Gerard Butler has become as reliable an action star as Liam Neeson in my book. He may not have the range that some other actors have, but I have never thought he was not up to the task. His film series about Secret Service Agent Mike Banning may be over the top, but they are exceptionally entertaining. The first one is so solid it trumps the doppelganger version done with Channing Tatum and Jamie Fox by a mile. The high concept, low budget “CopShop” was a surprising little piece that I enjoyed the heck out of two years ago. “Plane” is going to go in the same box. This is exactly what it sets out to be, a high tension thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat for a couple of hours and make you glad you spent the time and the money. Maybe it’s not great drama, but it is great entertainment.

Not a great poster, but you get the idea

You might be lead to believe that the film is all about the hostage drama that involves the passengers of a downed plane and criminal separatists on a Philippine island.  That plotline does play out and it is the focus of the second half of the movie, but a lot happens before the passengers become captives. You will hope never to encounter turbulence again when you see how the weather in the sky influences the plane and causes the initial trouble.  When that seatbelt sign is on, after seeing this movie, you will want to double strap yourself in. The flight dangers are shot well and the tension mounts like it should in a thriller thanks to the efficient direction of  Jean-François Richet, who did the remake of “Precinct 13” back in 2005. He has made some French thrillers that I would now be interested in seeing because this movie worked so well.

Once we are back on the ground, there are some great action set pieces. Butler has a brutal one on one fight in an abandoned building where he is trying to communicate with the airline and his family. This is not a ballet of kicks and splits with pirouette mid-air gun transfers. This is two men, bluntly wrestling, punching, kicking, gouging and simply tiring to outlast the other guy. Captain Brodie Torrance is an airline pilot, who had military flying experience, 20 years earlier but does not have a “certain set of skills”. He is a bright guy  who makes choices as he goes along, and simply does the best he can with those choices. There is one “movie moment” interjection of savior activity that rescues him, but otherwise the action seems pretty straightforward. 

I have not seen the Luke Cage series but based on Mike Colter in this film, I’d be willing to bet it is pretty good. Colter plays a reluctant ally of the Captain, as a convict who survives the landing and has some of the Neeson style skills that Torrance lacks. It does not quite become a buddy picture, but there are some elements of the odd couple style tropes that show up in a lot of these action films. Colter starts the scenes with mass combat and follows through for the remainder of the picture, but there is more to come. This is an island full of criminal bullies who control the population through force and intimidation, to create an army of reprobates that is just waiting to be taken down. Like most revenge pictures, you are happy watching the bad guys get eviscerated. When the sniper with the .50 caliber starts shooting, the on screen mess is significant.

There is nothing in this that is earthshaking, it simply builds a credible story, ratchets up the tension, and makes you Saturday Matinee Happy that you are watching it. It is shot well, cut tightly and full of the kind of stuff that you want in a movie where the popcorn is hot. This used to be why people went to the movies instead of sitting at home streaming. Get to a theater and live, while watching some bad guys die. Don’t sit at home, go out and have some fun, like watching this. 


I did something today that is always fun, and sometimes pays off. I spun the wheel on what to see and went in blind to watch Copshop, the latest from director Joe Carnahan and actor producer Gerard Butler. I have seen a few of Carnahan’s films, my favorite of his is “The Grey”, the Liam Neeson Wolfpunching story from 2011. Butler has become the King of the “B” movie in the last few years, and he does in fact rule. I had no idea what the story involved, I’d not seen the trailer or read a review. I chose the film entirely based on the combination of these two talents. Boy am I glad I did. This is a tasty bit of nastiness that borrows heavily from the 1970s, and that is my jam.

When the credits start at the beginning of the film, I could swear I knew the music that was being played. It reminded me of a gritty 70s film like “The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3”. It sounded like a Dirty Harry score. Imagine my delight when I sat thru the end credits and confirmed that the theme music from this movie was basically “Magnum Force”, by Lalo Schifrin. There are a couple more music cues in the film that harking to the early seventies. The film does finally get to a contemporary pace and style in the climax, but first we are treated to a slow burn set up that reminded me of so many films from that earlier era that I love. We end up with two guys confined in a space and wonder how and why that are facing off. The ambiguity feels very much like some of those cop films of the dirty New York era but this is set in Nevada. 

This is a cross between “Report to the Commissioner” and “Assault on Precinct 13”. The two leads, Butler and Frank Grillo, are not good guys by any stretch of the imagination. Their showdown results in so much collateral damage that it will inspire books and movies for years if it really happened. It’s not the sort of John Wick violence where there are as many bodies as there are bullets, the dead do have some weight to them and so it feels a little more engaging from a story point of view, without the style of the modern shoot em ups that we have had in the last few years.  The best hook in the film however, is the third billed Alexis Louder, who is the real star of the film and I think is making a breakthrough with this part. She plays the cop in the middle, who adheres to a code of ethics and has the skills to fight back when needed. I thought her persona jumped off the screen from the first moment she appeared. 

It would not be fair to the supporting actors not to mention the good work they are doing in what is likely a film that most people will see as disposable. Ryan O’Nan, who will be familiar from several TV projects, is a feckless cop with corruption in his back pocket.   It is Toby Huss however who steals the show for villainy in the piece. I literally saw him in an episode of CSI just last night, but this character was very different. If the psychotic contact killer can be classified as the comic relief in a movie, than I will say that is the part that Huss plays. Anthony Lamb (not really subtle) is a competing killer, injected into the mix to add some spice, and boy does he. 

The film is not great, it has plot holes and unbelievable recoveries from gunshots that undermine any credibility. You won’t care however because it is entertaining as hell for those who like the plot to play out over the course of the film and not have everything handed to them is a series of fast cuts designed to get the adrenaline jumping. Butler does very limited action duty, and Grillo is not attempting any martial arts moves. This is a shootout at the end of a psychological puzzle, and it satisfied me completely. 

Angel Has Fallen

So if it drives you crazy to see action films, franchised to extreme and you hate Gerard Butler and wonder who it is you can blame, well here I am baby. Let me have it. These movies would be a guilty pleasure except I have no guilt and those of you Butler haters out there can just move on, I have yet to fall out of love with the action flicks he is churning out in the last few years. “Olympus Has Fallen” started this series and it was definitely the superior of the White House under attack films of that year. “London Has Fallen” is not a particularly strong follow up to that first adventure of Secret Service Agent Mike Banning, but it did have a lot of combat scenes that were fun to watch up to a point. This third entry is not as clever as the first, but much more effective than the second.

Morgan Freeman is now President, although that seems to have been the case since 1998 [Maybe the Longest Term in Office Ever]. Some malarkey about new foreign policy constraints and the use of civilian contractors for military support is the plot point that moves the narrative forward. It really doesn’t matter because all we really want is agent Banning kicking butts and causing mayhem wherever he turns up. Fortunately that’s what we get. The man about to be named director of the Secret Service is framed to take the fall for an assassination of the man he is supposed to be protecting. There was no secret who the villain is, let’s face it, you don’t cast Danny Huston as a friendly and supportive sidekick. There is a man behind the man villain as well and although I was pretty sure what was going to be coming, there was a short period where they thew me off the track for two scenes and I thought my stereotypical assumption would turn out to be wrong. Nope, I was right, they just paused a beat before getting to it.

The middle of the film is a chase sequence that works pretty well and is different enough from the events in the second film to avoid feeling like a rehash. Mike has to escape both legitimate authority but also the bad guys who are trying to complete the frame. There are some shoot outs, a truck and car chase and Mike occasionally has to sit down with a headache.   Buckloads of good guys and bad guys get killed in the first sections of the film. The opening attack wipes out dozens of Secret Service agents. Turnaround is fair play and dozens of bad guys chasing Mike get creamed as well. Nick Nolte appears in the film and provides a big lift to the movie with a performance as a paranoid survivalist with a connection to our hero. Maybe laughing was inappropriate when a battalion of men is randomly blown to bits, but the demented glee of the character and the audiences joy in seeing tome turnabout left most of my matinee crowd chuckling.

I’ve not seen “Felon” or “Snitch” so I can’t say exactly what Director Ric Roman Waugh’s style is. This film makes it look very efficient and clear. There are some creative shots in the drone attack near the start of the film, and the opening “combat” sequence is distinctive so that we do get an idea that it is more video game than actual combat.  Overblown action scenes at the end don’t usually make much narrative sense but they usually don’t need to. They simply have to get us the resolution we are hoping for in an entertaining way. Bingo! that’s what we got. The film cuts down on the name recognition talent the first two films used to get our attention, and doubles down with quality second tier players. Instead of Angela Basset we get Jada Pinket-Smith, leave out Melissa Leo, Jackie Earle Haley and Robert Forester and insert Tim Blake Nelson, Lance Reddick and Piper Perabo.  You don’t need to have seen either of the earlier films to appreciate this one, just know that the cast change is unimportant, this series is all about action.

Well there is some political and topical material, these movies are not satires directed at any particular perspective. We don’t know the party of the President, we don’t have a lot of strum und drang involving high minded principles. This is straight 80s style action. Good guys and bad guys going at each other with some elaborate set pieces and enough personality in the background to keep us hanging on through the slower parts. I suspect the demographic for this will skew older. My reasoning is that the audience for this wants to stay awake, they don’t really care about being woke. Now let’s have Mike take his knife with the President to Moscow or Beijing. Time to kill some totalitarians, not just entrepreneurs.

Hunter Killer

So, a couple of weeks ago we had a MOTM episode on “The Hunt for Red October”. Most of the participants would put it at or near the top of the list of submarine movies. I can’t say that “Hunter Killer” is going to displace “Red October” but I can say it belongs on the list of entertaining sub movies. The plot here is a little too full of melodramatic twists to be very realistic, but it keeps you engaged and there is a nice amount of tension as you go along. If you don’t mind a few shots of models standing in for real submarines, rather than more extensive CGI, you will also like the look of the movie. It feels like a 1960s film, shot in the 1980s, with some contemporary actors standing in for folks like Charlton Heston or Rock Hudson.

The political scenario has the U.S. and Russia at odds over international policies, but there is no particular tipping point that the conflict rests on. A Russian sub, as it is leaving it’s base, is attacked and the U.S. sub following it is also attacked. We don’t know what is going on but it looks to the major powers as if one side has opened war on the other side. The Russian President conveniently arrives at the Navel base as the U.S. has inserted a SEAL reconnaissance team to investigate and report from the ground. A second American Submarine is sent into the area as back up and potentially as point in a navel battle. The captain of the American boat is Joe Glass, an officer who came from the ranks rather than the Academy, and he is played by Gerard Butler.

If this was a conventional action movie, Butler would be killing people right and left. He has made a career for himself as a tough guy hero in several recent films including “Olympus Has Fallen”. In this film, he is oddly cast because he is not required to break anyone’s neck, punch them in the face, or deliver six shots to the chest at close range. In fact, Captain Joe is reluctant to ever pull the trigger on his torpedoes and missiles. He regularly seems hesitant to take the sort of cowboy action that his casting would suggest is coming. Butler seems to be in the role because he can come off as a commanding presence who can stare down an opponent or reluctant subordinate. For this story he mostly works, although I would have liked him to go all Liam Neeson on someone at some point.

The late Michael Nyqvist plays the Russian Submarine Captain and when he and Butler are on the bridge together, this movie does come across as a poor man’s version of Red October. They have to manage to trust each other through a major crisis and hope to avert a World War. Since there is only a limited amount of sub action in the film, a big chunk of time is taken up by the covert mission on the surface. In another twist requiring Russians and Americans to trust one another, the SEAL team is asked to rescue the Russian President from an attempted coup. In another example of a Brit stealing American roles, Toby Stephens leads the seal team, much as he did in “13 Hours”.  Both he and Butler are convincing as American military officers. Less convincing are rapper turned actor Common, who looks to young to be a Rear Admiral, and current Academy Award Winner Gary Oldman, who shouts too much to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

The stuff that works includes a series of shootouts around the Russian navel base, and the submarine moments when Nyqvist and Butler have to stare down metaphorically, the Russian fleet and the narrow passages leading into the bay where the Navel base is. I was a little disappointed that bad guy Igor JiJkine, who I remembered from “Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls”, doesn’t get a memorable death. You usually want that in a film like this. We just have to assume he gets his along with all the other coup conspirators. I won’t say the movie is great but I will say I had a great time. If you measure by popcorn consumption, I finished a whole bucket by myself before the movie was two thirds done. That my friends is an entertaining flick.

Den of Thieves

If it’s time for your weekly testosterone injection, here it is in a two hour-twenty minute dosage. This film has maybe three or for women with lines, and only one of them has more than a couple, and she is peripheral to the story. So this film will not be passing the Bechdel test this week. Instead, it will be filling the screen with about two hours of macho scumbags comparing the size of their members by the load carried in their modified AR.

This story is about how the good guys are the ones who kidnap and torture people to get information from them. That should tell you that the bad guys are even worse. This is the nightmare visualization of a major crimes unit in the L.A. Sheriff’s Department, led by “Big Nick” a bad man with a badge. They square off against Merriman and his crew of mostly former Marines who apparently are not interested in a regular form of employment. Seemingly stuck between them is “Donnie” a bartender with a criminal record for holding the fastest speeding ticket in California. He may be demeaned by the members of the outlaw crew, and teased about his penis size by the cops, but there is more here going on than anyone know.

Gerald Butler is one of the producers on this film, a role that has allowed him to be featured in several of these kinds of movies in the last ten years. As Nick, he comes across as arrogant, dangerous and full of the masculinity that would be referred to as “toxic” by some members of our culture.  Pablo Schreiber is Merriman, the master mind with ice water in his veins. He is curt, judgmental and playing the angles. Nick and Merriman become a thing that drives the whole second act of the film.

Imagine that scene from “Heat” where cop and criminal take ten minutes to converse like people. This film is sort of the same idea, only instead of courtesy and plain spoken honesty, we get a game of one upsmanship. They trade insults in a restaurant, match skill at a shooting range and score with the same girl. All this is in a effort to show who is the biggest dog in the pound. This is a long slog with a lot of side routes. We get back story on each character, we learn of their weaknesses, but mostly we build tension because the release is what the last section of the film is all about.

Like all heist films, we are not let in on all the machinations that the master criminal has planned. There will be twists and turns and events that we can’t figure out at first. For example, I can’t figure out how the criminal crew got from Montebello to Downtown Los Angeles in five minutes on a Friday afternoon. The cops are also unpredictable, they start trying to apprehend the fleeing suspects in a traffic jam [the most realistic scene in the movie] where everyone will be in the killing fields between the cops and the robbers. The truth is once the fireworks start, it doesn’t matter if anything makes sense, because the adrenaline rush you’ve been waiting for is kicking in and you just want to sit back and take it all in.

At the close of the film there is a reveal that has been hinted at in a few places but was not particularly well set up. The flashbacks establish a little bit of background but it still feels like a cheap exit to the plot. It is enjoyable, but it takes all the grittiness of the film and turns it into a “Fast and Furious ” moment that just seems out of place. The thought is not a bad one, but like a lot of these complex double agenda films, it depends on one character knowing ahead of time what every other character is going to do. It is simply more ambitious than it has any right to be, it does not feel earned.

The action is bookend in the film. The opening shootout is brutal and the final chase and gunfight is pretty exciting. Since none of the characters are very much emotionally invested, there is not much satisfaction in how things finally wind up. As stupid as all of it ultimately is, it runs the same amount of time as a couple of widely acclaimed films [The Tree of Life/Call Me By Your Name] and I was never bored by this the way I was by those pretentious pieces of art. Maybe there is nothing about this movie that is worth remembering, but it would not be something I’d avoid if it comes across the radar down the road. At least at the end I would know that I was being entertained momentarily.

London Has Fallen

You did not think that after a surprise financial success with “Olympus Has Fallen“, there would not be a sequel did you? Come on, there is money on the table and someone has to take it home, It might as well be Gerard Butler. I am a big fan of the original film, where Butler does his best Bruce Willis impression and the effects teams add enough firepower to take down a whole city. The premise was over the top but in complete congruence with the action films of the 80s and 90s. It was basically “Die Hard” in the White House. Just like the sequel to the original Die Hard, “London Has Fallen” keeps the characters from the original, transports them to another location, and changes directors. Babak Najafi is no Renny Harlin, but he manages to deliver the goods in sufficient quantities that there could easily be  a “Moscow Has Fallen” entry in a couple of years.

I do feel a bit guilty about all the mayhem shown in the film. There are explosions and public edifices wiped out along with what must have been thousands of civilians.  Somehow, it is not quite as disconcerting as it is to me in some other films, maybe it is the cheese factor that you start with. No one worries that much when it happens in a “Transformers” movie because the film never takes itself seriously. “Man of Steel” took itself extremely seriously, and maybe that is the difference to me. At the end of this film, all of London is being rebuilt and there will be little to remind anyone of what happened. The fact that Morgan Freeman provides the denouement instead of Aaron Eckhart’s President Asher, only underscores the fact that his sonorous voice is being used to put the button on the story.

Most of the terror attacks happen early in the movie, so the expensive effects shots are used to set us up for the cat and mouse game that makes up the majority of the film. Secret Service Agent Mike Banning(Butler) has the President with him as the terrorists chase them across the abandoned streets of London. The terrorists conveniently shut off the lights so no one will see that the street sets are not real locations and as many shootouts in the dark can be accentuated with firebursts from the tip of a machine gun. The preposterous set up involves half of the London police being replaced by an army of terrorists that no one will notice. When members of the palace guard take their weapons and gun down the German Chancellor, you know there is no logic to the film at all.

The fact that the story is nonsense does not distract from the pleasure we get from watching Agent banning kick tail and take names. When he gets to use those names in his interplay with the main terrorist on the scene, it is exactly like a moment form “Die Hard”. One thing that is a little different however is that Mike Banning is not going to let any terrorist get up five minutes later and take a dying shot. He seems to be a strong believer in the “double Tap” and when it comes to taking a man down with a knife, clearly a single insertion is not enough. When the President asks if the one killing of a terrorist with a knife in a particularly brutal way was necessary, Mike simply smiles and says, “No”.

There is no reason to take any of this as more than a program, popcorn afternoon filler. Jackie Earle Hailey, Melissa Leo, Robert Forester, and Angela Basset, all Academy Award nominated actors are collecting a paycheck. Only Basset has to leave a room for her performance, everyone else sits around a table to deliver their lines. Morgan Freeman, an Academy Award winner, does stand up a couple of times to make his presence worth third billing,  but ultimately this is Butler’s show with Eckhart in support. Cracking wise and killing a buttload of bad guys is what this film is all about. It does it efficiently and in an entertaining way, so if you want to eat your Milk Duds in the dark, this is a movie that will facilitate that. Of course all of it’s calories are empty as well.