Emperor (2020) Review

Director: Mark Amin

Genre(s): Action, Biography, Drama, War

Runtime: 99 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The 2020 biopic Emperor fumbles with the historical facts, but still manages to be an entertaining work about an often-overlooked period of U.S. history. In 1859, just before the outbreak of the American Civil War, escaped slave Shields Green (Dayo Okeniyi), nicknamed “Emperor,” joins militant abolitionist John Brown’s (James Cromwell) raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), with the goal of inciting a slave revolt. As historically inaccurate as it may be, I still found myself engaged to the events taking place on the screen.

Emperor takes an action-movie-ish approach to the life of Shields Green. I mean, this picture even has a Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)-esque wagon chase, for Heaven’s sake! The action is almost laughably explosive at times, but I suppose that that’s just the price of making a historical film that gets seen by the masses. It’s a little ridiculous, but it’s all part of the fun.

This movie shouldn’t be looked to as an accurate representation of the events of 1859. The horrors of human slavery are kept safely in the bounds of the MPAA’s PG-13 rating. The Harpers Ferry raid looks like a full-scale battle (complete with a cannon or two!), and the fate of Shields Green is completely fictionalized. It may be a little awkward for history buffs to sit through for these reasons, but these alterations to historical fact make the finished product more commercial.

It may play fast and loose with the truth, but Emperor is still a film that I enjoy. John Brown is my hero, so it’s cool seeing him in cinematic form (even if the flick isn’t as good as Seven Angry Men [1955]). The critical reception of this feature was mixed, but I can largely forgive its crimes against history because of how easily one can become emotionally invested in it. Just make sure to quickly look over Shield Green’s Wikipedia page after viewing.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Tomorrow War (2021) Review

Director: Chris McKay

Genre(s): Action, Drama, Science-Fiction, Thriller

Runtime: 138 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The sci-fi-actioner The Tomorrow War was released direct-to-streaming, but it’s the kind of movie I would have liked to see on the big screen. The film is about present-day dad Dan Forester (Chris Pratt) being sent to the not-too-distant future via time travel to help fight a vicious alien invasion that’s destroyed most of mankind. One or two story beats may be somewhat predictable, but, if you can stay in the moment, you might find yourself having fun.

Okay, maybe “having fun” isn’t the best way of putting it, because this flick presents some surprisingly dire and dark scenarios. The almost unstoppable extra-terrestrials are savage beasts that give this thriller some horror movie vibes. Moments of action are intense enough to get a thumbs-up from me, and the emotional scenes are more effective than not. For a direct-to-streaming work, the budget appears to be quite large, and the spectacle is occasionally overwhelming.

There are some missteps along the way. The first and third acts of the feature have a tendency to rely on Marvel-style comic relief that inappropriately defuse moments of tension. Marvel products are just about the biggest thing in the world at the time of its release, so I suppose I shouldn’t be too shocked that this picture tried to ape their formula a tad. There’s also the matter of the third act feeling like it takes place after the main climax of the film. I won’t go as far as to say that it’s “unnecessary,” but The Tomorrow War might be overstaying its welcome.

This movie’s blend of silly comedy and serious, seemingly apocalyptic situations isn’t its strength. To enjoy the motion picture, it’s best to focus on the palpable sense of dread and desperation, along with its gooey action and violence. Yeah, The Tomorrow War is a flawed work, but my impression of the big picture is rather positive. The second act is especially hard-hitting, easily being the best part.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018) Review

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Thriller

Runtime: 147 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is the first film in the series with the same director as the previous entry (the man in the director’s chair being Christopher McQuarrie). Can he keep the franchise on its hot streak? After the events of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015), agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) fights to recover weapons-grade plutonium from a group of fanatics Hellbent on stirring up as much suffering as possible. The clock is ticking.

This movie, as expected, is filled to the brim with magnificent action set-pieces and life-endangering stuntwork. We’ve got a parachute jump through a thunderstorm, a bathroom slugfest, vehicular chases (on the ground and in the air), and more. It’s quite possible that they’ve gone overboard, but, considering the ecstatic reception the feature got, maybe not.

As I alluded to in the previous paragraph, this flick may contain too much of a good thing. It’s the longest Mission: Impossible picture yet, and one can tell. Yes, it’s very exciting, but how many close-calls can you cram into one film? Also not helping is the somewhat familiar plot. Nuclear weapons in the hands of evildoers again? There is a bit of a been-there-done-that quality to this work of cinema.

Many viewers feel that Mission: Impossible – Fallout is the best installment of the franchise at the time of the publication of this review. It certainly gives you plenty of bang for your buck. The action sequences are stunning, but the story that they rely upon is merely pretty good. So, do I recommend this movie? Yeah, but I don’t find that it quite reaches the highs of the previous two Mission: Impossible films.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Mission: Impossible III (2006) Review

Director: J.J. Abrams

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Thriller

Runtime: 126 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

After the cartoony Mission: Impossible II (2000), the series got back on track with its third installment. Mission: Impossible III may have some preposterous elements, but they’re played straight enough that they become tolerable. Set after the events of the first two flicks, spy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has to prevent the so-called “Rabbit’s Foot” from falling into the hands of vicious arms dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), while protecting his girlfriend – Julia (Michelle Monaghan) – from said bad guy.

In addition to being rather slick, this entry into the Mission: Impossible saga is also noticeably darker than its peers. This is understandable, considering it was the first movie in the franchise to be released after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Much of the film’s menace comes from its villain, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s easily one of the more memorable baddies in the series, with his controlled, yet sadistic, personality.

Director J.J. Abrams, whose love for “mystery boxes” is evident here, does a good job of handling the big set-pieces, with their compounding action and suspense. The rescue mission in Germany, for example, impressively escalates tension and throws a few curve-balls at the audience. That being said, the finale, with its prolonged climax, borders on being tiring. The entire third act is just so turbo-charged that it gives the audience little room to breathe.

I’d actually consider Mission: Impossible III to be the best of the franchise at the time of its original release in 2006. Sure, the first one was very entertaining, too, but the third picture’s blend of suspenseful secret agent antics, explosive action, and a seriously threatening bad guy make it the winner of the original three films. However, it wouldn’t stay at the top of the pack forever, with the next installment being Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011).

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Mission: Impossible (1996) Review

Director: Brian De Palma

Genre(s): Adventure, Thriller

Runtime: 110 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Mission: Impossible was actually the second time that director Brian De Palma took a popular television series and turned it into a highly successful motion picture. The first time was, of course, The Untouchables (1987). In Mission: Impossible, secret agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) plots to prevent a top-secret list of all friendly spies in Eastern Europe from falling into evil hands. Expect a lot of twists and turns along the way.

The first entry into the Mission: Impossible film franchise is a far cry from what the series would become. To be honest, I don’t even consider this first one to be an action movie. It’s really more of a Hitchcockian adventure-thriller with a train-versus-helicopter chase at the end. However, the suspenseful set-pieces make up for the relative lack of action. You must’ve been able to hear a pin drop in movie theaters during the heist sequence at CIA headquarters during its original run.

Mission: Impossible has a tricky plot that you really have to pay attention to. Even with repeated viewings I don’t think I’ve fully absorbed everything. The flick can be subversive when it wants to be, which may rub some fans of the T.V. show the wrong way, but I think that its gambles pay off. It doesn’t shy away from pulling the rug out from under the audience.

With its intense, borderline-melodramatic camera angles and catchy musical score (composed by Danny Elfman, and based on themes created by Lalo Schifrin), Mission: Impossible is fairly formidable entertainment. The truth is that it would be topped by several installments in the series down the road, but this is a solid start. It may be the least action-packed of the franchise, but some viewers still believe this to be one of the better features in its collection.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Fanatic (2019) Review

Director: Fred Durst

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 88 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The Fanatic, directed by Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, was one of the most talked about movies of 2019 for all the wrong reasons. The film’s story is about Moose (John Travolta), a Los Angeles street performer “with severe autism” (in the current words of Wikipedia) who stalks his favorite movie star, Hunter Dunbar (Devon Sawa). It’s a hard flick to make heads or tails of, but I suppose that that’s part of its appeal.

This feature is notorious for being an unintentional laugh riot, but was it unintentional? It’s hard to tell when the comedy comes from filmmaking ineptitude and when it comes from co-writer/director Fred Durst’s presumably twisted sense of humor. Were lines like “I can’t talk too long. I gotta poo” meant to split the sides of the audience? Regardless, this picture has received many complaints about meanspiritedness, especially when it comes to people on the autistic spectrum.

For what it’s worth, John Travolta’s performance is clearly committed and this makes the flick, uh, watchable. Even if it is exploitative, this drama-thriller does make the viewer wonder what’s coming around the next corner. It’s not boring, like a truly bad movie should be. There’s also some intriguing commentary on the United States’ love/hate relationship with celebrities. You know what? This film isn’t as bad as its reputation.

The ending doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense, but The Fanatic is still an interesting work. Yes, the dialogue is often, er, terrible, but it sometimes seems like this was the intention. I’ll give this one a passing grade, because I’m drawn to hopelessly bizarre movies that make you laugh, and then wonder if that reaction was what the director was hoping for. On the “Parents Guide” for this flick on IMDb, under the “Frightening & Intense Scenes” section, it currently reads “In a distressing scene, a character forces a child to listen to Limp Bizkit[,] turning up the radio while driving down a street.” I’m sure that bit will be taken down soon, but it made me chuckle. Yes, the director did put his own band’s music in the finished product.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Wrath of Man (2021) Review

Director: Guy Ritchie

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 119 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Wrath of Man is not your typical Guy Ritchie film. A lot of the movies that he directs have frequent comedic touches, but there’s nothing cheeky about this rampaging, bloody Jason Statham actioner. Patrick “H” Hill (Jason Statham) is a new armored truck guard with a mysterious past (of course) who may have an ulterior motive for getting the job. This is actually a remake of the French picture Cash Truck (2004).

This is surely a very intense flick, full of seat-squirming moments and loud-as-Hell action scenes. There are a few violent episodes scattered throughout the runtime, but most of the ammunition is saved for the ferocious finale…a heist on Black Friday. You may need to take cover under your seat. As fierce as everything gets, it should be noted that there are obvious computer-generated blood effects that detract from the grittiness.

Jason Statham is just as grim and serious as the movie around him. It’s probably not a challenging role for him, but it’s the Statham we love to see. Notable supporting roles are played by Scott Eastwood (as Jan) and – wait – is that Post Malone (credited as “Austin Post” here, playing “Robber #6”)?!? The story borders on becoming convoluted a time or two, but the feature feels shorter than its two-hour runtime.

If there’s a problem with Wrath of Man, it’s that it has too many bad guys and not enough heroes. Anyway, this flick is worth watching for viewers who like their action films hard-boiled and borderline-humorless. Some may find it overly straight-faced, but, in a day-and-age of self-referential superhero comic book movies, it’s nice to see a work committed to a more serious approach.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Last Outpost (1935) Review

Directors: Charles Barton and Louis J. Gasnier

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

Runtime: 76 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Outside of Gunga Din (1939) and North by Northwest (1959), Cary Grant isn’t really known as an adventure hero, but he certainly fits that role in The Last Outpost, from relatively early in his career. The film concerns itself with the exploits of British officer Michael Andrews (Cary Grant) in the Middle East and North Africa during World War I. It’s not top-of-the-line, but it still makes for reasonably rousing escapism.

The first third of this flick deals with Grant’s character in Ottoman-held territory in the Middle East, while the middle act is more romance-heavy, as he wines and dines nurse Rosemary Haydon (Gertrude Michael) while in Egypt. The last third is the most action-packed, as Grant’s character is deployed to Sudan to help put down a rebellion there that’s sympathetic to the Central Powers. Each act has a personality of its own, but the film still manages to feel coherent.

One of the most memorable aspects of The Last Outpost is how stock-footage-intensive it is. There’s plenty of scenes borrowed from the documentary Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925) and the battle sequences in the third act are augmented by footage from The Four Feathers (1929) (according to the IMDb Trivia page for the movie). These scenes tend to stick out like a sore thumb and make the picture’s budget seem smaller than what it probably was.

Running only seventy-six minutes, this is an enjoyable war-time action-adventure story that doesn’t overstay its welcome. Cary Grant finds himself in some interesting predicaments, both on and off the battlefield, and the final third has enough combat to satisfy those looking for thrills. The plot synopsis on IMDb contains some spoilerish details, so, if you’re dead-set on watching this feature, I’d avoid reading it. It’s interesting to note that co-director Louis J. Gasnier’s next project would be Reefer Madness (1936).

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Red Beret (1953) Review

Director: Terence Young

Genre(s): Action, War

Runtime: 88 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Red Beret, retitled “Paratrooper” when released in the United States, is a now-obscure World War II movie that actually holds up quite well. Its director, Terence Young (a former paratrooper himself), would go on to helm three of the James Bond movies (Dr. No [1962], From Russia with Love [1963], and Thunderball [1965]). The film itself is about Allied paratroopers undergoing training during the Second World War so they can perform missions behind Nazi lines.

The clear star of the show is Alan Ladd, playing Steve “Canada” McKendrick. He plays his usual tough guy here, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. He gets a romantic subplot with Susan Stephen (playing Penny Gardner), but it’s not consequential to the main plot or memorable. Stanley Baker shows up in an early role as Breton, who’s helping train the potential paratroopers. According to the IMDb Trivia page for this feature, Baker’s voice was dubbed.

The best parts of The Red Beret are definitely the moments of action. The scenes back in Great Britain, like the training sequences and the barroom brawl, are exciting enough, but when the paratroop characters are in the heat of combat, the picture is clearly in its element. The two missions depicted are one to sabotage a Nazi radar station in northern France and one to secure a Nazi-held airfield in North Africa.

Alan Ladd was in three movies released in 1953 – Desert Legion (1953), Shane (1953), and this one. It would be the gunslinger-oriented western Shane that would become his iconic role, but The Red Beret is still worth watching. It’s directed by someone who actually served with the paras in World War II and stars Ladd, one of the great action stars of the time period. It’s not as big and brutal as, say, Saving Private Ryan (1998), but you’ll probably enjoy it if you set your expectations properly.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Tell It to the Marines (1926) Review

Director: George W. Hill

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

Runtime: 103 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

While he’s probably more well-known these days for his more grotesque roles, Lon Chaney actually had his biggest box office hit with 1926’s Tell It to the Marines. In this military service comedy, a tougher-than-nails American Marine sergeant, O’Hara (Lon Chaney), promises to whip undisciplined recruit “Skeet” Burns (William Haines) into shape, as both pursue Navy nurse Norma Dale (Eleanor Boardman). This still-entertaining silent film has a little something for most cinemagoers.

As mentioned earlier, a significant portion of the picture revolves around a romantic triangle, as was common in Lon Chaney movies. Both Chaney and William Haines’ characters are yearning for Eleanor Boardman, but things get complicated when Haines gets in a brawl on a Pacific island over native girl Zaya (Carmel Myers). The whole flick’s a bit of a rom-com, and the humorous elements work effectively enough.

Tell It to the Marines really kicks it into gear during the last act, though, when the Marines are dispatched to China to rescue some nurses from marauding bandits. Big-budget spectacle takes over, and we get a nice action scene involving Chaney and Haines holding a bridge over a cliff against the Chinese warlord’s (Warner Oland) forces. The third act is easily the most memorable part of the film, with its derring-do and fireworks.

Tell It to the Marines was, according to the IMDb Trivia page for the feature, Lon Chaney’s favorite role. It’s not hard to see why. Acting without his usual make-up, Chaney really shines as a tough guy with a heart of gold. His performance led to him becoming the first movie star to become an honorary U.S. Marine. That’s high praise indeed! So, if you’re a Chaney fan, this one is required viewing.

My rating is 7 outta 10.