Little Big Man (1970) Review

Director: Arthur Penn

Genre(s): Adventure, Comedy, Drama, War, Western

Runtime: 139 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Sort of a comedy version of Dances with Wolves (1990), Little Big Man is about Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), a white boy raised by Native Americans during the Wild West period. It is commendably reverent towards indigenous Americans (although I couldn’t tell you how accurate it is, as it sometimes portrays them as “proto-hippies”), but the episodic plot threatens to sink the film. There’s simply too much back-and-forth in this movie, as it runs in circles.

It’s fun at first, being a series of colorful anecdotes about life in the Old West, but it soon becomes unclear as to what the entire picture is building up to. The sociopolitical content is often heavy-handed, and the frequent narration during the first half or so may turn off some. This tragicomic flick also contains some jarring tonal shifts, blending comedy and drama in ways that aren’t always completely successful.

Certainly not everything goes wrong here. The action scenes are adequate and some good stuntwork is on display. The humor is mostly effective, and, even as it meanders, the plot is almost always in motion. There’s all sorts of western film tropes on display here, as the movie leaps from one “sketch” or scenario to another.

Little Big Man is clearly a product of its time (the early 1970s). It’s very well-regarded by the critics, but I’m more cool towards it. If you’re looking for a fantastic movie directed by Arthur Penn, I’d point you in the direction of Bonnie and Clyde (1967). That’s not to say Little Big Man is bad. It just feels a bit unfocused.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Great Escape (1963) Review

Director: John Sturges

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Thriller, War

Runtime: 172 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Director John Sturges’ second masterpiece (the first being The Magnificent Seven [1960]), this World War II epic tells the true story of Allied prisoners-of-war (P.O.W.s) planning a mass breakout from Stalag Luft III, the Nazi prison-camp they’re being held in. Along with Casablanca (1942), a picture of this film can be seen in the dictionary when you look up “classic film” (well, not really). It’s timeless, and perhaps the definitive P.O.W. picture.

Everything about this movie works. The all-star cast is a delight to watch, and Elmer Bernstein’s musical score is masterful. There’s a great deal of successful comic relief, and the cinematography does a swell job capturing the landscapes that surround the Allied P.O.W.s, making the film seem even more epic. The excellent sets also deserve a mention. However, The Great Escape perhaps works best when focusing on suspense. It can be a real nail-biter.

In a flick that’s nearly three hours long, pacing is crucial, and The Great Escape pulls it off. Fortunately, there’s no romance to bog things down, and all roles work in harmony towards the goal of crafting a stellar motion picture (just as each character has a job in the breakout plot; each one being a cog in the escape machine).

Thanks to tough guy heroics and the change of seasons from snowy (the time of the actual prison-break in real life) to glorious summer (the season of the breakout in the film), the movie almost (almost) makes war look fun. There’s plenty of macho bonding and the picture does an exceptional job capturing a sense of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants adventure. It’s not an action movie, but what action is in it really matters. The motorcycle pursuit sequence is the stuff legends are made of.

The highly efficient The Great Escape is all about the triumph of the human spirit. These men are seemingly uncageable. To sum things up, let’s leave with a quote from the movie: “You get ten out of ten for this, old boy!”

My rating is 10 outta 10.

Dillinger (1973) Review

Director: John Milius

Genre(s): Action, Biography, Crime

Runtime: 107 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Written and directed by John Milius (it was his directorial debut), this biopic of legendary 1930s bank robber John Dillinger (Warren Oates) throws historical accuracy out the window in favor of telling the story of the man in a way fitting for a cheap pulp novel. This is not actually the way events took place; it’s the way events should’ve taken place for storytelling purposes. Dillinger here is alternately charismatic, egotistical, and vicious.

Nearly every scene in Dillinger involves guns in some way. Even the part where federal agent Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson) tells a kid to stay out of crime involves a firearm being pulled out. The whole thing is crammed with action, featuring some shootouts that are beyond superb. The body count is huge by gangster movie standards. You want lots of mayhem with antique, 1930s-era firearms? You got lots of mayhem with antique, 1930s-era firearms!

The humorous, yet hard-boiled, script maintains a quick pace, and Barry De Vorzon provides the competent musical score. The flick had a relatively low budget, so it doesn’t exactly have an expensive look. Despite the limited resources the cast and crew had to work with, it does a good job creating a Great Depression-era atmosphere. There’s an all-star cast of character actors, and they all seem to be having a blast. The characters that they play are highly colorful.

This is simply one of the most underrated action movies of all time. It’s proudly pulpy, action-packed, and reasonably short as well. It’s nothing more than a big slab of pure entertainment.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) Review

Director: John Milius

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 119 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Very, very, very, very loosely based on a true story, The Wind and the Lion tells the tale of an American woman, Eden Pedecaris (Candice Bergen), and her two children, William (Simon Harrison) and Jennifer (Polly Gottesman), being kidnapped by a group of desert Berber rebels led by Mulay el-Raisuli (Sean Connery) in 1904 Morocco. The real incident saw a man named Ion Perdicaris being captured and released with no bloodshed. What kind of film would that make? Writer/director John Milius thought he could tell the story better (read: more death and destruction), and the result is The Wind and the Lion.

Armed with the best musical score by Jerry Goldsmith that I’m familiar with and an all-star cast, this is an old-fashioned, swashbuckling action-adventure epic with a witty script. The interesting characters couldn’t have been drawn better. The action scenes are grade-A+, but there appears to be use of oft-deadly trip wires to accomplish the horse-falls. The film’s stunt sequence supervisor, Terry Leonard, claims that no horses were harmed during the making of the movie, according to IMDb’s Trivia page for the movie, but the horse-falls look pretty suspect to me.

The tone is playful, despite plentiful carnage, as the motion picture romanticizes the irrational behavior of olden times. It’s full of jingoistic clap-trap that somehow works in the context of the film. The Wind and the Lion‘s politics seem to be intentionally schizophrenic, celebrating displays of militarism, while simultaneously showing innocent bystanders being aggressively shoved around by said militants. This contradictory nature only adds to the flick’s already-very-funny comedy level.

When people aren’t dying, the film portrays the backroom dealings surrounding the hostage crisis. However, it’s not boring at all, with the geopolitics of the situation being depicted in a humorous, tongue-in-cheek manner. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Keith), though, is probably written to be more saber-rattling than he actually was as commander-in-chief. There is some Stockholm Syndrome- style romance in The Wind and the Lion, but don’t let this turn you off. Action junkies will find more than enough for them here.

Full of daring-do and machismo, this masterpiece from John Milius is a fascinating, if almost entirely fictional, look at the United States’ early years as a Great Power. It works best, though, as a first-rate action-adventure picture, full of sweeping desert vistas, larger-than-life characters, ridiculous heroism, and marvelous action sequences.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

Commando (1985) Review

Director: Mark L. Lester

Genre(s): Action

Runtime: 90 minutes (theatrical version), 92 minutes (director’s cut)

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

I hesitate to call Commando, one of the all-time great “comfort films,” a so-bad-it’s-good picture, because it seems like the filmmakers and whatnot are somewhat in on the joke. The story is about former special forces member John Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger) coming out of retirement after his daughter, Jenny (Alyssa Milano), is kidnapped by a group of mercenaries who want Matrix to reinstall Arius (Dan Hedaya) as dictator of the fictional Latin American country of Val Verde.

This movie is rip-snortin’ fun, playing out like a live-action cartoon, as John Matrix performs absurd feats of heroism and eliminates countless faceless baddies. Matrix has a female companion here, in the form of Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong), but, fortunately for the audience, it’s not exactly a romantic relationship. The entire thing’s pure camp, with the highly memorable villain, Bennett (Vernon Wells), hamming it up to an unsafe degree. Actually, all of the characters are terrific, especially the wonderful henchmen, including Sully (David Patrick Kelly), Cooke (Bill Duke), Diaz (Gary Carlos Cervantes), and Henriques (Charles Meshack). You just want to learn more about every person that inhabits the Commando universe.

This hysterically funny cult classic is also a veritable one-liner machine, featuring some of the best dialogue in action movie history. James Horner provides the rockin’ musical score, which keeps things moving along smoothly, and no review of Commando would be complete without at least mentioning the ludicrous song “We Fight for Love” by The Power Station that plays over the end credits. The whole thing is fast-paced and expertly made for maximum impact.

The action scenes here are top-drawer, each one carefully building up to the high-octane climax. I believe I temporarily go insane from the adrenaline rush this sequence gives me every time I watch it. Schwarzenegger’s character is just cycling through weapons like he’s in some sort of video game. The montage of Matrix suiting up prior to the finale is also incredible.

One of the most pure action pictures ever released, Commando is action film nirvana (make sure you watch the director’s cut). It instantly puts a grin on my face. That being said, lots of people refer to this flick as a “guilty pleasure.” This is wrong. Why should I feel guilty about loving this movie? If you enjoy a motion picture, fully embrace it and don’t worry about feeling ashamed.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) Review

Director: Steven Spielberg

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Comedy

Runtime: 122 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Almost twenty years after the release of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), a fourth Indiana Jones picture was sent to theaters: the heavily-criticized Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. So, should’ve this movie been made in the first place? Probably not, but it’s here and there’s nothing we can do about it. For what it’s worth, it’s really not that bad. In fact, if it had not been an Indiana Jones film at all, but rather the start of some new action-adventure series, I think it would have been received much more warmly.

The plot is about archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) being forced to uncover the mystery of a crystal skull before the Soviet Union can. Indy is occasionally forced, at gunpoint, to collaborate with the communists, and this just doesn’t feel right. Anyway, the picture starts off on a fun, energetic note, with Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” blaring. Although the opening scene ruins the mystery of the ending of the first Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), it’s still a sight to see. In fact, for the most part, the flick chugs along fairly smoothly for the first three-quarters. After that, it sort of runs out of steam. The action scenes are generally excellent, typically relying on old-fashioned choreography to excite, rather the quick edits, shaky cam, and close camera angles that were all the rage at the time of its release.

Harrison Ford is still Indiana Jones here, and nobody manages to steal his thunder. John Williams’ musical score is rousing, but the “shiny” cinematography of this increasingly far-fetched film makes everything in it look like it was created using computer-generated imagery (CGI), even stuff that probably wasn’t. This means that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull‘s special effects don’t really feel like much of an improvement over the ones in the original trilogy. Most of the comedy works, but the movie lacks the sense of wonder and danger that made the original three Indy pictures classic.

The violence here mostly has less bite than it did in previous installments. Some of the more ridiculous ideas in the film needed some serious fine-tuning to work properly. There’s also some talky moments and half-baked ideas. Still, it’s mostly a very watchable actioner that holds up better than its reputation. Don’t expect it to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the first three flicks and you might just be entertained.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) Review

Director: Steven Spielberg

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Comedy

Runtime: 127 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Director Steven Spielberg, ideas man George Lucas, actor Harrison Ford, and composer John Williams manage to catch lightning in a bottle for a third time in a row with the third entry into the Indiana Jones saga, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – the previous two films being Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). This time, archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) must team up with his father, Dr. Henry Jones, Sr. (Sean Connery) to track down the Holy Grail.

Last Crusade is far jokier in tone than its predecessors, lacking the hard-boiled edge that the two previous flicks had. Frequently considered the second best of the franchise, after Raiders of course, I actually find it to be my third favorite of the series. It repeats a bit too many notes from Raiders and plays it a bit on the safe side to overtake Temple of Doom in my rankings. While humor has always been an important part of the Indiana Jones films, Last Crusade is the first one that could be considered a true action-comedy (it’s funnier than just about any straight comedy). This sometimes comes at a cost, with Indy sidekicks Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) and especially Dr. Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott), both of whom also appeared in Raiders, being largely reduced to buffoons here. The violence is also noticeably toned down (though still a tad on the graphic side by modern PG-13 standards).

John Williams’ musical score works wonders, but you’re probably wondering about the action scenes. Have no fear, because they’re top-notch. The special effects are generally great, but a scene or two look like they were made on the cheap. I’m talking primarily about the biplane escape scene, which doesn’t look as good as a similar airplane scene at the beginning of Raiders.

I hope I’m not coming across as too harsh here, because this flick is remarkable entertainment. Despite some familiarity with the first movie in the franchise, Last Crusade has a secret weapon (okay, maybe it’s not so secret) that allows it to establish its own identity. This is, of course, the film’s father/son dynamic, which makes for an interesting addition to the Indiana Jones pictures. The relationship between Ford and Connery’s characters gives the movie a lot of heart.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is one of my all-time favorite flicks. Some similarities with Raiders of the Lost Ark don’t really diminish it, for this clever movie is still a spine-tingling adventure. It ends the original Indiana Jones trilogy on a perfect note.

My rating is 10 outta 10.