I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Undisputed II: Last Man Standing (revisited)

Nine years ago when I caught up to UNDISPUTED II: LAST MAN STANDING I declared it the first DTV sequel better than its theatrical predecessor, and I finally understood the internet love for its star Michael Jai White, who I’d previously thought of as the guy from SPAWN. But I still didn’t appreciate it nearly as much as I do now. Yesterday’s pleasant surprise has become today’s under-recognized genre classic.

Since then we’ve seen White star in more vehicles worthy of his talents (BLOOD & BONE and BLACK DYNAMITE being standouts), we’ve seen choreographer J.J. “Loco” Perry further make his mark with HAYWIRE before moving up to giant movies like FATE OF THE FURIOUS, and we’ve seen villain Scott Adkins grow into a martial arts icon in his own right, often working with this same great director, Isaac Florentine (NINJA, NINJA II: SHADOW OF A TEAR, CLOSE RANGE).

But even looking back, UNDISPUTED II is not a stepping stone to greatness. It’s an example of it.

(read the rest of this shit…)

Undisputed (revisited)

Ever since the unlikely series of events that turned UNDISPUTED into one of today’s greatest action franchises, I’ve tried to better appreciate Walter Hill’s 2002 prison boxing drama that started it all. In my review from fifteen years ago I called it “asinine” and generally had a bad attitude toward it without really giving a strong argument for why. Over the years I’ve rewatched it a few times and though I always think it’s decent, it never quite clicks for me. I can’t say that’s entirely changed on this viewing, but I definitely liked it more than on previous viewings.

So I did it! I better appreciated it!

The story is about a humble toothpick-model-builder and convicted murderer named Monroe Hutchen (Wesley Snipes, MONEY TRAIN) who’s just minding his own business being the undefeated champion of a secret prison boxing league when suddenly the actual heavyweight champion of professional boxing, George “The Iceman” Chambers (Ving Rhames, THE TOURNAMENT) gets locked up there. And it’s like having both a Jason and a Freddy out there in the universe – eventually, one way or another, these two are gonna have to end up pitting their skills against each other so we can see who wins. After all, the legendary mobster Mendy Ripstein (Peter Falk, PRONTO) is in there too and he’s a passionate connoisseur of the sweet science, he’s not gonna let it not happen. (read the rest of this shit…)

Titan A.E.

a survey of summer movies that just didn’t catch on

June 16, 2000

Just before a race of alien energy-beings called the Drej blow up the Earth, Errol Flynn looking scientist hero Sam Tucker tosses his towheaded son Cale on an evacuation shuttle with Tone Lōc and goes off to fly a ship called the Titan on a mission to save the human race. He gives the boy a ring and it’s obvious to the audience that it will be the key to saving humanity but jesus christ dude make it clear to the kid! All he says is “Take this. As long as you wear it, there’s hope.” it’s a god damn miracle that he still has it when we pick up 15 years later. What in the hell were you thinking you god damn idiot, don’t be subtle about this shit.

So, grown up Cale (Matt Damon, THE DEPARTED) is some kind of space-iron-worker, a roughneck working class dude from Colorado, gettin it done on the outsides of ships and stuff, but he still has the same dumb ’90s boy band haircut from childhood. Since most humans are dead he’s a minority living among a bunch of creatures who eat food that he thinks is gross. So when a square-jawed Earthling captain and contemporary of his father named Korso (Bill Pullman, CASPER) comes to find him, you can see why he eventually agrees to join him on a mission to find the Titan. (read the rest of this shit…)

Mystery Men

a survey of summer movies that just didn’t catch on

July 22, 1999

MYSTERY MEN. Huh. There might’ve been room for a big budget super hero parody movie in 1999, if you’re into that sort of thing, but it needed better jokes than “ha ha, this would be a terrible super hero. What a dumb name and costume.” This is an impressive cast in a big, expensive comedy with very few laughs.

A group of amateur super heroes – shovel-carrying The Shoveler (William H. Macy, THE LAST DRAGON), fork-throwing Blue Raja (Hank Azaria, HEAT) and leather-jacket wearing Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller, NEXT OF KIN) struggle to find success or recognition. They’re definitely meant to be lovable underdog misfits, but I had trouble respecting them. It’s established that there’s an actual super powered guy called Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear, THE MATADOR) who’s a douche and wears corporate logos like a NASCAR driver but he’s made Champion City so safe that he has to get his arch-nemesis Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush, MUNICH) released from the asylum just to have something to do. Before that happens the unnamed Mystery Men couldn’t be little guys trying to make a different in a harsh world – they’re delusional losers trying to feel important by forcing themselves into a job that they’re not needed for, and are really, really bad at. I did not find them appealing. (read the rest of this shit…)

War for the Planet of the Apes

Director Matt Reeves, in his two sequels to the prequel to the PLANET OF THE APES series, has achieved some sort of cinematic miracle. I don’t think we as a society have properly acknowledged how incredible and unlikely these movies are. These are prebootquel-sequel-summer-event-special-effects-movies that are bleak, heavy and emotional, yet fun to watch. They feel like they’re based in the real world, yet they have us accepting apes that can speak English – not in a BABE talking-animal-movie type of way, but in a “some of them have evolved enough to learn how to do it” sort of way. Tentative, with odd rhythms, and economical use of words. It’s like a trick that they’re still mastering, putting great effort into each syllable, having to catch their breath between words. There’s still something creepy about this demonstration of intelligence from animals that are in a war with humans like us. Yet Reeves gets us to root for them – for their survival, for their moral choices.

It’s almost beside the point that somehow Reeves films a bunch of dudes in weird suits out in the woods and Weta turns them into photo-realistic animated characters. Most of the main characters and extras are computer generated, but I just think of it as live action while I’m watching it. Remember when it seemed like the Achilles heel of motion capture would always be the creepy, doll-like eyes? Well, here we have Caesar (played by the Marlon Brando of mo-cap, Andy Serkis), a performance that’s at least 25% intense stare-down. It’s as if all the soul and humanity missing from all the eyeballs in THE POLAR EXPRESS were set aside to load into his. (read the rest of this shit…)

Transformers: The Last Knight

“Y’all wanna see some dead robots?”

TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT is what happens when a famed surface level maestro of brain damaged spectacle makes his fifth god damn movie based on a line of toys. Michael Bay’s robo-aesthetic has evolved and improved to a point where I have to begrudgingly respect it. The convoluted mythology has reached new levels of insane are-you-kidding-me-ness. But the characters haven’t developed one bit – is it possible that they have de-developed? Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen, GREMLINS)’s swing between fascist brutality and wholesome-sounding inspirational speeches is taken to even more comical levels – if he didn’t talk like a bad guy and have a red slap mark on his face we wouldn’t know when he was turned into the evil “Nemesis Prime.”

This one opens on a beautifully weird note: a medieval battle between King Arthur (Liam Garrigan, reprising his character from Once Upon a Time) and a horde of barbarians. Arthur’s men think they’re doomed, but Merlin (Stanley Tucci, WILD CARD) shows up with a three-headed robot dragon, courtesy of a blood-stained Transformer he met inside the cave-like thing that voiceover narration by Academy Award winner Anthony Hopkins (TITUS) explains is actually a crashed alien spaceship. Yeah, we get it Sir Anthony. (read the rest of this shit…)

Wild Wild West

a survey of summer movies that just didn’t catch on

Big Willie Weekend, 1999

Two summers after their hit film MEN IN BLACK, director Barry Sonnenfeld (d.p. of BLOOD SIMPLE) and star Will Smith (SUICIDE SQUAD) tried to bring a similar comedy/special-effects/adventure mix to the old west. It’s like a western in that there are cowboy hats, guns, railroads and occasional horses, but also not really because it’s about two top agents for the president going undercover and then having a big battle against a giant mechanical spider that’s on a rampage and headed for the White House. Not a type of story I’ve seen done with John Wayne or Clint or anybody.

The basis is The Wild Wild West, a western-meets-spies TV show that lasted four seasons, ending thirty years prior to the movie. It was actually cancelled not due to a lack of popularity, but controversy over violence on television, and did have two followup TV movies. But the last of those was in 1980, and nineteen years later it was at best a cult show, and not yet available on DVD. So this is another expensive blockbuster based on characters that most of its intended youthful audience had never seen, or in this case even heard of.

But they didn’t have to know it was based on anything. Waning interest in westerns may have been a bigger problem, but that could’ve been overcome by the popularity of Smith, or the fun gimmick of the gadgets and steampunk type robotics, or the energetic style and cartoonish humor of the director of the ADDAMS FAMILY movies.

But that didn’t happen. (read the rest of this shit…)

Spawn

a survey of summer movies that just didn’t catch on

WARNING: Somehow I forgot that I already wrote about SPAWN eight years ago, but now you’re in for a more detailed look.

August 1, 1997

It’s weird that one of my least favorite movies in this series so far is the one that stars Michael Jai White! Thank you Ralph Bakshi for making sure it’s not in last place.

White plays Al Simmons, an amoral elite counter-terrorism black ops super badass who gets betrayed by his boss Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen, FIRESTARTER, who took the job because his grandson told him Spawn was cool). He’s set on fire, blown up and recruited by a crude CGI giant monster devil (voice of Frank Welker) to be a soldier for Hell. Returned to earth five years later as a burnt up demon called Spawn, he lives among the homeless and learns how to use his new demon powers while pining for his wife Wanda (Theresa Randle, CB4) and plotting revenge on Wynn.

I made that sound like a story, if I do say so myself. The movie’s not as interested in that. Faithfully adapted from the top-selling comic book of some parts of the ’90s, here is a visually dark, Marilyn-Manson-on-the-soundtrack slog that makes THE CROW: CITY OF ANGELS look like a masterwork of storytelling craft. And at least CITY OF ANGELS was nice to look at. Despite the participation of the great cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (DESPERADO, JACKIE BROWN, PAN’S LABYRINTH), this thing looks like shit! Rarely has there been a worse case of CGI overreach – shockingly sub-par, MORTAL KOMBAT-level monsters, fire and transformations are slapped all over it like a big-screen CD-ROM game, and even the straight-ahead action movie scene at “Military Air Base, Hong Kong” looks like a ’90s syndicated TV show where cops raid warehouses and dockyards every episode. (read the rest of this shit…)

GLOW Season 1

I don’t usually review TV, but this show is short and consistent enough to review like a movie, and long-time commenter Mr. Majestyk tried to get me to defend my love for it, and it seemed to me worthy of its own post.

GLOW is a fun new Netflix show inspired by the 1986 founding of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. It’s not a historically accurate representation of people or events, and even the wrestling personas are sort of off brand or alternate dimension versions. There’s a Machu Picchu instead of Mountain Fiji, and a team called The Beatdown Bitties are similar to The Housewives. But it takes the idea of fringe Hollywood people doing a casting call for women willing to live in a house together and learn to wrestle, and makes it into ten breezy half-hour-ish episodes of dramedy. There are underdogs, friendships, creative expression and a winning let’s-put-on-a-show spirit. And the show they put on is women in crazy costumes and glitter makeup tossing each other around in a ring with pink ropes, which is better than some other types of shows that somebody might put on. (read the rest of this shit…)

The Crow: City of Angels

a survey of summer movies that just didn’t catch on

August 30, 1996

I don’t remember ever hearing anybody say nice things about THE CROW part 2, CITY OF ANGELS, so let me start out with one: this is a gorgeous looking movie. Part 1 production designer Alex McDowell (LAWNMOWER MAN, CRYING FREEMAN, FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, WATCHMEN) returns, this time with cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier (GUMMO, GOOD WILL HUNTING), to tweak and expand on the aggressively stylized gotholopolis look he created for Alex Proyas’ THE CROW.

This time it looks more real, and has a yellow tint on its foggy (maybe it’s smoggy?), trash-strewn streets, representing the heat of Los Angeles, I hope, and not the piss that it clearly smells of. I don’t know my skylines, so I’m not sure I would’ve understood that they changed the location from Detroit without the subtitle or the cool shot where a row of palm trees burst into flame one-by-one as the crow (the bird that seems to be responsible for resurrecting murder victims, not the vengeful harlequin ghost he enables) flies past them. There’s a great tracking shot of the bird flying over the (model) city, and a profile shot of the ghost speeding on his motorcycle, his feathered friend right in front of him. The movie definitely achieves on levels of technical craftsmanship. (read the rest of this shit…)