O.S.S. (1946) Review

Director: Irving Pichel

Genre(s): Thriller, War

Runtime: 108 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Despite being produced and written by Richard Maibaum, who also wrote a bunch of the earlier James Bond films (a series I’m not crazy about to begin with), the World War II spy film O.S.S. is a dud, more or less. The picture’s title refers to the Office of Strategic Services, which was the precursor to the CIA during the aforementioned conflict. Alan Ladd stars as John Martin, an American secret agent sent to Nazi-occupied France to mess with the Germans. Of course, he’s accompanied by a female spy, Elaine Duprez (Geraldine Fitzgerald), to give the movie some romance.

One of the major problems here is that the picture covers the entire experience an OSS agent might face behind enemy lines, rather than focusing on one particular mission. The way the film is, the heroes tackle two or three assignments during the flick’s runtime, resulting in two or three mini-climaxes, and stuffing the film with some padding. Part of the movie seems to follow our protagonists in between objectives, when they’re not really doing anything, other than simply surviving.

There’s also the matter of the film not building up to a satisfactory climax. It’s a realistic one, and I suppose that’s commendable, but it’s less exciting (well, “exciting” is a stretch) than one of the scenes that preceded it. The action’s clunky, although there’s barely any of it at all (the big explosions and whatnot are provided by stock footage). Rather than fully entertaining an audience, O.S.S. sets its sights on educating the viewer on the importance of the titular organization’s role in World War II and honoring the memory of its fallen. That has its time and place, and probably should’ve been included in the flick, but some changes should’ve been made to tighten the movie up.

A thriller largely devoid of thrills, O.S.S. is not terrible, but it doesn’t come recommended either. The plot’s unfocused and the action is almost non-existent. The romantic angle successfully creates some tension later on in the runtime, but, overall, I can’t help but think of it as a misfire. There are better espionage flicks out there.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Santiago (1956) Review

Director: Gordon Douglas

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

Runtime: 93 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

If you’ve seen the World War II picture China (1943), also starring Alan Ladd, you’ll know what to expect from Santiago. They’re pretty similar, but both are worth watching. Here, an American gunrunner, Caleb “Cash” Adams (Alan Ladd), is drawn into the Cuban War of Independence while delivering a shipment of arms and ammunition to the Cuban rebels in the 1890s. Despite a few talkier moments, this is a well-told tale with a fair amount of action.

Often resembling a western movie, this is an interesting and atmospheric look at the lives of amoral, greedy gunrunners in the late nineteenth century, set in places like a seedy bar’s backroom, a paddle wheeler’s cargo hold, and the steamy jungles of Haiti and Cuba. The characters are easy to keep track of, and the action scenes are well-handled. Worth noting is an unusually graphic (by 1956 standards) headshot received by one character towards the beginning of the film.

As mentioned in the first paragraph, there are a few dialogue-heavy scenes (mainly towards the beginning), but they’re tolerable. While there is a prominent romantic subplot, it doesn’t subtract from the experience as much as a similar subplot did in China. Also on the down side, the ending is fairly abrupt. Some might even call it anti-climactic (I’m not sure I would, though), concluding just as the flick was starting to heat up.

Santiago, which makes a good double feature with the aforementioned China, is a solid action-adventure picture with a story that has a lot of potential. Does it fully reach that potential? Eh, not quite, perhaps due to some budgetary restrictions. Still, if you’re looking for a movie set around the time of the Spanish-American War, Santiago is a good choice to watch.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

China (1943) Review

Director: John Farrow

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

Runtime: 79 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Released during World War II, China serves as an interesting and entertaining piece of American propaganda designed to educate the U.S. populace on the struggles faced by the Chinese people during the Japanese invasion of their homeland. Cynical, tough oil salesman David Jones (Alan Ladd) wants nothing to do with the conflict, despite living in China. He’s content to go about selling his product to the highest bidder, which is frequently the raping, burning, murdering Japanese. With his partner, Johnny Sparrow (William Bendix), he finds himself driving a truck full of displaced Chinese and a teacher of American descent, Carolyn Grant (Loretta Young), across the countryside in an effort to outrun the war.

China works best as a war-based action-adventure picture. The film begins with an ambitious long take that immediately throws the audience into the story and action is relatively frequent after that. Gunfire and explosions are the name of the game here, although the finale isn’t quite as exciting as the sequence where our heroes acquire the explosives used for said ending. Ladd is a convincing action star, and Bendix is excellent as the sidekick.

On the down side, there’s a lot of romance to yawn at. The movie tends to get bogged down in it, with Bendix reminiscing about his old hayrides back in the U.S. and whatnot, when the picture could be focused on the Japanese getting their just desserts. There’s even the threat of a romantic triangle breaking out at one point, but this potential disaster doesn’t fully materialize. Another flaw with the flick is that the Japanese threat doesn’t really feel quite immediate enough at times during the first act. However, it becomes very real after that.

Romance aside, this is probably one of the more effective and cool World War II flag-wavers made during the war. The fascinating, if fictional, plot is enough to absorb the viewer, and the action gets a thumbs-up. The film’s Wilsonian idealism shines through all the carnage and romance to stir the audience into making the world a better place when the war concludes. War and action-adventure movie aficionados will find enough here to make it worth watching.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Verdun: Looking at History (1928) Review

Director: Léon Poirier

Genre(s): Action, War

Runtime: 151 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the most underrated silent films ever made, Verdun: Looking at History (its original title in French being “Verdun, Visions d’Histoire“) is a powerful look at World War I’s critical Battle of Verdun, one of the greatest (and longest) battles ever fought. Told from both the French and German perspectives, this is the story of the 1916 German offensive that intended to capture the fortified French city of Verdun and crush French morale to continue the fight.

Often difficult to take your eyes off of, this cinematic epic usually looks realistic enough to be actual war footage. In fact, it’s often hard to tell what’s stock footage and what was filmed specifically for the movie. Very detailed and authentic-feeling, Verdun: Looking at History transports the viewer to the lunar landscapes outside of Verdun to witness the titanic struggle that lasted most of 1916. There’s plenty of combat, and the explosions are jarringly well-executed, frequently looking like they’re putting the cast in danger. Being silent, there’s numerous stylized touches to make the storytelling more visual.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering its docudrama-like style, the weakest part of the motion picture is its characters. To give the movie a universal quality, the fictional ones aren’t even given names, simply their description. Most of them are soon lost in the shuffle, sometimes making it difficult to tell who’s who. However, that’s not really the focus of the flick, so it’s not a crippling concern. The film’s very brief celebration of Henri Philippe Pétain, one of the major French officers during the Battle of Verdun, hasn’t aged well, considering that he would later become leader of the Vichy France (the French puppet government that collaborated with Nazi Germany) during World War II. Of course, no one could’ve known that in 1928 (the year of this movie’s release), but it still leaves an odd taste in the audience’s mouth.

Verdun: Looking at History deserves to be remembered with the best of the silent films. Few movies have managed to bring the Western Front of World War I to theaters as believably and vividly as here. Human, educational, and idealistic, this is a true docudrama, combining documentary and fictional elements in roughly equal parts. If you’re interested in the First World War, I’d highly recommend this picture, as well as an actual visit to the Verdun battlefield in France (I’ve been there, it’s unforgettable).

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Lethal Weapon 4 (1998) Review

Director: Richard Donner

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

Runtime: 127 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The Lethal Weapon film series ends on as perfect a note as it could’ve asked for in Lethal Weapon 4, the best movie in the franchise since the original. This time, Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) are out to stop a gang that’s smuggling Chinese migrants to Los Angeles in inhumane conditions. Tonally, this is a far cry from Lethal Weapon (1987), and could probably be best described as a heartwarming bloodbath sitcom.

Despite all the touchy-feely stuff, this is still an action picture, and it delivers the big set pieces that fans of the genre crave. Hell, there are one or two moments that wouldn’t feel out of place in an installment of The Fast and the Furious movies. Car and foot chases, shootouts, martial arts brawls…Lethal Weapon 4 doesn’t skimp on the big-budget havoc. Wah Sing Ku (Jet Li) is one of the most formidable baddies in the franchise, perhaps second only to Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey) from the first one.

Of all the Lethal Weapon flicks, the 1987 original did the tough-as-nails, hard-boiled stuff the best, while the fourth entry does the more comedic, family-and-friends-oriented material most memorably. It definitely has the biggest heart of the series. I mean, who could’ve guessed that a film with the title “Lethal Weapon 4” would be so emotional? Despite of all this, it also somehow manages to be the most graphically violent of the four.

Lethal Weapon 4 shows off the evolution that the franchise took. While the first one put action, thrills, and fast pacing in the driver’s seat, the final film displays how the series changed over the course of its duration to balance violence with comedy and shenanigans related to biological and surrogate family. If you’re watching this franchise, make sure you stick around for the fourth installment.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Lethal Weapon 3 (1992) Review

Director: Richard Donner

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

Runtime: 118 minutes (theatrical version), 121 minutes (director’s cut)

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Police detective duo Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) return once again in what is the weakest entry into the film series. The plot is less focused here, having something to do with an ex-cop, Jack Travis (Stuart Wilson), who’s obsessed with putting confiscated firearms back on the streets. Most of the picture feels a bit on the tired side, but it has enough redeeming value to make it an okay time-waster.

The pacing of Lethal Weapon 3 is noticeably less propulsive than that of the first two movies. This is partially because it takes a while for the plot to fully materialize. There’s also a fairly extensive romantic subplot for Riggs, which fits in well with his character, but also slows down the action at times. Like Lethal Weapon 2 (1989), this one ups the humor level at the expense of the more hard-boiled content (the violence is the tamest of the four pictures, for example), but the banter between Riggs and Murtaugh isn’t always as sharp as it used to be. Fortunately, Joe Pesci’s character Leo Getz is back and still has it.

The third Lethal Weapon flick does improve significantly on repeated viewings, however. The action sequences are still solid, with the best one being the fiery finale, appropriately enough. Gibson and Glover unsurprisingly still work well together, and the film, as a whole, isn’t boring…which counts for a lot.

This is probably what the Lethal Weapon series feels like on autopilot. Most of the elements that made the franchise famous are here, but it mostly feels like just another day at the office with Riggs and Murtaugh. It begins and ends strong, but the middle probably could’ve been constructed better. So, would I recommend Lethal Weapon 3? Well, if you enjoyed the other members of the series, then sure, give the director’s cut a watch (it’s pretty lucky to be tied to such a good quadrilogy). Don’t expect greatness, just a decent way to spent two hours.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Lethal Weapon 2 (1989) Review

Director: Richard Donner

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

Runtime: 114 minutes (theatrical version), 118 minutes (director’s cut)

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the first entry in the film series, Lethal Weapon 2 is still a worthy action-comedy with the charming chemistry between actors Mel Gibson and Danny Glover intact. This time our two heroes have to protect a federal witness, Leo Getz (Joe Pesci), who’s the target of apartheid-era South African goons. As you might expect, things soon get out of hand, resulting in piles of bodies and mass destruction.

The second Lethal Weapon flick isn’t as furiously paced as the first one, but it still moves along at a speed that staves off boredom. While Lethal Weapon (1987) orchestrates an ever escalating series of set pieces, Lethal Weapon 2 starts big right off the bat, with a high-octane car chase (personally, I found that particular scene a bit difficult to follow at times). The action sequences certainly don’t get smaller as the picture moves along. As comedic as the movie is, it still packs some brutal violence and large-scale demolition of property.

Lethal Weapon 2 seems to be a bit more humor-oriented than its predecessor, with many of the laughs coming from series newcomer Joe Pesci. Perhaps his most memorable moment is his drive-through speech. Gibson and Glover’s characters find Pesci’s character obnoxious at first, and the former’s behavior towards the latter could be considered bullying. Martin Riggs (Gibson) is no longer suicidal in this sequel, meaning some of the potentially combustible edge from the first one is lost here (although he still acts like a madman). There is a romantic subplot for Riggs, which doesn’t add a whole lot to the film, but whatever.

Like many (perhaps most) sequels, Lethal Weapon 2 doesn’t top the original, but that certainly doesn’t make it bad. It largely follows the winning formula from Lethal Weapon that made it an action classic. It’s less tightly wound, but it still provides some of the moments that made the Lethal Weapon series a fan favorite. I’d recommend watching the director’s cut.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Lethal Weapon (1987) Review

Director: Richard Donner

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

Runtime: 109 minutes (theatrical version), 117 minutes (director’s cut)

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The first film in the Lethal Weapon series is a masterpiece of efficient storytelling. There’s no unnecessary romance here to slow down the pace, just hetero bromance and macho bonding (along with the requisite explosions), which makes it an action fan’s dream. A stable family man of a cop, Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover), is assigned a new partner, the reckless, suicidal Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) on his newest investigation. Apparently, a woman named Amanda Hunsaker (Jackie Swanson) got high on drugs and jumped out of a multi-story building to her doom. Of course, since this is an action picture, there’s more to the story than what initially meets the eye.

Lethal Weapon carefully escalates in the intensity of its action scenes, starting small and building up to exploding cars and whatnot. The mayhem is soon spiraling out of control in the best way possible. By 1980s standards, the action often seems fairly grounded, but it still never fails to thrill. The pacing of the movie is some of the fastest ever (even in director’s cut form [the version you should watch]), meaning the flick’s over before you know it. Despite this, it is mighty satisfying.

Even if you’re not looking for adrenaline-pumping carnage, Lethal Weapon might be worth checking out. The chemistry between Mel Gibson and Danny Glover is rightfully famous, and a somewhat restrained Gary Busey, playing a villainous henchman named Mr. Joshua, unsurprisingly steals several of his scenes. While it’s not as comedic as its sequels, the film still has a healthy supply of humor and high jinks. It’s not a drama, but the character-driven moments definitely hook the viewer into the story. The plot is reasonably easy to follow, and the tone is perfectly balanced, meaning that the light and dark elements never smother each other.

Lethal Weapon is one of the best of the major 1980s actioners. Even the director’s cut of the picture feels lean. All elements – action, comedy, drama, and suspense – are successfully juggled, and the movie builds up in intensity in a textbook manner. Stick around during the end credits to hear the song “Lethal Weapon” performed by Honeymoon Suite.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

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.