(Second Viewing, On Cable TV, December 2017) I’m not sure if I first saw Mortal Kombat in theatres or on VHS (probably theatres, and probably because there was a girl involved), but after twenty years the biggest memory I kept from the film was its soundtrack. (I kept the CD in heavy rotation in my late nineties playlist.) Watching it again shows a film that has visibly aged, but perhaps not as much as I had feared. The early-CGI special effects are clearly dated, showing a lack of sophistication and restraint that calls attention to the effects rather than their usefulness. The dialogue is not particularly good, and the plot is a serviceable way to get characters moving from one action set-piece to another. On the other hand, the actors are likable: Robin Shou is terrific once the action starts, Christophe Lambert gets a great excuse to play a cackling version of his own persona, and one of the few things I did remember from the movie was Bridgette Wilson’s film-long progression from ponytail-headed tough professional to curly-haired blonde kitten by the time the film ends. Visually, director Paul W.S. Anderson made a splash with this Hollywood debut and much of the film still holds up decently well even after the wave of arthouse martial arts movies of 1999–2009 from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Hero. While I acknowledge that a heavy dose of nostalgia in a big factor in re-watching Mortal Kombat, I wasn’t as disappointed as I thought I’d be by the result.
(On Cable TV, September 2017) The Resident Evil series has been a mixed bag of inconsistent results, so it’s perhaps no surprise to find out that what is billed as a final instalment would be so uneven. Resident Evil: The Final Chapter starts on a sour note, as the big-scale Washington, DC, battle promised by the previous instalment is completely avoided, with an inferior opening action sequence setting low expectations. Much of the first and second acts are a moving post-apocalyptic mixture of road rage and zombie action, seldom reaching the lunacy that marked the series’ best moments. Iain Glen does bring a bit of gravitas to the instalment, just in time for the film’s most interesting third act, which sees the action go back to The Hive where the series began. The fan-favourite laser corridor makes a return appearance (although it’s absurdly easy to defeat when the panels are smashed) and it all leads to a competent set-piece between super-powered characters before a conclusion of sort is offered, finalizing series lead Alice’s role in the entire shenanigans. (Milla Jovovich gives it all she can, but the most interesting thing here is how visibly she has aged in the fifteen years between the first and last movies of the series.) As an announced conclusion, it does carry a not-entirely-unearned weight—unfortunately, it can’t meet those expectations. While there are a few good moments here and there, The Final Chapter remains a disappointment for not following up on the previous volume, for not fully giving satisfying endings to the series’ recurring characters and for settling for a fairly obvious conclusion. Even on a strictly visual level, director Paul W.S. Anderson turns in a routine film, without any of the visual flair he’s proven able to accomplish, even in the previous volume of the series. Much more would have been possible. With this lukewarm conclusion, it almost goes without saying that you’d better be a fan of the series before watching The Final Chapter—there’s little here, either in plotting or execution, to make it interesting if you’re not already invested in knowing how it will turn out.
(On Cable TV, November 2014) A quick look though this site will show that I have nothing against Paul W.S. Anderson’s blend of action theatrics and simplistic screenplays. It doesn’t always work (Soldier, ugh), but then again it sometimes does in carefully controlled doses (Event Horizon, the Resident Evil series). So it is that his Pompeii puts fancy CGI makeup on the familiar body of a catastrophe film and produces something far blander than we’d hoped for. It’s clear that, for all of the usual hollywoodization of the true story of Pompeii’s volcanic destruction, a lot of work has been spent making the film historically credible. The re-creation of a roman city is impressive, and publicity surrounding the film assures us that the city’s geography is as historically faithful as modern research allows. Still, that level of attention to detail doesn’t amount to much when the film’s broad dramatic plot seems lifted from so many familiar sources. Here’s the brave low-class hero; here’s the forbidden love interest; here’s the despicable villain. (Kit Harrington is just boring as the hero, while Emily Browning goes through the motion as the re-rigueur heroine. It’s Keifer Sutherland who gets the best performance as a delightfully villainous senator) Much of the first hour is interminable as the plot pieces (as thin as they may be) are brought on the table and placed to dramatic effect once the volcano starts erupting. Things do predictably pick up once the catastrophe starts, and there’s some undeniable visual interest in seeing a city being destroyed with fiery rocks once Vesuvius shows what it’s capable of doing. The action sequences are staged with skill, making Pompeii fitfully entertaining. There’s a bit of unusual audacity in the ending, but it doesn’t come with the emotional punch that the filmmakers were hoping for –I’m not sure you can combine camp and pathos in the same vehicle. Pompeii may come complete with a 3D version, but it’s a surprisingly old-fashion sword-and-sandal catastrophe film, built from familiar plot templates and boring until the destruction starts. There’s worse out there, but it shouldn’t be too hard to find better.
(On Cable TV, June 2013) As an unlikely casual fan of the Resident Evil series (I liked the first one, hated the second one, tolerated the third before the fourth hooked me again), I’m better-disposed than most in liking a new installment in the series, and Retribution does deserve a bit of love despite some basic problems. For fans of the series, the best thing about this fifth entry is the way it dares bring back past elements such as Michelle Rodriguez (who, in-between this and Fast Six, seems to be on her “Hey, world, remember me?” tour) and a glimpse at the protagonist’s pre-zombie suburban days. The film winks at its own mythology, and has the most obvious nods at its video-game origins by explicitly setting the story in discrete “levels”. Much of the series’ motifs are also in place, from the way the opening sequence quickly riffs off the ending of the previous film, to the final apocalyptic shot meant to set up the next installment. Milla Jovovich is also up to her usual standards, which is always good news. There’s a lot to smile about here, and that’s even before getting into director Paul W.S. Anderson’s impeccable visual composition. At times, Retribution is so beautifully shot as to approach art-house levels of cinematography: Witness the opening “backward” battle, the stark white-hallway fight, the New York sequence or the presentation of the secret base in which everything takes place. Given this, it’s regrettable that the film isn’t quite as good as it could be: some of the action scenes are meaningless, Rodriguez isn’t used as effectively as she could be, and there’s no escaping a sense of repetition among the chaos and explosions. Still, the visuals make up for many sins, and so I am really looking forward to the sixth installment.
(On DVD, December 2011) I won’t try to hide my disdain for the 2008 film that led to this follow-up, especially given how it establishes my low standards for approaching this film. Can you expect anything good from a Direct-to-Video prequel to a wholly useless remake/prequel? No way. And yet, especially by the rising standards of Direct-to-Video action movie, Death Race 2 actually isn’t too bad. Director Roel Reiné knows how to work with a small $7-million budget, and the film feels just as big as the big-budget 2008 film. Luke Goss makes for a fine stand-in to Jason Statham as an action hero, Lauren Cohan seems to be auditioning for a chunk of Milla Jovovich’s career (similitudes may not be accidental given Paul W.S. Anderson’s presence as a writer/producer), and there are surprisingly big and enjoyable roles for both Danny Trejo and Ving Rhames. The concept of the film has been stolen from the 2008 Death Race, but the dialogue has occasional moments, the story leads straight into the 2008 film, and the direction is quite a bit better than what we could expect with moving cameras, ambitious pyrotechnic stunts and audacious shots –some of them in super-slow-motion. The car chase following the bank robbery looks as if its cost quite a bit, and the film seems to have been able to re-use a bunch of material from the 2008 film. It’s certainly more colourful than its predecessor, taking away one of the main criticism I had of the earlier film. No, there certainly isn’t any more social consciousness here compared to the 1975 film. But it is exactly what it claims to be: a competently-made action film released straight to video. I even enjoyed chunks of it. The DVD extras are far more successful in focusing on the making of the film than trying to glorify it as an entry in an ongoing “franchise”; director Reiné is more interesting in discussing aspects of his approach in low-budget film-making.
(In theaters, November 2011) Since Alexandre Dumas’ Les Trois Mousquetaires endures as a perennial adventure novel, it makes sense that every generation would seek to adapt it to its own liking. In 2011, this means an action-adventure film heavily influenced by steampunk tropes, blending cheerfully anachronistic machines with swordfights and derring-do. It won’t work if you’re predisposed against big dumb action B-movies. But if you do enjoy big dumb action B-movies, then this is a fine example of the form. Director Paul W.S. Anderson is a competent visual stylist, and his instinct for action sequence is better than most of his contemporaries. Holding back the quick-cutting out of concern for audiences watching this film shot in 3D, Anderson gives a good kinetic kick to The Three Musketeers and does justice to the fast-paced script. (Which is surprisingly faithful to the plot beats of the original novel, action movie theatrics being considered.) A number of capable actors hold their own in iconic role, whether it’s Anderson-favourite Milla Jovovich as Milady de Winter, Matthew Macfadyen as the deep-voiced Athos, and Christoph Waltz as the Cardinal Richelieu the film deserved. A number of well-executed action beat enliven the picture, all the way to the swashbuckling finale in which two lighter-than-air warships battle it out over Paris. Classic French literature has seldom felt so dynamic; there’s a definite Resident Evil tone to the film, all the way down to an epilogue that sets up the next installment. I’m game for any sequel, but keep in mind that I’m an indulgent viewer when it comes to action pictures. And before anyone asks, I am atoning for this good review of The Three Musketeers by finally reading the Dumas book.
(On DVD, January 2011) I have an unaccountable soft spot for the Resident Evil films, and part of the fascination is seeing how the series continues to surprise even in its fourth installment: Not only has it squeezed two adventures after the logical end-point of most zombie movies (that is: the infection going global, everybody dying, etc.), the series has actually recovered from the awful second film and Afterlife continues to show how clever it can be in delivering polished visuals, action thrills and further developments to its own playful mythology. Impressively enough, this installment depowers a seemingly omnipotent Alice after a deliriously overpowered first sequence. Then it’s off to Los Angeles (via Alaska) for a little more of that claustrophobic Resident Evil setting. A new crew is introduced, many of them discarded on the way to the conclusion, and there’s a nice little upswing to the conclusion. (Hint: don’t stop watching right after the credits start to roll and pay attention to the credited names that haven’t yet appeared in the film.) I haven’t always been kind to director Paul W.S. Anderson, but his eye for impressive visual sequences is undeniable, and his return to the series helps make this fourth entry the strongest since the first one. (This made-for-3D film looks really good even in 2D.) Milla Jovovich doesn’t have to make any special effort to make another good impression as Alice. Never mind the formula dialogue, characters or plot: the kick here is the same kind of over-the-top, hyper-glossy action visuals that the series has provided so far. Even ten years after the first film, Afterlife proves that there’s a little bit of juice left in the series.
(In theaters, August 2008) No one will be surprised to learn that this remake of a classic B-grade picture has twice the mayhem and none of the (thin) social commentary of the original. After all, it’s become somewhat of a signature move for modern remakes to go for the flash and forget the substance of what worked in the original. The inevitable result of such cutting, of course, is a lifeless piece of action cinema that barely manages to engage its audience. So it is with Death Race, which takes a nasty social premise and hammers it in a prison environment TV show where there’s no chance that any real issues can be discussed. Jason Statham is up to his usual gruff standards as a good tough guy manipulated in causing considerable violence, but the rest of the picture around him is as monotone as the processed industrial look given to the picture. Joan Allen is wasted as the mastermind behind the race, but then again most of the talent in this picture is similarly wasted. Director Paul W.S. Anderson is a certifiable idiot, but at least he manages to find half a dozen good sequences and images out of this whole over-edited mess. Among the film’s least admirable misogynistic traits is the use of young women as race navigators, only to conveniently forget them during the various crashes and deaths that follow –at one gruesome exception. You don’t need to know much more about this strictly routine film: it’s going to be straight to the DVD bargain bin for this title, and then on to “I didn’t even know they’d remade Death Race” obscurity.