King of the Underworld (1939) Review

Director: Lewis Seiler

Genre(s): Crime, Drama

Runtime: 67 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

King of the Underworld was the first movie where Humphrey Bogart got his name placed over the title in the opening credits. This drama is about how husband-wife doctor duo Niles Nelson (John Eldredge) and Carole Nelson (Kay Francis) and failed writer Bill Stevens (James Stephenson) find themselves ensnared in the world of crime by gangster Joe Gurney (Humphrey Bogart). It’s not remembered among Bogie’s best work, but it’s still a competent, little film.

According to the Trivia section of this picture’s IMDb page, director Lewis Seiler’s heart wasn’t really in this one, which might explain a slightly sloppy moment or two. Still, the results are quite good, with the cinematography occasionally having a shadowy, proto-noirish look. It should also be mentioned that the feature is actually kind of funny at times. It’s a charming flick.

On the action front, there’s not too much to write home about. There are a couple of instances when characters let a Thompson submachine gun rip, but this is far more subdued than, say, Scarface (1932) or ‘G’ Men (1935). An action film, this is not. That being said, the ending puts a pretty interesting and surprisingly satisfying twist on the usual gangland shootout finale trope.

Running a minuscule sixty-seven minutes, King of the Underworld is a film that’s difficult to regret watching. The succinct plot is always in motion and Bogart’s fine performance anchors the finished product. I really enjoy watching retro mobster movies, and this feature will scratch any itch for other aficionados of those types of works.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Grease (1978) Review

Director: Randal Kleiser

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical, Romance

Runtime: 110 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

The 1978 musical Grease is a nostalgic look back on teenage life in the 1950s as seen through the lens of the 1970s. You see, high school cool cat Danny (John Travolta) had a summer fling with an Australian girl, Sandy (Olivia Newton-John), and now doesn’t know that they’re attending the same school together. This one follows the standard rom-com formula pretty closely, so no points will be awarded for guessing how it ends.

The biggest draws of this film are its iconic musical numbers. Even people who’ve never seen the movie before can probably hum along with one or two of the songs featured here. My favorite ditty is “Grease,” performed by Frankie Valli, which plays over the animated main title sequence. It’s a disco tune, but doesn’t feel particularly out-of-place in the fifties setting.

The detractors of this picture point out things like that the high schoolers here look like forty-year-olds (perhaps it was all that underage smoking and drinking?). Another common criticism is the flick’s dubious sense of morality, where surrendering to peer pressure, unprotected sex, reckless driving, and chain-smoking are seen are ultimate cools. I can’t subscribe to what Grease says about right and wrong, but, if you’re getting your moral direction from this feature, you have deeper issues.

The film only has just enough conflict in it to sustain itself. Sure, the characters of Danny and Sandy go back and forth with each other, but most of the work is about teens partying, singing, and dancing. The story’s simple, but the lively music, heavy on the rock ‘n’ roll and pop, makes Grease worth watching. Joan Blondell shows up as Vi, a waitress at a diner frequented by the main characters.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

American Hustle (2013) Review

Director: David O. Russell

Genre(s): Comedy, Crime, Drama

Runtime: 138 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The 2013 con artist dramedy American Hustle is frequently compared and contrasted with the works of director Martin Scorsese. I mean, the plot does sound like it belongs to a project that he might helm. In the 1970s, conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and conwoman Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are recruited by federal agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) to help take down some crooked politicians.

The film is equally concerned with its vibrant characters and its tricky plot, making it a well-balanced production. It’s not a riotously funny, laugh-a-second flick, but the humor that is here works better than I expected. The movie doesn’t always have the gravity it needs, although the murderous mob is eventually introduced into the picture to add some weight to the proceedings.

American Hustle tackles the 1970s with relish. The snappy soundtrack is full of recognizable songs from the time period that greatly elevate the feature. Of course, it would be hard to review this movie without mentioning the oft-outrageous hairdos worn by the star-studded cast. They’re just reminders in case anybody missed the memo that this is the seventies.

This isn’t the most substantive film ever made, but it’s quite entertaining once you get into its groove. Despite how loose everything is played, the plot might be a tad too complicated at times. Just a tad. It’s very good and never boring, but, if I had to take my pick from the con artist fiction litter, I think I’d go with the television series Sneaky Pete.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Batman: The Killing Joke (2016) Review

Director: Sam Liu

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 76 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The animated film Batman: The Killing Joke was the first Batman movie to be released with an R rating in the United States. Based on a popular graphic novel of the same title, the picture follows clown criminal Joker’s (voiced by Mark Hamill) attempts to destroy the Gordon family, with superhero Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy) trying to save the day. Thanks to more adult content than your typical superhero flick, this one’s for the grown-ups only.

One of the best aspects of this feature is the voice talent. In some ways, this is a continuation of the revered Batman: The Animated Series, with Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprising their roles as Batman and the Joker, respectively. The voice-acting is top-notch and, along with the stirring animation, carries the movie. The pacing also garners a thumbs-up from me, with tons of material being crammed into the seventy-six demented minutes of runtime.

Batman: The Killing Joke was met with a lukewarm, at best, reception, partially thanks to the handling of Barbara Gordon (voiced by Tara Strong), better known as “Batgirl.” The film doesn’t really know what to do with her and the alarming accusations of sexism might hold water. The Joker-less first act of the motion picture is also only tangentially related to the rest, which is also something that holds the product back from true greatness.

Very dark, macabre, intense, and sinister, The Killing Joke just might have the best depiction of the Joker yet seen on film. Unfortunately, some questionable narrative decisions almost derail this train. It’s an impossible flick to turn away from, but sometimes it just doesn’t feel “right.” The work may have also been better served by a less ambiguous ending, but maybe that’s just me.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Gangster Squad (2013) Review

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Genre(s): Action, Crime

Runtime: 113 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The 2013 actioner Gangster Squad was widely panned by critics upon its release, with many professional film reviewers commenting on how it looked unfavorable when held up against The Untouchables (1987). The stories of the two pictures are almost identical, with Gangster Squad being about a team of Los Angeles police officers on an off-the-books mission to drive mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) out of the city in the years following World War II. Overall, this movie isn’t as masterful as the 1987 flick that it bears many similarities to, but I still think it’s worth watching.

The first word that springs to mind when describing this feature is “pulpy.” It doesn’t pretend to be realistic, preferring to be heightened, unsubtle, stylized, semi-cartoony, and exaggerated. It’s a “print the legend” kind of work. I think all of this threw some critics expecting something more down-to-Earth for a loop. Despite its borderline-campy nature, the film’s plot about vigilante cops is bound to make some viewers squeamish.

The plentiful sequences of action and violence are handled smoothly, with the exception of a nighttime car chase that’s probably a bit harder to follow than it needed to be. The characters are easy to distinguish from one another, thanks to an all-star cast. A special mention should go to Sean Penn, who plays the vile villain with aplomb. The narrative is straightforward and satisfying.

Fans of the pulpier side of gangster fiction (like myself) will definitely want to watch this one. Sure, it’s not as good as The Untouchables, but how many pictures are? A piece of trivia about Gangster Squad is that a shootout scene in a movie theater that was originally going to be in the flick was cut due to the 2012 theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Devil (2010) Review

Director: John Erick Dowdle

Genre(s): Horror, Mystery, Thriller

Runtime: 80 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

M. Night Shyamalan, known for his twisty thrillers, didn’t direct Devil, but he did come up with the story and also co-produced it. The movie’s story is about five strangers who find themselves trapped together on an elevator in a Philadelphia skyscraper…and somebody’s killing them off one-by-one. This flick gets figurative points for its interesting premise, but its execution is only so-so.

Devil largely revolves around the five distinct characters in the broken elevator, which makes the film feel appropriately claustrophobic. That being said, a significant part of the runtime takes place outside of the lift, with security guards and first responders trying to unjam the elevator and figure out just who the murderer is. This gives the feature a light whodunnit quality, even if the focus is primarily on the scares.

The resolution of the mystery at the heart of Devil is perhaps the weakest part of the picture. I wouldn’t really describe it as “unsatisfying,” but it does come across as a bit hokey. The movie veers a little out of control at times, and you may need to stifle a laugh or two at something that wasn’t intended to be comical. However, I do enjoy unintentional humor, so I suppose I can’t complain too much.

Devil wraps up in less than an hour-and-a-half, so, even if you don’t enjoy it, you won’t be out too many minutes of your time. I’ll give the flick credit for its creative ideas and fine pacing, but it does feel borderline-tacky at times. In the end, I don’t really say “watch it” or “avoid it;” just know that it can be a little silly.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Stone Killer (1973) Review

Director: Michael Winner

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 95 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The year before Death Wish (1974) was released, that picture’s director (Michael Winner) and star (Charles Bronson) collaborated on another crime flick, this one called The Stone Killer. The plot’s about police detective Lou Torrey (Charles Bronson) investigating a series of murders and uncovering a mob-related revenge massacre in the works. Death Wish it ain’t, but it still has its moments.

This street-tough actioner moves along at a solid pace, starting off with a figurative “bang” and rarely letting up, as the bodies start to pile up. The Stone Killer is set in a dirty, unpleasant world that reflects the American anxieties of the 1970s. This means there are a couple of scenes depicting police brutality that probably wouldn’t make it into the film if it was made nowadays.

While this movie isn’t as entertaining as Death Wish, it is noticeably more action-packed than that 1974 crime-drama. The carnage is squib-heavy and exciting, with there being a few shootings, a nice vehicle chase, and a couple of gunfights. Bronson is in full action-hero mode here, managing to fill a respectable number of body bags.

The Stone Killer may not be top-tier Bronson, but there’s enough here to like to make it worth recommending. Yeah, it does sometimes feel like the plot was just constructed so that bloody action set-pieces could hung off of it, but I can’t hold that against the movie too much. This feature also stars Martin Balsam as mafia boss Al Vescari. Balsam would later reunite with Bronson and Winner in the unintentionally hysterical Death Wish 3 (1985). Too bad this film didn’t get a cheesy sequel called The Stoner Killer where Bronson shoots hopped-up dope fiends on the loose.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Hard Times (1975) Review

Director: Walter Hill

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Drama, Sport

Runtime: 93 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Macho filmmaker Walter Hill’s directorial debut was the excellent 1975 action-drama Hard Times. During the Great Depression, a drifter named Chaney (Charles Bronson) makes a living as a bare-knuckle boxer in the New Orleans region with the help of his shit-talking manager, Speed (James Coburn). It’s an unusual type of sports movie, being about the underground world of street-fighting, but Hill pulls it off remarkably well.

Appropriately for a film set during this time period, Hard Times has a gently melancholy tone. Some of the best things about this picture are the seedy and atmospheric New Orleans-area locations that it explores. It seems like no dank backroom in the city is left behind by the filmmakers. Charles Bronson is more taciturn than usual here and is supported by his then-wife Jill Ireland, who plays Lucy Simpson, the love interest.

This may seem like an odd comparison at first, but I think that this feature is somewhat similar to Rocky (1976), which was released one year later. Both flicks have plenty of punching and fighting, but are really about the relationships that develop outside the “ring.” Speaking of “punching and fighting,” the action scenes in Hard Times are pretty well choreographed, never lacking in impact or feeling too over-the-top.

This gritty gem is a movie that fans of tough guy cinema will want to track down. Often understated, yet always heroic, this bare-knuckle boxing saga is simultaneously sensitive and tough-as-nails. That’s a balance that’s highly satisfying when pulled off by the right filmmaker. To top things off, this motion picture features a cute cat in a supporting role.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Marked for Death (1990) Review

Director: Dwight H. Little

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 93 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Marked for Death is one of those movies that will readily appeal to the so-bad-it’s-good crowd, and very few else. Former DEA agent John Hatcher (Steven Seagal) goes to war with some drug-pushing Jamaican-American gangsters after his family is targeted for extermination by them. Is this Steven Seagal’s best film? I couldn’t tell you that, but, of all of the ones I’ve seen (and I’ve seen quite a few), it is definitely the most entertaining.

The pony-tailed Seagal is largely a charisma black hole here (no one can say the line “Serious fun” with less joy than him), but this only adds to the enjoyable absurdity of the whole production. Fortunately, he’s blessed with one of the best sidekicks in action picture history: Max (Keith David). The primary baddie of the flick is Jamaican mob boss Screwface (Basil Wallace), who provides some of the most delicious villain ham-acting this side of Bennett from Commando (1985).

Marked for Death is essentially devoid of romance, allowing the carnage to do the talking…and what carnage it is! The action scenes are ace, highlighting Seagal’s trademark brand of bone-snapping super-sadism. There’s some enthusiastic overkill towards the end, when one character gets killed approximately four hundred times. Of course, the violence is accompanied by a fair amount of one-liners, some of which are pure non-sequiturs.

This over-the-top action film has a cool musical score from James Newton Howard and a relatively early appearance from Danny Trejo (playing Hector). The whole thing’s very lean and very mean, making it a ton of “serious fun” for fans of trash cinema (it really knows when to end). This bundle of unintentionally funny, kitschy joy also illustrates the days when, in regards to international travel, they’d let anything through customs.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Breakheart Pass (1975) Review

Director: Tom Gries

Genre(s): Adventure, Mystery, Thriller, Western

Runtime: 95 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

It may just be me, but it doesn’t seem like Hollywood cranks out too many mystery-western movies. If that’s a genre combo that you’ve been looking for a film from, Breakheart Pass is worth looking into. Set, of course, in the Wild West, outlaw Deakin (Charles Bronson) finds himself on a train full of medical supplies headed for a diseased military outpost. To complicate matters, people are constantly disappearing or winding up dead on the locomotive.

Written by Alistair MacLean, who wrote the novels that pictures like The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Where Eagles Dare (1968) were based off of, this flick has a solid mystery at its center that never gets too confusing. It’s not too complicated or convoluted, but it is appropriately satisfying. Plus, who doesn’t want to see Charles Bronson in the middle of a murder mystery on a train in the Old West?

Famous stuntman and action choreographer Yakima Canutt served as the second unit director for the movie, handling the set-pieces (it was the last time he would have such a position on a film). I can’t say that it’s his best work, but there is a mighty fist fight atop a moving train car that’s a bit hair-raising. It appears to be death-defying. Sure, the ending gets a little on the silly side, but Breakheart Pass works just as well on the adventure side as it does on the mystery front.

I think that this movie, while not top-of-the-line, is a success. Train aficionados will probably like it, thanks to most of it being set on a locomotive or the immediate exterior of one. Two of Charles Bronson’s notable co-stars here are his real-life wife Jill Ireland (as Marica) and Ed Lauter (playing Claremont), who Bronson would later team up with in the accidental masterpiece Death Wish 3 (1985).

My rating is 7 outta 10.