(On Cable TV, December 2017) I usually like Kurt Russell and I usually like John Carpenter and I usually like Science-Fiction movies and it bothers me to no end that I don’t like Starman despite how it combines those three things. The problem with Starman isn’t as much that it’s made out to be a sentimental science-fiction movie, but the way in which it’s presented: Blunt, crude and incoherent. It uses the tropes of a science-fictional thriller without committing to them or trying to make them subtler, can’t be bothered about plot holes and remains unapologetically predictable. Whatever Big Moments it has can be seen coming far in advance, with an execution that can’t really patch over the ennui with charm. Carpenter may be part of the problem in presenting a love story using the tools he knows best—helicopter chases, government conspiracies and roadside violence. Russell is generally blank in a role that asks him to play perhaps the most overused cliché in SF: the extraterrestrial grand naïf gawking at the world and trying to figure out human customs. It goes exactly as expected. While I didn’t exactly dislike Starman, I didn’t find much to like either.
(On Cable TV, August 2017) I gave 3000 Miles to Graceland a pass when it first came out, discouraged by the terrible reviews and probably captivated by some other film (let me check … ah yes: Monkeybone came out that weekend, followed in the next few weeks by The Mexican, 15 Minutes, Enemy at the Gates and Memento, all of which I saw at the theatre). Sixteen years later, the film is not quite as bad as I thought it would be. Part of it, I think, can be explained by Tarantino fatigue dissipating—3000 Miles to Graceland is a very stylish, very violent road movie, and writer/director Demian Lichtenstein seems eager to work in more or less the same stylized criminal comedy subgenre that had movie reviewers burnt out by 2001. Here in 2017, the thought of an unseen Tarantino-esque film can be interesting because there are comparatively fewer of them being made. It’s no accident if 3000 Miles to Graceland is far more interesting in its first half-hour than the sometimes-grating hours and a half that follows: It’s also the most deliberately stylized act of the film, the one that most closely apes the exuberant crime comedies of the time. That casino shootout is bloody fun (helped along by a bouncy turn-of-the-century techno soundtrack) and the way some characters are abruptly dispatched gives a welcome initial sense of unpredictability to the film. Kurt Russell is instantly likable as the anti-hero, while Kevin Costner does push his persona outside his comfort zone by playing an irremediable villain. (Compare and contrast his performance in 2016’s Criminal.) Courteney Cox is sexier than expected, while the unexpectedly good cast is rounded out by familiar faces such as Christian Slater, Kevin Pollak, David Arquette, Jon Lovitz, Thomas Haden Church and Ice-T. The best moments of the film have a good rhythm to them. But then the film goes on, and on, and on, becoming steadily more ordinary along the way. The promising Elvis-themed casino heist becomes a revenge road movie with awfully convenient plotting, with the stylishness and unpredictability flying away in the distance. There is, in the end, a lot of wasted potential—and even clinging to what works or almost works in 3000 Miles to Graceland can’t quite save it from mixed feelings.
(On TV, August 2017) I may have made a mistake in watching Escape from L.A. a few weeks ago, before seeing the original Escape from New York. Both films do run against very similar lines, after all: juvenile bad guys sent under duress in a forbidden zone to get someone back, but so anti-authority that they end up rebelling at some point. Escape from L.A. apes the first film almost plot point per point, down to the lunacy of some sequences. But while you would think that watching the first one so soon after the second would lower my appreciation of the first one, the reverse ended up happening: it only made me dislike the second one even more. I recognize that you can’t really blame the first for the excesses of the second. But more to the point, the first one is simply better-executed in the constraints of its formula. Never mind that the premise of turning Manhattan Island in a prison is nonsensical: the point here is putting up a backdrop for dystopian action. Peak-era Adrienne Barbeau is always welcome, but Kurt Russell is most remarkable as Snake Plissken, first in a series of likable rogues that he’d get to play for the rest of his career. The entire film has an edge of writer/director John Carpenter’s inspired lunacy to it, from strange set pieces to audacious set design to unconventional characters to sometimes-shocking moments (such as the president going full-crazy near the climax). Escape from New York does have its annoyances, and those do mirror those of its sequel: the oh-so-cool protagonist with an attitude that mostly appeals to teenagers; the nihilistic conclusion; the moronic elements of its premise; the tiring nature of its post-apocalyptic chic. But seeing Escape from New York at a time when (say) The Walking Dead is practically mainstream TV must be very different from seeing Escape from New York in 1981. It may not be fresh by today’s standards, but it’s easy to respect its place as a film that influenced many others. I still won’t forgive the sequel, though.
(In French, on TV, June 2017) Sometimes, we’ve grown so accustomed to the parody that we’ve forgotten what the original looked like. If your idea of 80s cop action drama dates from Last Action Hero, then go back to Tango & Cash for a look at what the pure ridiculous source material could look like. To be fair, it’s not as if Tango & Cash takes itself seriously—there’s already a bit of self-parody built in the film, and the results, as seen from nearly thirty years later, are often nothing short of ridiculous. There’s Sylvester Stallone, fooling no one by wearing glasses that don’t seem to serve any purpose. But then there’s Kurt Russell, chomping scenery as another loose-gun policeman. It takes place in Los Angeles, of course. It covers quite a bit of male bonding between two headstrong partners. It’s bonkers in the most asinine action-movie ways, such as sending two cops in jail, and them allowing them to break out. To be fair, the prison sequence is the film’s highlight—the subsequent investigation back in the world pales in comparison. Tango & Cash is a bit of a mess, which can be explained if you read about its troubled production history. Unfortunately, it’s not a particularly entertaining one, except in bits and pieces. At least Stallone and Russell are both quite good in their characters, with a showy supporting role for Jack Palance and pre-stardom Teri Hatcher. Tango & Cash is a must-see for whoever is interested in the history of buddy-cop movies, but let’s not pretend that it’s anything essential for everyone else.
(On Cable TV, June 2017) I’m normally a forgiving viewer when it comes to over-the-top comic action movies like Escape from L.A. Throw in an enjoyable action set-piece and I will normally forgive most of the nonsense required to get there. For the first half-hour of the movie, I was certainly willing to play along: It was almost a relief to see Kurt Russell back in character as Snake Plissken, all attitude and tough-guy moves. Even the dodgy CGI work required to do justice to the script on a relatively modest budget didn’t bother me too much. But even as the good cameos unfolded (Bruce Campbell as a plasticized surgeon, Pam Grier as a transsexual, Peter Fonda as a surfer!), the film lost its flavour and became bitter. At some point, the adolescent thrills of relentless post-apocalyptic nihilism became tiresome. Plissken’s posturing became hollow, and a reminder that there’s only so far to go when fuelled by cynicism and anti-heroic amorality. When the anarchic ending came, I was more annoyed at the wanton destruction than overjoyed at seeing authoritarianism being kicked over along with much of civilization. I guess I’m not a brooding sixteen-year-old anymore. While writer/director John Carpenter clearly had fun poking at Los Angeles’s pretensions with Escape from L.A., the result is curiously dark and meaningless … and I’m the one not having fun with the result.
(On TV, May 2017) In an ideal world, I would be writing my impressions about Tombstone in a perfect vacuum, untainted by any later film or experience. In this world, however, I waited two weeks before jotting down this capsule review … after seeing the similar Wyatt Earp. I’m unlikely to be the only one to draw comparisons between the two, as both movies came out in 1993–1994 and have been linked ever since. While Wyatt Earp tries to give a whole-life portrait of Earp, Tombstone focuses on the events immediately preceding and following the shootout at O.K. Corral. But more crucially, Wyatt Earp is dour and interminable, whereas Tombstone does have Kurt Russell with a glorious moustache shouting “You tell ’em I’m coming … and hell’s coming with me, you hear? Hell’s coming with me!” That’s everything you need to know about both movies. Game over. Go home, Kevin Costner, you’re playing a drunk. More seriously, though: While Tombstone is the better of both Earp movies, it’s hardly a perfect film. While Russell, Val Kilmer (as Doc Holliday) and Sam Elliott (among many others) make a good impression, the film does take a while to find its footing: it’s only after some tedious throat-clearing and mismatched scenes that Tombstone realizes that it can have fun with its story and truly gets going. At times, it seems as if the film (wrongly) assumes that its viewers are familiar with the O.K. Corral shootout: there seems to be some connecting narrative tissue missing, some subplots disappear into nothingness and there’s an argument to be made that the shootout is the climax—anything that follows becomes less and less interesting and isn’t shot with the same amount of intensity. Looking at the comparison between Tombstone and Wyatt Earp once more highlights that Tombstone is better because it’s more fun—so maybe had it been even more fun it would have been even better? A shorter, even more focused, even less historically accurate version may have been a stronger movie. I suspect that had Tombstone been made a few years after Wyatt Earp, it would have been quite different.
(Second viewing, on TV, July 2016) I remember seeing this in theatres (opening week!) and feeling let-down by the way a first act promising the mysteries of the universe led to an underwhelming film about primitive tribes rushing into revolution with our band of heroes. Watching it again twenty years later, with adjusted expectations, I’m still disappointed. I suppose that if it’s space opera that I want, the subsequent TV series and novelizations will suffice, but it doesn’t make the original film much better. And yet, there are a few things to note here: James Spader as a likable nerd, a prime-era Kurt Russell acting tough as a military operative, an early eye-catching role for Mili Avital, and primitive CGI being used in obvious ways. The familiar triumphant-rebellion angle is guaranteed to be rousing, and director Dean Emmerich does manage one or two interesting visuals. Historically, this Emmerich/Devlin production works best as a bit of a bigger-budget rehearsal for the more accomplished madness that was Independence Day. Even with good intentions, I still feel underwhelmed by Stargate.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, June 2016) My memory may be playing tricks on me, because I remembered Backdraft as a more iconic film than this second viewing suggests. Despite the far better picture quality of watching this in HD as compared to standard television (maybe VHS) resolution, the film feels a bit smaller this time around. Oh, don’t misunderstand me: I still think Backdraft is the iconic firefighting movie. Fire plays a lead character in the film, the script manages to play with enough suspense elements to keep things interesting. Ron Howard’s direction is the apogee of early-nineties slickness, while a group of great actors do interesting things together, from a dynamic Robert de Niro (back when he wasn’t playing a caricature of himself), to the incomparable Kurt Russell to an unusually strong turn by William Baldwin. Even Donald Sutherland (seemingly as old then as he is now) turns up in a pair of memorable scenes. The firefighting action sequences remain unparallelled, especially than last scenes with the exploding barrels. But in my mind, I had built up Backdraft as something a bit more grandiose than it is. I’m certainly not calling for a remake, but I’m welcoming this as a reminder not to set my expectations too high as I revisit blockbuster movies I haven’t seen in a long time.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) I’m a sucker for fast-moving crime comedies, and so it is that Canadian low-budget The Art of the Steal manages to hit all of the right buttons. From the get-go, it presents itself with narration-heavy stylish grace, zipping along its plot points while keeping a pleasantly cynical tone throughout. Kurt Russell stars as the protagonist/narrator, a master thief who’s been burnt once by an accomplice (Matt Dillon, as slickly slimy as he can be). When both of them are reunited for One Last Caper, you can guess where the story goes. Jay Baruchel becomes another good neurotic oddball (alongside veteran Terence Stamp for an added touch of class), but it’s writer/director Jonathan Sobol who delivers the most stylish performance. While The Art of the Steal liberally borrows from other similar films down to the expected twist ending, the result is pleasant enough to excuse any familiarity: sometimes, comfort is what we’re after, and fans of caper films should be more than happy with the result. Best of all; this is a cheerfully Canadian film both in origins and in setting: For something shown partially to fulfill CanCon requirements for home-grown cable channels, it’s surprisingly entertaining and slickly made as a bonus.
(Second viewing, On TV, September 1998) I first saw Executive Decision in theatres the first week of its release, and kept a fairly good impression of this tense techno-thriller. I was surprised to see, watching it again on the small screen, that it still held up pretty well upon a second viewing. The terrorist-take-over-plane plot is serviceable, but given a kick in the pants by the screenwriters’ originality. The craftsmanship of the tension is obvious; so is the director’s portrayal of the characters and the superb casting. (Never mind Kurt Russell’s charming everday man: This is Steven Seagal’s best movie, y’know?) The abrupt tone change of the last few minutes, which had annoyed me a lot the first time, didn’t seem to grating on second viewing. Not only one of my favourite movies of 1996, but one of the best thrillers ever made.