Tuesday, 19 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Universal Soldier: The Return (1999)

Is Universal Soldier: The Return a good movie? Not really. It's the weakest of the Universal Soldier movies that star Van Damme and it wastes a couple of the main stars. Having said that, it's a lot better than the other Universal Soldier movies that were developed with the idea of turning the brand into a viable TV mini-series. It's also a lot better than other Van Damme movies you can pick from this time.

Van Damme returns as Luc, now a normal man after having all of the UniSol implants and tech removed from his body. He works for the company, training new soldiers and keeping an eye on things. One of those soldiers is a mean badass played by Bill Goldberg, and he doesn't like Luc all that much. That wouldn't be a problem, if only the supercomputer running things (SETH, voiced by Michael Jai White, who also plays him in humanoid form in the second half of the movie) wasn't about to turn all super-evil and turn the soldiers against the puny humans around them.

As of today, this is the only film directed by Mic Rodgers (who has carved himself quite a career in the realm of stunt work). That's a bit of a shame, because Rodgers does just fine in the big chair. There's a lot of goodwill to claw back after the previous entries in the series, films that are justifiably ignored by the script (written by John Fasano and William Malone), and there aren't enough action sequences to detract from the relatively low budget, but this isn't a bad way to get things back on track and return some value to the brand name.

Van Damme does just fine in his lead role here, it's a character he is comfortable with and the premise doesn't ask him to do anything too difficult (like emote or convince viewers that he has a degree in bioengineering), and both Goldberg and White bring solid physicality to their antagonists. Kiana Tom has a sizable role, sizable in comparison to other female roles in JCVD movies anyway, and does well enough, and there are supporting turns from the ever-dependable Xander Berkeley and Daniel Von Bargen.

I know that people often go on about the next two films in this series. They say that they're a marked step up and usually recommend people just diving straight in (because they are pretty much standalone action films making use of the UniSol idea). There's no doubt that they're better. That doesn't make this one bad though. It's just . . . not really good.


This is a good way to own the series.
Americans can go for this mix.

Monday, 18 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Knock Off (1998)

Knock Off doesn't know what it wants to be. That is the first problem it has. It also pairs Jean-Claude Van Damme up with Rob Schneider. That is the second problem. The fact that the action sequences aren't all that good doesn't help either.

Here's the plot. In fact, no. The plot is so cringe-inducing and risible that I can't bring myself to detail it here. Let's just say that Schneider and Van Damme run a business that sell knock off jeans and they get involved in a scheme that involves the CIA, murder, treachery, and dangerous jeans that have been laced with powerful explosives. Yes, this is a film based around exploding jeans.

Director Tsui Hark obviously thought that he could put things together in a way that would recreate the messy fun of Double Team but he ends up misfiring. There's one pretty good action sequence at about the halfway mark, the rest of the film is a damp squib. Visually ugly, never as amusing as it thinks it is, and lacking any character that you could care for.

Writer Steven E. de Souza should take a large portion of the blame. His script is consistently awful from start to finish. Not only does it lack decent dialogue and characterisation, it devolves into an utter mess after the first 20 minutes or so. It's hard to believe that this is penned by the man who gave us so many other modern action classics.

Van Damme flashes his smile here but it feels, in line with the film, lazy and insincere. He's selling a screen presence that isn't there, sadly. As for Schneider, I won't automatically dismiss him from movies because I don't mind him in the right role. This isn't the right role. Nobody here is in a role that feels right for them, not even Paul Sorvino as a stern CIA agent, and that's the kind of thing that Sorvino could probably do in his sleep. Wyman Wong does okay with his small role, and Lela Rochon tries her best, but this is not a film designed to showcase the talents of the actors involved.

If you want to see one action movie about exploding jeans then I can heartily recommend this as being the film for you. Otherwise, avoid it at all costs. It's STILL not the worst film in the Van Damme filmography (that one is still to come, from the many I have already seen) but it's definitely a contender.


You can buy the movie here.
Americans can pick up this pack.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Legionnaire (1998)

Even in the filmography of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Legionnaire stands out as a bit of an oddity. More dramatic than most of his other movies, it comes close to making some interesting points at times, but ultimately falls short.

Van Damme plays someone who, unsurprisingly, ends up in the French Foreign Legion. There he makes one or two friends, suffers at the hands of a tough Sergeant (Steven Berkoff), and finds reserves of inner strength that end up making him an ideal legionnaire.

Because this is a film that I spent years accidentally avoiding (there just always seemed to be a better viewing option when I remembered that it existed) I was always under the impression that this was another riff on A.W.O.L.: Absent Without Leave AKA Lionheart. I assumed that Van Damme would start the film as a legionnaire and then have to escape and end up fighting to win cash and the respect and love of those in awe of his ass-kicking abilities. It's not that kind of film at all, and everyone should be aware of that going into it.

This is more of a straight drama with one or two moments of "action" (I've placed the word in quotation marks because the scenes in the third act are the kind of battlefield confrontations not to be confused with more easily entertaining martial arts moments).

Written by Sheldon Lettich and Rebecca Morrison, based on a story idea by Lettich and Van Damme, Legionnaire also incorporates some gangsters and a boxing match that our hero is supposed to throw, all in the opening act of the film, and it's obvious that all of the main players thought they could stretch the range of Van Damme while also incorporating elements that would keep his fans happy. They don't manage that, mainly because they forget to make things entertaining enough, with the script unhelped by the flat direction from Peter MacDonald (although a quick look at his directorial filmography shows that he may have peaked with his first film, Rambo III).

Van Damme tries his best here but his acting isn't up to par. It's probably not all his fault though, considering there are equally disappointing turns from Nicholas Farrell and Berkoff. The only one who manages to do well is Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, mainly because he's given a role that doesn't feel like an over the top caricature.

It's hard to imagine who will get the most out of this film. Fans who wanted to see more of his acting in a period setting after The Quest? Anyone who wanted a film in which JCVD helped to defend Morocco against an army of rebel warriors? If you are in either of those two groups then this film is for you. Everyone else may want to look elsewhere instead.


You can buy the movie here.
Americans can pick it up here.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Double Team (1997)

There are so many things that you could mention about Double Team that would (correction = SHOULD) make me nod in agreement with you as we conclude that it's a fairly terrible film. Let's face it, just the fact that it pairs Jean-Claude Van Damme up with Dennis Rodman gives you enough ammunition, and that's just the sprinkling of hundreds and thousands on top of this action comedy knickerbocker glory.

Van Damme plays an anti-terrorist agent named Jack Quinn, a man reluctantly brought back into duty when an elusive criminal named Stavros (Mickey Rourke) reappears and starts to cause no small amount of trouble. Things go sideways, a child dies, and Quinn is knocked out in an explosion. He comes to in a facilty named "The Colony", he's informed that his pregnant wife has been told that he is dead, and he also finds out that the place is nearly impossible to escape from. So he escapes. Which leads him to Dennis Rodman, a handy dealer in dangerous goods who might be the key to helping him track down Stavros and putting an end to his criminal plans.

Although they might not be the best people to watch onscreen, Double Team has one hell of a cast. As well as Van Damme, Rourke, and Rodman, you also get Paul Freeman as a fellow agent/"guest" at The Colony. And, well, those are the only names worth mentioning, I suppose, but what other film can you say features that particular quartet of actors? AND features a scene that has JCVD delivering a sidekick to a tiger? No other film delivers such goodness.

Written by Don Jakoby and Paul Mones, this is enjoyably over the top from start (with Van Damme driving a huge truck through a building as we see him end a successful mission) to finish (a showdown that involves that tiger, a motorbike, and a number of mines). It mixes in elements of James Bond, some buddy comedy moments, and a very entertaining turn from Rourke as the crazy villain.

Tsui Hark may not want to remind anyone that he directed this but he's got nothing to be ashamed of. Okay, I hated this the first time I watched it. I somehow ended up revisiting it and ended up not hating it. Now I quite like it for what it is. Nobody involved is taking things too seriously, with the possible exception of Rourke, and it rattles along at a cracking pace to ensure viewers are never bored.

I still think that someone - anyone - else in the Rodman role could have improved things, and I would have relished the thought of seeing Van Damme interact with someone more naturally funny or cool (imagine if this had been made with a quirky performance from Nicolas Cage in place of Rodman - GOLD), but I am going to be one of the few people nowadays who doesn't think that this is deserving of half of the disdain it seemed to receive when released back in 1997. It's a fun, disposable, action flick.


You can buy the DVD here.
Americans can pick it up here.

Friday, 15 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Maximum Risk (1996)

Maximum Risk is another film that gives us two Van Dammes for the price of one. Okay, one of them only appears briefly but the plot of the film centres around the fact that Van Damme is a twin so we can include this movie in the list of films that have more than one JCVD for your money. Unfortunately, it's probably one of the least entertaining, although not without some redeeming qualities.

Van Damme plays a cop who finds out that he had a twin brother when he is called by a colleague to a crime scene that features a corpse of someone who looks just like him. It turns out that his deceased twin brother was involved with the Russian mafia and corrupt FBI agents, and was also engaged to a beautiful woman (Natasha Henstridge). Van Damme decides to deal with some bad guys while getting revenge, and also ensures that he gets some quality time with Henstridge.

The best thing you can say about this movie is that it's not dull. In fact, if only things were crafted with a bit more care, or if more money was available, this could have been another winner in the Van Damme filmography. The script from Larry Ferguson isn't too concerned with anything that doesn't move characters towards the next chase or fight sequence, which would be commendable if those scenes were a bit better than they are. The direction from Ringo Lam is decidedly average when viewers might rightly expect more from him, although the action is at least shot much more competently than many other features that Van Damme would star in over the next decade or so.

The leading man is about as good as he usually is here. He doesn't often differentiate from his usual performing style (certainly not at this stage in his career) which means that fans will be kept happy enough while detractors will keep avoiding his movies. Henstridge makes a bit more of an impression than many of the other women who have starred alongside him, but that's more to do with her being who she is rather than anything inherent in the source material. As for the supporting cast, they're a ragged group of interesting actors, rent-a-villains and unfamiliar faces populating the groups of amassed henchmen. More recognisable names include Jean-Hugues Anglade, Zach Grenier (okay, I recognised him straight away), Paul Ben-Victor and Frank Senger.

Although a relatively painless watch, Maximum Risk isn't one I can imagine a lot of people rewatching (despite the fact that I just did). It's disposable entertainment for a late night when you don't want your brain to do any work, and you may even want to force it to have a rest under the influence of your favourite alcoholic beverage. It's inferior fare, but the star power and a few decent sequences make it just below average, as opposed to truly awful.


Buy it here.
Americans can buy it here.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: The Quest (1996)

Adding another string to his bow here, Jean-Claude Van Damme both stars AND directs this film (based on a story that he worked on with Frank Dux, according to the credits). Which helps to explain why it feels like nothing more than a period version of Bloodsport, although it's nowhere near as good as that film.

Christopher Dubois (Van Damme) is a thief who uses his skills to help out a local group of orphans. Crossing paths with both local gangsters and the police, Dubois then realises that it's time he got himself out of the city, before he is arrested or killed. He ends up crossing paths with an upper-class con man (Roger Moore) and his assistant (Jack McGee). There are one or two twists, they are joined by a reporter (Janet Gunn) and boxing champion (James Remar), and everyone eventually ends up at a prestigious fighting tournament.

Some days I really don't like The Quest and some days I do. It depends on what mood I am in, I guess, and how charitable I am feeling. The opening scenes, framed by an elderly Dubois who fights some thugs and then starts to tell his story, are quite ridiculous, and also quite amusing. And things pick up once Moore and McGee appear. Sadly, things dip when the characters reach the tournament, which is when you'd expect it to become an even better movie.

Van Damme shows that he's certainly learned enough behind the camera to deliver a standard vehicle for himself, and does fine with the action sequences, but he cannot overcome the fact that a) this just feels like Bloodsport, but not done as well, and b) the script by Steve Klein and Paul Mones doesn't work as well as anyone thinks it does.

Thankfully, the cast act oblivious to the shortcomings of the material that they're given. Van Damme is doing his usual thing, Moore gives one of the most enjoyable supporting performances you will find in the entire Van Damme filmography, and McGee is good alongside him, which is why the pacing of the film is helped by their introductions. Remar is also good to see, and has a couple of great moments, Gunn is as underserved as most actresses in JCVD vehicles, and Abdel Qissi is the impressive badass who must eventually be defeated in the tournament.

Formulaic, uneven in tone, inferior to so many other Van Damme films, and missing some other decent characters when it comes to the actual fighters, The Quest is still good fun for those who can appreciate its unique charm.


You can buy it here.
Americans can buy it here.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Sudden Death (1995)

AKA Die Hard at an ice hockey match.
AAKA the one in which Van Damme fights someone in a big penguin mascot outfit.

Jean-Claude Van Damme is a traumatised fireman who now works as a fire marshall at an ice hockey stadium. He's also the father of two kids that live with his ex-wife, and she isn't impressed when he just stops by to announce that he has tickets for a big game happening that very evening. Relenting, but with a warning not to do it again, the mother allows the kids to go with their father, who takes them along, settles them in for the match, and then starts his standard work duties. The timing is unfortunate, because a very nasty man (Powers Boothe) has chosen that evening to take a number of hostages, including the Vice President (Raymond J. Barry), and make himself a very rich man with the help of some armed accomplices and a number of bombs.

Directed by Peter Hyams, responsible for a number of entertaining Van Damme vehicles, Sudden Death is much more interested in fun and thrills than any kind of tension or believability. The script by Gene Quintano, based on a story/idea from Karen Elise Baldwin, does what is needed to get everything in place (the people involved, the bombs, the police on the outside) and then concentrates on either creating enjoyable set-pieces or letting Powers Boothe be as mean as possible, even if he's talking to a small child. Think about everything for more than a few seceonds and the silliness means that it falls apart but Hyams keeps things moving along briskly enough to distract you from minor details like logic.

Despite a decent smattering of supporting players, including Barry, this film really belongs to Van Damme and Boothe. It would be easy to call it a battle of braun vs brains but our hero also gets to show moments of ingenuity as he desperately tries to save a building full of people who are blissfully unaware of the danger they are in. He also manages to keep an admirably straight face while taking part in that aforementioned fight against someone in a big penguin mascot outfit. Boothe gives a performance that deserves to sit right up there alongside the better action movie villain turns from the '80s and '90s. He's calm, cocky, and without any hint of redeemable qualities.

I'm not sure if this remains an underseen film, it certainly feels as if it came along at the very end of Van Damme's initial wave of popularity (his filmography starts to get pretty spotty from now on, to say the least), but I highly recommend it to action movie fans, especially if you don't mind something with a bit of polish and some humour in the mix.


The blu is here.
Americans can buy it here.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Street Fighter (1994)

Movies based on videogames are hard to get right. Movies based on videogame beat 'em ups are, arguably, even harder to get right. Videogames don't REALLY have to worry about things like plotting and fully-formed characters, although fans may argue that the best ones do have enough of both, and when they're turned into movies it is often the case that fans are disappointed, either by the casting or by the way in which a plot has been forced to fit around elements that now feel too far removed from the essence of the game. Maybe it's because I was never a huge videogame player that I actually enjoy quite a few of these movies. Mortal Kombat remains my favourite, but I've also enjoyed DOA: Dead Or Alive, and I even quite liked Double Dragon (although it's been years since I saw it so don't take that as a current, informed, opinion). And I find myself revisiting and enjoying Street Fighter a lot more than I ever thought I would.

Raul Julia plays Bison, a maniac who has taken lots of people hostage and demanded an astronomical sum of money. He aims to use that money to build his own empire but there are a number of people out to stop him, including Colonel Guile (Jean-Claude Van Damme), a plucky reporter named Chun-Li (Ming-na Wen), and a pair of reluctant fighters named Ken (Damian Chapa) and Ryu (Byron Mann).

Written and directed by Steven E. de Souza (a man responsible for some of your favourite '80s action movies), Street Fighter is a film that gets a few things right and quite a number of things wrong. And I'm not sure which camp the casting of Van Damme as Guile belongs to.

There's no doubt that this movie is missing the dynamism of the game, as well as a lot of the special moves that came about after much skilled thumb-swirling and button-bashing, so it's almost inevitable that fans were disappointed by it (which is what I remember being the general consensus at the time). Some of the characters feel as they should, Andrew Bryniarski is particularly enjoyable as Zangief, but a lot of them are either near-unrecognisable or given short shrift in favour of time spent with Van Damme doing his star turn.

There's also no doubt (in my mind) that there's still plenty of fun to be had here. The fights may lack any oomph, to use the technical term, but everyone has fun in their roles, the tone is just close enough to goofy throughout, and you get a performance from Raul Julia that stands out as one for the ages. The man may "only" be portraying a videogame villain but, damn, he steals the entire movie, helped by a script that gives him some truly wonderful lines of dialogue to relish. You may one day have a list of a dozen movies based on videogames that you rank above this one, but none of them will have a moment to rival that in which Julia replies to someone who is reminding him of the time he raided their village.

It's not a knockout, but I tend to like this more every time I watch it. Maybe other people will feel the same way, as unlikely as that may seem to some of you.


UK folks can buy the film here.
Americans can buy this edition.

Monday, 11 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Hard Target (1993)

Jean-Claude Van Damme starring in a film that is yet another version of The Most Dangerous Game, what could possibly make this any better? Perhaps the fact that it was also John Woo making his first feature in America, after amassing such a loyal fanbase of his Hong Kong films. Would we get some impressive slo-mo moments, two guns being fired while characters dive across the screen, and doves flying into the air? Of course we would, which makes Hard Target a film that provides just as much fun today as it did when first released a quarter of a century ago (yes, it's been 25 years).

Van Damme plays the wonderfully-monikered Chance Boudreaux, a drifter in New Orleans who cannot get himself back into a job he has been selected for until he earns enough money to pay his union dues. But he can't pay those dues until he gets a job, of course, so finds himself in a vicious circle. For about half a minute. The chance to earn some money comes about when a young woman (Natasha, played by Yancy Butler) wants to hire someone as she searches for her missing father, an ex-veteran who fell on hard times. The pair start to do their amateur detective work, eventually piecing together evidence to realise what viewers have known from the very beginning; Natasha's father was paid by people who then chased him down and killed him before he could reach a designated safe point.

Like many other people, I really liked Hard Target when I first saw it. But I believe that I liked it then purely for the Van Damme factor. I wasn't familiar enough with John Woo to know of his style, I hadn't seen too many previous incarnations of this material (apart from The Running Man, which managed to feel a bit removed from the original idea because of the additional comments on the media and manipulation of the masses), and nobody else in the cast made much of an impression, simply because I was waiting for the next scene that would put Van Damme front and centre again.

Rewatching the movie with more knowledge tucked away into my brainparts has led me to find even more reasons to keep it marked as a fun action thriller, and one I am always happy to revisit. Van Damme may have the top billing but he's not the star here. The star here is Woo, clearly having a lot of fun with the cast and resources at his disposal. His style is stamped all over this, almost from the very first scene, as a statement of intent. "I have come to your shores," it says, "and this is why you wanted me here in the first place, so take it or leave it."

The script, by Chuck Pfarrer, is focused more on fun than any sense of realism, allowing for some decent exchanges between all of the main characters, and also some absolutely wonderful lines uttered by Lance Henriksen (the main villain).

Speaking of Henriksen, he almost steals this entire movie, which is easier for him to do as Woo balances things between allowing his leading man to have some leading man moments and allowing himself plenty of Woo-isms. Henricksen and Arnold Vosloo have a lot of fun with their roles, Van Damme gets to deliver some impressive smackdowns (including a great moment that sees him dealing with a rattlesnake), Butler does okay in her role (it's a bit underwritten but far from the worst female role in the action genre, especially from this time, and I can't help thinking a more recognisable actress could have lifted things slightly), and there's good support from Willie C. Carpenter, Kasi Lemmons, and the great Wilford Brimley.

Booby-traps, armed people riding motorbikes to track their potential victims, grenades being lobbed around with a distinct lack of real care, and let's not forget a damn fine mullet being worn by Van Damme, this has all of these treats and a lot more. Watch it, enjoy it, and rewatch it whenever you feel the urge. Which may happen more often than you expect.


You can buy the movie here.
Americans can buy a version here.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Nowhere To Run (1993)

The funniest thing about revisiting the filmography of Jean-Claude Van Damme is finding out how others view his films, and also finding out that some of them weren't the popular hits that the younger version of me thought they were. Take this film, for example. I thought Nowhere To Run was an easy success for JCVD. It wasn't. It made money, but it didn't make lots and lots of money.

The plot sees Van Damme playing an escaped prisoner who ends up being in the right place at the right time for one single mother (Rosanna Arquette) who is being given a hard time by developers who want her to sell her home and stop getting in the way of a potential gold mine (metaphorically). Joss Ackland is the main baddie, but he uses Ted Levine to oversee the actual dirty work, and also makes use of a local law enforcement officer (Lonnie, played by Edward Blatchford).

Based on a script by Joe Eszterhas, Leslie Bohem, and Randy Feldman, Nowhere To Run is simply an updated riff on Shane, with extra moments that allow the leading man to either take his clothes off or ride about on a motorbike and look cool (or allow his stunt double to do that anyway, which is how it appears in a number of scenes). The pacing works well, despite this being far from the most action-heavy of Van Damme's movies from this time, and the characters are developed just enough beyond the paper-thin to help you care about how things pan out.

It helps that the cast all do a good job. As well as the two leads warming up to one another throughout, leading to some gratuitous nudity and sexy sex time, you get decent turns from Ackland and Blatchford, and a scene-stealing performance from Levine, who benefits the most from the script. You also get a couple of great child performances, from Kieran Culkin and Tiffany Taubman, both of whom latch on to Van Damme with an ease and innocence that kids can have within their first encounter with an adult they decide is okay by them.

Director Robert Harmon does decidedly okay work, but it's a shame that he didn't decide to shake things up a bit, either in terms of some more creative acton sequences or in terms of giving more time to character moments for Arquette and Levine, the former underserved and the latter having so much fun that viewers could have been rewarded by having more of him.

Nowhere To Run remains an enjoyable slice of entertainment, and Van Damme exudes enough charisma here to make it feel completely natural that the film was adapted to fit him into the lead role, but it's also very disposable, and ultimately easily forgettable.


The disc be here.
Americans can purchase it here.

Saturday, 9 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Universal Soldier (1992)

I'm always surprised that Jean-Claude Van Damme didn't spend more time mixing his action with either sci-fi or horror because some of his better, or at least more interesting, films (Cyborg, Timecop, Replicant, and this one being the main titles I can think of). This is a sci-fi action movie with one or two moments that feel very much lifted from the horror genre, and it's superbly entertaining stuff.

JCVD and Dolph Lundgren are two soldiers who die in combat. Unfortunately, they each died at the hands of the other. Lundgren went crazy, see, and was killing innocent people, cutting off their ears, and using them to make a necklace. When the two are given a second life in the military UniSol project, all goes well for a while before memories start floating back to the surface and causing glitches. Van Damme goes on the run with a plucky reporter (Veronica Roberts, played by Ally Walker), and Lundgren starts killing anyone who gets in between him and the traitor he is determined to fatally punish. And he still has his thing about ears.

Before they became known as world-destroyers, director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin made some fantastic little b-movies that had the benefit of either a great pool of talent or a great blend of ideas, or both. Devlin wrote the screenplay here, he wasn't in full producer mode yet, and Emmerich was moving up from the likes of Ghost Chase and Moon 44, and this already shows some signs of how their future careers would pan out. You get that great central idea, you get some fantastic set-pieces, there's a supporting cast that features a number of familiar faces I will mention below, and they're not worried about squeezing everything into a tight 90 minutes (which works here, but doesn't necessarily work for all of their movies).

Van Damme gives one of his best performances here, mixing his favoured naivete with great fighting moves and some fleeting nudity to please a large portion of his fanbase. Having said that, Lundgren steals the show with his maniacal villain. His enjoyably over the top performance is what helps to keep this near the top of the JCVD pile. Walker also does very well, she's one of the quirkier female leads to work alongside our action star, and she has a nice balance of vulnerability, bravery, and comedic line delivery. Ralf Moeller is another UniSol, Ed O'Ross is the man in charge of the whole operation for a short while, Jerry Orbach is a doctor who helped create the soldiers, and Tommy 'Tiny' Lister is hard to miss in his small role (can you ever describe his screentime as a small role, considering the size of the guy?).

If you haven't seen Universal Soldier by now, and if you are a fan of action movies, then you owe it to yourself. It holds up almost as well today as it did back in the early '90s, remaining a top-tier outing for both Van Damme AND Lundgren.


This is a good way to own most of the notable entries in the series.
Americans may just want the original on Blu.

Friday, 8 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Double Impact (1991)

Double Impact is the film in which we found out that the actor Jean-Claude Van Damme likes working alongside best is . . .  Jean-Claude Van Damme. Twins, clones, different timeline versions of himself, there are many plot devices that have been used to give viewers double the Van Damme-age, and it all started here.

Jean-Claude Van Damme is Alex, a nice martial artist who lives with his uncle, Frank (Geoffrey Lewis), and helps out in the running of their business. But it turns out that Frank isn't actually his uncle. And he has a twin brother named Chad, currently living in Hong Kong. Unbeknownst to Alex and Chad, they were separated as babies after the murder of their parents by two evil businessmen (Nigel Griffith, played by Alan Scarfe, and Raymond Zhang, played by Philip Chan). The time is right to get back what rightfully belongs to them, and get some good old-fashioned revenge.

Okay, the process of lining one Van Damme up alongside another may not have been as easy back in 1991 as it is nowadays but there are a lot of scenes here that work well, due in no small part to how well JCVD sells both of the different characters and also their interactions. Alex is the nicer guy, and the martial artist. Chad is a badass who tends to use guns, but can also do alright with his hands and feet when necessary. Director Sheldon Lettich isn't exactly asking for a nuanced performance from his star but things could have still ended up a lot worse.

Lewis is wonderful in his supporting role, at times parental and caring while at other times just wanting to bang heads together and get his two Van Dammes to stop squabbling and fulfil their potential. Alonna Shaw does well as the woman in between the twins, being the girlfriend of Chad and causing a certain amount of jealousy after initially mistaking Alex for her fella, and Corinna Everson makes quite an impression as a tough henchwoman. Scarfe and Chan are the typical bad guys who try to stay hidden behind their wall of muscle, and you can't blame them when that wall of muscle contains the mighty Bolo Yeung.

After their previous movie together, Death Warrant, it feels like Lettich and Van Damme worked together to come up with something much more fun, which this is. The pacing could be tighter, it could have done with some more Bolo Yeung (but what movie starring Bolo Yeung couldn't?), and it felt a bit odd at this point to see Van Damme using guns as much as he was using his martial arts, but this remains a fun time.

Oh, just one more thing, that shot of Van Damme appearing out of the darkness at the controls of a crane cab is superb. It's just a short moment, you'll know it when you see it, but it's SO well done that I felt I had to end this review by mentioning it.


You can treat yourself to Doble Impacto here.
Americans can get their Double in this triple.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Death Warrant (1990)

Death Warrant has always been an odd film for me. I didn't really like it when I first saw it, mainly because it felt a bit boring to me compared to other Van Damme vehicles, and it's one that I have often opted to avoid rewatching over the years.

Coming back to it, as an adult who can still usually be as easily pleased as the teenage me, I am still not a big fan. It's not actually boring, although it remains less exciting when compared to other Van Damme movies, but it's certainly lacking something. Grit, extra dollops of cheese, some more fights, one of these things might have helped to make this a better film.

JCVD goes undercover in a prison that has seen a large number of new inmates dying. His main contact is Amanda Beckett (Cynthia Gibb), who tries to investigate from the outside while posing as his wife during visits. He makes a friend in the shape of a prisoner named Hawkins (Robert Guillaume) but he makes a lot more enemies, and some of them are powerful enough to keep him inside until he's been permanently taken care of.

If you put an action star in prison then you get an action movie set in a prison, and that's the main thing to bear in mind here (same rule applies to the likes of Lock Up and Escape Plan). There are some of the expected prison movie tropes but it's almost as if they're being given a nod because they have to be. They don't add to the movie at all, and don't ever feel as authentic as they would in an actual prison movie. The prime example is the moment in which Van Damme first enters his cell and is threatened by someone who states that payment is expected, and payment doesn't have to be made in cash. Van Damme deals with this quickly enough, and viewers know that he's not going to experience the many standard worries, threats and battles that other new prisoners tend to go through in prison movies.

Considering the potential for violence, Death Warrant feels quite tame, which makes it essential that Van Damme does well enough with his actual acting. He does, thankfully, and a decent enough cast surround him. Guillaume is the best of them all, Gibb does her best with a role that doesn't treat her well at all, Art LaFleur is good as the sadistic warden (is there any other kind?), and Patrick Kilpatrick makes a memorable appearance.

Despite being more polished than some of his other films, this never feels as good as any of the others. It is, ironically, the lack of conviction that sinks it. Viewers know that they're not going to see their hero have actual prison problems, which leaves them waiting for the fights, and they're just not as impressive or frequent as they should be (and, quite frankly, the main villain makes a grand gesture so stupid that there's not even a satisfying final battle).

Still fun? Yes. But it's not half as much fun as almost any other JCVD film from this period that you could watch instead.


Pick it up on Blu here.
Americans can get it here.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: A.W.O.L: Absent Without Leave (1990)

AKA Lionheart.

If there's one thing that Jean-Claude Van Damme loves more than kicking people in the face it's kicking people in the face for the sake of helping out others. He has played a lot of characters through the years who were hunting down bad guys, but he's also often played someone who ends up fighting to help a loved one/family member. A.W.O.L. (as I will be calling it, it's all I remember from the VHS box years ago) falls into the latter category, and it succeeds because it's so unabashedly sweet and emotionally manipulative. That, and the fact that it features plenty of enjoyable fight scenes.

JCVD plays Lyon, a soldier who goes AWOL when he hears about the death of his brother, leaving one woman a widow and one little girl without a father. His brother's widow doesn't really want his help, at least not initially, which is a bit of a pain in the ass, because Lyon is being pursued by military folk who want to drag him back, and he's also quickly made a name, and some money, for himself in an underground fight club scene. His body is being put through the wringer, but it will all be worth it if he can stick around long enough to earn one big final payout.

Apparently based on an earlier screenplay by S. N. Warren (his only film credit, from what I could see), this has been crafted into a perfect star vehicle by the lead and director Sheldon Lettich. It's obvious that both men are savvy about how to appeal to a wide demographic here. The fights feel slicker, with more moments in which the lack of actual contact seems obvious, than in Van Damme's earlier movies, the story allows for moments when people can have actual feelings, and the leading man shows his butt.

Acting is as you'd expect, certainly from Van Damme, who once again offsets his limitations by playing someone almost naively good-natured. Harrison Page is a good "sidekick", playing a man who helps out Lyon while also seeing the chance to make some decent money, Deborah Rennard is enjoyably cool and powerful as Cynthia, the woman in charge of the fights, and Brian Thompson is always a welcome presence, even if he's sorely wasted in his role (seriously, you get Brian Thompson in an action movie and don't really throw him into the actual action?).

My memory may be hazy here, I was a teenager and have never spent my days trying to "take the temperature" of the state of the movie business, but this movie felt like the final push that turned Van Damme into an action star for both male and female viewers. It has a lot of elements that were already in place - his martial arts skills, his looks, his good guy roles - but it packaged everything in a more appealing way, with a dash of everything to make it a great choice for a date night movie.

And, you know what, it's STILL a great choice.


There's a blu available here.
Americans can get a special edition here.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Kickboxer (1989)

It's the same old story. You travel around the world, supporting your kickboxing brother, watch him rendered immobile and unconscious at the hands of a vicious Thailand fighter, and then beseech a little old man to train you to a level that will allow you to avenge your brother and become known to locals as "Nok Su Kow" (translation = "White Warrior"). Not forgetting to leave yourself a little bit of time for a few drinks and a dance.

Van Damme plays Kurt Sloane, the younger brother to Eric (played by Dennis Alexio). When he sees Eric painfully defeated by the ruthless Tong Po (Michael Qissi), he swears to get revenge. Unfortunately, nobody will train him, and the idea of him becoming good enough to fight Tong Po is laughable to many. Until he is finally accepted as a student by Xian Chow (Dennis Chan). Before you can say "let's fill up the middle section of this movie with one montage after another" you start to get one montage after another showing Kurt progressing through his martial arts education. But will he get his shot at Tong Po?

Like many of the other enjoyable martial arts movies from this time, this is a simple underdog story that pits a talented student who needs guidance against a proper "boo, hiss" baddie. The script by Glenn A. Bruce hits all of the beats that you'd expect, with a lot of good humour here and there, and also makes some predictable mis-steps (the dialogue between the two brothers is pretty cheesy and bad, and a sexual assault is thrown into the script in a way that feels like nothing more than an extra motivator for our hero).

Directors Mark DiSalle and David Worth do good work (considering the filmography of both men, this may remain their best directorial effort) and they seem to know how to just follow the simple script, keep the pace moving along in between training and fight scenes, and let their star do what viewers have paid to see him do.

Van Damme has a lot of fun onscreen, not least of all in THAT dancing scene, and it's not surprising that he would spend the next five years being one of the big headline stars in the action genre. Dennis Chan is a lot of fun as the eccentric teacher, Haskell V. Anderson III is also enjoyable as Winston, a stranger who becomes a good friend to Kurt, and Rochelle Ashana does quite well as Xian Chow's niece, Mylee. Alexio and Qissi aren't anywhere near as good, but they aren't called upon to do much more than look mean and angry most of the time.

It may not be the very best from Van Damme but Kickboxer is definitely top-tier stuff for fans of the star. The fights, the montage sequences, the cheesy/wonderful soundtrack, the splits - this has all of the right ingredients to satisfy your cinematic fast food craving.


Get some here.

Monday, 4 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Cyborg (1989)

I always try to offer up my reviews of movies based simply on my own feelings, where I am whenever I watch (or previously watched) the film, and perhaps some context about the world at large, especially if the film is making a point about a certain time and place. These things may not seem obvious in any review, and are often unnecessary, but my approach remains the same. I try not to mention box office results or critical receptions, unless they feel relevant in terms of how others may already be feeling biased for or against the movie. Cyborg is no exception. I don't even know how it did when it was released, but I know how I reacted to it.

I was disappointed. Having previously seen Jean-Claude Van Damme in more standard "underdog does good" storylines (because I didn't see his films in order, I saw the crowd-pleasers before the rest of his work), I wasn't ready for Cyborg. I wanted more fights, I wanted a lighter tone, and I wanted Van Damme to more easily look like the hero I already knew him to be.

Thankfully, I have revisited this film a few times over the past few decades, and my opinion of it has only grown. Writer-director Albert Pyun may prefer that you watch his alternate cut, AKA Slinger, but I have only ever seen this version, and this version works for me.

It's the future. The world has been transformed by a deadly plague. Most people would hope for a cure, and one woman (Pearl, played by Dayle Haddon) may have it, but a marauding madman named Fender Tremolo (Vincent Klyn) likes things just as they are. He has his acolytes, gets to indulge in plenty of violence, and gets to wander around with a loyal band of like-minded followers. When Pearl ends up in, ummmm, peril, Van Damme becomes a reluctant hero. He cannot stop her from ultimately being snatched up by the gang of villains but he sets out to rescue her, and also the planet, accompanied by a young woman named Nady (Deborah Richter).

Although clearly a messy and flawed film, Cyborg remains one of the most interesting outings in the early years of  Van Damme's career. It's tonally dark, it's choppy, and a number of scenes are poorly lit, but there's an unpleasantness to the violence that lends this an edge when compared to other movies starring The Muscles From Brussels. In fact, a few scenes feel more like horror movie moments than sci-fi action.

The acting isn't too bad. Van Damme isn't asked to do too much, Klyn is impressively menacing and cruel as the main villain, and Richter and Haddon are both okay. Haley Peterson does well, and deserves a mention here. She plays a character last seen by Rickenbacker when she was a child, and gives a silent performance that reveals her character in flashbacks contrasting with how she is in the present.

Pyun at least tries to give viewers something a bit different, while pleasing both JCVD fans and people who enjoy post-apocalyptic action adventures, and he largely succeeds (if you dismiss the initial opinions of demanding younger teens like me). I would, of course, have much preferred to see Pyun's take on He-Man and Spider-Man, which were the Cannon projects on the slate before deals fell through and this film was hurried into creation as a replacement, but I am now happy enough to have this as a dark and interesting sci-fi action movie.


Albert Pyun would prefer you to buy this disc.
And you can support/contact Albert Pyun directly here.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Black Eagle (1988)

One of those films that would have been rightly forgotten if not for the fact that it could be repackaged and sold on  Jean-ClaudeVan Damme's name, Black Eagle is one of those action movies from the '80s that is both a bit of a mess and, more unforgivably, quite dull.

The plot revolves around some secret device that has been shot down and is now lying beneath the lovely waters that surround Malta. The KGB are keen to get their hands on it, and have a handy tough guy (played by Van Damme) to help them.  America, on the other hand, has a reluctant super-agent (Ken Tani, played by Sho Kosugi) who only ends up taking the mission when he finds out that his young kids have been taken to Malta already. They're being watched by an agent named Patricia Parker (Doran Clark), who seems to be remarkably chipper about her babysitting assignment.

Director Eric Karson only helmed a handful of features, and writers A. E. Peters and Michael Gonzalez only have this full film to their credit, and the reasons why become more and more obvious as the film plays out. This is bad. Not bad in an amusing way, and not bad but saved by the action sequences, it's just bad.

For something so simple, Peters and Gonzalez really get themselves distracted far too often. There are too many scenes featuring Kosugi interacting with his children (played by his real children, Kane Kosugi and Shane Kosugi) and not enough building of tension, or even direct confrontations between the goodies and the baddies.

Karson wastes the potential of his two "leads", although he cannot do much to lift the script anyway, and there are maybe two scenes that showcase some decent fighting moves, which is especially disappointing for those who know what the martial artists are capable of.

I can't say that the acting makes up for the failings elsewhere. Both Kosugi and Van Damme are better with their hands and feet than with their range of emoting, although the latter has shown some decent range in more relatively recent fare, and there aren't many other characters worth bothering about. Clark does well in her thankless role, the younger members of the Kosugi family are at least able to act naturally like the kids they are, and Dorota Puzio plays the villainous female counterpart to Clark (although she does little more than watch the violence occasionally and sleep with Van Damme).

It goes without saying that you can find much better films if you need some Sho Kosugi or Van Damme passing before your eyes, but I would also say that you can find much better films starring some people that you've never heard of, or people who have spent some time on the lower rungs of the fame ladder (Don 'The Dragon' Wilson, Mark Dacascos, Michael Dudikoff, etc).


Here's a disc.
Americans can get a special edition here.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: Bloodsport (1988)

*If you have deja vu, this review originally appeared on Flickfeast.co.uk*

Jean-Claude Van Damme was no overnight success, but audiences in the late ’80s and early ’90s may not have realised that. He’d gone from small parts in lesser movies (a couple of uncredited extra roles, including his scene from Breakin’, the part of "gay karate man" in a tame skin flick, and a villain – his biggest role – in the fun No Retreat, No Surrender) to ruling the action movie roost, mainly thanks to the one-two knockout of Bloodsport and Kickboxer.

Bloodsport is all about a martial arts tournament, The Kumite, in which various contestants use their various disciplines to try and defeat everyone else. It’s as simple as that. Each round is one on one, the last man standing wins. Van Damme is a man named Frank Dux (pronounced “Dukes”) who has taken leave from the military to participate. He wants to honour his master, much to the annoyance of the military folks who don’t want him to get majorly damaged. This means that Frank has to fight his fights while also staying out of the hands of the military men out to cut short his time in the tournament.

It’s hard to believe that it took three people – Sheldon Lettich, Christopher Cosby and Mel Friedman – to write this movie. It’s so simple, so by-the-numbers, that it doesn’t seem as if much effort was put into it at all. Of course, if it all seemed effortless then that would be quite a compliment, but that’s not quite what I mean. It seems as if a number of points had to be included in the story, but the structure is clumsy and lazy (with the flashbacks during the first third of the movie almost being enough to turn some viewers off, in my opinion).

Director Newt Arnold doesn’t have to break a sweat either, but he’s covered by the fact that he has Van Damme in the starring role. The man may have had his ups and downs over the years, but when he was near the top of the action star ladder he was damn good value. He’s given great support from Donald Gibb, playing a fellow fighter who becomes a friend, and the mighty Bolo Yeung is impressively villainous. Leah Ayres is the female reporter trying to get the scoop on the tournament, and Forest Whitaker and Norman Burton are the two army men assigned to retrieve our hero.

There’s a cheesy song or two on the soundtrack, one rousing track that’s actually quite decent, and at least three separate montage sequences (a training montage, a fighting montage and a “struggling with emotions externalised as clips from what viewers have just been watching” montage). But hey, despite these things, this remains a cracking action movie from the eighties, and one of the best star vehicles for the charismatic Van Damme.


This all-region blu is probably your best option.

Friday, 1 June 2018

June-Claude Van Damme: No Retreat, No Surrender (1986)

What do you get if you mix The Karate Kid with Rocky IV, add a few funky dance moves, and then risk the ire of Bruce Lee fans by having his ghost portrayed onscreen by . . . someone who looks quite Asian? You get No Retreat, No Surrender.

Jason (Kurt McKinney) is an eager karate student who sometimes gets carried away while fighting in his father's dojo. He idolises Bruce Lee and hopes to one day be on a par with the man. His father (Scott, played by Timothy D. Baker) is always trying to remind him that karate is a discipline, and not necessarily all about fighting like Bruce Lee, but that lesson is even harder for Jason to accept when his father is visited by mobsters and has a fair amount of damage inflicted upon him by a brutal and skilled Russian fighter named Ivan (Jean-Claude Van Damme). The family relocates to Seattle, Jason is befriended by a boy named R. J. Madison (J. W. Fails), and it's not too long until the ghost of Bruce Lee appears to teach Jason how to be a much better fighter, just in time for a grand finale that sees the mobsters, and Ivan, reappear.

If I spent this review listing the aspects of No Retreat, No Surrender that are absolutely ridiculous then you would end up reading an article of approximately 5000 words. Because it's nonsense from start to finish, and starts to get more nonsensical, and a lot more fun, once the main characters move into their new home. Whether it's R. J. busting out his breakdancing skills, interactions with a bully who rarely stops stuffing his face (Kent Lipham), or Jason working on his karate that he thinks is good enough until being shown how much he has to improve by "Bruce Lee", this is a film that at least ensures viewers are never bored.

McKinney, Baker, and Fails may not have gone on to become major stars but I hope they can be happy enough in the knowledge that they put the work in here to keep the likes of me and my friends happily entertained for many hours when we discovered, and shared, this on VHS.

The script, by Keith W. Strandberg (based on a story by Ng See-yuen and director Corey Yuen), is almost childishly simplistic in between the action moments. There are memorable characters throughout, even if they are amusing caricatures, but the villains really just seem to be there to motivate and develop our young lead, and the good guys are never as charismatic as evil, grimacing, Van Damme.

At least Yuen throws enough martial arts in the mix to please action fans, with every punch and kick accompanied by authentic sound effects (well . . .  they would be authentic if everyone involved was made of wood). The fighting may be as silly, in many ways, as the rest of the film but at least it's enjoyably energetic and in line with a lot of other martial arts movie moments from this time.


This is the set to get.
American friends, get the blu here.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Wish Upon (2017)

Here are some things that can almost guarantee I watch a film: zombies, sharks, time travel, Diora Baird, and wishes that are granted in deviously twisted ways. So I knew that I would see Wish Upon eventually, despite hearing plenty of negative opinions on it, and it was only the concept that sold me. I was unaware of writer Barbara Marshall. I wasn't exactly blown away by the filmography of director John R. Leonetti (who bagged the Annabelle gig, and scored a hit there). And although I recognise lead actress Joey King, I don't know her well enough to seek out or avoid anything that she stars in.

King plays Clare Shannon, a young girl who isn't doing too well in life. Her schooldays are quite miserable, her father (Ryan Phillipe) spends most of his days scavenging from bins for items to renovate or sell on (I guess), and she gazes lovingly at a hunky fella (Paul, played by Mitchell Slaggert) who hasn't looked her way in years. She does at least have two loyal best friends (played by Sydney Park and Shannon Purser) but not much else. But everything changes when she finds a magical box that grants wishes. Those wishes come at a cost, of course, but Clare has already been seduced by a better life by the time she realises the big picture.

Starting off with an enjoyably twisted wish (Clare just wants someone to rot away), things start subtly enough to allow the film to build and build with each wish. The fact that the main characters go throughout approximately half of the movie just thinking everything is the result of an overdue deluge of good luck is ridiculous, and writer Marshall could have tried harder there, but it's easy to forgive the failings of the film as we start to watch one tease after another, wondering if people will live or die in sequences that wouldn't feel out of place in a Final Destination movie. Admittedly, tension is diluted while viewers can laugh at people sliding their hands into garbage disposal units, moving under cars that are jacked up while a tyre is being changed, or just helping someone go to work on a tree branch with the most unsafe chainsawing set-up possible, but it's all still good fun.

King is okay in the lead role, with Park and Purser both likable enough as her friends, and Slaggert does okay in a role that really sees him unwittingly under the spell of one of the wishes. Ki Hong Lee is also enjoyable enough, playing a student who ends up helping Clare try to solve the mysterious origin of the box. It's odd to see Phillipe in the dad role, despite the fact that he may have been in that age bracket for a few years now, but he does well enough, and Sherilyn Fenn gets some screentime too, which will always make me happy.

Leonetti keeps things pretty teen-friendly, neither elevating nor dragging down the average script, and the concept should please anyone who, like me, already thinks they might derive some pleasure from it. Once past the first third, which sets up the characters and shows the box starting off small before growing and growing, in terms of the price paid for wishes, this provides solid entertainment.

Oh, and if anyone ever makes a movie in which a time travelling zombie shark tries to entrap the soulof Diora Baird by offering her a number of wishes that won't pan out as she wants them to . . . . . . show me where to buy my tickets.


You can buy the film on shiny disc here.
Americans can get the blu here.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Insidious: The Last Key (2018)

Look, even if you're a huge fan of Insidious (as I am), it's hard to argue against the idea that it wasn't a horror movie that felt designed to kick off a long-running series. The second film was good, although already felt at times as if it was repeating a few of the tricks that the original had done so well, and the third film, while enjoyable enough, was too far removed from the previous events to really win over fans.

So now we're at the fourth (and final?) instalment, and where does it sit in comparison to the other entries? Well, it's not bad. It's still a step removed from the first films, yet it feels closer to them than that third chapter.

Lin Shaye returns as Elise Rainier, the psychic who can battle ghosts and demonic forces most people cannot see. She's once again joined by Specs (played by writer Leigh Wannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), but she would much rather enjoy a quiet life than put herself through any more strain and horribly perilous "adventures". That looks unlikely, however, when she gets a call from someone (Ted, played by Kirk Acevedo) who believes that his house is haunted. It happens to be the house that Elise lived in when she was a young girl, and she knows how bad it is there. So she sets off to help Ted, perhaps looking for some closure at the same time.

The Insidious series certainly benefits from having Leigh Wannell writing each instalment. He's okay in front of the camera, but it's the writing that is clearly his forte. Like the best of these slick, modern, mainstream horrors, Insidious: The Last Key lays out plenty of details in the earlier scenes to pick them up again later, when the scares are being delivered. Learning more about Elise, how she was as a youngster when discovering her "gift", works very well, thanks to it being a character that viewers have now journeyed with for some time, and also thanks to the third act developments.

Adam Robitel is the director this time, and he does a perfectly acceptable job. This relies more on jump scares than the first couple of movies (I know they were accused by many of having no atmosphere, I disagree) but they're done very well, with one or two moments of impressively creepy imagery that may well stay in your mind long after the end credits have rolled.

As for the cast, forget about everyone else onscreen and enjoy Lin Shaye, a woman who has been in many horror movies over the years and has now been the unexpected lynchpin of this successful series. She never gives less than 100% in her portrayal of Elise, even in scenes that try to let Wannell and Sampson lighten things up a bit with some awkward comedy. Bruce Davison is also as good as ever, but is onscreen for about one or two minutes, and you get decent enough performances from Acevedo, Caitlin Gerard, Spencer Locke, Josh Stewart, and Tessa Ferrer, among others.

If you've seen the other films then you should give this one a watch. It's completely unnecessary, and could have been improved by removing a couple of the characters, but it's still solid entertainment.


You can buy this here.
Americans can buy it here.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Extreme Movie (2008)

Extreme Movie is a teen sex comedy that has one central, slim, storyline punctuated by a variety of sketches. I wanted to review it here, but I also knew that it would be a tough one to write about because, well, there really isn't that much to it. It's not even worth discussing the cast, who aren't really asked to do too much but do well enough by just going along with the many ridiculous ideas scattered throughout.

The main "plot" of the film concerns Mike (Ryan Pinkston), a shy young teenager who might just get his long-awaited chance to make his move on the lovely Stacy (Cherilyn Wilson) as the two spend time together in a sex education class being taught by Mr Matthews (John Farley), the kind of teacher who swears in his opening statement to prove that he is down with the kids and not like all of those other, stuffy, teachers.

Directed by Adam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobson, who also wrote some of the screenplay, Extreme Movie is competently put together. It feels strange when you get the first transition but once viewers are clued into the fact that this is a film made up of various sketches then it's all much easier to enjoy.

I am not going to mention all of the writers, there are about ten credited, but contributors include Will Forte, Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Phil Lord, and Christopher Miller. Some of those names may already let you know if you're going to like or dislike the film, but you may also be influenced by the fact that you don't have the same level of mental immaturity as I do.

The best skits are the more absurd ones. Highlights include a boy (Andy Milonakis) who goes through an entire relationship cycle with a, ummmm, super-realistic and anatomically-correct sex toy, a puppet appearing to talk to a horny boy about the need to deal with his blue balls, and the opening skit that shows Frankie Muniz and Ashley Schneider looking to take things to the next level in their relationship. And I'd better not forget to mention the hilarious skit featuring Michael Cera in a bit of roleplay that goes from bad to worse.

There are also fun interludes with Matthew Lillard giving the worst possible advice to young men, and a few "Street Corner Confessions" that lead to some good punchlines. It's puerile stuff, I'm not going to argue that point, but it made me laugh. Which is more than can be said about a lot of comedies with the word "movie" in the title.


Here's A disc you can buy.
Americans can buy it here.

Monday, 28 May 2018

Hackers (1995)

You know what all the cool kids were up to in the 1990s? They were showing off their computer hacking skills, whizzing around on rollerblades, listening to The Prodigy, and playing pre-release versions of Wipeout (not the gameshow, the classic Playstation game). How do I know this, despite not being one of the cool kids at that time? Because that's what every one of the leads does in Hackers, and this is a film populated almost exclusively by characters deemed to be cool.

There's a dangerous virus that threatens major harm to a big corporation, unless a payment of $25M is made, and things have been set up to pin the blame on a bunch of teenage hackers. Jonny Lee Miller is Dade, Angelina Jolie is Kate, Jesse Bradford is Joey, Matthew Lillard is Cereal, Laurence Mason is Nikon, and Renoly Santiago is Phreak. They're the good guys. Fisher Stevens is a man who works for the big company being threatened, and he likes to go by the name The Plague. He's not with the good guys. Nor is Agent Dick Gill (played by Wendell Pierce). To be fair, the hackers don't do much to make themselves look innocent as the authorities try to get to the bottom of this major, dangerous, security breach.

Hackers is ridiculous. It's a number of cool and funky moments strung together by an unbelievable plot that surely felt dated just a few years after it was initially released. The script by Rafael Moreu alternates between amusing and cringe-inducing, and director Iain Softley doesn't do anything in half measures, whether it's the fashion choices, soundtrack, or graphic design displaying the hacking sequences (main headshot of character, camera rotates around, and keystrokes and symbols are illuminated around them). But that's not necessarily the wrong way to treat this material, which is why the ridiculousness of it all ends up making it a fun viewing experience.

The relatively young cast helps, with a lot of likable performers on the cusp of reaching the next level in terms of success and recognisability (both Miller and Lillard would do very well just a year later, with Trainspotting and Scream, respectively). Miller is a lot of fun in the lead role, the cocky outsider who quickly gets in with the hacking clique, Jolie is some kind of ubercool cyber-pixie, and everyone else does their best to show that they're separate from the non-hacking plebicites that surround them. Fisher Stevens is also a lot of fun in his role, all arrogance and disdain for those around him, Wendell Pierce does well, and Lorraine Bracco is good with her underwritten role. And you even get a small role for Penn Jillette, and a fleeting cameo from Dave "Eurythmics" Stewart.

Although it's never going to be a film that you first think of when wanting something to watch for an evening, you could do a lot worse than this. It knows exactly what it is, it is very much of the time it was made, and it's difficult to hate. I enjoyed it, and I wouldn't rule out rewatching it at some point.


YES, I just pre-ordered this release.
Americans can pick up this one.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Accident Man (2018)

If you look back through the filmography of director Jesse V. Johnson it doesn't really have anything that marks him out as someone you can rely on to deliver solid film fun. I might be being very unfair there, having not yet actually seen any of his other movies, but that's just how it is. But having now seen Accident Man, and enjoyed it, I may have to give some of his earlier movies a shot.

I decided to give this a go because of Scott Adkins in the main role. Adkins is a decent action star and I hadn't seen him in anything for a while. And it was a Saturday night with nothing planned.

Mike Fallon (Adkins) is a contract killer who specialises in making the deaths look like accidents, or sometimes suicides. He works for a firm that also employs other killers, all with their particular styles (one uses poison, one generally just goes mental with an axe, etc), and all is going well enough until Fallon's ex-girlfriend is murdered. It was obviously a professional job, although made to look like a random burglary gone wrong, and Fallon can't contain his anger, which leads to him questioning the people who work alongside him. And when I say questioning them I actually mean fighting them until he finds out information that leads him to fight someone else.

Based on a comic book, with a screenplay co-written by Adkins and Stu Small, this is an unpretentious little film that should keep action movie fans delighted from start to finish. The humour of the material doesn't always work, which is the fault of both the script and the delivery of the dialogue, and you have to kiss goodbye to any idea of believability, but none of that matters when the fights are happening.

As well as our leading man, you also get Michael Jai White, Ray Park, Ross O'Hennessy, Amy Johnston, and Ray Stevenson all impressing with their physicality onscreen. The most impressive moments involve Adkins, White, and Park, but everyone has at least one decent moment, and Johnston stands out as the lone female who is more than a match for the men around her. There are also roles for David Paymer and Ashley Greene, as well as a cameo for Nick Moran, and they're all decent, if a lot less involved in the punching and kicking sequences.

Johnson doesn't really do much to take this up another notch, although I'm not sure how much more he could do when you consider the limitations of the leading man (Adkins has got the moves but he sometimes falters with other aspects of acting like . . . well . . . acting), but it's also worth noting that he doesn't do anything to ruin the whole experience. Sometimes that is more than enough.

Accident Man has quite a few faults, undeniably, but they're easy to overlook if you're looking specifically for the kind of violent entertainment that this absolutely delivers.


There's a DVD here.
Americans can get a Blu here.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

A Fistful Of Dynamite (1971)

AKA Duck, You Sucker.

A film from Sergio Leone that manages to fit in a lot of his usual tricks while also feeling a step removed from his better-known works, A Fistful Of Dynamite is his most comedic movie, and yet it doesn't skimp on the moments of explosive violence (literally).

James Coburn plays John, the Irish "rebel" who is happily driving around Mexico on his motorbike until he crosses paths with a Mexican bandit (Juan, played by Rod Steiger). The initial encounter quickly reveals John's skill with explosives, something that Juan can see being very useful as he thinks about a particularly rich bank he has wanted to rob for some time. John is reluctant to help, to put it mildly, but the two soon form an unlikely alliance, leading them on a path that will get them more involved with the Mexican Revolution, to the apparent delight of John and despair of Juan.

Once again, Leone shows that he knows who to pick for his leading roles. Although I have limited exposure to both Coburn and Steiger (sad, I know), both men quickly beguile viewers here with their laid-back acting styles and natural charisma. Coburn possibly edges ahead, but Steiger features in more of the comedic moments, and plays them wonderfully. This is very much a mismatched "buddy" movie and therefore relies on the chemistry of the leads, both individually and as they interact with one another, so the casting of Coburn and Steiger plays a huge part in how enjoyable this is. The rest of the cast are decent enough, although there's a lack of some of the memorable supporting players who populated the "Dollars" trilogy. Romolo Valli has some good moments, David Warbeck is an important figure in a number of flashback sequences, and Antoine Saint-John is the main villain of the piece (although there is really more than one, and just how bad they are is relative to your own views on morality and treachery).

Despite the focus here being on explosions rater than gunshots, the structure is similar to what we have seen from Leone in his other movies. Each set-piece seems to feel a bit bigger than the previous one, culminating in a grand finale that supercedes everything that came beforehand while still taking the time to reveal some more about one of the central characters, and what has motivated them throughout the entire film.

It looks very good, as you would expect, and many people enjoy the Ennio Morricone score (although I wasn't all that taken with it), but there's nothing here that puts it on a par with any of the other masterpieces from Leone. Not to say that the film is bad, it just doesn't reach the ridiculously high standards set by the man in charge. I absolutely recommend people give it a watch, it's probably the least-seen of Leone's filmography, and it's one that I can also see as an easy choice to revisit and enjoy. It's just not a classic, but they can't all be classics.


Here's a nice disc release.
American amigos can get a blu here.

Friday, 25 May 2018

There's Always Tomorrow (1955)

Although the treatment of the material shows the restraint and sensitive handling dictated by the era in which it was made, this Douglas Sirk movie is yet another timeless classic that focuses on love and infatuation, and shows how these things can be damaged or nurtured, depending on the circumstances.

Fred MacMurray plays Clifford Groves, a toymaker who is blessed with a lovely wife (Joan Bennett) and children who seem to be turning into fine young adults. Clifford is content, and his family are in that happy space which leads to them taking a lot of their situation for granted. Things start to change when Clifford reconnects with a childhood friend, Norma Miller Vale (Barbara Stanwyck), and it looks like our leading man could be heading down a slippery slope towards temptation, and the ruination of his marriage.

I don't care who you are, or how consistently blissful you have been in the main relationship of your life, There's Always Tomorrow resonates just as much today as it must have when first released back in the mid-1950s.

Sirk directs with his usual capable touch, working from a screenplay by Bernard C. Schoenfeld (better known for TV fare that tends to focus on thrills and/or action), which was developed from a story by Ursula Parrot (previously made into a movie in 1934). Considering how effective the film is at showing how easily cracks can start to spread through a contented family household, I'd be interested to read the source material. There's no doubt that everyone involved does their part to sell the film but it's so full of little moments of truth that I have to assume the novel reads even better.

MacMurray is wonderful in a role that allows him to play a relatively average guy. He's not made out to be devastatingly handsome, nor is he shown to be any kind of ladies man. He's just quite a sweet, hard-working, man who takes umbrage at people casting aspersions on his friendship with a woman before starting to consider the other roads his life could take. Stanwyck is also very good, also not being sold as a beautiful seductress. Her appeal is based on her obvious affection for her friend, and a lifestyle that's a step or two removed from the everyday "humdrum" family life. William Reynolds and Gigi  Perreau play the older children who start to suspect the behaviour of their father, and Joan Bennett does a marvellous job in what could easily have been a thankless role. She's a loving, caring wife who just isn't always to schedule things in a way that gives her more time with her husband.

Unlike so many other films that have wandered through similar territory, there are no villains here, no easy moments for viewers to point to and really declare "aha, that is the cause". No, what you get here is a steady build up of sadness, perceived neglect, and a questioning of love: how much effort does it take, is chemistry any real alternative to a full life made together, and does finally considering loss make it easier to appreciate what you have? Things many of us go through at least once during a serious relationship.


This is NOT in this lovely set. But buy that set anyway.
Americans may wish to try out this disc, but there's a better UK version available here.