(On TV, October 2016) Trying to convince someone to see this tepid crime comedy about a mother/daughter pair of con artists quickly takes us to the tawdry: How about twentysomething Jennifer Love Hewitt playing up her cleavage? How about Sigourney Weaver in a lace bodysuit? No? Yet Heartbreakers’ most playful moments are spent playing the naughtiness of its premise (entrap the mark in a marriage, then create an affair and get half his wealth in a divorce settlement), so it’s not as if this is coming out of nowhere. What’s perhaps most disappointing, though, is how restrained the film has to be in order not to offend the masses, play against its stars’ persona and avoid an excessive rating. As such, Heartbreakers often feels like a big compromise, torn between sexiness and prudishness. If it felt free to cut loose with more nudity and explicit references, it could have been better; had it restrained itself and refocused, it could have been better as well. In its weird middle-ground, though, Heartbreakers often feels as if it doesn’t know what to do. Much of the plot points are predictable long in advance, with the conclusion dragging on much longer than it should (past the point most people will care, actually). Weaver’s extended fake-Russian shtick drags on for much longer than advisable, while Hewitt’s prickly romance subplot feels like the same plot point repeated five times. Bits and pieces of the film are amusing: Ray Liotta isn’t much more than adequate, but Gene Hackman cuts loose as a frankly despicable man who falls prey to the protagonists. While the film is a bit too good-natured to be unpleasant, it’s not much more than a mediocre comedy. You’ll smirk a few times, but Heartbreakers could and should have been much better.
(On Cable TV, August 2016) I spent a fair chunk of my twenties watching Hong Kong action movies, so my expectations were pretty reasonable in approaching Revenge of the Green Dragons, a film that takes on Chinese immigrant criminal adventures in eighties New York City. Co-Director Andrew Lau, after all, is the director of the classic Infernal Affairs. Alas, the result is far more pedestrian than anyone could have predicted. The plot elements are stock, and their execution is perfunctory at best. Two brothers in a triad, a girl who disapproves of the thug life, drugs imported from China, gang wars … all familiar, and yet all mishandled. The fast-paced montages are more disorienting than energetic, the story either spends too much or too little time on its own plot points, and there’s not much here to distinguish Revenge of the Green Dragons from others of the same ilk. (The Chinese ethnicity of the characters would be noteworthy … if I hadn’t watched so many Chinese gangster movies a decade or two ago.) Seeing Martin Scorsese as executive producer generates even higher expectations that the result can’t match. While some of the direction has its moments, the rest of the film doesn’t distinguish itself. As far as the acting goes, Ray Liotta sleepwalks through a familiar supporting role, while Shuya Chang and Eugenia Yuan each provide some welcome counterpoint (in their own way) to the story’s male-centric muddle. Revenge of the Green Dragons, to put it bluntly, is a bore, and a substandard treatment of promising material. Maybe it’s shackled too tightly to its “inspired by true events” origins. Maybe it’s strapped for budget. Maybe it’s just a mediocre production, destined to be forgotten like so many other criminal dramas.
(On DVD, December 2011) The trend toward “cheap but effective direct-to-video sequels related to their predecessor except in title only” continues with this follow-up to 2008’s corrupt-cop drama. The only constant here is the theme of police corruption, as the action moves to Detroit (just like S.W.A.T.2: Fireight, in fact) and features an entirely different cast of character. Ray Liotta headlines the picture as an aging police veteran, but the picture eventually revolves around Shawn Hatosy as an eager young cop trying to piece together the truth behind a few deaths in the police force. It doesn’t turn out cheerfully, especially given what he has to lose. The bleak conclusion is one of Motor City’s low points, but it caps a fairly average effort that seem well in-line with many recent direct-to-video thriller “sequels”. The visual polish of the digitally-shot film is up to most standards, with a few directorial flourishes by DTV veteran Chris Fisher and stylistic touches that are a bit more ambitious that what the picture strictly needed. Detroit, in its lapsed glory, has a large presence as the setting of the picture and this influences leads to some interesting choices as the film focuses on American muscle-car cinematography. It’s a bit of a shame, then, that the familiar story deflates a bit after a promising first half: By the time the third act descends in increasing nihilism and abrupt ending, it’s unclear why, Motor City needs to be told or watched if it’s going to be so bleakly routine without any other redeeming qualities. At least the film itself struggles to a certain level of competence, even though it doesn’t really know what to do once it has covered most of the basic requirements of an acceptable film. The recent revival of DTV films to a level of quality roughly equal to the lower-tier of theatrical features is a welcome improvement over the historical standard, but there’s still a way to go before fully erasing the DTV stigma; it will start once the stories are just as interesting as what we can pay to see in theatres. The DVD contains a large number of extra features that, by letting its filmmakers speak, make Motor City appear more pretentious than if you’d just watched the feature alone.
(In theatres, April 2010) There’s something refreshing in seeing a comedy for adults that delivers entertainment while avoiding the crassest demands of teenage audiences. It’s not that Date Night is short on violence, profanity, sexual references and overall bad behaviour, but it refuses to indulge in them for their own sake. The result is, for lack of a better expression, well-mannered. Date Night is seldom mean or meaningless; it features two mature comedians (Steve Carell and Tina Fey) at the height of their skills and it’s obviously aimed at an older target audience of long-time married couples. Date Night has too many plotting coincidences to be a perfect film, but it does end up better than average, and that’s already not too bad. If the script logic is often contrived, it’s far better at making us believe that the lead couple’s reactions are what bright-but-ordinary people would say or do in dangerous situations, rather than what the Hollywood stereotypes may dictate. There are even a few particularly good sequences in the mix, including a deliriously funny car chase through the streets of New York City, and a thinly-veiled excuse for Carell and Fey to dance as badly as they can. A bunch of recognizable character actors also appear for a scene or two, from the sadly underused William Fichtner to an always-shirtless Mark Wahlberg and a pasta-fed Ray Liotta. Add to that the somewhat original conceit of involving a bored married couple in a criminal caper (rather than using the thriller elements to make a couple “meet cute” as is far more common) and Date Night is original enough, and well-made enough to be noticeable in the crop of films at the multiplex. A few laughs, a few thrills and a few nods at the difficulty of staying married; what else could we ask from a middle-of-the-road Hollywood action comedy?