(Second viewing, On DVD, November 2017) I first saw Lethal Weapon 3 on VHS in the mid-nineties, and while I still remembered a few things (the armour-piercing climactic shootout, the great “let’s compare scars” romantic scene), I had forgotten much along the way. (I do remember much of the promotional chatter surrounding the film and its sequences involving the destruction of a construction project, and the co-optation of a planned building demolition.) In retrospect, Lethal Weapon 3 still marks a transition between the buddy-cop movies of the late-1980s and the overblown action movies of the mid-1990s. The Lethal Weapon series straddle both, of course, and watching this third instalment is like plunging back in a sadly neglected subgenre: Sunny Californian action with plenty of laughs, dubious moral foundations and an overall sense of conscious excess. I miss those kinds of movies where every stunt is an attempt to be even bolder and bigger than the previous one (although Lethal Weapon 3 has its best action sequences well before the climax). I miss the banter between charismatic leads such as Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. (Most of all, I miss the time when you could watch Mel Gibson and not have to account for his personal issues.) I miss the anything-goes nature of plotting where just standing on the street could lead the characters to an armoured car heist and then on to a corruption scandal within the LAPD (and a hockey game sequence because why not?). What I don’t miss is the casual police brutality played for laughs and some of the coincidental nature of the plotting. Still, Lethal Weapon 3 generally works. Including Renee Russo as a true romantic partner for Mel Gibson’s character is a welcome development, and even Joe Pesci is acceptably annoying. While the result isn’t much more than a competent example of the subgenre, it holds up compared to other movies of the series, and the kind of film it intends to be.
(Netflix Streaming, September 2017) At some point, someone will need to sit down with Mel Gibson and ask if he’s all right, because most of his movies as a director include unnecessary gore to a level that approaches ridiculousness. Hacksaw Ridge is no exception, but it feels even more ridiculous given how dissonant the film gets once it heads to war. The first half of the film is easily the most interesting, as a young man (Andrew Garfield, effortlessly likable) enlists but refuses to take up arms due to religious beliefs. The army doesn’t take his conscientious objection very well, and the action soon moves to the courtroom as our protagonist defends his right not to bear arms in the service of the nation. There’s a conventional romance, but the angle through which Gibson explores national service is interesting. Then we head over to the front and Hacksaw Ridge becomes an entirely different animal. As combat rages on, soldiers are killed in increasingly gruesome ways only made possible by CGI and our protagonist must continue to operate in this hellish environment. If viewers had been worried they wouldn’t get war sequences after a pacific start, those worries are soon put to rest by a Grand Guignol carnival of exploding heads and severed limbs. Some viewers may want to tune out, not just because of the gore, but mostly because the film pretty much loses any dramatic interest from that point on. There will be bullets. There will be heroic sacrifices. There will be redemption for a protagonist regarded as unreliable by his fellow soldiers. It plays out almost exactly as anticipated, although the visuals are indeed nightmarish enough. Uneven in its approaches, Hacksaw Ridge undeniably has some interest, but it is needlessly graphic in its portrayal of violence.
(In French, on Cable TV, August 2017) Given the western genre’s continued tendency to reach for dour drama, it can be a relief, even decades later, to encounter a light-hearted western. It feels even more refreshing to see it use its western setting as a springboard for a gambling conman comedy. In Maverick, Mel Gibson is practically perfect as a wisecracking protagonist equally adept with cards and guns, bluffing and shooting his way to a high-stakes gambling tournament. It’s a fine performance in his best persona, but it’s equalled by Jodie Foster in an atypical western bombshell role—Foster’s long been known for playing mostly cerebral, often desexualized roles, so it’s a bit of a delight to see her play up blonde curls and tight dresses. Other name actors round up the cast, in-between James Coburn, Dan Hedeya, James Garner, Graham Greene and Alfred Molina … plus more cameo roles than you’ll be able to recognize. Director Richard Donner’s rapid pacing helps its entertainment value, but there is considerable charm in its setting and attitude—not many westerns have steamboats, and fewer include rapid-fire romantic repartee or wryly funny native characters. The script, by legendary William Goldman, is as good as you’d expect, with a pile-up of confidence games and triple-crossing characters in addition to the western backdrop. Maverick is not a great movie, but it remains a really good one.
(Netflix Streaming, February 2017) Featuring Mel Gibson in top-bruiser mode, Get the Gringo shows what can happen when an American career criminal gets caught in a Mexican jail. The place looks like a ghetto more than a prison, and much of the film’s fun is seeing the protagonist learn the system in order to exploit it. From the first smashing action sequence to the last comforting moment of the happy epilogue, Get the Gringo is a modest triumph of execution and sheer fun film-watching. As far as wry criminal thrillers go, it’s a success. Gibson is clearly the film’s anchor: he co-produced the film, his role is clearly heroic, his narration works well at making the film even more fun and the way he uses his persona here is quietly fascinating. This is the sarcastic self-assured Gibson: tough, funny, smart, threatening, knowledgeable and charming at once. It’s a kind of character that Gibson’s off-screen tabloid fodder actually enhances. As a comeback vehicle, it feels far better than 2010’s Edge of Darkness even if it’s less respectable. As a criminal action film with streaks of comedy, Get the Gringo gets full marks: it’s fun, fast and neatly wrapped up, feeling like a semi-sequel to 1999’s Payback. It’s a shame that its direct-to-video profile lowered its profile so much, but I see that’s gotten quite a bit of attention lately. It’s well worth its 90 minutes, especially for those who want to see Gibson at the top of his game, or are looking for a light-hearted crime thriller.
(Second viewing, On TV, December 2016) It’s been a bit more than thirty years since I’ve seen Braveheart (I distinctly recall using the Internet in summer 1996 to look up historical facts about the film) but those thirty years apparently haven’t been kind to my appreciation of the film. Watching it today, I’m not sure what annoys me most: the bombastic and tiresome “THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS FREEEEDOM!” message; the fact that the hero fails miserably at what he tries to do; the unnecessary deviations from the facts; or the excessive length of the result. Probably all four. I’m mellowing in my increasingly older age, and while I won’t yet pretend to maturity, I’m also getting tired of films with a 13-year-old’s understanding of ideology as being impervious to common sense. I’m also tired of movies making up lies (i.e.; jus primae noctis) to push their own dramatic agendas. I’m also tired of movies stretching out over nearly forever. No matter the reason, I’m not quite as enthusiastic about Braveheart as I was before. I’ll gladly concede that actor/director Mel Gibson knows how to make a movie: this is a slick production, well worth whatever Academy Awards it got. But I’m going to stop short from professing any overwhelming personal enthusiasm for it.
(Second Viewing, In French, On TV, December 2016) There are two different movies within Air America, both of them clamouring for attention in various ways. The first film is an exciting buddy comedy portraying the insanity of pilots during the Vietnam war, using their planes as trucks to go from one place to another doing side deals on their own or on behalf of their shadowy masters. It’s a movie with terrific aerial stunts (the best of which is a Los Angeles-set highway confrontation between a helicopter and an 18-wheeler) that combine airplanes and explosions to good effect. Unfortunately, the second film is a far more conventional tale of a drug-running conspiracy being revealed and defeated, men learning better and criticizing the excesses of war. That second film ultimately overwhelms the first with a foregone everyone-is-a-hero conclusion that can be seen coming from miles away. The tension between the two is never resolved, and if Air America does retrospectively stand as an early example of the geo-sardonic subgenre that would become one of the default Hollywood modes of grappling with geopolitical issues (from Lord of War and The Hunting Party to, more recently, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot or War Dogs), it clearly doesn’t quite know how to dose the two parts of its execution. At least Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr (looking far too young) are in fine form as the two mismatched partners, and the pre-CGI aerial stunts do have a kick to them.
(On Cable TV, June 2015) Given my less-than-favorable reactions to the first two films of The Expendables series, I’m not overly surprised to find out that the third installment isn’t any better. It’s different in that the directing duties are handled in an unexceptional fashion by Patrick Hughes, that it thankfully abandons the R-rated CGI gore for a PG-13 rating that doesn’t change much and that it features even more veteran actors in small roles. Harrison Ford and Kelsey Grammer both seem to have fun, but Mel Gibson steals the spotlight as the film’s antagonist –although it would have been more impressive had he not done almost exactly the same villain shtick in an even more grandiose fashion in Machete Kills. Sylvester Stallone is his usual smarmy self-indulgent self in the lead role, although he has the decency to play father-figure rather than romantic partner to women thirty years younger. There are plenty of meta-textual winks and nods (Wesley Snipes’ “tax evasion”, “out of the picture”, etc.), which is fortunate given how the only thing The Expendables series has going for it is the constant fan-service. The plot is dull, the action sequences are average (none more so than the final exasperating hand-to-hand showdown) and the actors are usually past their prime. There will be a sequel, but I don’t expect it to be any better either.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) I’m a long-time fan of Robert Rodriguez’s films (all the way back to Desperado on VHS), but it sure looks as if he’s spent the last decade repeating himself with a long series of sequels and spin-offs. Machete Kills is the third film to be spun off from 2007’s Grindhouse, and it suggests that the joke has been played out. Not that the film itself is unpleasant to watch: As you may expect from its neo-grindhouse inspiration, it’s suitably over-the-top, allowing Rodriguez and his ensemble cast to have a lot of fun by sending up an assortment of action movie clichés. Danny Trejo is compelling as usual as the titular Machete, but it’s a toss-up as to whether he’s having as much fun as Mel Gibson (as a Bond-grade villain), Charlie Sheen (as a lecherous President) or Sofia Vergara (using her shrill persona to good effect, for once). Even Lady Gaga gets a role as a shape-shifting assassin. The action gets silly quickly and never lets basic disbelief being an obstacle. It’s all good fun, except that Rodriguez’s low-budget aesthetics (tight framing, cheap special effects, lazy blocking, editing that allows actors to share a scene without ever having been in the same room together) are less satisfying than one would expect… especially once they’re repeated too often. Rodriguez can command bigger budgets than he used to at the beginning of his career –he should use that power for a few money shots. Still, despite the over-the-top action, shameless exploitation (often going straight to comic parody) and self-aware ridiculousness, there’s a sense that Machete Kills is a bit too big for its aw-shucks attitude. By focusing on the comedy, it even loses a bit of the edge that the first Machete had, and the focus on violence while downplaying the nudity is a step in the wrong direction. It’s too long for its own good, and in stretching out some of its duller stretches, invites tiresomeness. It probably doesn’t help that this is Rodriguez’s umpteenth return to the same source: For all of the chuckles and I-can’t-believe-I’m-seeing-this outrageousness, by the time the end credits roll, there’s no need for a third Machete outing. Let’s leave well-enough alone and let’s hope that Rodriguez does something a bit fresher for his next effort.
(In theatres, January 2010) It’s been a long time since Mel Gibson has simply acted in a film, and his choice of vehicle for his come-back really isn’t a stretch: As a Boston cop who seeks to avenge his murdered daughter, Gibson relies on tics developed for Payback and the Lethal Weapon series, although in a far darker context. What seems like a botched criminal revenge killing eventually develops into a conspiracy involving politicians, state secrets, eco-terrorists and professional assassins. It doesn’t end well for anyone. While all of the above sounds pleasantly crunchy, the result feels curiously uninvolving. The story (adapted, updated and condensed from a mid-eighties BBC series) advances in jolts, with the political angle feeling particularly disconnected and superfluous. Gibson himself does better as the vengeful father, his grim (and increasingly creased) face lending a bit of gravitas to the shootouts that pepper the film. Director Martin Campbell brings a few good shocks and suspense sequences to compensate for mawkish flashbacks to the daughter-as-a-girl and an over-the-top final sequence that marks the fourth big movie in three weeks to make heavy use of pseudo-Christian mythology. Edge of Darkness doesn’t embarrass itself, but neither does it achieve narrative velocity. It’s a thriller for post-teenage moviegoers, but even with its grim atmosphere, it’s not even up to the equally-adapted-from-the-BBC State of Play in terms of effectiveness.