(On Cable TV, July 2015) As a political junkie, campaign strategist is high on the list of dream jobs I’ll never have –but Knife Fight is good enough to make me live the experience vicariously. Starring Rob Lowe as an expect fixer working for political campaigns, Knife Fight delves deep into the dirty tricks deployed to make sure that “the right guy” wins. Interestingly, this does comes with a bit of soul-searching about what “the right guy” means and whether there’s a correlation between being a good leader and a fallible human being. Knife Fight certainly isn’t a perfect film (its chronology is a bit strange, it doesn’t delve quite long enough in the dark side of the dirty tricks, practically repeats itself at times, and gives short thrift to a few characters), but it’s unusual in that it’s co-written by an actual campaign consultant and so has more than a whiff of authenticity to it. Other than Lowe, who’s clearly having fun, the film does have a few likable performances by Jamie Chung as a budding strategist and Carrie-Anne Moss as an improbable gubernatorial candidate. Knife Fight will most directly appear to left-leaning political junkies with its mixture of behind-the-scenes manipulation, wry humor and satire. It’s an enjoyable comedy in a very specific mold, and all the better for it.
(On DVD, January 2011) Direct-to-Video thrillers are usually exercises in cheap minimalism, bad dialogue, paycheck-grabbing C-list actors and little lasting impact. But not always, and Unthinkable is that rare example of a D2V film that should have played in theatres… even if few people would have seen it. Deliberately structuring its premise on a manipulative scenario, this is a horror-thriller hybrid that sets out to explore the moral choices in torturing a terrorist that may know where a few nuclear bombs are ticking away. Carrie-Anne Moss is the audience’s stand-in as a FBI agent confronted with the lengths at which the US government will go in the name of national security; she’s faces down not only Michael Sheen as an uncommonly-prepared terrorist, but also Samuel L. Jackson as a “consultant” who’s as ruthless as he may be necessary. Jackson’s performance is showy: At times threatening, charming, sociopathic and respectable, he’s the devilish imp whispering about the dark side that torture apologists are ready to embrace –and he’s easily one of the top reasons to see the film. While Unthinkable eventually tips its hand toward the dramatic demands of the ticking-bomb scenario, it does so in a way that doesn’t shy from the moral stains that accompany the choice: there are at least two oh-cripes! moments where the film escalates well beyond what we’re used to see, and the constant horror-film atmosphere is as disturbing in its depiction of surgically-precise torture as anything else. Suffice to say that film sticks in mind well after a good chunk of what’s in theatres fades away. On the other hand, similar (yet far more gentle) films tacking contemporary moral issues such as Rendition, In the Valley of Elah and Lions for Lambs all flopped spectacularly at the box-office. If you listen really carefully to the intriguing DVD audio commentary, you can almost understand that the film’s producing company got in financial trouble in early 2009 and a direct-to-DVD releasing strategy became the only way for the film to reach a public. No matter, though: The result is an unnerving mixture of techno-thriller premise with a horrific tone. The DVD offers a solid audio commentary (stay tuned for the discussion of their very special “subject matter consultant”) and an alternate ending that’s even grimmer than the finished film.
(In theaters, March 1999) Oh! That’s probably one of the few things left to say right after seeing this film. Oh cool; a mixture of Hong Kong-style action, far-out existentialist Science-Fiction, straight-out over-the-top theatrics and pure imagination. Oh sharp; the direction is simply wonderful, bringing stylistic excess to mesh with the carefree hyperkinetic action. Oh yeah; this is the best action movie since Face/Off, the best SF film since Dark City and the best comic book visualization since The Fifth Element. Whatever your “Oh!” means, The Matrix is one heck of a ride. Despite the numerous logical flaws in the script (don’t get me started on that…), some juvenile pop-philosophy and uneven pacing (not to mention the criminal underusage of Carrie-Anne Moss), The Matrix gets top marks as a superlatively put-together blockbuster. See it on the biggest screen you can.
(Second viewing, In theaters, April 1999) I very seldom go twice to the same movie, but The Matrix is definitely cool enough to make me do so. (Okay, granted, I was going with someone else, but still…) Though I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s as good the second time around, it’s still so technically well-done that even another viewing is worthwhile. The Wachowski brother’s direction is very visually exciting and makes even the slow moments (of which there are quite a few, all things reconsidered) interesting. The stoopid science, plot holes and juvenile philosophy are still sore spots, though. Now a surefire choice for my top-ten list of 1999, The Matrix almost compensate for all the other awful SF movies released by Hollywood lately. Almost.
(Third viewing, On DVD, September 1999) At a time where most SF films tend to be brief flash-in-the-pan visual delights, it’s a relief to see that The Matrix still holds up pretty well to a third viewing. The special effects are still as good, the pop philosophy is still as unsubtle and the bad science still as grating, but the direction, art design and acting each do a lot to maintain interest. The DVD is exceedingly well-done, packed with a “Making of…” feature, two short special effects documentaries and a rather tepid commentary track by Carrie-Anne “Trinity” Moss, Special Effects supervisor John Geta and Editor Zach Straenberg. (Unfortunately, the commentary is badly edited, often redundant and with lengthy pauses.) The DVD-ROM content is promising, but will have to wait until I get an adequate player.
(Fourth viewing, On DVD, May 2003) Four years later, I’m still jazzed up about this film, which holds up admirably well to yet another repeat viewing. The direction is still as good as ever and shores up a film that suffers a lot from structural problems both in the first half (where all is explained and nothing happens) and the second (where a lot of stuff blows up but nothing is explained). It’s a shame, in retrospect, that the heavy noir influence of the first five minutes is seldom seen afterwards. Well worth another look in light of the last two volumes of the trilogy, as the meanly focused nature of the story expands into something much bigger later on, and given that two or three throw-away images of this original film end up taking quite another significance after even only The Matrix Reloaded…