Saving Private Ryan (1998) Review

Director: Steven Spielberg

Genre(s): Action, Drama, War

Runtime: 169 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Rewriting the rules on how battle scenes are filmed, this reverent World War II movie follows a squad of American soldiers, led by Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), who are deployed to enemy-infested territory after the D-Day landings at Normandy in order to find and safely return a fellow U.S. trooper, Private Ryan (Matt Damon), whose brothers were all recently killed in action. Free of romantic subplots and equipped with a moving musical score from John Williams, Saving Private Ryan is easily one of the most important entries into the war genre.

This picture is at its best when the bullets are flying. The two major, lengthy, gory combat sequences, one at the beginning (the storming of Omaha Beach on D-Day) and the one at the end, are so intense they make you want to take cover under your couch…well, if one could take their eyes off them, that is. The sound effects are ferocious and the special effects couldn’t have been better integrated. These action scenes (which have some nice, little touches) are expertly directed, although the realism of the first one is significantly greater than that of the final one. The camerawork here revolves around handheld stuff, but the cinematography never devolves into what-am-I-even-looking-at? shaky-cam.

Unfortunately, Saving Private Ryan isn’t quite as stunning when people aren’t under fire. Most of the characters are ill-defined, which is unacceptable for a men-on-a-mission movie that lasts nearly three hours. Even on repeated viewings it can be impossible to tell who’s who for some of the members of the squad. The sometimes-questionable script (written by Robert Rodat…who also wrote The Patriot [2000]) occasionally has the film wobbling just a tiny bit during the character-driven moments. Still, it manages to pack a punch in the drama department.

In the end, this is an emotionally exhausting war epic with impeccable directing from Steven Spielberg. The supporting characters often aren’t fleshed out enough, but the whole thing is viciously on-point during the battle sequences. Despite its grisly realism, it’s a mistake to expect an anti-war screed from it. Instead, it’s a respectful ode to the Greatest Generation. If you’re going to watch it, watch it for that.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The War Wagon (1967) Review

Director: Burt Kennedy

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Western

Runtime: 101 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of my favorite westerns to star either John Wayne (playing Taw Jackson here) or Kirk Douglas (playing Lomax here), this heist picture sees the two of them team up to rob an armor-plated stagecoach transporting a fortune in gold dust. The film plays out like a Mission: Impossible movie set in the Old West. It’s an old-fashioned, traditional western, with the typical tough-talking, yet oft-humorous, dialogue, but it has enough to distinguish itself from the pack.

The War Wagon features a really good musical score from Dimitri Tiomkin, including a catchy theme song. The action, while not non-stop, is above average. The standout scene in this regard is the barroom brawl, which is one of the very best of its kind in western film history. They really trash the place. The picture’s also worth watching just to see Wayne and Douglas fighting on the same side. The latter even makes a joke about his famous chin dimple at one point.

There is a little bit of “back-and-forth” in The War Wagon that harms the pacing, but, for the most part, it’s a pretty focused movie. While the plight of the Native Americans during the Wild West period is acknowledged, they primarily end up being fodder for the gunfire of white people here. Still, it’s not as disrespectful as it could’ve been.

It’s not the best western flick ever made, but The War Wagon is an excellent action-adventure film with a terrific “hook,” the seemingly impossible heist on a fortified stagecoach. Released the same year as the groundbreaking and graphic gangster movie Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the bloodless The War Wagon feels like a product of a bygone era in comparison. I suppose many people will see that as part of its appeal. If you’re a fan of one of the two stars (or both), there’s no reason to not watch this one.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Longest Day (1962) Review

Directors: Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki, Gerd Oswalt (uncredited), and Darryl F. Zanuck (uncredited)

Genre(s): Action, War

Runtime: 178 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

Featuring innumerable big-name stars in its cast, The Longest Day is a true cinematic epic. In this three-hour colossus, the story of the D-Day landings at Normandy during World War II are told from the American, British, French, and Nazi German points-of-view. According to IMDb, this film had five directors (two of whom were apparently uncredited), which shows what a logistical nightmare making the movie must’ve been.

The Longest Day is a reverent motion picture (frequently reminding the audience of the importance of the invasion, often through speechy dialogue), but it has a fair amount of humor, too. Fleshing out the film’s countless characters is not this flick’s strong point. One doesn’t really get to know these guys (and gals) too well. Characters just come and go (how long does it take for Henry Fonda’s character, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., to be introduced anyway?). For this reason, I can’t really describe this movie as a drama, though it still delivers a satisfactory emotional payoff.

The real focus of The Longest Day is on its exquisite battle and combat scenes, and, boy, are there a lot of them. They’re all so well-choreographed that it’s difficult to choose one that works best. It should be noted that one of the action sequences features a highly spectacular long take that really shows off the picture’s budget. The battles are pretty bloodless, though, not being nearly as gruesome as those shown in Saving Private Ryan (1998), which covers some similar ground. There are some anti-war touches, but the tone is generally more heroic.

Bolstered by grand cinematography and a good musical score from Maurice Jarre, The Longest Day is a more-than-worthy depiction of the events that went down on the Western Front of World War II on June 6, 1944. For a three-hour movie, it’s very well-paced (and certainly never boring) and features a ton of action. In fact, the first time I watched this flick, I thought it had too much combat at the expense of character growth. I’ve changed my mind a bit since then, considering it’s really not that kind of movie. It’s all about spectacle.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Mighty Joe Young (1949) Review

Director: Ernest B. Schoedsack

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Kids & Family

Runtime: 94 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

A spiritual sequel to King Kong (1933) and The Son of Kong (1933), Mighty Joe Young is also about a stop-motion primate on the loose. Jill Young (Terry Moore) is a young woman living in Africa with a pet gorilla (Joe Young, of course) who is convinced to move to the United States and participate in a new nightclub project schemed up by showman Max O’Hara (Robert Armstrong). This one’s more kid-friendly than the other two monster monkey movies that I mentioned earlier, although it still has plenty of action, suspense, and life-threatening peril.

This spare-no-expense action-adventure film features an able cast that includes a young Ben Johnson (playing Gregg) as an Oklahoman cowboy who tries to wrangle Joe Young while in Africa. The numerous special effects here feel smoother than the ones in King Kong and The Son of Kong. The elaborate action scenes are probably some of the best of the 1940s. The decision to credit Joe as “Mr. Joseph Young” in the opening credits is a cute touch.

Mighty Joe Young sure knows how to successfully push an audience’s buttons, thanks to a winning combination of action and drama. Some scenes may be a bit too talky for children, and some of the animal fighting isn’t the easiest to watch (Joe beats up some lions during one of the big set pieces, but they’re mostly fake). Most viewers will find something to enjoy about this flick.

The original Mighty Joe Young forms an unofficial adventure movie trilogy along with the original King Kong and The Son of Kong. All three were directed (or co-directed) by Ernest B. Schoedsack and show off special effects that were groundbreaking at the time of release. If you’ve enjoyed the other two films, you have got to watch Mighty Joe Young.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Son of Kong (1933) Review

Director: Ernest B. Schoedsack

Genre(s): Adventure, Fantasy

Runtime: 70 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Released the same year as the original King Kong (1933), this direct sequel is smaller in scale, but is still an enjoyable experience. The plot follows filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), who returns to Skull Island to meet Kong’s young son. He’s a cuter and cuddlier Kong, which goes along with the film’s more comedic and less action-heavy tone. He actually reminds me of the Abominable Snowman from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964).

The Son of Kong, like its predecessor, takes a while to get to Skull Island, but that’s alright. The scenes in the East Indies port of Dakang evoke a strong atmosphere of a small-time, rarely-visited outpost of humanity. Of course, the primary reason to view this flick is for the special effects. They were state-of-the-art for the time, and are still a pleasure to watch. Max Steiner returns to do the musical score, which “quotes” the score from the original on at least one occasion. Overall, this movie seems a bit more intimate with the characters than the first one.

This picture was released during Hollywood’s Pre-Code period (prior to the enforcement of the Production Code), but it lacks any content that could be considered “Pre-Code” in nature…unless you count Baby Kong unintentionally giving the heroes the middle finger for an extended period of time after he injures his hand. The Son of Kong is generally a more kid-friendly movie than its predecessor, although its unexpectedly dark ending sort of negates its value as a family film. If you want to watch a retro gorilla adventure picture with your child, you’re better off with Mighty Joe Young (1949).

The character played by Victor Wong is merely named “Chinese Cook” here in the opening credits, although he’s called “Charlie” approximately five thousand times during the course of the movie. Anyway, The Son of Kong isn’t as good as the original, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth watching. It’s actually quite good. The monster brawls are fun to watch, and it’s a delight to see some of the characters from King Kong return.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

King Kong (1933) Review

Directors: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Fantasy

Runtime: 100 minutes (standard version), 104 minutes (restored version)

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the best monster movies ever made, King Kong is a highly ambitious film that, once it gets going, piles on the special effects and action. A film crew led by famed director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is out shooting a new picture on an uncharted, tropical island when they discover a massive gorilla named Kong that’s worshiped by the local natives. Made during Hollywood’s Pre-Code era (prior to the Production Code being enforced), this is one sweet ride.

King Kong is very reliant on special effects, and, in all fairness, they probably won’t be mistaken for realistic by modern audiences. Still, they’re spectacular and imaginative, being far more fun to watch than computer-generated imagery (CGI). There’s something exciting about watching an effect that exists in the real world, as opposed to one that only exists in a computer screen. After a somewhat slow opening, the flick really takes off once Kong arrives. From then on, it’s almost non-stop action. This has to be one of the first of the throw-everything-at-the-audience-except-the-kitchen-sink action pictures.

Max Steiner’s musical score is awesome and vigorous. The film’s emotional component is often overstated, although Kong still manages to elicit sympathy from the viewers. For the most part, though, he’s a vicious killing machine. Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) is screaming almost constantly throughout the movie. It’s not a bad thing, and the howls of other characters amplify the film’s considerable violence. The depiction of Skull Island’s natives may be problematic for some. I wouldn’t call it outright racist, but it is stereotypical and patronizing.

Impressively massive in scale, King Kong serves as an early special effects extravaganza. Be patient with the picture’s introductory scenes and you’ll be rewarded with a one-of-a-kind action-adventure treat. It’s still a remarkably worthwhile movie, even if the effects aren’t exactly life-like.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Most Dangerous Game (1932) Review

Directors: Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Horror, Thriller

Runtime: 63 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the gems of the Pre-Code era of Hollywood of the early 1930s (before the Production Code was enforced), The Most Dangerous Game tells the story of a shipwreck survivor named Bob (Joel McCrea) who finds himself stranded on a South Seas island ruled by the mad Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), who’s taken game-hunting to a whole new level. Putting action-adventure, horror, and thriller elements in a blender, it’s a wonderful piece of pulp.

The whole motion picture is short as Hell, clocking in at a little over an hour. There’s a very, very good musical score from Max Steiner – one of the first to play frequently over the course of a talkie film (prior to this, most sound movies only had scores over the main and end titles). The performance from Leslie Banks as the villain is appropriately lively and crazed. Banks even tries to convince the hero to join him, since apparently they aren’t so different deep down, which is now a classic action-adventure film trope. The Most Dangerous Game, while being primarily focused on violence and horror, does have a fair amount of comic relief, and, yes, there is the obligatory romantic subplot, but it doesn’t distract too much from the cool stuff.

While short, this isn’t exactly a fast-paced movie. It contains some talky sections that slow down the mayhem somewhat. Some of the fighting looks a bit dated, and a viewer should be prepared for a little bit of cheesiness (like the “He got me!” shark attack).

The Most Dangerous Game isn’t a perfect flick, but it’s got it where it counts. There’s a bit too much yapping, but it’s on a solid footing when it lets the action do the talking. Its short runtime means it should make an exceptional companion piece to either Island of Lost Souls (1932) or King Kong (1933), if you need a Pre-Code adventure double-feature.

My rating is 8 outta 10.