Tag Archives: Action/Adventure

Midnight Run (1988)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Chased by the mob.

Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro) is a bounty hunter that is looking to get into a less stressful profession. He is offered 100,000 to find bail jumper Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin) who worked as an accountant for the mob and skimmed 15 million from them. Jack thinks he can use the money to open up a coffee shop, but finds that the FBI is in hot pursuit of Mardukas as well. There is also rival bounty hunter Marvin Dorfler (John Ashton) who wants his hands on Mardukas and the money. Jack even finds himself chased by the mob looking to silence Mardukas before he can turn states evidence.

The catalyst of the film is the relationship between Jack and Jonathan and how it slowly turns into an unusual friendship during their long adventure. Both Grodin and De Niro have diametrically opposite personalities and acting styles, which is why this thing really works. The relationship ebbs and flows on the antagonistic level most of the time and the friendship really doesn’t build until the very end and even then it is tenuous, which is nice.  Too many times in ‘buddy’ movies such as this the sentiment becomes forced, but fortunately here it is very balanced and their interactions believable throughout.

Grodin was an inspired choice. I have always thought the guy to be a very talented, underappreciated, and unique comic performer. However, he was not a big name star and the studio heads originally wanted Robin Williams for the role and then even considered changing the sex of the Mardukas character to female and having Cher play the part, but director Martin Brest liked Grodin’s style during his audition and held out until he got him even though it meant losing the backing of Paramount and forcing them to go with Universal.

Grodin adds a lot that the other two stars, as very talented as they are, just wouldn’t be able to do.  One is a completely improvised conversation that he has with the De Niro character while they are stuck inside a train car, which is the one scene from this film that I remember most clearly from having first seen it over twenty years ago. There is another improvised scene involving Mardukas and Jack pretending to be FBI agents and going into a local bar looking for counterfeit bills that makes great use of Grodin’s sardonic humor and deadpan delivery.

John Ashton is a riot as Marvin the rival and slightly dim-witted bounty hunter. He is so over-the-top obnoxious and crude that you can’t help but laugh at it. He takes the caricature of the tough, brash, gruff, blue collar Chicagoan to a hilarious extreme. He is like legendary football coach Mike Ditka on speed. Denis Farina, as the mob boss, is also good as is Joe Pantiliano as the frantic bail bondsmen.

Another thing that makes this movie so successful is that it is able to work on three different levels in a very cerebral way. Not only is it a very good comedy and character study, but it’s not half bad with the action either. The best sequence here is when the two men get swept away by a strong river current, which has the actual actors doing most of the stunts.

Of course the script, by George Gallo, does have a few holes and implausibility’s that can’t avoid being mentioned since some of them are integral to the main plot. The biggest one is when Marvin, in an attempt to impede Jack and find his whereabouts, gets on the phone with Jack’s credit card company and identifies himself as Jack and is able to easily find out where the card was last used and have it cut off. However, with every credit card company I have worked with I am forced to give some more identification before I am given any information including my social security number, a secret word or phrase, or a PIN and yet here Marvin isn’t required to give any of that. There is also that fact that when Jack finds out that his credit card is being rejected he doesn’t just get on the phone with his credit card company and get it straightened out, which is what anyone else would do.

There is also a segment where Jack is somehow able to fleece the FBI badge from agent Alonzo Mosely (Yaphet Kotto), which Jack then uses to impersonate him with during his trip with Mardukas. However, this just would not have been possible as the two men met only briefly inside a car with Alonzo sitting in front and Jack in back scrunched between two other agents who keep a close eye on him. The FBI has also been searching for Mardukas for six years and yet Jack is able to find him easily, which to me seemed too convenient.

The excessive swearing is another issue. Yes, sometimes cursing can help build the grittiness of the characters, but here it goes overboard. Officially the word ‘Fuck’, or a variation of it, gets said a total of 119 times, but I was convinced it was more than that. Its overuse is so redundant that it almost becomes a distraction.

            All things considered this is still a winner. This is one of my favorite De Niro roles and in my opinion his best foray into comedy as I feel his work in the Meet the Parents series is generally wasted. There is also an emotionally strong scene when Jack goes back briefly to visit with his ex-wife and fourteen year old daughter. Normally these types of scenes end up being clichéd, but here it really hits the mark, especially Jack’s interactions with his daughter.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: July 20, 1988

Runtime: 2Hours 6Minutes

Studio: Universal

Rated R (Language)

Director: Martin Brest

Available: DVD, HDDVD, VHS, Amazon Instant Video 

Lady in Cement (1968)

 

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Tony solves the case.

Frank Sinatra returns as detective Tony Rome in this sequel to the 1967 hit. Here, while going on a diving expedition off the coast of Florida, he finds a naked woman underwater with her feet encased in cement.  He then meets a large and mysterious man by the name of Gronski (Dan Blocker) who hires him to find the girl’s killer, but he is not so sure that Gronski himself may have something to do with it.

            One of the things I really liked about the film as well as in the first one is the very cynical, world-weary, streetwise nature of the detective character. It seems to be a part that Sinatra was born to play and he does it well. I don’t think it was too far off from Sinatra’s real personality, which is why it works. I loved the cryptic dialogue and snappy one-liners. The banter is fun and intoxicating. It was the best thing about the first film and continues to be the case in this one. If anything it is the one thing that really carries it.

            The mystery itself is dull.  In the first film the case was more intriguing and complex. Here it seems mechanical and uninspired. It gets played out in a formulaic way with the standard suspects that seem borrowed from other, better stories. The twists and turns aren’t exciting, or surprising. The movie is more concerned with being amusing and filled with hip banter making the case itself seem like a side-light and not allowing the story to move forward. Yes, the bickering is fun, but there still needs to be a plot to match it and that was not the case here. The suspense is lacking with a final denouncement that is nothing special. The climatic fight sequence is particularly clichéd and forced.

            The opening bit where Tony finds the dead woman underwater is poor as well. It happens right away with no build-up even though I felt one was needed. I would think if a dead person had been trapped underwater for any period of time there would be some discoloration and decay. Instead the woman looks gorgeous, wearing a provocative expression one would find on an erotic model. Her skin is unblemished and she even still has her lipstick and make-up on, which I thought was unrealistic and pretty much ruins the story’s validity before it even gets going.

            The presence of actor Dan Blocker is a major asset and helps the film’s appeal. Blocker was probably better known for playing the character Hoss in the hit TV-series ‘Bonanza’. The fight sequences that he is in are amusing because he can simply throw the other men around like they are toys and seems unstoppable in the process. Like in the TV-series he exudes a lot of charm and is very engaging. There is even a brief in-joke where he is sitting in his room watching an episode of ‘Bonanza’. He and Sinatra make an unlikely, but interesting pair although when shown together he does make Frankie look puny, out of shape, and even a bit washed-up by comparison.

            One of the biggest issues I had with the first film was that there were a lot of loopholes. Particularly one scene where Tony kills a man and then he glibly tells the police that it was ‘clearly self-defense’ and he is never brought in for questioning, or arrested. That just didn’t jibe with me as there are many cases where a person kills someone in self-defense, but the case still ends up being brought to trial. Tony is very good friends with the police chief (Richard Conte), but I still didn’t think that would make him untouchable. At least here when Tony gets framed for a murder the police tell him they are going to have to take him in, which seems more plausible.  This culminates into an extended car chase sequence, which due to the long edits, slow speeds, bird’s eye view camera shots, and laid-back music, make it one of the least riveting and most uninteresting car chases you’ll ever see.

The production values are high and I have no real complaint on it from a technical stand point.  Everything is slickly handled despite a weak story.  There are some strong homophobic undertones, which may offend some, but I felt it fit the era. If you like Sinatra then you will find this passable, but if you enjoy a good mystery then don’t bother because in that area this thing falls flat.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: November 20, 1968

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Director: Gordon Douglas

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS, DVD

The Mackintosh Man (1973)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Infiltrating a spy ring.

Joseph Reardon (Paul Newman) is a spy that is recruited by the British Intelligence to infiltrate a secret spy ring in order to expose a traitor from inside a high ranking government office. In order to do so he must assume the identity of an Australian criminal and allow himself to be caught and imprisoned. From there he is able to escape using the help of an inside organization that arranges the escapes for high profile prisoners. He is taken to an isolated mansion at an unknown location and trained to be a part of the criminal spy ring, but he unwittingly gives out his true identity, which forces him to make a daring escape and go on the run in the middle of nowhere.

As much as I like Paul Newman I felt he seemed out of place here and really didn’t completely fit the role. For one thing he is an American, but it is never explained why a foreigner is chosen for the operation instead of a British spy. There is also the fact that his alias is that he is from Sydney, Australia, but his Aussie accent does not sound convincing and tends to go in and out.

There is also the issue of him allowing himself to be put into prison. Normally a viewer has to relate to the protagonists circumstances in order to be wrapped up into their plight, but intentionally getting thrown in the slammer seems a bit hard to fathom. This was the maximum security type of jail with extremely small cells and prisoners asking him if he would ‘like to dance’. I realize this was part of the spy operation and spies are expected to take risks, but this seemed too reckless to me. What is going to guarantee that he is ever going to get out? This is after all a top secret organization, so how is he going to be able to hold them accountable if he gets stuck there. To me it is like asking someone to jump off a cliff and telling them there is a safety net to catch them even though they can’t see one.

The script, by the prolific Walter Hill, does have a few exciting scenes although it takes a while to get going. The best ones come when he is stuck at the isolated manor. I enjoyed how he singlehandedly overpowers them and is able to escape while setting the place on fire in the process. The shot showing the mansion on fire from a distance with the black cloud of flames rising into the grey sky had an artsy flair to it and the movie’s best moment.

I thought the barren landscape that he runs through, that doesn’t even have any trees, was cool. It reminded me a lot of the classic TV-series ‘The Prisoner’. This part also includes a viscous guard dog running after him, which is reminiscent of another memorable Newman role from the film Cool Hand Luke.  Here though he is able to exact his revenge on the mutt when he submerges it under water and drowns it, which might prove upsetting to animal lovers as looks realistic and the hound appears to struggle.

The car chase is excellent and nicely captured. Most chases seem to take place on city streets in the majority of films, so it was nice to see one done on curving, gravel roads in the countryside with Reardon stuck in nothing more than a rusty, rickety old pick-up. I loved how the camera shows in a longshot the car going over a cliff and falling several feet before landing with a loud thud. No intrusive computer effects here, nor flashy explosions. Everything was authentic with no cuts, which ends up making a much stronger impact.

A shout out must also go to James Mason as the villainous Sir George Wheeler. This guy is so effective at playing bad guys, and he does it with such ease, that it is almost scary. His ability to go from refined and dignified to vindictive is what makes him so good.

What hurts the film is a wretched music score that sounds like Russian dance music that has no place in a thriller. It is loud and blaring and does not build the mood, or tension in any way. It gets so bad that it almost ends up ruining the whole movie. The climatic sequence is a letdown as well. It features no action and it ends abruptly with a whimper.

It was a great idea to pair Newman with legendary director John Huston, but this product is not one of their best efforts for either individual. It is entertaining enough to be passable, but culminates in being just your average spy thriller.

Neman and Mason would team up nine years later to play adversaries again in the film The Verdict, which will be reviewed tomorrorow.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: July 25, 1973

Runtime: 1Hour 38Minutes

Rated PG

Director: John Huston

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: VHS, DVD (The Paul Newman Collection), Amazon Instant Video

The Eiger Sanction (1975)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Clint goes mountain climbing.

Dr.  Jonathan Hemlock (Clint Eastwood) is a retired assassin and mountain climber now working as a college art and history professor. However, due to his penchant of collecting rare paintings he is sucked in to doing hits from time to time by an obscure government bureau in order to help pay for his expensive collection of artwork. His assignment this time is to track down the Russian assassin who killed his old army buddy that at one time had saved his life while back in the war. The identity of this killer is not known, the only thing that is known is that the man walks with a limp and is a part of a team of mountain climbers set to scale the foreboding Eiger Mountain in the Swiss Alps.

Eastwood’s foray into the spy genre while entertaining enough to be considered passable still ends up being a misfire. Sure it is fun to see him go a bit against type especially with the accepted image of the spy. Here he wears glasses and actually turns down the advances of beautiful women at least when approached by an attractive student who states she is willing to do ‘anything’ in order to get better grades. It is even fun hearing him speak like a flaming homosexual when he disguises himself as a gay delivering man. However, the overall hokey premise does not suit Eastwood’s rugged persona and mentality. He seems stiff, out-of-place and unemotional most of the way and never believable. I also couldn’t buy into the idea that this paid assassin was actually a deep and philosophical man who abhorred the violence.  A person who becomes as good of a killer as this character is purported to being would have to have some deep dark passion for it in order to spend as much time doing it as he does.

The supporting cast does not fare much better. Dragon (Thayer David) who is head of the secret government bureau that recruits Roger is over-the-top and cartoonish as an albino man who must live in almost complete darkness in an underground temperature controlled room. George Kennedy gets another bland, thankless role this time as Ben Bowman the man who helps train Roger to climb the mountain. It seems like once he won the Academy Award for Best supporting actor in 1967 for Cool Hand Luke his career when straight downward. I also didn’t like the names given to the characters, which were supposedly done as an ‘inside joke’. The last name of Hemlock for the main character is too obvious and naming the black prostitute Jemima seemed even worse.

The only actor and character that comes off well here is Jack Cassidy as the gay man named Miles Mellough who walks around with a pet poodle named Faggot while playing a crafty game of cat and mouse with Jonathan. The character is both threatening and amusing and it was a real shame that he gets killed off in the middle as he could have made the tension more interesting had he stayed on until the end.

Most critics have described the pacing as ‘sluggish’ although I thought it was alright and it gets sprinkled so much with Eastwood’s amusing one-liners that it is always entertaining. The only real issue I had in this area is the first part, which seems unnecessary. It has Jonathan flying out to Switzerland to kill one of the killers only to come back and then fly out again to get the other one. This all becomes redundant and the scene involving the assassination of the first killer is poorly choreographed and edited.

The film’s main redeeming quality is the mountain climbing sequences, which is impressive. I loved the bird’s-eye view camera shots that captured the majestic landscape both in the scenes at Monument Valley as well as in Europe. The fact that Eastwood did almost all of his own climbing and stunts is equally impressive. There looks to be a lot of research put into the making of this film and the climbing segments are well shot and authentic looking. The climax atop of the Eiger becomes a bit drawn out and if anything I found the climb that Eastwood and Kennedy did on the ‘Tootem Pole’ in Utah in the middle of the movie to be more exciting and breath taking.

(Spoiler Alert)

The biggest, most glaring problem that I had with this movie comes at the very end with the ‘surprise’ identity of the killer, which turns out to be the Kennedy character who is finally seen walking with a limp. This though makes no sense because if the man had a limp how was he able to disguise it for so long during the many weeks that he spent with Jonathan during their training and how was he able to climb up the mountain with Jonathan in Utah. The fact that none of this gets answered and almost seems over-looked really makes this thing seem pointless and poorly thought out.

(End of Spoiler Alert)

Rod Whitacker who wrote the novel of which this movie is based labeled this film as being ‘vapid’ and I would have to agree. The story seems to borrow a lot of the same ingredients from other spy films without adding anything new or original of its own.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: May 21, 1975

Runtime: 2Hours 3Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Clint Eastwood

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Fathom (1967)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Dental assistant becomes spy.

The spy genre became a big craze in the late 60’s with the success of the James Bond films.  Studios were busily either coming out with imitations of the genre, like the Matt Helm films with Dean Martin, or spoofs of the genre.  This film, starring the voluptuous Raquel Welch, is a combination of both.

The premise is slightly unique as the Welch character, whose name is the same as the film’s title, is not actually a spy. She is a dental assistant and part-time parachutist. This attracts the attention of the British secret service who want to use her parachuting skills to have her ‘drop-in’ to the island mansion of bad guy Tony Franciosa and plant a bug on his premises. They need this done so that they can monitor his conversations and find the whereabouts of a priceless Chinese dragon statue that they are after.

Initially I was intrigued with the idea of the Welch character being just a regular person who gets trained to be a spy from the ground up. However, this concept almost immediately falls flat and ends up pretty much ruining the whole film.  One of the problems is that the Welch character goes through no training to speak of and agrees to this potentially dangerous mission that comes out of nowhere without any conversation regarding her compensation.  She also ends up thinking way too quickly on her feet and behaving like a seasoned spy without any of the expected awkwardness. The character is also poorly fleshed out having no personal life, relationships, history, or even a few odd little quirks.  There are constant references to her beauty, but this quickly become tiresome.  Raquel’s typically one-dimensional performance doesn’t help.

The storyline becomes too convoluted and suffers from having too many plot twists. Reportedly even the cast members found the story confusing.  The good guys become the bad guys and then become good guys again with boring regularity.  A decent spy film needs one true bad guy who is evil and nefarious and seemingly unstoppable because that is what builds the tension.  This film has no tension whatsoever and the musical score sounds like Herb Alpert or Sergio Mendes, which would be better suited for a romance.

The one thing that did impress me was the stunt work.  There are a few that look genuinely dangerous and are shot and edited very well.  One involves Raquel trapped in a bull ring while wearing a red dress.  There is no question that it is a real bull and several shots have her stumbling to the ground while the bull stands right over her. The editing is so well done that I could not tell when the stuntwoman was put in, as usually I can spot this.  Even if a stunt person was used it still looked quite dangerous and very real.  Another good one features Raquel swimming away from a bad guy who continues to shot at her with a spear gun. Both the underwater and aerial photography in this segment are outstanding.

Alas, none of this is good enough to save the film as a whole.  The tongue-in-cheek humor and pacing is poor, and the film ends up being boring and contrived.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: December 13, 1967

Runtime: 1Hour 39Minutes

Rated NR (Not Rated)

Director: Leslie H. Martinson

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD

Prime Cut (1972)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Shoot-out in Kansas.

If you enjoy a great compact action flick, but are tired of the same old formula then Prime Cut may be for you.  It is the story of Nick Devlin (Lee Marvin) who is head of the crime syndicate in Chicago who travels to Kansas City to take on the head of their syndicate and avenge the death of one of their men as well as recouping an unpaid debt.

The movie has a lot of great offbeat touches that starts during its opening montage that takes place in an actual slaughterhouse.  Here you get a graphic glimpse of the inner mechanics of meat packing while soft, romantic piano music is played in the background.  The credits are displayed in a way that makes them look like they are being sliced by a meat cutter with cool meat cutting sound effects.  From here the quirky elements just keep coming. There is a wild chase through a wheat field where Marvin and Sissy Spacek find themselves attacked by a giant wheat thrasher that eats up their limousine and spits out the car parts into hay bails.  There is also a well filmed shootout amidst a sunflower field as well as Spacek’s revealing see through dress, which she wears to a posh restaurant and a giant plastic cow that gets shot up with holes and spews out milk.

This film is so unique that I am amazed it hasn’t acquired a stronger cult following. It stands up very well by today’s standards and even seems a bit shocking as it includes a scene involving white slavery where drugged young women are caged naked in stalls just like cattle and ranchers inspect and bid on them.

Marvin does well in his tongue-and-check role and pretty much steals it. He speaks his snappy lines in his usual terse manner with his famous stone expression, but he does it with a wink in his eye and at times even shows a soft side.  Sissy Spacek, in her film debut, looks young and fresh faced here. She is pretty and appealing in a very natural way. Only Gene Hackman as the villain named Mary Ann seems wasted. He does a good job for the material that he is given, but he needed more screen time and his character is not allowed to evolve at all.  Honorable mention also needs to go to Gregory Walcott as Hackman’s slimy henchman named Weenie.  The two get involved in an amusing scuffle while their accountants sit at their desks and busily add up their numbers and futilely try to ignore them.

Director Michael Ritchie nicely captures the Kansas landscape and gives it a very picturesque quality. It is probably the best on-location shooting of Kansas since Picnic. I did wish that the film was a little longer and showed more of a history between the two adversaries. It also seems to run out of steam at the end with a final shoot-out that isn’t all that clever or exciting and not up to the standards of the rest of the film.  Still this movie should appease any action fan and the story and direction are consistently original.

My Rating: 8 out 10

Released: June 28, 1972

Runtime: 1Hour 28Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Michael Ritchie

Studio: National General Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD