The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967) Review

Director: Roger Corman

Genre(s): Crime

Runtime: 100 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre takes a docudrama-like approach to the escalating Chicago gang war between Al Capone (Jason Robards) and George Clarence “Bugs” Moran (Ralph Meeker) in the late 1920s, which would climax with a notorious massacre on Valentine’s Day. Historical accuracy trumps concern for the audience’s ability to follow every single character and deed here.

One of the most notable aspects of this mob movie is its pervasive narration. Almost every semi-important character is given an introduction…one that sometimes spoils whether they will die during the film’s runtime or not. Still, the narration keeps the motion picture from being too difficult to follow, helping the viewer keep track of the plentiful characters (most of whom don’t really make much of an impression, unfortunately).

The film probably could’ve used a stronger overarching plot, as it sometimes feels like a series of scenes depicting underworld activities or action/violence that could’ve been arranged in just about any order. However, the movie is anchored by a wonderfully hammy performance from Jason Robards as mob boss Al Capone, and there are some nice period details. Bullets fly relatively regularly to prevent the audience from nodding off.

This certainly isn’t the strongest movie about organized crime ever made, but it’s better than being merely watchable. There are bland characters here (although Robards’ Capone isn’t one of them), yet it’s overall entertaining enough to be worth recommending. Released the same year as fellow gangster saga Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre isn’t quite as boundary-pushing as that classic, but it still might’ve played a minor role in blowing the lid off of the Hollywood Production Code. Mob movie fanatics will probably enjoy it.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Beast of the City (1932) Review

Director: Charles Brabin

Genre(s): Crime, Drama

Runtime: 86 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Beast of the City is an underrated police drama that gets a big boost from an attention-grabbing tough guy performance from Walter Huston (as police detective Jim Fitzpatrick). He looks quite a bit like Liam Neeson here, and he plays one of the definitive man’s men of 1930s cinema. The plot of the picture is about Huston’s character’s frustrated attempts at taking down the crime empire of gangster Sam Belmonte (Jean Hersholt) and his dealings with his morally-wayward brother Ed Fitzpatrick (Wallace Ford), who’s also on the police force. Mickey Rooney shows up in an early role as Mickey Fitzpatrick, the Huston’s character’s son.

It’s a tough-talking and tough-acting film, with a main character who resembles a proto-Dirty Harry. It’s short, too, and benefits from the frequently zippy pacing. The Beast of the City was released during Hollywood’s Pre-Code era in the early 1930s (prior to the Production Code being enforced), so it occasionally has a more modern feel than the movies released during the time of the Code. Some of the cops here are willing to bend to law to catch the bad guys.

The characters in the flick are reasonably well-defined, but the individual movie-defining moment is probably the electric, take-no-prisoners finale. There are some bits of action prior to it, but most of the film’s bullets are saved for the ending. It’s a cathartic scene that manipulates the audience successfully. Crime-fighting rarely felt so satisfying.

The Beast of the City could be seen as a reaction to the gangster films that were popular at the time of its release. Here’s a picture for those who worried about the potentially corrupting influence of organized crime flicks on youth. It, too, is a mob movie, albeit one told from the perspective of law enforcement. If you ever come across it, give it a watch. It’s a good one.

My rating is 7 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.

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 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.

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.