, the effects, the war and gore- it's all never looked better than it has on Blu Ray disc. This is a movie that will be called "mindless" and "empty" and while it's not, it might as well be. I'm too busy gawking at the effects, and sitting on the edge of my seat during the action scenes to even care anymore.
What you have when all is said and done is a movie so blatantly and overtly satirical, that some people actually thought it was pro-fascism. When in reality, it's anything but. The military in this movie punishes with public lashings, their recruitment campaigns are bloated, patriotic, blind propaganda. The entire society encourages it's youth to sign up for a term of service and 'Do their part!', when in reality they're simply 'fresh meat for the grinder', as one triple-amputee infantryman put it. Teenagers are shuttled off to be slaughtered, en masse, fresh out of high school. In the first hour, our hero is making out with his girlfriend in the school hallways, winning football(-esque) games and worrying about his Math scores. In hour two? He's had to kill a man, lead soldiers to their death, and witness old classmates get torn limb from limb in this inane war. A war that's been implicitly suggested was started by humans being the initial aggressors, invading alien territory, and it seriously backfired. (Not like... that's history repeating itself or anything..) How is any of this pro-fascism? I guess the propaganda ads, "A SOCIETY THAT WORKS!" actually convinced a few reviewers. The weak minded run rampant. Sigh.
Yet, in front of all the satire and propaganda is a big budget sci-fi war movie. There's no getting around that. I'll reiterate again, the special effects are amazing. The effects department expertly marry CGI with state of the art animatronics and large scale miniatures. The result is often nothing short of breathtaking, I kid you not. Starship Troopers couldn't look any better if it was made with today's technology. This is a movie from 1997 people. 1997. I'd argue the effects in this movie hold up better than in Jurassic Park. Why 'Troopers didn't receive more accolades for it's effects is beyond me. The creatures in this movie have weight and scale, they look like they inhabit the same world as the actors. They share the screen with fluidity and ease, in very few cases have any CGI creatures looked so natural as they do in this movie. Also worth mentioning is their design. It's wholly iconic. It's been adapted for movie canon stuff, (i.e. comics, games, etc) and book canon stuff. The design of the arachnid aliens is fantastic. For that matter, all the designs in this movie are fantastic. From the Troopers uniform, gear, and body armor to the look of the starships and dropships that usher them into war. It's all visually cohesive and good-looking. Top marks. I love it.
Starship Troopers at it's most basic, is a silly and entertaining sci-fi romp about murderous alien bugs, and space soldiers with big guns who can shoot em' really well. At it's best, it's a razor sharp satire about fascist governments and wartime propaganda. If either of those descriptions strikes your fancy, odds are you'll like this movie. It's perfect Saturday matinee fodder. Full of blood, guts and gore, and even a fair share of nudity. It's crass, loud, and fun. If anything, that's what it should be remembered for. I'd rather watch it with a group of immature guys who're half drunk on their beer of choice, shouting and hollering at the screen when some poor trooper gets his head lopped off, or when some girl flashes her tits- because that's what this movie boils down to. Getting a kick out of that stuff. When I'm with my buddies, we act the same way. Bring in the popcorn, bring on the drink... c'mon you apes, you wanna live forever?
Thursday, January 30, 2014
I happen to collect movies on VHS. It's a nostalgic hobby, and it's fun since you have to go out of your way to find them. That same area of my brain that generates nostalgia for those large, clunky, noisy, hunks of plastic... has an eternal soft spot for video rental stores. I'm gonna break format today, and I'm not going to be reviewing any actual movie, as you can see. This is, if anything, a personal eulogy to a dead era. When I heard these stores were shutting down, I didn't run out to visit one for the last time, I didn't think about it much. I didn't feel nostalgic or sad because I didn't think about it at all. If I had? I might've been terribly sad.
Lamenting the extinction of stores like these, is no different than returning to your hometown and finding the public park you used to play at as a kid, is now a convenience store...
Convenience. If anything, that's what killed these stores. While people were worrying about late fees and scratched discs, Netflix was pioneering streaming. It was sleeker than On-Demand, faster than renting, and all from the comfort of your living room. The concept took off quite successfully. Netflix is a wonderful program. I have an account. I dutifully pay my $8 a month for instant access to not only thousands of movies, but entire TV shows as well. Considering the price of two new releases, circa 2005, two new movies on DVD might've ran you $4 apiece. How could they possibly compete with a juggernaut like Netflix? Not possible. Their days were numbered, the writing was on the wall. The DVD era of Blockbuster isn't what I miss though. In my mind, I already had no business there anymore. It was like a massive bargain bin of movies I already had, the novelty was gone.
What novelty? The novelty of the VHS era. One thing few of my friends know about me is that I preferred Hollywood Video to Blockbuster Video. Hollywood Video had a bigger selection of movies. Older movies. Random movies. Obscure movies. You could find everything you didn't know you were looking for at Hollywood Video. Maybe it didn't franchise like Blockbuster did, but it had guts in my opinion. My mother used to dread sending my father and I to rent movies on a Friday night. Mainly cause we'd take so damn long picking a few out. She hated video stores. Too much choice, in her opinion. Not to mention, my dad and I would hit Hollywood Video first. They had more choices. Obviously. I still remember trolling the little aisles of shelves, looking for a title or a box cover that would catch my eye. This is where I found out they had made a movie on The Flash! Of course, later I find out it was a TV pilot episode, marketed on home media as a feature length movie. Did I know the difference as a kid? No. It was some straight up awesome stuff.
Box art was important back then. You'd grab one of those hollow stand-in cases off the shelf, look at the front cover and if it looked interesting, you'd flip it and read the back. If you made it to reading the entire back, this meant two things. That was some damn good box art, and your mind was probably already set on renting it by now. As long as my dad and I took in these stores, there was always a few unspoken rules that anybody followed who was as religious about this stuff as us. Don't waste your own time. Ironic considering much time was wasted anyways, but odds are once you start reading the back cover of a jacket, you're sold. You can't read every tape that stands out to you. You could be there north of three hours. You had to judge on the picture first. Thus... box art was important. It was a combination of eye-catching imagery, a bold title/logo, name recognition, and taglines. "This time... it's war."
This whole ordeal was like a movie lovers' ritual. You found movies you've never seen, and would sometimes go home with a full bag of tapes to watch over the weekend. Sometimes, dad would remember a movie he'd seen ages ago that he wanted to watch again, usually something cool I'd never seen. Sure enough, go to a few rental stores... one was bound to have it. In this case, an 80's sci-fi/comedy called My Science Project. One of my favorite 80's movies now (which is saying a lot), I can still remember the first time I saw it. Dad rented it from Blockbuster Video. We actually had to drive a little out of town because none of the local stores had it. Not to mention it was raining like hell at the time too. To a seven year old kid, this was nothing short of an adventure. Not to mention my dad and I bonded over stuff like this. When we got there, the attending cashier also had seen the movie before. He exchanged a glance with my dad and they both had the most visible look of nostalgia I'd ever seen, and this was before I even knew that word.
The both kinda smiled and nodded at each other as he scanned the barcode on the case and bid us a good evening. Moments like that stuck with me for good. The movie turned out to be something special and I hunted for my own copy for the better part of a decade. It wasn't until around late 2005 that in video stores' haste to banish VHS tapes entirely by way of sale, en masse- that I found a copy of My Science Project. At a Hollywood Video near my favorite comic book store. The cashier couldn't believe it wasn't one of the tapes that wasn't for sale. Near the end of the VHS era, during the mass sales, there were movies you couldn't outright buy. Ones that remained rentals. Popular movies like, Titanic, The Matrix, Spider-Man... et cetera. The cashier looked distinctly dismayed that I was buying this movie. "This is a really good movie... the only copy I've ever been able to find really." I nodded politely, hoping sincerely there wasn't some clerical error that would prevent me from walking out with this piece of my childhood.
The guy flipped through the logs in his binder, looking glum, double checking that My Science Project was actually for sale. Much to my excitement, it was. For a mere $2, it was mine. Permanently. I still have that tape. The case is beat up and the colors on the box art are washed out, but... I still have that tape. It defines nostalgia to me. An obscure movie, on an obsolete format, surrounded by only the fondest of memories. I collect VHS movies to bring me a little closer to those days, that era. Those stores. What we have now is convenience. Which is fine. It's progress, of course. Thousands of movies on Netflix is obviously progress. Yet I can't imagine any fathers and sons bonding over dying controllers and sluggish internet. Accessibility has it's price, yet it's once we've all paid eagerly. For convenience. Netflix is like the DVD era of Blockbuster. They had finally banished all VHS, included droves of rare and obscure movies, and they were getting with the latest cutting edge format. You found more movies that you've already seen and a lack of any sort of ceremony to the process of picking one out.
It was simply a cheap way to see a movie you just didn't own. Nothing more. It's progress, of course. Yet like DVD killed VHS, the internet killed the video store. Those memory-generating hubs of my childhood are gone. Arguably, the first nail in the coffin was the end of the VHS era, but whatever it truly was- it's over now. The feel of the clunky boxes in your hand, the impending doom of late fees, the relevance of box art, the smell of the store, the shitty designs on the carpet, getting annoyed when a movie is mis-categorized, and lamenting when the movie you came to get is already checked out... these are things that are part of the experience. I miss that experience. It defined many a Friday night in my childhood. Countless fond memories, countless good movies. I have enough video store memories to fill a book, but for now... I feel like somehow this sums up everything the best.
Last week, I find Mars Attacks on VHS at a goodwill, and I almost don't buy it because I remember I was never allowed to watch it as a kid. I put it down. Force of habit. I must have looked at it's case fifty times going through those stores. Mom was a bit over protective. Yet, now I'm older and I've already seen Mars Attacks. It's cool. Nothing spectacular. Nothing I'd go that far out of my way to own, but I remember I'm not friggin five years old anymore. So I pick up the tape, and buy it on the spot. Why? So I can look at that case fifty more times, and remember how over protective mom was.
Not to mention I can be childish and rub it in her face now.
Definitely worth the 50 cents.
(When I checked inside the case, to make sure the right movie is in there, I found the standard Blockbuster Video "be kind, rewind" sticker on the tape. I smiled.)
Wednesday, January 22, 2014
The Purge is a movie that works around the premise that once a month, or once a year, (I can't recall) all crime is legal. Rape. Murder. Theft. This is set in the USA mind you. In the year 2022. It stars Ethan Hawke and a few other people I don't recognize. Uh. Yeah. The movie is alright. I guess. It's nothing special. Which is a shame because the premise is fuckin' fantastic. So many things you could do with that movie. Social commentary, horror, satire, the works. Does this movie do any of that? Well, it tries. I think. It looks like it's trying, but also not really. How? Because everything but the premise is painfully mediocre. Someone might say, "Well, it wasn't that bad." You'd be right too. It's not that bad. It's alright. The acting is good, the premise is fantastic, it's shot well. So yeah. It's not bad. Does that mean it's good?
A hundred times, no. The Purge takes a great concept, and boils it down to a home invasion movie, which subsequently becomes a run of the mill "Who's gonna die next, and how." movie. Oh joy. What fun. Since this movie does absolutely nothing interesting with the premise, I'd like to recommend The Strangers instead. A proper home invasion movie that actually had me crawling out of my skin. Or even Hostage. Not as good, but head and shoulders above The Purge. If you wanna see Ethan Hawke in a good movie? Go see Daybreakers or Training Day. Even the remake of Assault on Precinct 13 would do. See, the moment I knew The Purge was a home invasion movie, I was already disappointed. The premise of the movie, the very concept demands a story on a larger scale. Or at least something creative. This movie's originality begins and ends with it's concept.
Worse yet, it's predictable. The scenes are all but telegraphed like some sort of bad cinematic lag. Even the fights are predictable. "She's about to swing that ax, but before it impacts on the table, he'll roll out of the way in the nick of time. Oh- wait- yep. Called it." That was me, talking to myself during the movie to keep my interest glued to it. The movie had good marketing, I'm not gonna lie. However, the movie itself is mediocre. I can only say that so many different ways actually. I usually hold myself to a review standard of several paragraphs, believing sincerely that any movie has enough in it to write a decent sized article about.
Short of delving into what the movie could've been, and my personal ideas on how the concept could've been done better... I'm coming up short on stuff to say about this movie.
So, without further ado, here's the bottom line. It's not good. It's not bad. It falls into that loathed area of indifference where I can't bash the shit out of it, nor can I praise it. There are better movies out there, more deserving of your time. Speaking of time though, this review was requested specifically by someone I know. This is what I do. I watch movies and provide opinions. I'll watch bad movies, so you don't have to. I'll glue my attention to the screen through boring movies, through long movies, and once in a while someone asks me to review a movie that turns out good. This wasn't one of them. Do I feel I wasted my time? No, only because I can now warn people not to waste theirs. That's my function in this equation. I have no problem with that either.
Mediocre. People use that word like an excuse, or a hall pass. "Don't condemn it, it's mediocre but not bad." This angers me. Mediocrity should not be accepted or embraced, it should be challenged and despised. Concepts like this movie had are mired by the mundane movie itself. That's practically criminal. The concept, the premise was insanely promising. The movie squandered every last ounce of that potential though. It was an easy movie. Easy to watch. Easy to keep watching. Easy to get caught up in the inane clockwork of it's cliche who's-gonna-die-next formula. It's not necessarily thrilling, or even fun, just... easy to watch. It was noise and motion, coordinated to keep my attention span occupied for 90 minutes. Thankfully it'll be easy to forget too. Don't waste your time on The Purge, you might not implicitly regret watching it, but you'll have the need to do something worthwhile afterwards, or even watch something actually entertaining.
The Purge presents fascinating ideas, but never explores them. It presents you with an itch it has no intention of ever scratching. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is simply loathsome. But hey, whaddayaknow! I found more shit to say about it. Fancy that.
Saturday, January 4, 2014
I love James Bond movies. Most of them anyways. There's something about a good 007 caper, that no matter who's playing him it's just so damn engaging. He's one action hero, who doesn't need to be in action, to be fascinating, or at the very least, entertaining to watch. I wasn't much into James Bond back in 2006 when this came out. It looked good, but what the hell did I know? Not much apparently. It wasn't until 2008 I even got around to seeing it. By god it was good. Really good. Exceptionally good. I took it upon myself to snatch up as much Bond as I could. By way of bargain bins and netflix, I was always watching one or another. Dr.No (which is not only the first, but my all time favorite), Thunderball, From Russia With Love (and come on, who doesn't love the Connery era?) then there was the Roger Moore ones (which I haven't seen as many as I would have liked) and lest we forget his one shot predecessor, George Lazenby- and well you get the point. There were a couple others too. My list is far from complete, but I've seen enough to choose favorites and do so educated.
Daniel Craig is the second best James Bond ever. Right next to Connery. Pierce Brosnan would be a close third. Why is Craig the best? Because of what Casino Royale gave to the franchise. New life. Which is no small task. How do you take something which has been loved for generations and make it brand new yet preserve what was so loved? You have to make some hard choices. Which begs the question... what do people love about James Bond? Oh I'm sure if you asked people what they know about James Bond, you'd probably get "Exploding pens!", "-a really cool jetpack", "Invisible cars-", "Gets all the hot women-" et cetera... Yet... he had all of that in Die Another Day, and that was practically laughed out of the box office. Do jetpacks, super cars, and gadgets make James Bond... James Bond? As it turns out, they don't. James Bond is not the working man's hero, he's a sophisticated protagonist. James Bond can generate as much sexual tension or dramatic suspense drinking a martini as he can actually bedding a female conquest or getting in a shootout. Which is also... no easy feat.
This is why it was a smart move to give the franchise, and the character a drastic make over and go back to basics. Look at Dr.No... no gadgets, no ejecting seats in his Aston Martin, no exploding pens... just bare knuckled brawling in the action department, and a car chase or a shootout or two for good measure. What does Dr.No have that makes it so great? The villain. However, we'll get back to that before I lose track of what I was saying about the big double o himself. Bond is about suspense, and tension, and about thinking on his feet. Daniel Craig can do suave, he can do intense, he can flex a muscle and his enemy might startle. When his eyes land on a target, no doubt someone gets goosebumps. He's a force of nature, yet after the most grueling ordeal... he can dust off his dinner jacket, adjust his cuff links, and act like he's only been away- freshening up. Not to say other Bonds haven't been able to pull this off to some extent, but Craig embodies it. What Bond is supposed to be like. Retrofitted for the modern spy game, for modern audiences, and for fans who are only capable of chuckling weakly at in-jokes and puns which have become drier than 007's trademark martini.
With Casino Royale, we're not introduced to a Bond we've never seen before- only one we've forgotten about. Naysayers argue it's not true to form, yet I'd argue it's the truest. Side by side with Dr.No, they match rhythm so damn well. Bond is not a walking cliche this time. He's a character we're rediscovering as he's being introduced into this lurid mess of shady deals and licenses to kill. He lives and breathes the atmosphere, but he's a bit green. Casino Royale is the movie in which Bond cuts his teeth on. He becomes the 007 we all knew we loved. Which is why, at the end of the movie when the trademark theme slowly creeps up on us and we know what's coming- we're not ready with a weak chuckle, but a sense of excitement and anticipation. "Bond. James Bond." Words that have become so iconic they almost lose their impact, yet the movie behind them this time gives them new energy. Maybe they're not so relevant anymore, maybe people only need a hero like Jason Bourne... but Casino Royale itself is the perfect argument that Bond is still relevant.
The other essential half of ANY 007 movie is the villain, which is what Dr.No did so well. Mads Mikkelsen plays Le Chiffre. A sinister man who's gravitas is staggering, in the presence of brutal south African war lords and devious socialites who could afford to buy and sell your very life a thousand times over. His onscreen presence is simply amazing. Sitting across from Bond, merely playing poker, and he somehow manages to be more threatening than a power hungry dictator with his finger on a big red button, wired to something catastrophic no doubt. This is where I am developing a theory... A Bond movie is only good if you could market the entire thing around the villain. I mean... your hero stays the same. More or less, you know what you like, you're already sold. If you can pull off a marketing strategy that focuses almost solely on the villain, then most likely you have a hit. If not... you have a Quantum of Solace. Le Chiffre would steal the entire movie from a lesser character, and Mads would from a lesser actor. Craig and Mikkelsen, Bond and Le Chiffre... they are fierce opponents, more brutal in their methods than any the franchise has seen before.
There's something just beyond my ability to describe that just makes this movie work. Not just as a Bond movie, but as an action movie, a drama, and a thriller. The opening foot chase is amazingly exciting, even 8 years after it's release, it's still insanely gripping. For that matter so are the poker scenes, a veritable crux of the story. They carry so much tension and intensity. I never knew a mere poker game could be so nerve wracking. I suppose that's what the movie does so well, it sets the stage perfectly. The stakes are incredibly high, and more is on the line than just money or any one or two lives- but perhaps hundreds and thousands of lives. Because, see, in this universe of 007- it's not so much about a bomb about to go off, or a massive laser orbiting Earth, about to eradicate a whole country... it's about terrorism. Letting a terrorist financier go free would be disastrous, and more or less that's what Le Chiffre is. Those are the stakes. The movie asks us to think ahead, to consider consequences. Not just flashy special effects that blaze across the screen, or allow a car to look invisible.
A fantastic part of this movie is also how it reminds us about the rest of what makes 007 movies so fun.
Exotic locations for example. The movie is nothing short of globe-trotting espionage. It's a broader type of thriller than say... The Bourne Identity. It's not drab or bleak either, lurid for sure. Murder and death follow Bond everywhere. But look at where he goes. The Bahamas, Miami, Montenegro, London- it's all simply fantastic. The locations and the locale are interesting if not at the very least, visually interesting. This is something that's to be loved about the Bond movies. Classic sexy looking beach scenery is a must. Bright clear waters, golden sand, stunning blue skies- and yet... right around the corner someone is bound to get shanked in the back, or thrown out of a moving car, or shot, or punched, or... you get the picture. That sort of juxtaposition is really striking. Beauty with violence. Something 007 has revolved around since it's origins.
I'd be a fool if I didn't bring up the "hot women" aspect on that note. This time, the Bond Girl so to speak calls him out on it right away "you think of women as disposable pleasures-" and it's true. He does. So... he's not entirely different from the 007's of olden days. You can tell this is a woman who's not here just because she's pretty. She's not a typical damsel in distress, and she's not the opposite cliche either. She's not the sort to pick up a Kalashnikov alongside him and take out a few baddies. She's a real character, played by a real actress who was picked to be able to emote and bring life to this James Bond. It's funny how that works. Most Bond girls are eye candy, and Bond treats them as such. He's expected to. He's Bond. James Bond. Yet... this time, we have a character who seems like a real woman, and he begins to treat her and react to her like a real person. Someone who maybe shouldn't be called a "Bond Girl". The title is too kitschy for such a character. Bond grows to care about her. A statement that in and of itself seems kitschy, but the movie pulls it off in such a way that the inevitable tragedy that climaxes their relationship will forever shape him into the cold hearted secret agent we all know and cheer for. The difference now? We understand, and dare I say... we sympathize.
Is this too serious and droll for a James Bond movie? Not at all. There are poisoned martinis, car chases, foot chases, shootouts, fist fights (a machete ends up involved no less) and death defying stunts that still manage to make me gasp for air a little bit. Yet we actually care about this man, this... James Bond. Who while is so unlike the cookie cutter cliche his namesake had devolved into, he seems new. Fresh. Yet is on a journey which will make him cold and broken. Yet does that mean he has to be a boring character after this movie? Casino Royale promises: No. Quantum of Solace tried to keep that promise, only to leave Skyfall to pick up the pieces and continue with a fascinating take on 007. Because we can care about this character, and because he's wrapped up in such a well written story, airtight if you will- all the stunts and the action scenes and everything is that much more engaging. And the filmmakers' efforts to keep them somewhat grounded and semi-plausible help create this world that this Bond inhabits. It's not above supervillains, but maybe these supervillains play poker instead of rant about world domination... and maybe they're scarier like that. Which is why this 007 works so damn well.