Black Widow

Here is my take on this long delayed film, I will try to explain why but I am not sure I can articulate it as clearly as I would want. Black Widow is an entertaining, mid-level MCU film. It left me unmoved by the events but I can live the action scenes and over all story. There is very little connecting it to the Avengers, except the presence of Natasha, Scarlett Johansson, and the fact that she is an Avenger. All of the other characters are new to us and although there is an attempt to develop character for all of them, some of it is a bit rushed.

For those of you dying to know, this takes place between “Civil War” and “Infinity War”. While hiding out after thwarting Secretary Ross’s attempt to arrest her, the Black Widow is lead by to her origins by a mysterious package that shows up in her effects. Several chase scenes and hand to hand combat sequences later, we get a clearer explanation of what is going on. The totality of the Budapest story that she and Clint made reference to back in “The Avengers”, is not revealed, but there is enough detail to understand why she has regrets and feels that there is so much “red” on her ledger. 

Maybe the reason I had difficulty connecting to this emotionally is that the secondary characters are all new. There is one, a fixer that Agent Romanoff has used before, who is treated as a longtime ally and associate. This is the first time in any of the films he has been referred to. He is not really given a backstory but the character is represented to us as one we should appreciate without knowing anything more, and that does not quite work for me. The movie starts with a flashback story to 1995 and we see a family coming together for dinner and suddenly taking flight from pursuing dark forces. Maybe the fact that we are being asked to sympathize with a Soviet Sleeper Cell, operating in Ohio, which is killing pursuing FBI agents, just does not sit well with me. This is a Post Cold War world, but those of us who lived through that war may have a hard time deleting the suspicions that we have. The character of the Red Guardian is slipped into this segment only vaguely, and when he returns to the story, we have to build another relationship.

The one new relationship that works well is that of Natasha to her supposed sister Yelena, played by Florence Pugh. The combat ready reunion was a bit much but it does establish the creds for this character as well as the other Black Widow zombies that the villain is creating. Pugh does great with her action sequences and is a believable female badass who can get the job done and stand toe to toe with Natasha. I enjoyed their banter a great deal, and they need more time together to make this the key relationship of the story. Unfortunately, there is a Mother Figure, Father Figure and villain who also need time with the main hero and that makes the plot points feel a little repetitive and it sucks up a lot of time. 

Look, I know this is a comic book movie, and maybe I’m overthinking it a bit, but it needs some explanation. How did this Soviet Era Program continue, go private, and remain hidden? How was it funded? There is technology here that the Avengers would be envious of, but there is no Tony Stark or Russian version of S.H.I.E.L.D. visible. It feels like a 1970s Bond film with a secret lair that would be impossible to keep a secret. Maybe that’s why the movie that gets interrupted on Natasha’s TV is “Moonraker”. It’s a subtle attempt to nudge us more toward the fantasy world that exists outside of the MCU and use that to justify some shortcuts.

Hawkeye and Black Widow are master assassins, and they took on a job twenty years prior to this story. How is it that they could botch up their mission so much as to leave their actual target alive, much less the collateral damage that goes along with it. There is no explanation of why that happened, even after we have witnessed an explosion that is immense and would have killed any other character in this universe, except for those from space. It feels like lazy writing. There are three screenwriters credited, one was at least partially responsible for Thor Ragnarok, but also episodes of WandaVision and Agent Carter. Maybe the styles just don’t mesh well or the fertilizer is showing and too much of what we are getting is set up for future projects. 

David Harbour and Rachel Weisz are able to play both young and older versions of themselves with only slight assistance from CGI. Harbour is doing comic riffs with a Russian accent and that is funny. The Prison escape is fun to look at but it does little to advance the plot, it was merely an obstacle that gives the two women a chance to run an elaborate action sequence and have some comic relief along the way. I like Ray Winstone as an actor but his part in this is underwritten and it consists almost entirely of monologuing with the heroine. 

I was happy to see the film finally open. I was thrilled to see that the theater was sold out and that people are going out to the movies. I was surprised by the number of people who have already forgotten that MCU films tend to have stingers at the end of the credits and lot of folks left before the last scene. I was just not blown away by the film. I will certainly see it again, but if you are looking for a ranking in the MCU, put this at the top of the bottom quarter of the films. I liked them all but let’s keep some perspective, they can’t all be the greatest thing since Ironman. 

F9 The Fast Saga

I have been a sometimes fan of the series. I have never seen 2,3, or4 and only half of 5. 6,7, and 8 as well as Hobbs and Shaw are in my back pocket. Frankly, there is nothing to say about this except it is stupid, but I enjoyed watching the stupidity.

The substitution of Jon Cena for Dwayne Johnson allows Vin Diesel to be the focus of the film, and that’s fine. There are a couple dozen secondary characters that some people seem to like but all seem to me to be replaceable at any time. OK, maybe Tyrece Gibson as the main comic relief would be a little tough to replace, but otherwise, they are cardboard cutouts being moved around the set pieces.

Most of the film is made up of one outlandish chase, race, or fistfight punctuated with some flashbacks that explain most of what is happening. Don’t worry about following that, just keep your eyes on the screen for the next impossible stunt, physics defying escape or miraculous moment of self awareness. This film goes full meta, acknowledging how silly it is and even nearly saying “we are a movie”.

There is no sense in analyzing any of it, or critiquing the story. this series jumped the shark years ago, it’s now just a question of what the next shark is. I may be in spoiler territory here, but don’t worry, it was going to come out somewhere anyway, this is the “Moonraker” of the series. They make a bunch of corny jokes, and go to space. I’m only surprised that Roger Moore did not show up with his laser equipped Space Shuttle to help out.

F9 was the subject of this week’s Lambcast, and we spent an hour just laughing at all the idiotic coincidences, resurrections, and tropes these films wallow in. I will post a link here when the podcast is live, I will credit Mark Hofmeyer, for coming up with my favorite title for a movie next time. “Fast Ten Your Seatbelts”. That’s better writing than anything in this pile of stuff that is instantly disposable, but fun while you are disposing of it.

The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard

The original film came out four years ago, and was obviously successful enough to spawn a sequel. The high concept of The Hitman’s Bodyguard is all in the title. This film is no more subtle than the original. It hits you in the face with the premise, follows it up with a lot of mayhem, and then tops it with enough vulgar language for three Al Pacino and two Samuel L. Jackson films. This is the embodiment of mindless entertainment, it often makes no sense whatsoever, but you won’t care because you are shame laughing the whole time. 


I said it in the review of the first film, and I will repeat it and emphasize it here, Selma Hayak not only gives Jackson a run for his money, she clearly wins. It must have struck the writers of this film that doubling the use of the f-word by Jackson’s character’s wife would be funny, and they calculated correctly. Hayak delivers the good twice as much and frequently in a second language which makes this even more preposterous. She is a songbird with the f-word. Poor Ryan Reynolds has to make due with using the word mostly as a rejoinder to the other two. He can barely get a f-you in edgewise. 


It’s not entirely clear why the love interest for Reynold’s character in the original film was left out, although she would have been superfluous to the story with the direction they have taken here. Instead, they have inserted a character for Morgan Freeman to join the cast and get a paycheck. He also gets a few choice f-bombs but some of the biggest laughs he generates are from Reynold’s worshipful description of his voice. 


Appearing as the bad guy is Antonio Banderas, who does most of his acting with silly hairstyles and even sillier clothing choices. I would have appreciated a bit more by play with Banderas and Hayak, they were once matched together in another hitman story, “Desperado”  about twenty five years earlier. They do get a fight scene towards the end, and unlike the Robert Rodriguez film, this one is often played for laughs. In fact most of the action in the film has a comedic element to it. 


There is plenty of blood to go around, and many of the deaths are done for comic effect. Ryan Reynold is first billed but once things get started, he becomes a supporting character to the married couple of Jackson and Hayak. He is quite a bit the Coyote to everybody else’s Roadrunner. He gets dropped, kicked, run over, shot, stabbed and generally abused, but is right back up for the next sequence, ready to do it all again. 

The story is not as strong as the first film was, although neither is particularly sturdy. I do think there are more laughs in this film and that makes it a winner in my book. This is entertainment that is crude and disposable, which means for adults, you can enjoy your date night, drink to your heart’s content, and not worry that you don’t remember much about the movie the next day,…you don’t need to. 

Mortal Kombat (2021)

I’m late to the party. I never played the arcade version, I don’t own a gaming platform, and I skipped the 1995 film. None of it seemed like something I would be interested in, but the world changes and I have changed incrementally along with it. I won’t be driving to Best Buy to get a Play Station or X-Box, but I will be watching this again on HBO Max, because it was a ton of fun. 


The Red Band Trailer above is frankly what sold this to me. There is a bucket full of CGI violence that will appeal to a certain audience element (that includes me) and the trailer gives you a taste. I understand that there were some gruesome images in the primitive version of the original game, and even the 1995 PG-13 film managed to make some people look twice. I’m afraid that when the steel hat that gets used as a Buzzsaw, bisected one of the villains, I cheered a little. No apologies though, because that was the kind of stuff I was looking for.

For a movie that builds up the importance of the Tournament, it was a bit discombobulating that there is no actual Tournament in the story. This whole movie is a set up for the sequel, which I have no doubt will be ready soon and should feature even higher amounts of decapitations, heart plucking and assorted dismemberment. There is plenty of martial arts style combat but much of it is infused with super powered effects and enhanced visual imagery. My personal favorite was in the opening of the film and featured samurai/ninja sword play and a flying spike on a rope. 

This is basically a violent cartoon for adults, that will probably be seen by kids anyway. The gore is not lingered over but it is in your face so if you are a parent, try to use a little discretion in deciding whether to take your kids to see this. We had a six or seven year old in the audience and he seemed a little frightened and upset at times. It did not enhance my theater going experience. There is a deep dive episode of the Lambcast [which I did not participate in] where you can get details about your favorite characters and some criticism of the story elements. None of that is essential however to understanding what is going on. You can pretty much tell the good guys from the bad, and the characters are a bit wooden but they are all based on a video game after all, so Shakespeare it is not. 


Go have a good time, eat some popcorn and support your local theaters. Then you can watch it again at home.

Wrath of Man

Director Guy Ritchie has managed to entertain me  repeatedly with his blend of hard cases, colorful language, non-linear films. As a matter of fact, my favorite film of the previous year, during which we were locked out of theaters for far too long, was his movie “The Gentlemen“. That film had a star studded cast and a convoluted plot that mixed hipster drug culture with high finance and then threw in a substantial dollop of violence. That is pretty much the Ritchie formula. “Wrath of Man” forgoes many of the tropes of a Ritchie film. As a consequence, it feels a little more generic and definitely not the film I expected.


That’s not to say I was disappointed, this movie largely delivers an action packed, violence leaden crime drama. It eschews the wisecracking criminals, and the absurdist moments that make Ritchie’s other films so unique. The one signature element that is utilized involves the non-sequential story structure. This plays out with a series of flashbacks, repeats from alternative perspectives, flask forwards and time shifting.  That structure however has become it’s own cliché, and it is used not only in films but television programs and commercials, so that freshness, is not going to be a selling point for the movie. 


The main selling point is going to be Jason Statham. If you look up movie tough guys, Statham will show up with the Dwayne Johnson, Lee Marvin, Kurt Russel and a dozen other well known actors who made their bones kicking ass and taking names. He has made more than thirty of these hard action films in the last twenty years and has built a career out of being a badass even among other badasses. So what happens here? Statham gets quiet, skips most of the fisticuffs and shoots the hell out of anything that moves. There was a sequence here where machine guns are used in combat and it was one of the more intense combinations of sound and photography and direction that I have seen. No headbutts or neck snaps or flying kicks, just a lot of sharpshooting and massive spraying of bullets. These kinds of films are not hard to find, Gerard Butler, Sylvester Stallone, Nic Cage are all making two a year these days. There is nothing wrong with that, it’s simply that there is nothing special.

To borrow a description from another movie, every magic trick has three acts,  The Pledge, The Turn, and the Prestige. Ritchie has been great about that last act in all of his English crime dramas. The pieces fall elegantly into place at the end and we are impressed by how well they all fit together and explain what happened. “Wrath of Man” fails to stick “the Prestige”. There are unclear relationships and confusing explanations, which instead of being elegantly detailed at the end, have to be worked out after everything has happened. You will probably be able to make sense of it, but we want the magician to do the trick for us, we don’t want to work it out after dinner two hours later. 


The actors are solid. Statham has that thousand yard stare down pat. Holt McCallany, who I knew from “Mindhunter” is an appealing presence as well.  Jeffrey Donovan shows up late in the movie, dominates all his scenes and should have been a bigger part of the plot. Scott Eastwood’s character will make you angry, which it is supposed to do and you will wonder why Josh Hartnett doesn’t have more to do. This movie will be satisfying for a moment but it is not rewatchable the way so many other Guy Ritchie films are.  There is nothing wrong with it except it is not what I was hoping for. 

Nobody

Ok, let’s see here, nondescript older guy, precious family possession taken away, fearful looks from Russian mob figures when they discover who is after them, a secret horde of gold, flamboyant car stolen, yep, this is indeed from the producers of John Wick. They have taken a number of components from that series, transported them to a different context, rearranged them in the story and produced this film from the mix. You know what, in this case I’m alright with it. A little photo copying works sometimes and if you have the right lead to carry it off, the audience will follow. Done.

Bob Odenkirk has the quiet voice that sounds like a man defeated. Very quickly we learn how he finds himself in a rut. He has lost intimacy with his wife, respect from his son and the daughter who still looks up to him is the apparent real victim of a home robbery that he lets go by without taking a violent action. In addition to his voice, his face is hangdog frustrated and the routine that we see tells us that the domestic tension is mounting. A quick view of the trailer reveals that there is more to him than can be seen on the surface. It takes this random act of violation to tip him back into a life that he has tried to leave. 

Conveniently, he takes his frustrations out on a group of drunken thugs who board a bus that he seems to be trolling for the purpose of releasing his pent up frustrations. Naturally, they turn out to be associated with the Russian mob, and a vendetta ensues. One man against an army of gangsters, hey it was no match for Keanu Reeves and for the most part, Bob Odenkirk, who is not known as an action star, manages to sell us on the concept.

At first, Hutch Mansell, Odenkirk’s character, has to work hard at making the combat successful. He is not built like a superman, he is older and a little more weary, and the bad guys rough him up quite a bit in the process. About mid-way though the story however, the director and writers just give in and make him into the implacable foe that the story demands. There are a couple of nice sequences with Hutch and his wife , played by Connie Nielson, which suggests that there is some personal drama to what is taking place, but for the most part the adrenaline mainlining starts and it is the focus of the rest of the film. 

Maybe Hutch doesn’t kill quite as many mobsters as Keanu in John Wick 3, but it is still an impressive number and for the most part, Odenkirk is up to it. The Dolph Lungren doppelganger who leads the Russian mob in this vicinity, is an extroverted narcissist who really does not care about his partners but knows that they will not tolerate his failure to extract revenge for the insult that has been tossed in his lap. This is basic macho posturing done with the stylized balletic movements that the action films of the last two decades have been mining repeatedly, and it looks great. 

So there is nothing very original here, but what is presented is very satisfying. Both Michael Ironside and Christopher Lloyd show up in the movie, and someone cleverly thought to switch their obvious roles for one another. RZA, a guy who can’t really act but has managed to turn some hip hop cred into a film career, shows up near the end, with just about as much screen time as he can carry. The next day I suffered a little from Popcorn belly because I finished the whole tub, and that was completely worth it. I will be looking forward to watching large chunks of this movie at random in the future. I think anyone intrigued by the trailer will feel satiated. 
 

Wonder Woman 1984

So we finally get to see the movie that most fans of Comic Book movies have anticipated for the year. It was pushed back from it’s original release, and then pushed back again to Christmas, and finally, it is released on streaming at the same time it shows up in theaters. It turns out that it is mostly a lump of coal rather than the diamond in the crown. WW84 will probably turn out to be the biggest critical disappointment of the year. After so may expectations created by the first stand alone Wonder Woman, this will feel like a huge letdown.

The failures of this movie are not in production values, performance or any technical field, they are mistakes in the storytelling. As I’ve said a dozen times or more over the years, I am not a comics guy. So I can’t tell you how this story follows the path of the character in the comic books. I understand that this was a storyline in 1984, so that must account for the reason the film has been situated in the past, and that seems to be the only reason it is. That and the fact that 1984 will give the film makers a chance to lampoon the fashions of the era, basically playing off the same trick as “The Wedding Singer”. Otherwise, there is no reason that the movie could not be set in a contemporary framework. 

As usual, I avoid spoilers as much as possible, but the first thing I want to talk about is the opening of the film, and I myself see no real connection to the rest of the story, so it will not ruin anything in that regard. The opening is a flashback sequence to Diana as a young girl on Themyscira and basically it is a long sequence from an episode of “Wipeout” or “Ninja Warrior”. At the conclusion, we get a few words from her mother Connie Nielsen and her Aunt Robin Wright, and then they are gone and the land of Diana’s origin is never revisited during the movie. That is understandable given the story we had before and the Justice League follow up. However, if you watch the trailer, it suggests a cross cutting story between two past timelines and that makes this a disappointment. The bigger issue on the other hand is that the sequence introduces a plotline about the “truth”, but it is forced onto the events in the sequence and there is not really a follow up in the main part of the film. It probably would have been better to stick with the idea that there are no shortcuts to real happiness or success. At least that would have fit in with the story that develops in the 1984 setting.

The main plot is attempting to do what other superhero films sometimes try and usually fail at accomplishing, creating two antagonists for the hero to deal with. Barbara Minerva is a potentially great character who would match up well with Diana Prince in both of their personas. Kristen Wiig plays Barbara as mousey and lacking the confidence of Diana Prince in spite of her clear accomplishments. When she develops the “Cheetah”, she is a match for Wonder Woman but that process get interrupted by and pushed aside by the second villain. Pedro Pascal plays Max Lord, a TV investment guru who has designs on an ancient object that might grant him his wish to save his crumbling empire. His efforts are the thing that lead to the usual cataclysmic outcomes that these stories always seem to demand, even when they are not needed. We spend so much time following a chain of events in his plot that we lose the promising story of the two powerful women heading into a conflict. That relationship becomes a side issue to the third act end of the world scenario and CGI-fest that  has undermined most of the DCEU films so far. Max Lord is basically Jafar from “Aladdin” at the end of the film. 

In an attempt to avoid repeating themselves and having one of the ancient gods appear as the opponent [Ares in Wonder Woman, Steppenwolf in Justice League], we get an object that is the equivalent of a magic lamp. Then the mystical object is anthropomorphized as a human character. There is a repeated quality to the film  that does not escape notice by screenwriting trickery. The fish out of water device that was used amusingly to introduce Diana to WWI era Great Britain, is repeated almost note for note with a fashion show for Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) when he appears in 1984. The mocking of men’s clothing styles from that time period is fun, but it is merely a side note. Also, the sacrifice of one of the characters is a dead on repeat of the original story, it is not disguised at all. 

There are a number of inconsistencies in the world the screen writing team and director have come up with. The way in which wishes are granted is arbitrary, suggesting at one point that a person can have only one, but then turning around and granting an additional wish to one of the antagonists without any explanation. The idea that “wishes” have unintended consequences ala the old monkey’s paw style curse, is fine and may explain a trade off in powers that is part of the story, but later on it seems that the wish granter may take anything they so choose in exchange for the wish. The long standing joke about Wonder Woman flying in an invisible plane is another one of those confusing conundrums that are largely skimmed over. Also, the setting is 1984 and there is a sequence with the President of the U.S., but that person is never referred to by name and the actor playing the part bears very little resemblance to the 40th President. The answer that the President gives to a question about his deepest wish is the exact opposite of the widely known desire that Reagan had for no nuclear weapons. It was the underpinning of the Strategic Defense Initiative to render such weapons powerless.  

I generally avoid reading or listening to other reviews before I provide my hot take on a film. I waited to edit the Lambcast on this subject until after I’d seen the movie and formed my own opinions. My friends on the Lamb were harder on the movie than I was, so maybe these criticisms are not as minimal as I thought. I just know that although I was glad to see the film (In a Theater!), I was let down by the script and direction. There are some fine action scenes but the heart of the movie should have been the relationship between Diana and Barbara, and that turns out to merely be the gall bladder of the film. 

Shaft (2019)

I like music and movie themes are always a favorite, but you can count on one hand the number of movie themes that can single-handedly rescue a movie from mediocrity and make you care about something that is average. Whatever residuals Lalo Schiffrin gets for Mission Impossible, he has earned ten times over for that movie series. Isaac Hayes is gone but his estate should get a big check for making these movies work as well as they do. As much credit as I want to give to the theme song however, there is one other essential component that also fills the film with the value that it has, the lead actor. In the 1970s Richard Roundtree became a star playing the part of the cool private dick who is a sex machine to all the chicks, and he swaggered through three films magnificently. I don’t really know why it took 19 years to get back to the character after the 2000 version of the film, because the lead actor then and now makes the theme song real.

Samuel L. Jackson may have matinee idol good looks like Roundtree did, but he has all the attitude and charisma needed to power a movie like this. I have seen Jackson act. In “Pulp Fiction”, “Jackie Brown” and “Jungle Fever”, he is a real character with quirks unique to each story, but in a lot of films he plays “Samuel L. Jackson” the poet laureate of the “F” word and the bad ass with a mouth that won’t quit. “Shaft” gives him the chance to use those basic cartoon skills in a pretty standard action film, but elevate that action to something more entertaining than gunfights and car chases. Jackson makes the movie he is in fun because he is having fun being in it. This is his fourth film released this year and it’s only June.

The twist in this version is that Shaft is passing the baton so to speak to his son, an MIT nerd who does data for the FBI. Jessie Usher plays J.J. Shaft as if he is a newb in the big world because he has stepped out from behind his computer screen and stepped into Harlem proper. There is a lengthy backstory about the relationship, or lack thereof, between father and son. Shaft doesn’t really know his child and finding out his faults and strengths are the main beats of the story. The movie is filled with offhand putdowns and double takes as Shaft tries to connect with his long lost son. Regina hall gets a female role that is much more substantial than any other in the franchise history, although it is still mostly a side part and primarily for comedic purposes. As a helicopter Mom, who never really stopped loving the man who was her son’s father, she has kept the two apart, so naturally she is aghast when they reconnect. Usher let’s his wardrobe do most of the acting in the first part of the movie but as he and Jackson begin to settle into a relationship, he is much more effective.

The plot deals with the usual investigation of a death that is actually connected to illegal drug trafficking. Because the story is in a hurry to get Junior and Dad back together, it is a bit rushed, and I’ll be damned if I can explain why the victim was killed in the first place, but none of that matters. What matters is that there are insults, badass behavior and some fun fight scenes. Director Tim Story does not have a track record that inspires much faith in an action film. His two Fantastic Four Movies are not very popular among the comic book geeks. I don’t really know his comedies, having skipped them entirely. He does seem to understand the milieu of  urban comedy and that all works in his favor because this is the Shaft movie that is supposed to be funny. There were occasional lines in the other films that would amuse but clearly this movie deserves it’s classification as a comedy on IMDB.

One final note, this movie also features Richard Roundtree in the last quarter of the film. In the previous version he was supposedly Uncle John Shaft, and the part was a brief cameo. The producers made a wise decision to make his role more central to the story and characters and it gives us a lot more to care about and laugh at as well. “Shaft 2019” may not be the classic that the original film was, but it is an entertaining night at the theater (or in front of your TV if you are not in the U.S.), so enjoy it and don’t think to hard about it. Just let the song wash over you like a warm memory of awesomeness past, and listen to Jackson go off, you should be fine.

Double O Countdown: Octopussy

I have a fondness for this film that is out of proportion to it’s qualities. That fondness may stem from the circus theme, the Cold War plot, or maybe it is the Indian setting that dominates the movie. Anyway, this was the last good Roger Moore 007 outing. It went head to head with the Sean Connery starring “Never Say Never Again” rogue film in 1983, and it was the box office champ in that showdown. I like the posters for the movie as well. If you are interested in a post I did on the film for a blogathon last year, just click here. 

 001 The Clown Prince of James Bond Actors

Roger Moore just seems like a good sport to me. He was willing to make the movie the director and producers wanted, and he did not mind taking one for the team. As proof I offer the following.

Can you imagine Daniel Craig letting this happen to him?

Another 00 gets tracked down and killed early in the movie, trying to escape dressed as a clown. He manages to deliver the MacGuffin of the film, a Faberge Egg.

Late in the film, 007 needs to also blend into thecircus background he finds himself in, and lo and behold, he is done up the way the other agent was. Holy bookends! Well anyway it works for the story and the image of Bond saving the day from nuclear destruction as a clown probably fits most critics views of James Bond to begin with.

I give them credit for chutzpah anyway.

002 The Flying Guillotine

The only place I’d ever heard of a weapon like this was in some crazy Kung Fu movies from the 1970s. It may not make much sense but it is a lot of fun.

003 The Pre-Title Mini Jet

The opening of the film is an entirely self contained story that has nothing to do with the main plot. Bond is up to some spy business in Cuba and has to escape. Fortunately, he has a RV that he is towing which is perfect for the moment.

In one side of the building.

Out the other side.

And after blowing up the secret military operation and escaping, you discover you need fuel, no problem.

004 Kalashnikov on the Stairs

Many cool moments in Bond films are fleeting and feature James shooting a weapon in an unusual way. Like the shot of 007 sliding on his belly with a machine gun from “OHMSS”, this is just one of those fun moments. They also get in a Bond style joke .

To outfox the thugs on the first floor, Bond descends the stairway in an unconventional manner, with his gun blazing.

All is well until he notices the stop at the bottom of the stairs.

Its OK though, that’s the advantage of having a machine gun.

He just shoots it and it breaks off when he gets there. Smooth James, not enough ooos in smooth.

005 James Bond loves to get it on on a train. 

Bond is notorious for traveling by train, which makes some of his fights more interesting because of the close quarters. In this film, the close quarters are replaced by a open sky.

He gets smuggles himself aboard the circus train and confronts the deadly acrobat knife throwing team that killed his 00 predecessor on this assignment.

The struggle finally ends up on the roof of the train as it travels through East Germany.

It is one of the better action sequences in the Roger Moore films.

006 The Plane Fight

Not content to have mixed it up with secondary characters on a train, he ends up having a great fight on the outside of a plane when it is in the air. Again, this was terrific stuntwork.


The blue screen work matches up pretty well with the actual stunt.

007  I love the Cold War plot.

The movie was released in 1983. The Soviet Union was in a strong strategic position with conventional weapons in Eastern Europe. American policy moved to deploy theater nuclear weapons to balance out the  advantage the Soviets had. That move was controversial and was one of the factors behind the Nuclear Freeze movement of the time. This film plays off of real geopolitics of the moment. A rogue Russian General, is planning to detonate a nuclear device on a NATO base, which will be blamed on the U.S, resulting in a withdrawal of nukes from the theater and giving the Soviets an opportunity to invade.

The general cannot convince his superiors so he finances his plot with loot stolen from pre-revolutionary art collections

octoThe smuggler “Octopussy” thinks she is moving contraband jewels, but she has been fooled by a switch to a device hidden in the cannon of the human canonball in her circus, scheduled to visit a NATO base.

No honor among thieves.

James Bond will Return in

“A View to a Kill”

 

 

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

I love 1960s spy stuff. James Bond was born in the sixties, Patrick Magoohan was Danger Man, Johnny Rivers killed it with his spy themed “Secret Agent Man” and Mel Brooks spoofed it with “Get Smart”. Even before I’d seen my first Bond film, I saw “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” on television. When I heard that a movie version was planned, I was relatively pleased. I know there are people who hate the idea of a classic show being adapted for movie screens. The list of failures is long: “Lost in Space”, McHale’s Navy”, “The Flintstones”. Video bins are littered with 60s shows re-imagined as big screen entertainment. The hope is that you will get an occasional “Addams Family” or “The Fugitive”, the reality is you end up with “Sgt. Bilko”. So, which way did it go with the latest effort to rob our childhoods to feed our adult addictions?

The movie version of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” gets a lot of things right. It also leaves out some of the things that you treasured. In the end, it works as a stand alone concept because the only things that really remain from the show, are the concept and time period. By sticking to the time period of the original series, the Cold War years of the 1960s, the film manages to keep the tension between East and West as a background. More importantly, they get to costume the leads in stylish 60s garb. One of my favorite things about Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can” was the way he captured the vibe of the early 60s. I have not watched a minute of “Mad Men”, but I suspect this movie would do the set decoration and costuming on that series proud. Henry Cavill, who plays the Napoleon Solo character, is dressed in stylish suits in every scene. The fabrics are vivid and the cut flattering. Although they would look a bit old fashioned now, they would carry a lot of retro cache with them.  Armie Hammer’s Illya Kuryakin is not wearing the high turtleneck sweater that was practically a trademark of the character, but the Henley styled shirts and plain suits he does wear are perfectly appropriate. The women are the ones who get shown off to the greatest advantage with some mod evening wear from the villainess. The girl that helps the two spies out (a standard storyline from the 60s show) has some cute 60s outfits that would be snapped up in an instant by hipster thrift store shoppers.

The plot really feels like it could be taken from a lost episode of the show. An East German girl is being used by the spy network, to locate her missing father, a nuclear genius who has technology that gives it’s owners great powers. A loose band of Nazi sympathizers have the Doctor captive and are using his knowledge to gain power and build bombs. Most superhero franchises start with origin stories, and this film does the same thing. It attempts to explain how Russian and American spies, begin working together. The TV show never bothered with such background, it simply presented the covert network as a functioning entity from the beginning and then focused on the case for that week. Creating a background story for the agency is the biggest add by Guy Richie and his collaborators. The problem is that it leaves out stuff that made the original series cool, at least to us old enough to remember it. The badges, secret entrance to headquarters, briefings by Mr. Waverly, and the communication gadgets are all missing from the movie. Solo is given a backstory that makes him more Alexander Monday than James Bond. Someone decided that Ilya needed psychological problems to balance out his perfect physical capabilities. The changes work for a big screen adaption but they do distance the audience that might have been drawn in to the film by their love of the series.

Some of the things that work well in this film include the opening section where the Russian spy Illya Kuryakin is chasing after the American spy Napoleon Solo. The car chase and running gun fight are worthy stunts for an opening to a spy thriller. The banter between the two spies is also one of the things that Guy Richie brings to the movie. Anyone seeing his London based crime thrillers knows that snappy dialogue and quick exchanges are trademarks of his work. Hammer does not get quite as many of these lines as Cavill does, but he does get a lot of the physical reaction shots that make a joke pay off. Alicia Vikander is in her third film of the year with this movie. I thought she was great in both “Seventh Son” and “Ex Machina” , the later of which she should always flaunt on her resume. She does not get to do a lot of action material in this movie, but she is definitely more than just the damsel in distress. Hugh Grant is in the film but very little. if there is another in the franchise I know his role will be expanded. The split screen effect used during the storming of the island fortress was an efficient way to get through what might have been a long sequence very effectively, I could do with less shaky cam in the pursuit that follows.

One mistake that I think the film makers make is that they don’t use the original Jerry Goldsmith music effectively. Take a look at how the “Mission Impossible” series has managed to weave the iconic song into those films. They may owe half their box office take to Lalo Schiffrin. The U.N.C.L.E. theme is in the film but only as an exit instrumental rather than as a transition piece. It has been altered from a big horned, bass heavy theme into a nearly unrecognizable conga tune. The result was one of the least satisfying parts of the film. Overall, I enjoyed the film a lot, but there are things to fix to make it as much fun as it should have been. If Guy Richie and his writing partners want some advise for the sequel, they can reach me on channel D.