(Video on Demand, June 2013) The submarine-movie subgenre is interesting in that there are only so many things you can do, story-wise, aboard a submarine. Sense of isolation; claustrophobia; being stuck with an insane individual; nuclear weapons (sometimes); submarine fights; ocean dangers; the list is finite, and nearly every submarine movie ever made seems to play with the same ideas. Phantom is no exception: while “based on a true story” (albeit the most incredible interpretation of events, with an added dash of magic science to make things even less plausible), it’s resoundingly familiar in the way it re-uses common plot elements. That’s not necessarily a bad thing –execution is everything, and writer/director Todd Robinson does a generally acceptable job at transforming a fairly low budget into a cold-war nuclear thriller. A good chunk of the film’s success can be attributed to a trio of capable veteran actors: Ed Harris as the flawed captain, William Fichtner as his capable lieutenant and David Duchovny as a potentially dangerous outsider. The film has enough credibility to carry audiences across the less-believable moments, and the sense of tension that comes from being confined in such a small space for so long is also good enough to entertain. But while Phantom is generally fine for audiences with an interest in its style or subject matter, “generally fine” isn’t enough to elevate it above its subgenre for a wider audience. It doesn’t help that the film shoots itself in the foot with an ending that tries to fit narrative consolation with cold hard historical fact. While the result will be just entertaining enough to satisfy those who are predisposed toward submarine movies in general, Phantom doesn’t have what it takes to reach a much bigger audience.
(In theatres, February 2011) I wish I liked this film a bit more. After all, what unholy union of escaped-from-Hell supernatural characters, muscle cars, evil cultists, William Fichtner and Nicolas Cage could fail to ignite the interest of any self-respecting geek? Yet Drive Angry feels a lot less interesting than it should: flat dialogue, familiar action scenes (Another mid-coitus shootout? Shoot’em Up did it better!), wasted actors, bland script, dull direction and unappealing cinematography all compete to undermine the potential of the film. While it’s always good to see William Fichtner on the big screen and Nicolas CageCage is always at least kind of cool to see, Fichtner isn’t given any kind of exceptional material and Cage tones down his performance a bit too much. The scripts and its associate mythology are both filled with holes and hazy rules: there’s little concision to the story, which hurts a lot given its self-professed intent to ape old-school exploitation pictures. The action scenes feel a lot more ordinary than they should (even the exploding tanker just doesn’t get the blood racing) and Drive Angry never completely clicks. The mixture of demonic characters, cult sacrifices and American muscle-cars never amounts to much more than a collection of buzzwords: A perfect example of how good B-movie are usually identified by pleased audiences, not deliberately put together by technicians.
(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?