The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The War Wagon

I love westerns. I love heist movies. They're two of my favorite genres. So what happens when you combine the two? And throw in two of my all-time favorite actors? Oh,'s a movie nerd alert!!! With just an air of fun hanging over the whole story and production, it's hard not to get on-board and truly enjoy the 1967 western The War Wagon.

Fresh out of jail after serving a three-year sentence for a crime he didn't commit, former rancher Taw Jackson (John Wayne) heads home with revenge on his mind. Framed by a local businessman and landowner, Pierce (Bruce Cabot), Jackson wants to exact revenge where it hurts most...Pierce's gold mine. The attempt would seem suicidal though, Pierce paying for an armor-plated wagon outfitted with a Gatling gun and guarded by 33 outriders that transports the gold from the mine to the train station that would prove to be a major deterrent to any would-be robbers. Jackson isn't about to give up though, but he does need some help, including an unlikely partnership with a hired gun named Lomax (Kirk Douglas) with whom he's had a deadly rivalry in the past and has the bullet wounds to prove it. With a small team of fellow crooks, Taw puts his plan into action to rob the armor-plated wagon, the War Wagon. But just how in hell is he going to pull this off successfully without getting shot full of holes?

This is a movie that's just hard not to like. It was a staple on AMC and TNT growing up so I saw it many times, and it's one I always look forward to revisiting every so often. This last time, well, it had been quite awhile. From tough guy director (and a Wayne favorite) Burt Kennedy, 'War' is one of those perfectly straightforward westerns with no pretensions about the changing times or a revisionist view. It's F-U-N, plain and simple, mixing so effortlessly that western setting with a heist story. Put a crew together, give them a crazy, no way in hell this works mission, and let things fall where they may. Not the best, but one of the most purely entertaining westerns to come out of the decade.

So John Wayne and...Kirk Douglas. Please and THANK YOU. The duo had worked previously together in 1965's In Harm's Way and 1966's Cast a Giant Shadow, but this is the best pairing because it just lets these two pros go to work. Yeah, the heist is fun throughout, but you watch this movie for any and all scenes between Wayne and Douglas. The dialogue crackles between them, a rivalry that treads that fine line between joking and deadly serious. There's some genuine menace in the chemistry, but you just sit back and watch things develop. The best part? They're clearly having a blast. An underrated comedic actor to begin with, Wayne gets to show off his funny chops with some great line deliveries, and Douglas is the perfect foil as Lomax, a hired gun who's a bit of a dandy but takes his job supremely seriously, especially with so much potential money on the line. You couldn't ask for a better star duo to lead the adventure film.

Any good heist needs a good heist team so who to look out for? Certainly a motley crew of crooks, including the very white Howard Keel as Levi Walking Bear, Keenan Wynn as Wes, an employee of Pierce's, and Robert Walker Jr. as Billy, an explosives expert with a drinking problem. A Wayne friend and favorite, Cabot looks to be having a ball as Pierce, the sneering, menacing crook with a whole bunch of power. Also cool to see background player Don Collier get a more visible part as Pierce's right-hand man. Also look for Joanna BarnesValora NolandBruce DernChuck Roberson (Wayne's stunt double), Emilio Fernandez, and Gene Evans rounding out the cast.

'Wagon' has a lot of little things going for it that combined make for a significantly better flick. Durango, Mexico was one of Wayne's favorite filming locations including Sons of Katie Elder, The Train Robbers, Chisum and here with 'Wagon.' The Mexican mountains and wilderness provide an intimidating, authentic backdrop to the story. Dimitri Tiomkin's score is a gem, big and booming, perfect for an adventure story and one that instantly screams 'Oh, yeah, that's Tiomkin music.' Lastly, an oh so perfectly bad theme song that you can listen to HERE. It's awful, but my goodness, is it ever catchy. I defy you to watch the movie and not to be humming along to the theme days later.

But, ah yes, the heist. There's hints along the way of what Taw, Lomax and Co. are up to, but nothing too specific. So like the best heist movies, as the caper develops, we're in the dark to the exact details, all of that adding a sense of mystery to the proceedings. Nothing too crazy here other than a matter of split-second timing, some dumb luck, and one rather prominent plot hole if you ask me. But there's no point in ripping it to pieces too hard. This is a movie that's meant to be a hell of a lot of fun, and it succeeds throughout on that premise. Wayne and Douglas are pitch perfect together and look to be having a ball.

Sit back, enjoy and let that fun take over from there.

The War Wagon (1967): ***/****
Rewrite of February 2009 review

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Three the Hard Way

In this day and age, it seems the world is tearing itself apart from the inside. The killing, the hate, the violence, it seems worse than ever, especially when it comes to race relations. Where am I heading with this with a movie review? As bad as race relations may have been in the past in the United States, movies were still able to have some fun (in some instances, much, much harsher views) with cliches and stereotypes. Take 1974's Three the Hard Way. It's a movie that instantly gained a cult following, but my goodness, I can't see a like-minded movie hitting theaters in 2015.

Living in Los Angeles, Jimmy Lait (Jim Brown) is a successful music producer who's thrown a curve when an old friend shows up dying on his doorstep, all the while mumbling something about someone promising to "kill them all." Jimmy doesn't make much of it until the friend is murdered while recovering in a hospital. He turns to two friends, Jagger Daniels (Fred Williamson) and Mister Keyes (Jim Kelly), a karate expert, for help, and the three follow the evidence to a startling conclusion. A white supremacist group has developed a serum that when placed in waterwill kill any black person who drinks that water, all within 72 hours. The whites? They remain untouched, an ethnic cleansing just waiting to be unleashed. Time is running out, and with three release points -- Washington D.C., Detroit and Los Angeles -- Jimmy, Jagger and Mister are racing the clock.

Wow. Just wow. What an amazing mess of a movie. I'm all for cult favorites, whole cult genres, and count spaghetti westerns as one of my all-time favorites. 'Three' comes from the blaxploitation genre, well, sorta according to director Gordon Parks Jr. This was a genre aimed at African-American audiences, focusing on the black culture, the black hero and for better or dumb, stupid and/or evil us white folks are. There's a style, a cool factor to these movies that permeates itself through the stories regardless of how goofy (and/or dumb) the stories might get. And let me tell you, this one is D-U-M-B. Thankfully, the cast is pretty cool and there's basically non-stop action through the second half of this flick.

Sometimes, a cool cast can cancel out a whole lot of badness, and that's at least partially the case here. It's really, really cool to see Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and Jim Kelly working together. The trio is having a ton of fun to the point the script....well, gets thrown by the wayside. It's three guys B.S.'ing each other, shooting the breeze, with lots of cool "jive" talk. Am I using that word correctly? Huh? Anyone? Okay, moving on. These are three actors capable of carrying an action-driven movie on their own so when you combine them you create UNSTOPPABLE AMOUNTS OF AWESOME. The trio kicks a lot of ass, gets a lot of action in the bedroom and assorted other places and yes, saves the entire African-American community from a dastardly fate that sounds like something ripped out of a D-level James Bond movie or the worst kind of 1960s espionage/intrigue. Blah blah blah cool heroes kicking ass!!!

Seriously though, that story. It's amazing. The villain's name is Monroe Feather (Jay Robinson), and he's obsessed with wiping out all black people in America. There's Doctor Fortrero (Richard Angarola), a brilliant physician who's developed the concoction that can only kill blacks while leaving whites and other races unharmed. And yeah, he looks unkempt and crazy. Too many scenes to count where they talk about their evil, master plan, too many hilarious scenes in general. Obviously, it's meant to be stereotyped and over-the-top and goofy, but this is just great stuff. None of it is to be taken even remotely seriously. Just sit back and laugh. Also look for Sheila Frazier as Jimmy's loving girlfriend, captured and taken as a hostage by Feather and his small army of inept enforcers. Even 1970's thug Alex Rocco comes around to act tough but really do nothing.

Where 'Three' differentiates itself is its action. Things are a little slow-going through the first 40 minutes or so as things are laid out, but once our triumvirate of heroes are introduced and's ass-kicking time!!! They split up and head to our three choke points (D.C., L.A., and Detroit) where they stumble into a world where only action cliches can survive. Our heroes hit everything they aim at while whole squads of bad guys can't hit a the broadside of a barn if their life depended on it (and it does). When it comes to hand-to-hand combat, the bad guys attack one at a time rather than rushing and overpowering their opponent. In the process, an impressive body count is racked up. It ends up being pretty fun along the way.

Overall, things are pretty disjointed, brief scenes of dialogue holding the action together. We get some male bonding in between mixed in with some horrifically odd. Case in point? Three topless women -- three dominatrix -- torture a suspect until he can't handle anymore...and dies. From what though? Seriously, from what? Fear of holding off sexual release? It's a baffling, hilarious scene. There's a whole lot of that mixed in with some very cool location shooting, including some great shots of 1970's Chicago. Fun soundtrack from The Impressions and generally a sense of "Screw you" if you're not on-board. It's not good -- not by a long shot -- but it is mindlessly entertaining because it is so freakishly bad. And seriously, how does Jim Kelly dispatch villains so easily while wearing whole outfits made entirely of leather? One of those mysteries we'll never know the answer to I guess. Too bad...

Three the Hard Way (1974): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, November 26, 2015

City of Industry

I kinda knew the definition of the term but would have had trouble describing it. So thank you much, Internet, I looked up the term 'neo-noir.' The meaning? A film that uses the similar jumping off point of the classic film noir movies from the late 1940's and into the 1950's while adding something new, something fresh in terms of style or story that wasn't readily available. Today's neo-noir, 1997's City of Industry.

In Palm Springs, ex-con Lee Egan (Timothy Hutton) has bought his way into a potentially highly lucrative heist, one that could net over $3 million. His friend, Jorge (Wade Dominguez), is on-board to help with Lee's brother, Roy (Harvey Keitel), even agreeing to come out of retirement with such a payday awaiting them. Rounding out Lee's crew is their getaway driver, the fiery, feisty Skip (Stephen Dorff). What is the job exactly? Black market diamonds are scheduled to arrive at a Palm Springs diamond broker with a Russian mobster arriving to pick them up. While there's always the potential for craziness and the unexpected, this job seems pretty straightforward if potentially very dangerous. Lee, Roy and Co. go about putting all the pieces together, but with that much money on the line, you can never really fully trust anyone...can you?

So neo-noir, it's one of those weird descriptions. It's vague really, allowing for some personal interpretations depending on the film. When I think of it, I think of movies like the hyper-violent, hyper-stylized flicks like Drive and To Live and Die in L.A. (of which I loved both a whole freaking lot). 'City' is more traditional to its noir roots with its bleak, downright unpleasant world full of betrayals and back-stabbings where money is not only a powerful motivator; it may be the only motivator. I'd never heard of this crime drama from director John Irvin, but it's certainly an interesting flick. 

'City' is an interesting finished product. With its opening credits, I thought I was getting into an uber-stylish crime drama. Hyper-fast editing, black and white photography mixed with color photography, it felt like quite a scene-setter. A bit misleading because Irvin's film isn't that stylish. Hmm, what word to use instead? Let's say grim. Downright grim. This isn't a stylish criminal underworld where small-time crooks win in the end. This is a bloody, betrayal-riddled world where loyalty comes cheap and usually ends up with a knife/bullet (Your choice!) in your back. That lack of all hope reminded me some of so many French crime dramas where there's a sense of doom and foreboding that the characters seem fully aware of...but continue on regardless. Through all that bloody chaos, there's a hard-fought honor among thieves.

Who better to bring that to the forefront that one of the coolest actors ever, Mr. Harvey Keitel! I'd watch the man read a telephone book so watching him take a crack at a mostly silent anti-hero is a step above for me! Keitel's Roy is all business even when it comes to working with his brother, giving him no slack. He's a professional, a businessman when it comes to pulling a job. It's only in the second half of the movie when the story takes a severe turn do we see the depths Roy will go to when he's been wronged. Like the best anti-heroes, Keitel makes it look effortless. He steals scenes without doing much at all, but his presence alone carries whole stretches of movies. When there are outbursts -- whether it be emotionally or physically -- it comes out like a volcano erupting. Little warning but when you see it happen...just watch out. Excellent leading part for Mr. Keitel.

There's no huge star power here for 'City' but what's there is choice. Dorff is excellent at playing the possibly unhinged Skip, a worthy adversary when a massive amount of cash is on the line. Hutton and Dominguez are solid in smaller parts as well to round out the crew. Who else? How about Famke Janssen as Rachel, Jorge's wife who's become increasingly displeased with her husband's line of work. Lucy Liu -- a very topless Lucy Liu -- makes a quick appearance as a stripper who is holding onto some valuable information while Elliott Gould makes an uncredited appearance as a crime kingpin with his hand in everything dark and sinister in the city.

If 'City' has a weak point, it comes in the pacing and too-familiar story. There's a pretty major twist about the 30-minute mark -- I ain't much for giving away spoilers -- that seems to re-energize things nicely...for a touch. Then things fall back into a slower-paced rhythm that doesn't offer much in the way of surprises. The body count rises pretty quickly through the last hour-plus with some startling violence at times. As bleak as the general tone is throughout, the ending is actually pretty hopeful which is unfortunate if you ask me. The whole story seems to be building to something bleak, downbeat and downright unhappy, but that never quite comes together.

Still, there's just enough to give a slight recommendation. It's called the Harvey Keitel Effect.

City of Industry (1997): ** 1/2 /****

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Miami Vice

Running for five seasons and 111 episodes on NBC between 1984 and 1990, Miami Vice was a show that helped rewrite the cop television show. Splashy, stylish and colorful, it not only rewrote the genre but more importantly helped re-energize the genre. The impact is easily seen in just about any police procedural released in the years since. So what's the follow-up? Well, naturally an unnecessary film adaptation, 2006's Miami Vice.

Working on a sting operation of a prostitution ring, Miami-Dade police officers Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) are called away suddenly when a former informant they've used calls them, talking wildly of a case among all sorts of nasty folks has gone seriously wrong. That case -- with FBI, DEA, drug cartels, Aryan Brothers, and many more involved -- goes poorly quickly, but Crockett and Tubbs get pulled into it as well, the longtime friends and detectives choosing to go deep undercover to hopefully pick up where the previously botched case left off. Can they somehow pull it off? The odds are stacked against them, and if things go poorly again, they've no one to get them out of the situation but themselves. And with all sorts of unsavory sorts involved -- including a potential leak within a government agency -- nothing is easy about this undercover case.

What a mess of a movie....and that's coming from someone who likes the finished product almost in spite of itself. This 2006 adaptation comes from director (and writer/producer) Michael Mann, an executive producer of the original television show and the director of Heat, Collateral, Ali, Last of the Mohicans and several others to his name. The film went way over budget, filming was less than pleasant with some cast drama, and it received middling to poor reviews. The criticisms are all valid with the main one being pretty obvious. Mann wrote the script...if it existed. It's hard to tell. Slow-moving scenes broken up by some intense staring and then a shootout extraordinaire finale. And yes, to repeat, I like this movie.

Story is overrated to the point of being unnecessary in Mann's film. Above all else, S-T-Y-L-E is key. He filmed in digital, giving 'Vice' an equal parts gritty, in your face look with a more polished, clean look. Filming locations in Florida, the Caribbean, Uruguay, Paraguay, they look phenomenal. This is a movie that doesn't have that overall clean, blockbuster feel. It is shot in the darkness and shadows like we're watching the real thing take place. You add in an eclectic soundtrack with everything from Audioslave to Moby and a lot of others mixed in along with a soft, almost trance-like score from composer John Murphy, and the little things come together nicely. Mann's ability as a visual director is never in question in my book. His movies look great and he composes shots with ease and talent, making it look almost effortless. The problem is when it is all style and basically no story.

I've seen a handful of the original Miami Vice episodes -- my parents watched it -- but I know the gist of the show. Mann decided to go out on a limb in many ways, but most importantly, in terms of character. Crockett and Tubbs are friends, buddies, partners in arms. Farrell and Foxx's version? There's decent chemistry between the two Miami-Dade detectives, but we're given no character/relationship background at any point so it's hard to root for them. Farrell gets far more screen-time (rarely a bad thing) as apparently Foxx was incredibly difficult to work with on-set, but it doesn't amount to much. Instead of flesh and blood characters, we get stylish anti-heroes, cops who know how to look cool, how to do a slow-motion walk like a champ, how to walk away from an explosion, how to have menacing conversations where nothing of said is of actual significance. Oh, and yes, I still liked this movie.

This ain't a cop story. It's a stylish, quasi-artsy cop movie with some odd detours, especially Farrell's Crockett falling hard for Isabella (Li Gong), an international drug dealer's right-hand woman. They go to Cuba, dance, drink and make sweet, passionate love in an extended sequence that accomplishes little. Meanwhile, Tubbs watches out for Trudy (Naomie Harris), his girlfriend and member of the team. Cue shower and sex scene! There is some charm in the Crockett/Isabella story, a doomed relationship that you know won't end well. Mann knows a doomed anti-hero better than anyone and Farrell embraces that character, the moody, almost sullen cop who begins to question what he's doing and the lengths he'll have to go to. I just wish there had been even a little character development other than passionate dance scenes and lots of meaningful looks and intense glances among characters.

Who else to look for? Along with Harris, the Crockett and Tubbs' team includes Justin Theroux, Elizabeth Rodriguez and Domenick Lombardozzi with Ciaran Hinds and Barry Shabaka Henley as two key superior officers. John Ortiz is excellent as Jose Yero, a cartel middle-man who suspects Crockett and Tubbs aren't what they're claiming with Luis Tosar as the drug czar hidden away in the Central American jungle. Also look for John Hawkes and Eddie Marsan in small parts.

So in the end, what can I say? I liked the movie. It's cool. Even though it takes itself far too seriously and has absolutely no sense of humor (there's maybe 3 smiles in the entire movie), it is fun. I thought Farrell was pretty good and carries things through its slower portions, especially with his dreamy hair and epic mustache. The style is cool, Mann assembling it all with ease in almost effortless fashion, albeit at the expense of the story. Things build nicely to a bone-thudding finale as an all-out war breaks out on a dock in the dead of night with heavy-duty automatic weapons tearing the silence open. The ending itself is weak, just kinda ends and boom, CREDITS! It isn't a very good movie -- more Blackhat than Heat unfortunately -- but I found myself entertained throughout. A measured final say.

Miami Vice (2006): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, November 19, 2015


I love sports movies. There I've said it. I came to a not-so-surprising but still somewhat surprising revelation after recently watching 2015's Southpaw. I've thought of it before, but it hit me square in the face this time around. All boxing movies are remakes of Rocky to one extent or another. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it do make things a tad predictable at times...

From nothing to greatness, boxer Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the light heavyweight champion of the world. He grew up in the system and made something out of himself because of his boxing ability, which his 43-0 record attests to. Billy loves his wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), and their daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence), more than anything. It's the point in his career though where Billy doesn't win as easily, taking far more of a pounding in the ring than he used to. Still, he believes and his manager believes that his best days are still ahead of him. That plan and hope for the future though is ripped apart when tragedy strikes his family, putting Billy into a tailspin that causes him to lose everything, including his daughter. He sinks to rock bottom and has nowhere to go but up. Where will he hopefully find his redemption? Back in the ring, going back to the basics of the sport he love(d) so much.

What is it about boxing stories that work so well in film? My thought is the underdog status that hovers above the sport. Boxing is a sport that can chew up its competitors and spit them out in an instant. One loss, and that's potentially it. Your career could be over, your chance at a title belt gone because of one punch, one fist landed. So what do folks love so much about that premise? The redemption factor, a second chance, an opportunity to prove what you're capable of, fighting back against the sport that seemingly wants you to fail. When those second chances turn into success stories...yeah, it makes for a good movie.

From director Antoine Fuqua, 'Southpaw' is a really solid, familiar and well-acted boxing story that certainly shows the impact of Rocky some 40 years since the original's release. It's not that 'Southpaw' isn't good. It is. It's really good, but no matter what I did I couldn't help but feel I'd seen the movie already. First off, the trailer (I'll include the link below as always) gives away a HUGE FREAKING TWIST so don't watch it. Fighter is at the top of his game, he tumbles, must climb back up. Whole scenes felt duplicated from Rocky, from Million Dollar Baby, from Warrior and plenty of others I'm probably forgetting. Now the beauty of that quasi-duplication is that what it's mimicking (or following in footsteps) are damn good to classic movies. So yeah, that's my biggest complaint. It isn't original. If you've watched sports movies, you've seen Southpaw...but it's good, really good.

Man, Jake Gyllenhaal is the absolute best. I don't know if there's a more talented actor currently working in film. He follows up his best performance yet -- last year's Nightcrawler -- with another excellent performance, bringing to life the rags-to-riches-to-rags Billy Hope, a fighter who's made something out of himself with the unwavering support of his wife, Maureen (an excellent part for McAdams). For starters, Gyllenhaal got into extreme physical shape and certainly looks the part of a champion boxer. He looks natural and believable in the ring, a vital part of any sports flick, a believable athlete in the lead. More than that though, it's an acting performance dripping with intensity, rage and tension, a man not too far from going over the edge and constantly pulling himself back to try and make things right. There are some huge, gutting, absolutely draining moments that Gyllenhaal shows (again) what a great actor he is. Can't wait to see what he's up to next!

What does a good underdog need? A coach who isn't gonna take his crap, who instead is gonna push him to his limits and then keep going. In the Mick role, Forrest Whitaker is a scene-stealer, a great match to Gyllenhaal as Tick Wills, a gym owner who works with kids in the city and a former boxer himself who saw his fighting career cut tragically short. He's worn down, beat up by the world but keeps on going. The movie's most effective moments are these two beat-up fighters just talking, shooting the breeze, feeling each other out. Their chemistry is pretty flawless developing a relationship with some extreme highs and lows. Along with McAdams and Laurence (a very talented young actress), look for 50 Cent in slimeball mode as Billy's boxing manager, Naomie Harris as a social worker, Beau Knapp as a friend of Billy's who on his training team, and Skylan Brooks as Hoppy, a teenage fighter Billy works with at Tick's gym.

As emotionally effective and heartfelt as the more emotional scenes are, 'Southpaw' is at its most comfortable in the gym and in the ring. The fights are well-choreographed and brutal as a high-level fight should be. You grimace as the punches land, as the blood starts to flow and the fighters try to punch their way through a fight. Billy's principal rival -- in more ways than one -- is a tough, fast-talking Colombian fighter, Miguel 'Magic' Escobar (Miguel Gomez), outfitted with a brutal punch but the fundamentals and footwork to match it, an all-around specimen. The finale packs the biggest wallop, both in terms of the adrenaline-pumping fight but also the emotion wrapped up in it. Like the best sports movies, you find yourself rooting for our guy, for Billy to come through, to put his demons aside and do what he couldn't. Excellent ending full of excitement as one round turns to two and on and on. Oh, and the training montage is superb. You need a superb training montage.

Nothing flashy, but an excellent cast -- especially Gyllenhaal and Whitaker -- with a familiar but extremely well-told underdog boxing story. Highly recommended. Now bring on the newest flick in the Rocky franchise, Creed!

Southpaw (2015): ***/****

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Hunters

The 1950's were a mixed bag when it comes to war films. There's some classics -- The Bridge on the River Kwai, Stalag 17 -- but I've noticed a trend. There are almost-classics (or at least above average) that are undone by unnecessary love stories jammed into a war story. Otherwise good flicks ruined by scenes of passionate hugging and soldiers and the women they love holding each other cheek-to-cheek. Gasp! The horror! Add 1958's The Hunters to the list.

It's 1952 and the Korean War is raging. On the ground, the fighting is the same, infantry going toe-to-toe for every inch of ground. Up in the air though, things have changed with both sides using jets to control the skies. At an Air Force base in Japan, WWII veteran pilot Cleve "Iceman" Saville (Robert Mitchum) is back at it, going through indoctrination before taking over a fighter group. The aerial dogfights are a mess, the Chinese pilots not as skilled but all it takes is luck sometimes to survive the fighting. Among Saville's group are two pilots, both problems for vastly different reasons. Lt. Ed Pell (Robert Wagner) is a hotshot pilot, desperately wanting to be an ace while Lt. Carl Abbott (Lee Philips) is struggling with a drinking problem. Oh, and Saville has the hots for his wife, Kris (May Britt). As if the fighting to curb Communism wasn't enough...

Okay, here we go...Battle Cry, Force of Arms, Darby's Rangers, Never So Few, all war flicks somewhat to completely undone by stories harping on sluggish love stories typically featuring ZILCH in the chemistry department between its love interests. That's just off the top of my head too. There's more. You just know they're out there....

From director and producer Dick Powell, 'Hunters' is a pretty interesting flick. Enough time had passed since the end of the Korean War that viewers would have had a chance to breathe a little bit, put the conflict behind them. The subject matter, while dark, is far from anti-war and the film itself comes across as slightly shallow. There's just not that much meat there in a story that could have had plenty. It is a good-looking movie -- the print shown on Turner Classic Movies looked gorgeous -- with a decent cast, interesting story and some real potential that never quite takes off. If anything, any depth or a story with an edge is left behind in the wake of...

SPECTACLE. This is a movie about flying jets, fighter planes that zip across the sky and do things that no machine should be able to do. Think of it this way. An audience in 1958 would have been dazzled to see the acrobatics, the dogfights, the impressive speed. This was incredibly new to that audience. Now in 2015, it's an incredibly cool time capsule. The aerial footage is genuinely incredible. The stunts, the long shots of seemingly countless jets racing across the sky, well, Cinemascope never looked so good! Even the shots of the cast in the jets doesn't scream out how obvious it could have been. There's at least a semblance of reality that these guys are actually flying. So while the love story does its best to drag things down, these adrenaline-pumping aerial sequences are pretty freaking cool.

A favorite here at Just Hit Play, Mitchum is excellent here as Major Cleve Saville, a pilot from WWII who can't stay away when there's a fight (and he's a damn good pilot too). His Saville is the 'Hunter' of the title, a diehard pilot who has ridiculously keyed-in focus, blocking out all else to go for the kill during a dogfight. Now, some years since WWII has ended, has Saville changed? Has he mellowed? Mitchum is that low-key, laid back anti-hero the movie needs. Is it acting? Does he just not care? Somewhere in the middle most likely, but it's an interesting performance. You see a former hotshot pilot who's matured some and sees the dangers in what he used to be in those pilots now flying with him. I liked Wagner's Pell, a fast-talking, talented pilot who similarly may push too far. Also look for Richard Egan, John Gabriel and Stacy Harris as other pilots at the base.

That damn love story though. It doesn't help that Mitchum and Britt have little to no chemistry, dragging these already sluggish scenes to an even more screeching halt. No chemistry translates to no energy, especially when Philip's whiny Abbott starts to drink and question and get mad that his wife is drawn to a....blah blah blah. It's not good. When 'Hunters' sticks with the war drama, it's a pretty decent movie, especially in the second half as several pilots find themselves fighting through enemy territory after being forced to bail out from their jets. Some real drama, some tension, some nerves, it's all there. If there had been 103 minutes of that instead of what we have, we'd be talking a pretty decent (if somewhat formulaic) final product. So instead, we get a mixed bag.

A slight recommendation because Mitchum is impeccably cool, Wagner is a lot of fun, and those aerial sequences are impressive whether it's 1958 or 2015.

The Hunters (1958): ** 1/2 /**** 

Monday, November 16, 2015

Predator 2

Released in 1987, the original Predator is one of the best action movies of all-time. The Magnificent Seven meets Alien, it's a gem, an almost perfect movie for what it set out to do. But wait...there's more! Sequels! I'd never sat down and watched the first sequel in one sitting, but I can check it off my list now. The first of several sequels, here's 1990's Predator 2.

It's 1997 and it's a scorching hot summer in Los Angeles. The never-ending heat wave is made that much worse by a drug war between warring factions that threatens to tear the city apart, both sides fighting for turf and not too interested in who gets caught in the crossfire. Right in the middle is an overworked, shot-up police force trying its best to keep the peace. Among those officers is Lt. Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover) who with a small team of officers tries to take the fighting to the drug factions. Some weird crime scenes have been popping up though -- no spent bullets, horrific wounds on the dead, bodies skinned and hung up like trophies -- that no one can rightfully explain. What the hell's going on? Is a new hired killer tearing both sides apart that Harrigan and the police have no idea of? No, well...sorta. The enemy they're fighting is nothing of this world...

The killer of course is the Predator, a big-game killer from a far-off galaxy, a space traveler who goes from planet to planet and solar system to solar system killing for sport, for trophies, for the love of the hunt and kill. Last we saw he was somewhere in central America dispatching Arnold Schwarzenegger's team of specialists, but now he's made it to Los Angeles! Semi-spoilers I guess. There's a brief mention of the first movie but nothing heavy, and this 1990 sequel works fairly well as a stand-alone action flick. Does it help to see the first one? It certainly doesn't hurt but it is far from a deal-breaker.

I liked this sequel from director Stephen Hopkins but didn't love it. It's dumb, mindless, shoot 'em up fun and completely unnecessary other than the fact that the idea and concept behind the Predator is so freaking cool. Released in 1990, the sequel is set in the not so distant future of glorious 1997 where the only major difference seems to be some higher tech pistols and automatic weapons. The heat wave covering the city is a nice touch, giving the story a boiled over, sweaty look as everyone tries to survive the heat. That's kinda the entire movie. Gritty, in your face, violent, not too polished, fun and pretty dumb. Alan Silvestri returns to do the soundtrack, the Predator theme thankfully making a repeat performance. Not nearly as good as the first one but not bad for an unnecessary sequel. More of a guilty pleasure than a genuinely good movie.

Danny Glover is a Just Hit Play favorite, and the late 80's and early 90's are a big reason why. We're talking Lonesome Dove (my all-time favorite Glover part), the Lethal Weapon series, and a couple Disney classics called Angels in the Outfield and Operation Dumbo Drop (CLASSICS. GO SEE THEM). Here, he's in tweaked Lethal Weapon mode but hold the Mel Gibson. Glover's Harrigan is a veteran cop who plays by his own rules (yeah!) to get the job done. He's perennially pissed off and curses a blue streak the entire movie. No-nonsense, all business and sick of his streets getting shot up and littered with bodies on a daily basis. His crew includes Ruben Blades, Maria Conchita Alonso and Bill Paxton in full-on hamming it up mode. I would have liked some more scenes among the team, but some good supporting parts.

Only sorta crazy Gary Busey shows up as Keyes, a government agent who arrives on the scene and pisses everyone off immediately. Sorta, he's not telling the whole truth of why he's there, but it's Gary Busey in perpetual angry, in your face acting mode and that is ALWAYS entertaining. Also look for Robert Davi, Calvin Lockhart, Adam Baldwin, Kent McCord and Morton Downey Jr. in other supporting parts.

Probably the most appealing aspect of this 1990 sequel is the development of the Predator. SPOILER We see the Predator killed at the end of the 1987 original, but obviously he was not the only one of his kind. It's a whole breed of killers, going wherever their prey takes them. In this case, it's drug war-torn L.A. in the midst of a heat wave. The budget is somewhat limited so the special effects are okay at best, but the knowledge of a futuristic, other-worldly killer who moves among us so effortlessly to kill is a GREAT villain. Where there was Arnie in the original, there's pissed off Danny Glover in the sequel, an incredibly capable cop who always gets the job done. In other words, a more than worthy adversary for the universe's most brutally effective big game hunters. Kevin Peter Hall returns to play the Predator, a physically imposing, terrifying villain.

The action and shootouts are pretty consistent throughout, finally building up to the Predator vs. Glover's Harrigan in a drawn-out chase/fight scene that dragged on a little too much for my liking. It's still cool, leading to a finale with some cool twists about the Predator culture and most importantly, its past. So in the end, good sequel that's pretty entertaining. There have been five Predator movies, and I especially liked the attempt at a reboot in 2010 Predators. Where will it go? Who knows for sure so soak up the ones you can.

Predator 2 (1990): ** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, November 10, 2015


There are few things I like more than going to the movies. I love it, pretty much regardless of the quality of said movie. So when it's from my favorite franchise with one of my all-time favorite characters...yeah, I'm on-board. Even when reviews are decidedly mixed like they were here, I was GEARED UP and ready to go for the latest James Bond flick, 2015's Spectre.

After a mission in Mexico City goes successfully if slightly awry, MI6 agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) returns to London and gets an earful from his new boss, 'M' (Ralph Fiennes). He's put on a sort of suspension while things are figured out, things 007 isn't telling M. It hasn't been too long since the Skyfall incident although MI6 is part of a new merger that could completely shake up -- if not destroy the 00 program (the license to kill agents) the entire organization, especially Bond. Trouble or not though, Bond has his objective. Not long after the death of a superior, he received a clue in the mail telling him what to do next. That mission? Pursue a man (who he found in Mexico City) and go to his funeral. From there, he'll figure it out. Now, it's all up to Bond to see where the clues lead. This time, the clues and evidence appear to lead to a sinister organization that is far larger, far more powerful than anything Bond, M or MI6 could have thought of.

This latest Bond installment -- the 24th in the series, 24! -- was in a bit of a lose-lose situation if you ask me. Director Sam Mendes returns to helm 'Spectre' with Craig and much of the cast returning from Skyfall. The issue? Skyfall was an all-timer, one of the great Bond movies and one of my personal Top 5. How do you follow up franchise perfection? The reviews have been pretty mixed, and it's fair to say 'Spectre' isn't a great Bond film. What is it then? Pretty damn good. The criticisms I've read are fair -- the movie's length, the writing, the lack of action -- but none of it is a deal-breaker. I seemed to have liked it more than many reviewers, but I came to a realization as I watched. I think it's better than okay, but for the sake of a quick-hitting review, even an okay Bond movie is still better than most action movies out there.

Ah, Bond, how I missed you. As high as the bar was set with the franchise's previous entry, 'Spectre' is still pretty good, Mendes, Craig and Co. showing a comfort level with the iconic character that seems to get more comfortable with each passing movie. Bond is globe-trotting (as expected) so we get some great location shoots in Mexico City, London, Rome, Austria, and Tangiers. Composer Thomas Newman's score is solid, especially in the second half, with the big sweeping touches in the BIG moments, but also the quieter moments. There is a style and glamour and impressive scale to these movies -- especially since Craig took over as 007 -- that is necessary, perfect consistent throughout the movies, no matter the story or cast or reviews. That's what I love so much about these movies.

So that Daniel Craig, he's good at bringing James Bond to life. It's been cool to see Craig do his thing as the iconic British agent, making him more than a ladies man, a one-liner spewing killer, a smartass with no actual humanity. Craig makes him a human being, and 'Spectre' again dives into Bond's personal life, especially his childhood. It's little moments where we see Bond as he really is, in a conversation with the Bond girl (more later), in a surprisingly funny conversation with a mouse in a hotel room. We see a man who is very good at his horrifically dangerous job. Death awaits on any given day at any given moment. Craig is smooth and suave, able to deliver a one-liner as necessary, but as he's shown in the other films, there's a menacing edge, an intimidation factor to his Bond. Most importantly though, he's human.

Who else to look for? Bond movies don't disappoint in the cast department so there's no worry here. Christoph Waltz looks to be having a ball as the villain and thankfully it's more underplayed than usual, a little more subtle. His Oberhauser is dripping with intensity. Wish he'd been around more actually! I thought Lea Seydoux was excellent as Madeleine, the beautiful Bond girl who thankfully is no damsel in distress. Pretty and brains, can't go wrong! Along with the always reliable Fiennes as the new M, also look for Naomie Harris (Moneypenny), Ben Whishaw (Q) and Rory Kinnear (Tanner) as our familiar faces at the ever-changing MI6. I loved that Whishaw's Q is given a lot to do, especially some great in-the-field scenes with Bond. Good humor, solid chemistry between the bookish Q and the tough agent. Also look for Dave Bautista as Hinx, a brutal Spectre enforcer (an excellent, imposing part), Monica Belluci, and Andrew Scott as C, a new high-ranking official in the British intelligence community.

This next observation seems rather divisive among fans and reviewers. The Craig Bond movies have been connected, parts of one story impacting the next. Most of the previous entries were stand-alones, some characters popping up from time-to-time but no connecting story. 'Spectre' continues to delve into that angle, both Bond's past (Jesper Christensen's Mr. White makes an appearance) but also a criminal organization that's pulling powerful strings all over the world. There's some twists with Waltz's Oberhauser that I thought was pretty cool, and I'd think many fellow Bond nerds would appreciate but I'm seeing otherwise as I read message boards and reviews. The twist going back to Bond's teenager years was unnecessary, that much I can admit. I'm a diehard 007 franchise fan, and I'm curious where things will go going forward with future entries.

The biggest complaint I've read is the story, a modern world where old-fashioned MI6 and its 00 (License to Kill) agents are dinosaurs, a thing of the past. Sound familiar? It was dealt with in spectacular fashion in Skyfall. It is repetitive (if appropriate in technology-heavy 2015) and not developed rather well. We're watching the Bond movie don't really need to convince us. I would have liked more Bond's background, more Bond and Madeleine, whatever, because the story itself is interesting. We just don't need to be hit over the head with the message. On the cool side, 'Spectre' is full of little moments, nice little nods to previous Bond movies from Goldfinger and From Russia With Love to The Man with the Golden Gun and many others. For the most part, they're subtle, but Bond fans will get a kick out of them for sure. I especially did.

What else? I could ramble for days about a new Bond movie so let's keep it focused! Ah, the action, a staple of the franchise. The cold open is brilliant, Bond chasing an assassin through Mexico City during a Day of the Dead festival. The payoff in a careening helicopter is an absolute doozy, a real whopper. 'Spectre' isn't an action-heavy story and is a bit of a slow-go through the first hour or so. Things pick up about the halfway point with the second half finding a groove. High points include a brutal fight between Bond and Bautista's Hinx, a stylish car chase through Rome (Newman's score is excellent here) between Bond and Hinx, and a mountaintop showdown up and down a mountain with Bond in pursuit of Madeleine...while flying a plane. Yeah, pretty cool. The finale is nothing huge but a more personal action sequence, a cool capper to all these espionage shenanigans.

It ain't perfect, but it's still pretty good. The opening credits are very cool, but Sam Smith's song is unfortunately completely forgettable. As for Craig, it's not a lock, but I'm pretty sure (book it, go to Vegas!) he'll be back for a fifth and most likely final venture as everyone's favorite secret agent. If he doesn't, the ending is a fitting one, a nod to one of the more infamous endings in the franchise -- if you ask me at least, I could be overanalyzing. As for me, I'm a sucker for a good Bond movie, even if it isn't great. That gun barrel opening, the familiar musical theme, those notes kick in and I get a chill up my back. It isn't as good as Skyfall or Casino Royale, but it is a solid, definitely above average James Bond movie that struggles to deal with some flaws.

That's JAMES BOND. Go see it!

Spectre (2015): ***/****

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Equalizer

So you know that review I wrote last week about middle-aged action stars getting a crack at their own movies? You know, with Sean Penn in The Gunman which I gave a very solid 3 stars. Which we can trace to Liam Neeson piling up an incredible body count in one movie after another. Well, I like Sean Penn and Liam Neeson is one of the coolest people and actors around. But.....then there's Denzel Washington. He takes his shot at the middle-aged action star sub-genre with the very entertaining and fun 2014 flick, The Equalizer.

Living in a small apartment in Boston, Bob McCall (Washington) goes day-to-day with an almost monk-like existence. He wakes up, readies for the day, leaves his spartan apartment, goes to work at a Home Depot-like hardware store, goes home, reads and spends time at a 24-hour diner in the dead of night. He's made friends with Alina (Chloe Grace Moretz), a young prostitute who works for the Russian mob. He sees how she's treated by her brutal pimp/handler and when Bob spots her with a fresh set of bruises, decides something has to be done. He approaches the men and when they laugh at him and his efforts, Bob brutally but efficiently kills five men in the blink of an eye. Bob McCall is a retired black ops specialist who's put that life behind him...until now. With the deaths catching the eye of the mafioso back in Russia, Bob has just set the match to the powder keg. Heading to Boston to fix things is a brutal killing machine, Teddy (Marton Csokas), who has no moral objections to anything at all and is obsessed with finding whoever is responsible. Let the bullets fly...

Man, I liked this movie a lot. Bloody, bullet-riddled (and more death-producing projectiles) fun with Denzel at his coolest, a dastardly, horrifically cruel villain, and a simple, straightforward good vs. bad type of story. I'm a cheap date in general when it comes to movies -- I'll forgive just about anything as long as I'm entertained -- but this one from director Antoine Fuqua is a hell of a lot of fun. I liked it in the same way I did 'Gunman' but this one isn't so downbeat, so glum. Just a fun action movie.

Who better to direct a movie with that formula than Mr. Fuqua? No one I can think. This is a talented director who specializes in guy's guys action movies, including Training Day, Tears of the Sun, King Arthur, Shooter, and Olympus Has Fallen (haven't seen Southpaw yet but it's on my list!). Those are some damn entertaining movies. If the basic description from 'Equalizer' sounds familiar it borrows touches here and there from Death Wish and Taxi Driver, among others. It isn't always the most subtle flick around, but it doesn't need to be. There's good and there's bad and sometimes you've got to do something about the bad before it becomes too powerful. I liked that no-nonsense attitude that Fuqua, Washington and Co. take. It's hard not to root for Washington's Bob, and it's easy to root against the Russian mob. Who doesn't like seeing scumbag mobsters get knocked off in gruesome fashion? I, for one, like it very much.

This was the first time since 2001's Training Day that Washington and Fuqua worked together. It was a pairing that won Washington a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar. Here? Nothing award-winning, but clearly two guys who know how to bring a badass character to life. We don't learn a ton about Bob's past, only tidbits here and there referring to his bloody black ops past. We do learn how horrifically skilled he is at what he does. Putting that life past him, Bob reads, works and helps those around him, sometimes in horrifically bloody ways. He helps friends and co-workers with a pat on the shoulder, a smile, an encouraging word, but when the chips are down, watch out. Don't get in his way and definitely don't hurt anyone even remotely close to him because you'll be next on his list. Part vigilante, part guardian angel, Washington does a great job with the part.

If this sounds like an insult or a dig on my part, it most assuredly is NOT. Fuqua knows the action genre and knows all the little touches to bring his hero to life. Cliched? Yep. Stereotypical? Surely. Supremely cool? You'd better freaking believe it. There are some cool little style moments, Washington scanning a room and planning his attack out in a quick second. We see a hardness come into his eyes when the killing moment comes along. And yes, we get the cool Action Star moments, walking away from a huge fire/explosion. Walking through a mansion littered with dead bodies, nameless henchmen he dispatched off-camera with ease. It could be cheesy or too cliched, but Fuqua and Washington commit and take it seriously. It's never overdone or tries too hard. 'Equalizer' finds that right balance right down the middle.

Csokas may not be a huge star or recognizable name but you've no doubt seen him before. He's a gem, biting into his villain's role like his life depended on it. Cold, brutal, efficient and without emotion, his Teddy has a bottom line that he needs to get accomplished and doesn't care how he gets it done or who he has to kill. If that don't make a good villain, I don't know what does! Moretz is solid with a strong chemistry with Washington as does Johnny Skourtis as Ralphie, a co-worker Bob is trying to help lose weight so he can become a security guard. In the familiar faces department, look for David Harbour, Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo in key supporting parts as well.

This isn't a flick that tries to rewrite the genre. In fact, its general familiarity within the genre and some character and story conventions works in its favor. Sure, it isn't perfect and goes for some easy, pull the heart-string moments at times, but Denzel Washington is one badass action hero and the story and action is fun from beginning to end. Highly recommended.

The Equalizer (2014): ***/****

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Billy Two Hats

I've been watching westerns for as long as I can remember. It's to the point I'm always searching for westerns -- especially from the 1960's and 1970's -- that I haven't seen. Well, God bless Turner Classic Movies and MGM-HD, because they've helped me out with some harder-to-find westerns. Our latest go-around, a revisionist western from 1974, Billy Two Hats.

In a sleepy western town, Sheriff Henry Gifford (Jack Warden) rides into town after a long time on the trail. He's tracking three bank robbers who escaped with a little over $400 and killed a man in a recent robbery. His ambush in the hotel works, killing one, capturing one, Billy (Desi Arnaz Jr.) while the third, Arch Deans (Gregory Peck), escapes, getting out of town unscathed. The sheriff rides out with Billy -- a half-breed with a Kiowa mother and white father -- in tow, riding across the desert to get back to town where Billy will be tried and likely hung for his involvement in the robbery, even though it was Arch who did the killing. Billy has accepted his fate to a point, going along quietly, but out in the desert hills, Arch has a plan to get his partner and friend free. Gifford's trapped in the middle, all the while trying to do his job.

Ah, revisionist westerns, where the goal is to show the wild west as it really was, not as a pleasant, adventure-filled time and place where a good 'ole time was had. Instead, it was horrifically violent where life was cheap and death waiting around every corner. There was little noble, heroic or pleasant about it. The good revisionist westerns just lay it all out there. The not-so-good ones, they lay it on thick with a heavy hand. Where does 'Billy' fall?'s right in the middle. While I was intrigued by the premise (and the fact I'd never seen it), I'm not sure what the point of the film was. The story is a quasi-chase with two major stops where everything concerning action grinds to a halt as characters opine about how awful their lives in the west are. The story was already pretty slow just getting to those scenes. The character development is nil, and at no point did I feel like I got to know either Arch or Billy even though they talk a fair amount. It's a story in its entirety that takes place over  three or four days but accomplishes little. I left this revisionist western feeling entirely "meh." I didn't especially like it, and I didn't hate it. It be right in the middle, a movie that had little to no impact on me at all.

Gregory Peck is the man, one of my favorites here at Just Hit Play. In the second half of his career, Peck turned to the general action genre -- westerns, adventure, war films -- early and often. No classics, but some solid movies. His Arch character is certainly interesting, an aging Scottish bandit who desperately misses the greenery of the Scottish highlands. He has a sort of fatherly/brotherly relationship with young Billy, but there's never much of an explanation or reason given for anything. Arch tries to look out for Billy, giving him advice on how to act, how to grow up. The fault is that the script does absolutely nothing for Arnaz Jr. as Billy Two Hats. It is one of the most poorly written characters I can think of and gives him nothing to do to help alleviate that lack of development.

That puts us, dear reader, in a delicate spot. I found myself not caring about any of the characters even a little. The script feels like it was half-written, following a sorta outline of a slow-paced chase with several talkative, unlikable characters. Winning formula, huh? Warden too is undone by the script. His sheriff is dedicated to his job, but he's so obsessed with this particular prisoner. He's filled with hate, maybe just epic frustration at the futility of what the criminals are up to. David Huddleston plays Copeland, an owner of a remote trading post who's moved on from his days as a buffalo hunter who's waiting for the railroad to come through his lucrative land while also wondering what his squaw wife is up to. Last, there's Spencer (John Pearce) and his recently purchased wife, Esther (Sian Barbara Allen). The dense, money-conscious farmer and his stuttering wife, adding to the general doom-and-gloom of an already pretty dark western.

When you're wrapping up a movie, there's not much worse than a general feeling of frustration of what could have been. 'Billy' has some potential, but it just has too many holes to help it live up to that potential. It was filmed in Israel, giving the film a bleak, stark, end of the world visual look. You're ALONE in this vast expanse of a desert and almost completely dependent on yourself. The music -- though little used -- is appropriate, and I thought pretty good. The script is the ultimate death rattle though. It's bad. It never jells together. The characters are poorly drawn and developed in worse fashion. When the bullets start to fly in this revisionist western, there's absolutely no emotional connection with anything going on in the story, and that ain't good. A disappointing negative review.

Billy Two Hats (1974): * 1/2 /****

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Gunman

I'd like to thank Liam Neeson. I imagine a lot of actors in the late 40's and 50's might want to thank Mr. Neeson. Why is that? Courtesy of his Taken movies (and several others), it seems the middle-aged action star is back and getting a crack at carrying their own movies. The winners? Me. Moviegoers who love to see genuinely talented actors doing fun, more commercial movies. And of course, any and all of us who love a good action flick. Next up, Sean Penn in 2015's The Gunman.

A former special forces operative, Jim Terrier (Penn) has moved onto private security and in 2006 finds himself working with a kill team posing as construction workers in the violent, revolution-worn Congo. Millions (maybe billions) of dollars are up for grabs, leading the team to take out a mining commissioner with Jim taking the shot. He's forced to leave the country, leaving the woman, Annie (Jasmine Trinca), he loves behind. He tries to put it all past him, a lifetime of violence and killing, but he's ripped back into the world. Some eight years later, he's working in Africa as part of a humanitarian project when three men attempt to kill him. Jim dispatches them first, but he knows his past has caught up with him. Other members of the team in the Congo have recently turned up dead. Is Jim next? Who can he trust in the meantime while he finds out?

This movie got panned by critics upon its release last winter. I mean absolutely ripped, just torn up. I thought it looked pretty cool, but the overwhelming amount of negative reviews convinced me not to seek it out. The verdict? I liked it. A lot. It's dark, moody, violent and plays a little bit like a more adult Bourne movie (hold the Matt Damon). 'Gunman' isn't a classic, and at times it does feel a little too familiar to other action genre pieces. The Rotten Tomatoes page refers to this sub-genre as the rapidly aging Over-50 Action Hero Genre (get it? Because the stars are they're aging?!?). I disagree. Sometimes, it's just fun to watch a good, old-fashioned bloody action movie. This ain't a classic, but my goodness, I liked it. So neener-neener, movie critics.

I think Sean Penn is a bit of a nut case, but that's why I like him. His political opinions, he doesn't care what you think of him. He takes film roles he likes, ones that seem to appeal to him. So just like Liam Neeson, it is very cool to see him take on a bullet-riddled action hero role with an ever-increasing body count. Penn's Jim Terrier has been at it for years, killing and killing wherever and for whoever will pay him. It's worn him down to the point his physical condition is rapidly deteriorating (an unnecessary subplot). Pile on the feeling he's lost anything good in his life -- cough the girl cough -- and we've got our moody anti-hero looking for redemption no matter what it takes. In the action genre, it is a well-worn, familiar character but for a good reason. It can be easy to root for that character. He realizes his faults and wants to do something about them dammit! Some reviews said Penn looked bored, but I thought he was pretty damn good.

Now, onto something bigger...Sean Penn himself! In his early 50's while filming 'Gunman,' Penn got absolutely shredded. SHREDDED. His arms are like tree trunks and when he starts dispatching killers on his, he looks like he'd actually rip their heads off. He's in ridiculously good shape, giving the character an edge of authenticity. Penn's face is tan and weathered, giving you the impression he could have been this gun for hire. He's more than capable of handling his own in the action scenes, especially those with hand-to-hand combat. These are quick, bone-crunching fights that are graphic but in a flash. Nothing feels forced, stylized or glamourized. Just highly trained killing machines looking to tear each other apart.

Moving along, the rest of the cast with some halfway decent names. Javier Bardem is a misfire here as Felix, a civilian contractor working with Jim who may have ulterior motives. He's an incredibly talented actor in just about everything I've seen, but this performance is cliched, broad, and way too big, like he's playing a spoof. Trinca is solid in a thankless part as the script generates into triangle. "Yeah." I'm excited...Ray Winstone is a scene-stealer as Stanley, Jim's longtime friend with a hand in everything in the criminal/mercenary underworld. Fun part with some good laughs. Idris Elba makes what amounts to a cameo (maybe 3 scenes) as Barnes, a mysterious...well, something who may or may not be up to something. Last but not least, watch out for Mark Rylance (also excellent in the recent Bridge of Spies) as Cox, the Congo team leader, with Peter Franzen as his brutally efficient enforcer. Some solid supporting parts.

And last but not least, let's talk some blood-splattered action. 'Gunman' has it in droves. As Jim goes globe-trotting across Africa and Europe, a whole lot of people are trying to kill him, and he's more than willing to oblige them (well, the attempt at least). The best set piece has Jim and Annie tearing through an Italian villa as they're chased by a small army of gunmen. The hand-to-hand scenes (as previously mentioned) are quick and hard-hitting, uncomfortable and real. The finale too, set in a Spanish stadium hosting a bullfight, is a gem as well. A lot to offer for those seeking their action fill for the day.

Scenic locations from Africa to London to Spain, an appropriately dark, moody score from composer Marco Beltrami, a quick-moving story with some solid twists and turns, and a pretty good cast, especially Penn, Winstone and Rylance. The critics may disagree, but I definitely liked this action thriller from Pierre Morel. Hopefully you will too!

The Gunman (2015): ***/****