(On Cable TV, October 2013) As far a series premises go, The Marine’s “Wrestling star gets first movie role by playing Marine who rescues loved ones from terrorists/criminals” is almost more interesting than most, and the least one can say about Mike Mizanin is that he does just fine as a square-jawed action hero. Absent the budget of the first film or the direction that made the second one stand out despite a direct-to-video release, this third Marine film is a bit thin and lame: it’s all straight-up crazed-villain, hum-drum action sequences, big plot threads and expected dramatic arc. In other words: average direct-to-video fare, handled with the minimal amount of professionalism. There wouldn’t be much more to say if it wasn’t for the film’s blatant appeal to middle-American social values, including a villain who’s motivated by revenge against fat-cat businessmen. It’s draped in the American flag and almost dogmatic in its promotion of the small-town way of life. It’s interesting that the script chooses to give a motivation to Neal McDonough’s white-haired antagonist that audiences can relate to –it’s certainly a good reflection of the time to hate the 1%, but it’s also a risky choice when setting up an antagonist in a straightforward action film. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much the only somewhat-daring thing in the entire 86-minutes film. Otherwise, The Marine 3: Homefront is all we’ve-seen-this-before.
(On Cable TV, October 2013) I remain a fan of the first Paranormal Activity, but I’ll be the first to admit that the film (and the found-footage genre) remains ripe for parody. “A Wayans brother stars in a black-themed Paranormal Activity spoof” is the only thing you really need to know about A Haunted House: The Wayans have their own brand of comedy, and it’s almost exactly what we get here. You know: Lame scene recreations, found-footage parody gags, a bit of slapstick, quite a bit of sexual humor (much of it wearingly homophobic), a surprising amount of shrill screaming from Marlon Wayans and a few tossed-away bits of relationship humor. It sounds worse than it is, because for all of its cheap and tired humor, A Haunted House is easy to like. There’s a solid core in the premise that our protagonist’s girlfriend moves in and both have to adapt to the new situation (to say that the film offers a thematic metaphor for the way relationships evolve once both partners live together is stretching the depth argument to its breaking point, though) and both Marlon Wayans and Essence Atkins are game for just about everything as the couple finding that their house is haunted by a demon. Far from every gag works, but those who do are plentiful enough to raise grins and chuckles throughout a good portion of the film. Characters at least try to have believable reactions (My favourite moment in the film is when the protagonist leaves and puts up the house for sale, only to come back dejected once he realizes that “you can’t sell a house in this market!”. That and the bit where the lead couple does its best to act nonchalantly at the demon’s antics while the entire kitchen goes crazy around them.), the script eventually becomes a great deal less episodic than could have been expected after the first half, and frankly gets a bit more mileage than could have been expected from the thin premise. The film has numerous issues (the laugh-free ending is weak, and the homophobia is only exceeded by the misogyny through which the female characters are defined), but anyone going into A Haunted House with low expectations and tolerance for good-natured juvenile humor is likely to get, if not a great time, at least a satisfactory number of chuckles.
(On Cable TV, October 2013) There’s something almost awe-inspiring in the ways Movie 43 is determined to be such a bad and unpleasant film. A collection of sketch comedy skits meant to be as offensive as possible, Movie 43 has the unusual merit of featuring two dozen A-list actors, each appearing on-screen for only a few minutes. Sadly, they don’t have anything to work with: the sketches are uninspired, the pacing is off, the subject matter more puzzling than amusing, and there are no directorial flourishes strong enough to offset the abysmal quality of the script. It feels like a big dare: Even by the low standards of sketch comedy films, Movie 43 doesn’t manage to come anywhere close to laughs. The only segment of the film I’d rescue from a burning warehouse would probably be “Veronica”, the sort-of-romantic back-and-forth between Emma Stone and Kieran Culkin, and it’s largely because it feels comparatively better than the rest –not because it’s any good. Movie 43 sounds like one of those annoying kids who discover big swearwords and then spend the rest of the week repeating them, not realizing that the rest of us have moved one –it feels like a decade-old relic of the gross-out comedy wave, and is about as impressive as a deflated fart cushion. (I briefly considered the possibility that I’d lost my sense of juvenile humor, but then I watched the equally-crass horror spoof A Haunted House and chuckled like an idiot throughout.) Let’s not mention the actors involved in this debacle: I assume they were paid well for a short shoot and let’s celebrate the fact that Movie 43 died a quick and unlamented death at the box-office, landing on Cable TV about as quickly as it could.
(On Cable TV, October 2013) Surprisingly enough, prior to this film I had never seen any film by legendary director Uwe Boll. I say “legendary” in the most jocular sense, as few other directors have been able to earn the kind of low-budget, bad-reviews, tax-shelter-financed, consensually-punches-critics-in-the-face fame that Boll has acquired over the years. His films aren’t meant to be art: they’re usually low-budget videogame adaptations aimed at the direct-to-video market and everyone knows it. Until recently, I had no easy access to that lowest tier of filmmaking, and little interest in venturing there. Now that I’ve got a cable TV subscription package with a dozen movie channels, though… I figured I could watch Bloodrayne: The Third Reich while putting together a few IKEA bookcases. As it turns out, this is exactly the right kind of movie to watch while doing something else: it’s hollow, inane and visually unremarkable, but it does have a few moments here and there to make you look up. I’m not at all familiar with the Bloodrayne video games, but the premise of the film doesn’t require a lot of explanation: Here’s a female human/vampire hybrid battling Nazis and vampires and even nazi vampires. The skin-tight outfits, swords, mad scientists, machine-gun battles and sex scenes are just more layers on a big cake of exploitation filmmaking. There’s little subtlety nor substance in a film that barely lasts 79 minutes with lengthy credits: The id of the film is perilously close to the surface, and all that’s left is broad strokes with easy plot elements. At times, there’s a sliver of interest. Clint Howard is curiously compelling as a Nazi doctor who wishes to use vampire blood to make Hitler immortal (sadly, this idea goes nowhere, whereas a better film would have run with it) and he has one fun scene with a randy vampire prostitute. The film occasionally manages to get a chuckle out of sheer desperation, and while the two sex scenes may be wildly gratuitous and intrusive, they do feature a decent amount of nudity –something that’s surprisingly lacking in many contemporary exploitation films. Still, let’s not get overly excited: BloodRayne: The Third Reich is still terrible, whatever the level of filmmaking you’re looking at. Conceptually, it’s completely botched and never manages to use its core plot elements as effectively at it could. The screenwriting is usually fairly bad, immature in the way it overuses swearing, and never duller as when it features the rebel forces that ally themselves with the heroine. Visually, it’s bland from beginning to end: While this not the worst-looking film I’ve seen (even in the last month), it’s not interesting either and the direction does nothing to elevate the material. The action scenes feel particularly uninvolving. I was, maybe curiously enough, expecting considerably worse, and I’m disappointed that this example of Boll’s film isn’t as bad as I had been led to believe. Maybe it’s one of his better movies. I’m not sure I want to make sure of that.
(On Cable TV, October 2013) One of the most interesting motifs in animation movies aimed at kids nowadays is the way they often flip over familiar premises as starting points. In Escape from Planet Earth, this means following the aliens as they are kidnapped and held in Area 51 by a power-mad human. It’s not that original (there are shades of Planet 51 and Paul at times), but it’s not uninteresting either. Unfortunately, this about as original as Escape from Planet Earth ever becomes, as much of the film is bright, colorful and amiable but also thin and by-the-numbers. It doesn’t have enough plot to make it to 90 minutes, and while the rhythm of the film moves at a decent pace, there are few surprises to be found. Produced by Vancouver’s Rainmaker Entertainment, it’s a noticeable notch below state-of-the-art animation, but the technical details are still pretty good for a lower-budgeted animation feature film. Director Cal Brunker has designed the film around the usual frantic action sequences that now seem de rigueur for animated films, and the result is easy to watch. Escape from Planet Earth may be entirely average, but the beauty of average animated family comedies is that they’re still enjoyable for the entire family, and that’s why it’s easy to go easy on the film: who wants to be a killjoy for such a genial effort? There may not be any deep messages here, but now that it’s available on Cable TV and not only at 3D-theater prices, it’s good enough, and a solid choice to keep the kids busy whenever it plays.
(On TV, October 2013 or thereabouts) As someone who’s had to recently real with daycare selection and taking care of an active toddler, you’d expect my reaction to Daddy Day Care to be a bit more sympathetic than usual. And you’d be right: While I don’t usually have much patience for broad kiddy-friendly comedies where once-proudly-anti-establishment comedians now kowtow to the lowest possible common denominator (Edide Murphy’s career dive has been something, right?), I had a bit of a good time watching this film, even when unable to give it my full attention. The gags aren’t meant to be sophisticated, the bare-bone plot isn’t supposed to be scrutinized and the most interesting thing to say about the film is how effectively the actors mug for the camera. Murphy may be a parody of his old self, but he still gets the laughs, and able supporting players like Steve Zahn do much to help. Adults bored by the movie’s cheap laughs can always appreciate Anjelica Huston’s antagonist (a caricature, but a perfect fit for the actress), alongside Lacey Chabert as her suffering bespectacled assistant. Daddy Day Care‘s best feature is its absolute predictability… particularly in a certain kind of viewing circumstances (ie; playing daddy day care)
(On TV, October 2013) My memories of the original French film Le Diner de Cons being positive but distant, I found this Americanized remake to be duller but still relatively amusing. Sure, its lead character isn’t as morally corrupt as in the original, but let’s face it: American audiences would much rather see a good-guy protagonist unencumbered with moral complications than struggle with nuance in a comedy aimed at the broadest possible public. The basic plot remains the same as in the original, as high-society types meet regularly to showcase their “idiots” and one said idiot has devastating repercussions on the protagonist’s life. Beyond that, the details vary quite a bit. Veteran filmmaker Jay Roach’s direction is professionally unobtrusive, his camera leaving all the fun to the actors where it belongs. As such, Dinner for Schmucks isn’t too bad, even if much of the film’s strengths come in meeting a variety of absurdly off-beat secondary characters. Paul Rudd is his usual everyman straight-guy, while Steve Carrell gets to play sweetly dumb. Meanwhile, the best moments go to a few comedians making the most of their screen time: Jemaine Clement as an artist unhinged by self-confidence, Zach Galifianakis as a deluded-mentalist IRS supervisor and Lucy Punch as an insatiable stalker. It’s not a deep or meaningful film, but it’s ridiculous enough to earn a few laughs, and that’s all it’s supposed to be. Special mention for “lovely stuff you can only see in big-budget movies” goes to the charming mouse dioramas created by the Chiodo Brothers.
(On Cable TV, October 2013) Here’s a useful spoiler-filled tip for filmmakers: If you’re making a good movie, you can get away with murdering your protagonist’s pregnant wife midway through. If all you’re making is derivative trash, then stay away from those kinds of stunts, because all you’re doing is pissing off the audience. So it is that Alex Cross, which is a routine cop-versus-psycho thriller up to its halfway mark, goes one plot development too far and murders both a sympathetic bystander and all audience sympathy at one stroke. It’s not putting the hero through personal grief; it’s purely exploitative cheap drama, and it’s easy to recognize as such. Before that plot point, Alex Cross’ numerous problems are easy enough to overlook; after that, the film can do nothing right and becomes steadily more risible as it gets dumber and dumber. Director Rob Cohen’s career as a technically-proficient filmmaker hit an apex of sorts in the early naughties with The Fast and the Furious, xXx and Stealth, but his decline since then has been fierce. Here, occasional good moments of direction come at the expense of a dull film leading to a terrible final fight where even the camera shakes and slow-motion seem to have been added in sheer desperation during post-production. The script is the usual genius-cop-versus-psycho-killer shtick we’re see so many times before, albeit with a psycho-killer-for-hire who seems intent on self-destructive decisions despite supposedly being at the top of his profession. Straining to find something nice to say about the finished film, let’s at least recognize that Matthew Fox is physically remarkable -all sinews and muscles- as the antagonist, while Tyler Perry is occasionally effective as the eponymous lead –if nothing else, he also has a significant physical presence, and he fills out the frames. Still, mentioning the other actors who show up only highlight how disappointing Alex Cross actually is: Edward Burns and Jean Reno quickly show up, but have almost nothing to do –Reno’s presence of the script even quickly highlights an overarching conspiracy plot that is frankly uninteresting to revisit after the antagonist makes the fight so personal. Ah well; Alex Cross (sort-of-adapted from a patchwork of novels by thriller-factory James Patterson) isn’t meant to make sense as much as it’s supposed to re-launch a franchise. In this regard, let’s hope that the dismal results keep all potential sequels at bay –we don’t need another series of pure-formula crime thrillers cluttering the screens.
(On Cable TV, October 2013) Woody Allen’s “European capitals” tour continues to please, as romantic fantasy Midnight in Paris goes to the French capital for a bit of nostalgic introspection and historical comedy. As a Hollywood screenwriter with a fondness for the classics discovers that he can time-travel back to the nineteen-twenties, writer/director Allen turn in a film that appear effortlessly charming and quite a bit wise about the pernicious appeal of excessive nostalgia. Owen Wilson is his own unique self as the protagonist: Midnight in Paris would have been completely different with another actor, as Wilson’s hang-dog charm and wide-eyes befuddlement makes him a perfect match for the material. Otherwise, the performances to highlight are those in which a few actors get to play with historical figures; Kathy Bates is riveting as Gertrude Stein, and Corey Stoll is instantly compelling as Ernest Hemingway. As for the rest of the picture, well, it’s refreshingly mum about the time-traveling rationale, well-photographed (especially during its credit sequence, which shows us much of picturesque Paris in three-and-a-half minutes), generally amiable and maybe even untouchable for the kind of low-key comedy it aims to be. Compared to Allen’s latest films, Midnight in Paris is even a bit more hopeful and comforting in its resolution. (Well, except for the detective stuck in Versailles. Poor guy.)
(Video on Demand, October 2013) For many people of the geeky disposition, Pacific Rim reads like a dream project: Fan-favourite writer/director Guillermo del Toro, perhaps one of the most imaginative filmmakers around, taking on both the entire tradition of Japanese kaiju films, and blending it with the mecha subgenre… with a decent budget for once. What’s not to like? And, for much of its duration, Pacific Rim does deliver on its premise. It’s a big blockbuster spectacular, made by someone who loves the genre(s), knows how to make a crowd-pleasing film and approaches the premise with a welcome blend of optimism and determination. The first ten minutes, if it wasn’t for the flat narration, are almost a model for delivering a ton of exposition without undue strain. Pacific Rim requires a significant suspension of disbelief to set up its premise (extra-dimensional monsters are one thing, but giant robots controlled by two mentally-linked people are a tougher sell when nuclear-tipped cruise missiles seem so much more appropriate) but the way it sells a fully-realized world affected by years of kaiju incursion is a good way to ease in even the most nitpicky viewers. Where the film loses points, curiously enough, is in its depiction of monsters-versus-robots combat: For all of ILM’s eye-popping work in setting massive fights in complex environments, it’s not hard to look at the Hong Kong sequence and wish for longer, wider shots and the opportunity to fully take in a sequence rather than the visual confusion made by the neon lights, rain and quick cuts. (This may be an unavoidable issue when hundred of special effects technicians slave for months on the same sequence: the temptation to add more, more, more visual detail may be irresistible, but it works at the viewers’ disfavour when it results in an overdesigned sequence.) In terms of sheer spectacle, the film also peaks at the three-quarter mark. Even though nominal star Charlie Hunnam couldn’t be blander (about a dozen other actors could have done the same, or better), del Toro gets good performances out of his other actors, with a bit of special praise going to Rinko Kikuchi as the emotional center of the film, Charlie Day in a surprisingly compelling comic performance and Ron Perlman for being, well, Ron Perlman. Pacific Rim is a good film, albeit one that I wish could have been great. Del Toro has done terrific work here, but a little bit more oomph could have carried this even further.
Tom Clancy is dead.
The news came in via the internet, as all things now do: Within moments, it was the at top of news sites, and managed the rare quadrifecta of topping Reddit’s /news/, /books/, /movies/ and /gaming/ forums –an eloquent testimony to Clancy’s impact in three very different fields, and his once-preeminent status as America’s best-selling novelist. (Cardinal of the Kremlin was the best-selling novel of 1988 in the United States; Clear and Present Danger repeated the achievement the following year.)
As I read the eulogies, what struck me is how distant the news felt. 2013 hasn’t been a good year for author deaths (Jack Vance, Richard Matheson, Vince Flynn, Iain Banks, Elmore Leonard, Frederik Pohl… geez, and that’s just a selection from relatively-famous authors I found interesting) but what was different with Clancy is that once upon a time, I could claim with conviction that he was my favourite author.
The reviews of his work on this web site don’t accurately represent that: they were all written after 1995, past the point of Clancy’s most successful work. By lieu of apology-by-eulogy, I thought I’d take a trip back in time and revisit myself as a younger reader. There may be some autobiographical content below. (And given the vagaries of memory, there may be some unintentionally erroneous material as well, but if you know the truth, don’t tell me –I rather like my version of the story.)
It starts in Rockland, a small (mostly French-language) town in eastern Ontario, circa 1989 or thereabouts. At the time, I’m a bright 13-year old mostly-francophone nerd just beginning high-school. I love reading (well, in-between computer games) and I’m taking up more adult novels in English, but the local selection is limited: the (mostly French-language) school library is aimed at teenagers, the (mostly French-language) local public library is small and there’s no bookstore closer than the one 15 kilometers west in Ottawa-suburb Orléans. Not that it would matter, since I don’t have any money. My interest in science and technology make science-fiction my favourite thing, but the small local selection means that I have already read everything SF.
Thanks to a kindly great-aunt who loves reading as much as I do, I end up borrowing The Hunt for Red October (a battered gray paperback edition, portraying a submarine through a periscope) and I get hooked: The writing is plain and effective, the plot moves forward relentlessly, the technology feels cutting-edge and, perhaps most importantly, the book is filled with the kind of delicious expositionary material that I had until then only seen in science-fiction. Being thirteen-year old, I’m able to read my way through Clancy’s back-catalogue in a few weeks. By 1989, he not only has a small back-log of six novels (all stocked at the local library), but his success has also created the techno-thriller genre.
I’m not alone in discovering Clancy. My small coterie of proudly nerd friends and I (“The Nerd Squad”, yup, we were nerd-chic a decade before it was chic to be nerd) find Clancy to be the best thing ever. It helps that there’s a link with computer games (ah, the DOS version of Red Storm Rising: awesome!), that Clear and Present Danger is atop the bestseller charts and that the movie version of The Hunt for Red October is buzzing around. I remember talking about specific chapters of Red Storm Rising at a hockey arena with friend Sylvain (hey, what’s two nerds to do when the school forces you to watch a game at the local rink?); I remember my dearly departed friend Yves (RIP) telling us about how a boating mishap sent the Rockland Public Library’s sole copy of Clear and Present Danger in the Ottawa River, where it “rolled in the water like a donut being fried” (the water-damaged version would stay on their shelves for years; I wonder if they still have it); or both of us arguing about whether it was OK to peek ahead at the last page of a novel as you’re reading it (he had read the last page of Patriot Games to make sure it wasn’t going to end badly).
In some ways, Clancy leads us small-town nerds to the wider world. I remember all of us Nerds Squad members making a then-rare road trip to go see the film adaptation of Patriot Games in theaters (in Gloucester, 25 kilometers west) on its first weekend of release in June 1992. We start picking up other techno-thriller novels and exchanging recommendation. My first big new-book book purchase, at Place d’Orléans’ Coles bookstore, is three mass-paperback techno-thrillers in the Clancy subgenre by Dale Brown, Larry Bond and Harold Coyle.
At the time, Clear and Present Danger is the best thing I have ever read. When teenagers tackle their first big adult novels, they feel insanely big and imposing, and so the details stick in my mind even though I’ve forgotten many better books in the meantime. I still remember elements of the climax (such as Jack Ryan finding a long gash in his helmet, caused by a near-miss from a high-powered bullet) to be the measure of how thrillers should be written. Heck, even without looking it up, I still remember the closing line: “Silence is the greatest love of all.” (After checking: Aw, close: “silence was the greatest passion of all” [P.688, a page number I still remembered given the association with submarines.])
Given the scorn with which I reviewed latter Clancy novels on this site, I feel almost obligated to point out how good the first half-dozen Clancy novels actually were. Mixing up my own impressions of the novels with a wider critical appreciation of the subgenre:
- The Hunt for Red October (1984) remains the prototype for the techno-thriller genre. There had been earlier examples of the form (such as Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1969), Craig Thomas’ Firefox (1977), Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre’s The Fifth Horsemen (1980)) but this is the one that codified the form and made it popular: Blend in real-world references, high stakes, cutting-edge technology, detailed information lumps, plain writing and straightforward characterization. Even as a first novel, it’s amazingly self-assured: the plotting is tense, the pacing rarely flags despite the digressions and protagonist Jack Ryan’s heroic journey as an analyst forced in active operations is credible. It’s a terrific book, and I hope to be able to revisit it someday soon.
- As a novel trying to describe an entire World War III in less than 700 pages, Red Storm Rising (1986) may read today like hopelessly outdated alternate history. But in 1989/1990, even as the Soviet Union was breaking up, it still read like a chillingly plausible scenario. What still works, as long as you allow for the WW3 scenario, is the complexity of the plotting and the success with which Clancy and acknowledged-but-uncredited collaborator Larry Bond manage to depict a multi-fronted WW3 through a few viewpoint characters. It compares very positively with other WW3 fantasies that appeared on bookshelves during the end of the Cold War, most notably Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War. I have great memories of the book, and it’s another one I hope to re-read some day.
- Patriot Games (1987) proves that Clancy can be just as good with smaller-stakes. This time (with a story predating The Hunt for Red October, something that had blown my unformed mind at a time where “prequel” hadn’t become a cash-in staple), Clancy focuses on a man protecting his family from terrorists and keeps up the tension even without world-threatening stakes. Even if I’d probably find the ending overdone nowadays (what with a terrorist assault, a storm and a birth all converging) it seemed at the time like a perfect little ending to a perfect little thriller.
- The Cardinal of the Kremlin (1988) goes big once again, focusing on spying games between the US and the Soviet Union. A direct sequel to The Hunt for Red October, The Cardinal of the Kremlin stands tall as a refined example of sophisticated late-cold-war spy fiction. It blends together a number of political, military and technological elements that make it seem quite a bit more complex than the usual spycraft thriller. Even today, there may not be a better late-cold-war spying novel.
- Clear and Present Danger (1989) is discussed above, but I want to highlight how prescient it was at anticipating the post-Cold War era. It may have featured drug-lord antagonists, but the real point of the novel was the tension within the US forces in authorizing operations running against public policy and ethics. It’s probably Clancy’s most thoughtful novel, and the portrait of squad-level combat operations is still memorable.
By the time The Sum of All Fears was published in 1991, all of us Rockland nerds were ready to jump on the book. My parents were kind enough to get me a brand-new shiny hardcover from the local Price Club as a gift: I devoured it in days. If you chart Clancy’s career and critical success, you can make a case that his first five novels are all unchallenged successes, and that the slide down begins with The Sum of All Fears. That’s certainly my thesis, and even at the time I noted that the novel took almost forever to begin and went nowhere while the plot strands were assembled. The spectacular last 150 pages, taking the world all the way up to the brink of nuclear war even as Washington is paralyzed by a snowstorm, more than made up for the lacklustre rest of the book. Still, even today, I think of the “timber” subplot as an example case in savvy plotting. (ie; something like thirty pages, throughout the novel, are spent setting up a freakishly coincidental collision between a nuclear submarine and a piece of timber. The whole thing starts with the lumberjack that fells the tree. It works spectacularly well.)
The next book, Without Remorse (1993), would be a return to an earlier time and simpler stakes, but not quite as effective. As a Vietnam-era blend of combat and urban revenge story featuring another character from latter books, Without Remorse seemed a bit too simple even while it was, at a significant 639 pages, quite a bit overlong. My friends and I still liked the book, but I was wondering about a few questions: Did we need the story to take place in the same universe as the one launched by The Hunt for Red October? Did the novel need to be so long? Was anyone editing Clancy anymore?
Knowledgeable readers here recognize the early trends that would send Clancy into a critical tailspin in latter books. By the mid-nineties, Clancy had nothing left to prove. He’d made his money, beaten down reviewers and conquered a loyal audience (such as myself) that would buy his books on sight.
Debt of Honor (1994) was, I thought, a return to partial form: it moved the story back to modern times, and speculated a limited war between the US and Japan, with a big spectacular climax that not only predated eerie similarities with 9/11, but thrust once-analyst Jack Ryan to the presidency. Bold, big, maybe highly implausible, but a heck of a conclusion nonetheless.
Meanwhile, I had (more or less) escaped from the confines of Rockland, attending university in central Ottawa and suddenly having access to quite a bit more reading material. While this would have disastrous consequences (some college freshmen can’t tolerate suddenly-easy access to alcohol, parties and partners; my own first-year grades were terrible because of too many books and early access to the Internet.) an upshot was a reading regimen that allowed for a bit more discernment. I started reading SF by the bucket-haul and even publishing reviews online. Along the way, I acquired all of Clancy’s mainline novels in hardcover editions, even a prized copy of The Hunt for Red October in its original Naval Institute Press edition.
I soured on Clancy in 1995. My parents were excited to report that Clancy had a new book out! I was surprised to learn of it, and even more to learn that it was an average-sized original mass-market paperback. Wasn’t Clancy supposed to write big hardcovers? Well, it turned out that Tom Clancy’s Op Center was the first in a long, awful and unexplainably long-lived series of ghost-written “apostrophe” novels that carried Clancy’s name and none of his strengths. The accompanying TV series wasn’t much better.
(What were a bit better were the non-fiction trade paperbacks that, in seven installments from 1993 to 2001, gave an insightful look within elements of the US armed forces. I’m still not sure that Clancy wrote most of those, or that they didn’t take away time and energy best spent on novels, but they were interesting to read.)
When Executive Orders appeared in 1996, I’d started a reviewing web site –you can read my reaction to the book as I wrote it. The review is a bit embarrassing to re-read more than fifteen years later –it’s one of my earliest entries and I wasn’t even 21 at the time. This being said, I still stand by the overall critical assessment (“it isn’t Clancy’s best effort”) and note, while re-reading the review, that I’d started picking up on the right-wing politics, tepid pacing, loose editing and dubiousness of trying to keep up the Ryanverse. Still; it wasn’t an embarrassing novel for Clancy, even if it was far from the best.
What would be embarrassing is SSN, a 1996 minor videogame tie-in that has none of the flavour or interest of Clancy’s mainline novels. My review (also embarrassing to re-read) started badly with “Tom Clancy wants your money. It’s as simple as that.” and then uttered the fatal “The sad thing is, he used to be my favourite author.” It’s so different (and worse) than his usual novels that I still doubt whether Clancy did more than contribute an outline. Considering that Clancy was, at the time, moving toward video game conceptualization and had already started franchising his name, it’s a possibility that I’m not discarding.
Rainbow Six (1998) would, at least, be a bit better. It may even be Clancy’s last decent novel, although that assessment comes with a number of caveats: More than any one of Clancy’s mainline novels at that point, it would showcase increasingly right-wing politics, seal itself more firmly into the increasingly fantasy-based Ryanverse and display an author scarcely reined in by editors. The writing got worse, the story got duller and Clancy got caught embarrassingly believing manufactures’ press releases with the DKL LifeGuard fiasco. If there are a few good moments in the novel, they don’t amount to much in the aggregate.
By the time the world saw the massive The Bear and the Dragon (2000), the decline was unmistakable, and Clancy was teetering on the edge of “bad”. I wasn’t impressed: The novel has good moments, but they came at the expense of considerable time wasted, bad writing and a cumbersome attempt to reconcile the real world with the Ryanverse. Unlike many of Clancy’s previous novels, it felt like a chore to read.
Red Rabbit (2002) tried to deal with 9/11 by going back in time for another increasingly far-fetched prequel that contradicted much of Jack Ryan’s early history, messed up a number of key historical facts and simply didn’t add up to much. It had the virtue of a slightly lower page count, but not much more action. The writing got even worse.
The last straw, as far as I was concerned, was 2003’s The Teeth of the Tiger: I spent nearly all of my review pointing with laughter at the book’s problems, from the writing to plotting to ludicrous attempts to reconcile the Ryanverse with real-world history to the crazy political stance that ran counter to Clancy’s previous better novels. It hadn’t helped that 9/11 sent me politically leftward while Clancy grew more and more stridently right-wing. (Or, more generally, that 9/11 sent nearly all military fiction authors into right-wing lalaland, leading me to lose touch with the genre.)
Following The Teeth of the Tiger, I basically swore off Clancy, which was auspicious given that Clancy himself seemed to swear off writing. For reasons that, I hope, will be elucidated by competent biographers, Clancy handed over his series to collaborators, retreated in non-writing pursuits and paradoxically saw his fame increase due to a well-received string of videogames sporting his name.
By the time he died in October 2013, I hadn’t seriously thought about Clancy in years. I haven’t bought or read a single Clancy book since The Teeth of the Tiger. I don’t live in Rockland any more, I’m married, I’m raising a daughter and consequently don’t have as much time to read. The Nerd Squad has long disbanded (one member dead far too soon, the other ones having moved on in their separate orbits despite occasional contacts throughout the years. Half of the Squad have become video-game professionals.) I’m reviewing movies professionally. I stopped playing videogames due to lack of time. Despite my voluntary sabbatical from reading, I still have a long list of favorite authors… but very few of them write techno-thrillers.
But I would still like nothing better than to find an author who writes like Clancy at his finest. I still do like the concept of techno-thrillers a lot, and I bemoan that much of the genre now seems so stupidly right-wing and insular. I still own three linear feet of Clancy books, the earliest and best of them (from The Hunt for Red October to The Sum of All Fears) even adorning the “prestige” bookshelf meant to impress visitors. In my own thankfully-unpublished fiction writing, I can recognize the mark left by Clancy’s clean prose and straightforward exposition.
Like it or not, I’ve been shaped in some way by Tom Clancy, and the memories of his best books (alongside what they meant at the time) will remain with me. His critical trajectory was an exemplar of the so-called “brain-eaten” bestselling author, but he’s hardly unique in this regard. While I may have soured on his latter output, I’m still just as eager to suggest his first six novels as essential reading for thriller fans. If you haven’t done so already, have a look at The Hunt for Red October and keep going until The Sum of All Fears. Those are still books for the ages, and no amount of latter-day critical souring should change that.
(On Cable TV, October 2013) Here we go again: beloved kid’s fantasy series transformed into an overblown 3D Hollywood special-effects spectacle with a bit of snark. If the criticism sounds familiar, it’s because it’s been the playbook for just about everything since The Lord of the Rings made so much money. Here, The Wizard of Oz gets a prequel and while the results are familiar, they’re not as bad as they could have been. James Franco may or may not have been the best choice as a con-magician forced to be a hero (with Franco, it’s hard to tell sincerity from laid-back detachment), but director Sam Raimi is certainly in his element in showcasing a bright and colorful Oz in all of its 3D glory. Oz the Great and Powerful is not as derivative as it may first appear: Despite its kinship to L. Frank Baum’s work and the classic 1939 film, it feels relatively new and doesn’t try to ape the first film in its finer details. Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis all do fine work as the three main witches, although it’s Kunis who gets the most interesting material and best make-up work. The visual spectacle is worth a look, and if the film’s so-contemporary hip detachment is its own disservice (because much of Oz should be viewed with pure unadulterated glee), there’s enough here to make the film interesting to adults. The result may not be particularly challenging, but it works well enough, and the de-emphasis placed on straight-up combat in favour of tricks and deception is a welcome change of pace from the usual epic fantasy template.
(On Cable TV, October 2013) How can you not like this premise? In the depth of the cold-war 1950s, here is a trio of deadly… burlesque assassins! It’s a charming hook, and the film certainly doesn’t forget how silly it’s supposed to be, as three lovely operatives take on Mussolini Jr., Hitler’s clone and what looks like Joe Stalin. Still, viewers should realize that Burlesque Assassins is a low-budget Canadian film with more interest in showcasing burlesque than in being a polished comic thriller, and so adjust their expectations accordingly. From the title and plot summary, it’s easy to imagine writer/director Jonathan Joffe’s Burlesque Assassins to be something it’s not. The ultra-low-budget film is tailored to fit its single-minded burlesque boosterism and it often shows: Much of the film’s action, absent two prologues and three flashbacks, takes place in a single cabaret on a single night, the dialogue is often ham-fisted, the film’s plot is slowed down by burlesque numbers and the conclusion makes a mess out of whatever motivation the characters had. There’s also quite a bit too much gore for the film’s tone. Still, Burlesque Assassins has something that many more polished films don’t: charm. The acting is more endearing than convincing, but it doesn’t matter given how likable the entire film becomes. Armitage Shanks is constantly hilarious as the gruff-but-sensitive Johnny Valentine (it takes a strong man to do drag this badly), while Roxi D’Lite is pitch-perfectly doe-eyed as the new recruit in this trio of assassins. Of the standalone burlesque numbers, Scarlett Martini has the most interesting performance –the rest sort of blurs together despite the big numbers and small patsies. Still –and I can’t underscore this point enough– Burlesque Assassins makes up in likability what it doesn’t have in scope, pacing or polish: It’s the kind of let’s-get-the-gang-together small-budget filmmaking that’s hard to dislike or even dismiss.
(Video on Demand, October 2013) As someone who had a mixed reaction to The Hangover and an annoyed one to its nearly photocopied sequel, I’m almost unsurprised to find out that I don’t completely dislike the third installment in “The Wolfpack trilogy”. At the very least, it disposes with the narrative scheme of the first two films and attempts something new. It also brings back Ken Jeong’s unleashed character, a force of chaos that ends up driving much of the entire plot. The result certainly has its moments, as it zigzags from Los Angeles to Tijuana to (much to the characters’ dismay) Las Vegas once again. The comedy certainly is of the hit-and-miss type: some stuff works, some stuff doesn’t and viewers just have to wait for the next gag if one isn’t to their liking. With this series, it doesn’t pay off to be offended, but it actually takes a while (arguably until after the credits) for this third Hangover to get overly graphic. Perhaps the film is mellowing along its characters; perhaps it’s a recognition that you can only go back to the same raunchy source so many times. Much of the film’s success has to go to the actors under Todd Phillips’ direction. Bradley Cooper is still as preposterously charming as ever, while Ed Helms continues to undermine his own straight-laced image. Zach Galifianakis remains annoying, but even that annoyance seems lessened here, largely because his character does get a bit of emotional growth along the way. The Hangover III benefits from a few good comic set-pieces (the best of which taking place atop Caesar’s Palace), and manages to re-use a lot of material from the previous two film, even if only in passing. The result may not be great cinema, but it’s decent comedy and it brings this would-be trilogy to a decent close. It could have been worse, or at least far more similar to the first two films.
(On Cable TV, October 2013) There are so many average horror movies out there that finding a decent one always seem like an achievement. Sinister may not be exceptionally made or all that elegantly plotted, but it’s effective at what it tries to accomplish, and it manages a few dreadful moments along the way. The story of a true-crime writer who comes to discover a supernatural serial killer, Sinister effectively sets up its premise and doesn’t waste a lot of time before unspooling its horror. Audiences are likely to be as fascinated and repulsed as the protagonist in watching grisly Super-8 movies showing a few families’ final moments. Sinister is a knowing horror film in that it manages to exploit a few well-establish tropes, upend a few others and twist a few more. It doesn’t break out of the genre and has little meaningful social commentary to offer, but it creates a great atmosphere, a few jump scares, a relatively fresh take on classic material and some disturbing visual imagery. The ending may be unsurprising, but it builds to a crescendo that matches good visuals with a fine sense of pacing. Ethan Hawke doesn’t embarrass himself as the obsessed protagonist, while writer/director Scott Derrickson hits his intended targets –an underestimated skill in the horror genre. Worth seeing, although perhaps not by the entire family!