Tuesday, April 29, 2014

RoboCop


  The original RoboCop is a favorite movie of mine, easily in my top ten of all time. It was a defining moment for me personally, when I first saw it. Of course I was too young. We all saw it when we were too young to see it. It's part of the impact. A movie that still has teeth and gravitas among the sea of family friendly PG-13 action movies flooding the market nowadays. A movie like the original 1987 RoboCop is almost a dirty little secret. There are licensed comic books, toys, video games, and I even saw children's body soap with the iconic cyborg cop on the bottle once. You'd think it's a safe movie for kids. Au contraire. It's a gritty, violent, bloody movie that borders on profane and wears it's R rating with pride. It will be remembered.

  I know guys who talk about seeing RoboCop for the first time like it was a rite of passage. You knew it was some next level stuff when you were a kid. It's something you might've found in a bargain bin, or rented without mom knowing, or maybe a cousin showed you when the grown ups weren't around. Whatever the story was, it had an impact. This new RoboCop movie could never be like that. It's destined to fade into a catalog of movies people eventually won't care about. Even if they liked it. It will never have impact. It won't hold the same kind of memories with people. It doesn't have teeth. There's ultimately very little that is special about this movie.

  I'll cut to the chase though. It's a good movie. I'm eating my words right now people. I hope you all recognize that. I'm eating my words. It is a good movie. Is it better than the original? Hell no. Is it on par with the original? Not a chance. But- it's good. I enjoyed it- for what it's worth. First and foremost, it's devoid of the sharp wit and humor of the original. The extent of it's humor is restricted to a few in-jokes that only fans of the original could possibly get. Being one of those fans, I felt bad for chuckling at some of those jokes. They're not funny. Secondly, the pacing is all wrong. The movie feels insanely short and it's almost a full 2 hours long. This is because the movie takes a whole hour just to get RoboCop on his feet so to speak.

  I understand that the makers wanted to tell a more human story and explore Alex Murphy's transition from man into machine. And I've seen people complain about this because "it's not like the original", but that's not why I'm saying it doesn't work. I'm saying it doesn't work because in a way it robs the character of the tragedy that made him work so well in the original. The original movie is sad. It's a tragedy. Alex Murphy for all intents and purposes was a dead man in a robot shell who had the chance to solve his own murder. There's a hauntingly sad scene in the original where after becoming RoboCop, he goes back to his old house only to find it empty, and for sale. It's such an emotional scene. One far more powerful than anything this movie cooked up.

  Murphy in this movie is a man with a family. (semi-spoilers ahead) A family that he gets to hold onto throughout the movie. Sure, some of these scenes are genuine and heartfelt, and provide some real emotions to this movie. Yet, they also upset a perfect balance. The movie isn't a tragedy anymore. Somehow, despite being mostly machine, he can still have this ideal family. His wife still hugs him, and we hear the sound of her hugging a metallic bulk. He's not human anymore but despite lots of talking about it, we never address that directly. Either that or it's just so poorly handled I missed it somehow. He's not a broken man searching for his humanity. Apparently he still has it. He's always had it. I'm not even sure if he officially dies in this movie before they turn him into RoboCop.

  Thus, the proceedings don't have the same weight as they did in the original. In the original Alex Murphy died. Was declared dead. Lost his family. Was turned into RoboCop. Avenges his death. Accepts his situation. Finds his humanity. Great character arc. In this one, he gets mortally wounded. His wife signs release forms. He's turned into RoboCop. Kinda still deals with his family here and there, stops some bad guys... and then avenges his death. It's a weird character arc. I'm not fond of it. There's no guts to it. Despite adding lots of emotions and family to the movie, it backfires and robs the movie of certain feelings essential to RoboCop. In the original, when he shoots the main villain at the end, and someone asks him "What's your name?", he spins his gun, holsters it, and replies "Murphy." The music flairs up, the credits roll, and you have to resist the urge to cheer. Not only did he get the bad guy, he's himself again. Despite being buried inside a machine, he's still human. There's no moment like that in this movie. There's no moment that makes you want to cheer because the movie didn't lay the ground work properly.

  A movie renowned for it's violence, the original's strength is actually not in blood and gore, but in it's plot structure, and it's emotion. This new one tries to approach the emotional content from a different angle, but it's not as effective. And if it was, by god it would've been amazing. The movie takes a full hour to generate sympathy for our hero, and it does, but in a safe way. The action scenes are impressive, in a way, exciting at least. The story is more or less the same. On the whole, it could've been horrible. As it is, it's a good but flawed movie. It's not a carbon copy of the original. It doesn't need to be. All the things I was worried about, weren't even issues here. More or less.

  The lack of uber-violence and gore is an issue. This movie feels too safe, too clean. Of all the criminals RoboCop busts... he takes down a street corner drug pusher in five seconds, and then speeds away to take down an entire drug lab, which he does... in about 20 seconds, and I don't think he even got off his motorcycle. What happened to mass murderers? Rapists? Thieves? Hostage takers? RoboCop's window of actual crime fighting is so small, you could blink and miss it pretty much. That's part of why it was a mistake to take so long getting him on the streets. Secondly, we're told throughout the movie how detroit is one of America's worst cities when it comes to crime. Yet... it looks nicer in this movie than I'm sure it does in real life. The crimes seem petty. There seems to hardly be a need for a robot cop. Let alone fleets of robotic cops.

  The action and CGI aren't overkill. Although the whole feel of the movie feels like a video game of sorts. The fast paced, kinetic, intense approach to it. It feels like a video game, and there's not really a better way to say it. RoboCop himself is no longer a panzer tank. He's like a Ducati motorcycle. Sleek, agile, built for speed. I can't say I mind it too much, since that was an obvious change they were going to make but alas...

  The movie is harmless fun. Despite all it's flaws, it could have been worse. It's middle-of-the-road stuff. It does just enough to warrant a viewing but not enough to make it great. Which is sad since I think it had all the right ingredients. I actually recommend it. It'd make a decent Saturday matinee. The acting is great, and all the characters sell their roles 110%. I loved a lot of this movie. It was fun. I'll defend this movie, it's had it's day in court. I say it had it's moments. It's quite inferior to the original, but it's still good. It exists and I'm okay with that.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Punisher


  I am a pretty big fan of The Punisher. He can be anything that he needs to be in the heat of the moment. I'm not referring to the character himself, Frank Castle, I'm referring to the concept of The Punisher. His origins, his story. What he stands for, what he represents. He can be very 2 dimensional 80's action hero who just shoots everything that moves, or he can be a darker character. One even fit to bear social commentary on things like war, crime, the economy, et cetera... Yet this movie focuses more on the character than the concept. He's flesh and blood here, it's an origin story. We see him as a happy man, a family man. Yet, of course, to become The Punisher, that can't possibly last past the half hour mark.

  Thomas Jane playing Frank Castle, embodies what we need as The Punisher these days. An action hero, but a tormented one. Far more emotional depth than you could find in any stone-faced, square-jawed, Steven Seagal wannabe. He's an FBI agent in this one, and something goes horribly wrong, and instead of retiring to a happily ever after with his family- his family is instead murdered out of revenge. His entire family. The bad guys massacre everyone at the Castle family reunion. Any fan of the source material can tell you how far this take departs from it. Castle was a returning soldier in the comics, his family gunned down by random criminals in New York, whereas this movie doesn't set foot in New York. Everything is just... different. Yet... we got the basics. Right?

  In point of fact, I think this take works exceptionally well. It crafts a very personal revenge story out of his origin tale. The problem with The Punisher lies not in how they tweak the story (although a New York setting would've been aces compared to Florida). The real issue with The Punisher is the villain. If you can even call him that. Howard Saint is a multimillionaire guy who also runs some sort of mob family? If so, he's the fuckin' stupidest mob boss ever. Hell, not even just mob boss, lets broaden that insult- he's the least threatening organized criminal ever seen on film. His Pulp Fiction persona was scarier than Howard Saint. Who for all intents and purposes whines his way through the movie, being paranoid that his wife is cheating, and in general angry that Frank Castle is screwing with his business ventures.

  He's so bad, I'm devoting a second paragraph just to continue ranting about him. Because he's a huge freaking problem with this movie. Frank himself is such a well written and equally well acted character that he deserves a villain to match his intensity. Howard Saint is little more than a target painted on a wall in this movie. After the Castle family massacre, it is beyond a foregone conclusion that Howard Saint will die. That's not even a spoiler. You just know it. This is so difficult for me though. To have a villain who poses no threat at all to the main character? He sends assassins after Castle, which provide some of the movie's best action scenes for sure, but... all Howard Saint can even do, is run away from The Punisher. He's such a pathetic villain that I almost feel compelled to fast forward through his scenes. John Travolta, who's proven himself to be a powerful actor (from time to time) does absolutely nothing memorable with the role except provide this otherwise solid movie with a villain who's about as scary as a teenager throwing a tantrum.

  Mind you, I did say that otherwise... this is a very solid movie. Most of the screentime is devoted to Castle's journey, and rightly so. The filmmakers may have... misunderstoodd a bit exactly how The Punisher does things. In the movie, we see Castle plotting and scheming these elaborate traps to turn the villains against each other and... while it's well executed (no pun intended) it doesn't feel like this guy at all. Sure, the character of Frank Castle is smart as all get-out. He can strategize like nobody's business. But, lets face it... at the end of the day, he'd rather just solve all these problems with guns. We'd have gotten a slightly less dramatic revenge story, but a far more faithful Punisher film, and a more standout action movie to boot.
That's not to say it's not entertaining though. The only true weak point of this movie is Travolta in my opinion. The rest is well crafted entertainment.

  Frank Castle, The Punisher, is a force of nature here, he's engaging and even fun to watch as so many revenge heroes are. The action scenes are great. Stuff blows up real well and lots of bad guys get shot, stabbed, ran over, impaled, and burnt alive. What more could you ask for? Well... the subpar follow up Punisher: War Zone seemed to think that more gore would solve the problem. Nope. In fact, it left us with an even worse movie in which The Punisher is played with the emotional depth of a... stone-faced, square-jawed, Steven Seagal wannabe. Not to mention the villain in that movie is just as bad. So for my money, this is where it's at. It may not be the brutal blood-fest that comic fans wanted, and it may not have a villain worthy of the title character, but it's still a dark and brooding story that's true to the tone of the concept. It's true... to the idea of the Punisher. Which is more than you can say for most of the superhero movies that were coming out at the time. In my opinion, The Punisher is more faithful to it's comic book roots than any of the X-Men movies. It's better than Ang Lee's Hulk, both Ghost Rider movies, it's own follow up, Daredevil, and a whole host of other comic book based movies.

  Having said all that though, it's still a mixed bag for me. Yet, it's a mixed bag I thoroughly enjoy from time to time. I love Thomas Jane as Frank Castle/The Punisher, and I'll always like this movie because he did such a great damn job with it. I recommend The Punisher wholeheartedly. For the uninitiated, it's still a slam-bang action movie with a dark streak, and a heart. For comic fans... you'll have gripes, but I think it's still enjoyable nonetheless. Sign me up for more with Tom Jane! As for right now... we have this fantastic fan-made follow up, starring Thomas Jane himself, reprising the skull-donning role with more gusto and badassery than ever. Enjoy.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Raid 2: Berandal


   If anyone wanted to know my thoughts on the first movie, I shall put links to both of my glowing reviews here and here. I absolutely loved the first movie. It was brutal, bloody, and simply... insane. If anything can be said for Berandal, right off the bat, it's way more brutal, way more bloody, and way more insane. As far as successors go, this is everything a sequel can aspire to in order to trump the original. It is essentially a love letter to action movies in general. It takes a page from Hong Kong crime thrillers, John Woo shoot-em-ups, and of course... martial arts movies. It is essentially all of this, and at the same time... it's also something more.

   90% of this review will probably be me trying to find ways to describe how amazing it was simply to convince you to see it. If you're not the kind that would need five more paragraphs in order to get your ass in the theaters to see something you're already sure you wanna see- stop now, buy a ticket, and go see it. Now. If you wanna read anyways- well go ahead. I can't stop you. I'm not the internet police or anything. I'm just writing this thing.

  Anyways... let me get the negatives out of the way. I guess this is semi-spoileristic? You've been warned. Okay. First off, somehow they brought back the actor who played Mad Dog in the first movie. Bad move, in my opinion at least. Even though he's playing a different character, it still feels weird. Like... they try to make him look different, but it doesn't work. My first reaction was "How the hell did he survive getting his throat gashed wide open and losing 90% of the blood in his body?" then I realize it's not the same character. It's jarring... and weird... and just unnecessary. You mean to tell me, there is NO other actor that could've played the role? Tch. Not likely.

   Secondly, Mike Shinoda doesn't do any music for the movie. While the return of Joseph Trapanese is fantastic, Mike Shinoda's "Razors Out" was a fantastic theme for the first movie. It capped the movie with gusto and was stuck in my head for weeks. I was looking forward to a new theme from him for this one, but alas... Moving on though, since that's not a major complaint at all or anything. Just a minor grumble. The plot actually kinda bugged me. It takes cues from big gangster flicks, specifically HK organized crime films. And just like most of them, it gets crazy convoluted. I mean, since practically 99% of all the humans even in this movie are villains I don't really see why it had to get so complicated.

  The plot is ambitious in how it tries to be a major crime syndicate movie thing, but it just felt confusing at times. Granted, I've barely had any sleep in the past couple days, and the action in this movie is physically exhausting, so I just may have not had the attention span for it. However, I stand by my assessment. I think the plot was cumbersome. There were so many names thrown at us... Koso, Bangun, Topan, Goto, Eka, Bejo, Bunawar, Uco, and more- that it's hard to keep track. I kept thinking- "Who are they talking about? Did I miss someone?" Then I realized, some people don't get but seconds of screentime despite having a major impact on the plot. It's slightly confusing. Not enough to completely baffle me, I could follow it, but it took more effort than I expected. Again, could be just me and my self induced insomnia getting in the way, but... I doubt it.

   As for the positives... where do I even begin? Editor, writer, and director... Gareth Evans.
The man is clearly an action genius. As if the first movie didn't convince us of that, there's this uber-violent sequel to hammer the point home. He takes fighting, shooting, and bloodshed in general and elevates it to a veritable art form. Never has a movie so gritty and unrelentingly bloody, looked so damn good. And I say that as an artist myself. I love movies with visual flair, and Evans has the knack. This movie is shot beautifully. He knows all the right moments to use slow motion, or jolt the camera. Not to mention his use of colors. Fantastic cinematography all the way around. This guy... action movies are going to quickly run out of ways to keep up with Gareth Evans.

   Iko Uwais has all the fire and gusto of your average Hollywood action star in his prime- and the martial arts skills to put 'em all to shame. He is a veritable force of nature as per usual. Maybe even more. He's also a damn fine actor regardless. He lends gravitas to his role, which... lets face it, could've been played by a totally bland actor and so long as he could pull off the necessary physicality, complaints about his acting would've been footnotes among the praise if anything. Yet, Uwais brings palpable emotions to the table. When he's tired, you're tired. When he hurts, you hurt for him. When he misses his family, it's heartbreaking. Of course, like I said, this would be moot if he couldn't believably punch, kick, shoot, and slice his way through hordes of enemies. Which... he can. Amazingly well too. He's as close to a super-man as any human actor could possibly get in a role like this and still maintain a modicum of realism.

  Speaking of hordes though, that's something that struck me funny this time around. How every bad guy has hordes of thugs at his disposal ready willing and able to throw their lives away at their boss' whim. This is what teetered on unbelievable to me. Only two men in the entire movie seem to have the common sense to run the fuck away from the guys trying to kill them. Who are clearly able to murder you in seconds flat. By this point, any number of said thugs have seen at least 10 to 20 of their fellow thugs murdered in the most gruesome manners imaginable. I would back the hell up and run away. These guys must ALL be dense. I dunno, it's the Stormtrooper trope, yet the first movie was able to justify it better.

   Alas...

   Back to the cast. Everyone here sells their roles admirably. From sinister mob bosses, to double-crossing gang lords, to undercover cops and insane martial arts assassins. These characters are rich, interesting, and very well acted. The movie doesn't lose an ounce of the villainy we came to love in the first. The bad guys here are ruthless, psychotic, and some are even... dare I say, honorable? Everything comes to it's own crazy climax though, and with so many sub-plots I'm surprised that the movie was able to cap them all satisfyingly. Which it did a great job of doing.

  Finally, I must talk about the #1 star of the movie. The violence. It actually sells it short to call it "action" here. That is a neatly packaged word that is too tame and nice for the content of this movie. The fighting in this movie is straight up violence. Movies like Mission: Impossible or The Avengers have action. Movies like The Raid 2, and trust me... there aren't many, have violence. There is so much blood spilled, bones snapped, guts sliced open, and faces just... generally obliterated that there is no mistaking why you came to see this movie. You came to see mayhem and carnage. Choreographed carnage. It's gorgeous. It's brutal, gritty and gorgeous. It belongs to a whole other level of "action" movies.  It satisfies some carnal need for more, and more. More fighting, more kicking, more punching, more realistic, more blood, more stabbing, more shooting, more violence. The thing that makes The Raid 2 so powerful is that it gives you more than even you know you want. Just when you think you've had enough... it firmly says "Nope, hold on... we got even more for you."

  Like many have already said, The Raid 2 knows that too much, in this case, is the perfect amount. I can't even disagree. A reviewer on iMDB said about the 2008 Rambo film that it was "Pornography of violence" and he wasn't saying that as a compliment. However, I think that phrase is rather brilliant and before I eagerly tack it onto The Raid 2, lets look closer at it for a second. Pornography does what precisely? It takes the act of sex and boils it down to an exploitative machination of the reproductive organs.  People often say, "You don't watch porn for the story..." or acting, or plot, or what have you. Why do you watch it? Because of the sex. There's no mistaking that. If you're watching porn, you know you're watching it for the sex. Raw, uncensored, graphic... sex. And it better be good sex, or it's bad porn. So essentially, there's a craft to it. Yeah? Same with violence in action movies. Nobody is fooling themselves when they go to see a movie like this. They want to see the violence. Raw, uncensored, graphic... violence. So to call The Raid 2 "Pornography of violence" is dead-on.

  You all know why you want to see this movie, and I'm telling you right now, it delivers. Gareth Evans has the knack for this craft. I could extend this into a debate about how healthy it is to subject oneself to two and a half hours of violence like that- but like porn, it's an escape. See Don Jon for more details on that. However, it is fantasy nonetheless. An adrenaline fueled testosterone fantasy. And before this review gets any deeper into the science of the how and why, I'm just gonna say... it's so intense that I literally couldn't sit calmly through most of the movie. It's so in your face and exciting that I was physically exhausted by the end. I wanted to cheer and I most certainly applauded. It is an experience not to be missed by action junkies. Not for casual viewers though. I know many many people who simply would not be able to sit through this movie. The bloodshed and bone-breaking is non stop and hits with the impact of a freight train.

  When all is said an done, The Raid seems like a test run in comparison. The Raid 2 is a showcase of the master's refined skill, delivering two and a half hours of non-stop violent "action" and gut-wrenching excitement. I can't recommend it enough if this is up your alley. The term "greatest action movie ever!" is being thrown around a lot, and while I would subject that in itself to scrutiny, I'm not going to try and stop that phrase from spreading, because the more it does... hopefully, the more people see it. And lord knows, it deserves to be seen. No, it deserves to be experienced.