Hard Target (1993) Review

Director: John Woo

Genre(s): Action, Thriller

Runtime: 97 minutes (standard version), 99 minutes (unrated version)

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The 1993 Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Hard Target was the first film that director John Woo made in the United States. It’s not Woo’s best movie, but I think it holds up very well. In this frenetic action-thriller, unemployed Cajun tough guy Chance Boudreaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) crashes the party of a group of wealthy goons who hunt the homeless for sport in New Orleans. Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler, as it’s revealed in the opening sequence.

The snake-punching action scenes are the reason to watch, almost needless to say. Realism makes no cameo appearances, with the combat being as over-the-top as possible (are all the guns firing high-explosive rounds?). The squibby carnage is choreographed with John Woo’s usual panache, and it’s a delight to watch Van Damme make mincemeat out of over a couple dozen baddies. Most of the violence comes from firearms, but the Muscles from Brussels gets the opportunity to show off his hand-to-hand fighting moves on occasion.

Yes, it’s a shoot-’em-up flick (and a mighty stylish one at that), but the rest of the motion picture’s moving parts work effectively enough. The simple story is immediate and gripping, while the heroic characters are engaging. Wilford Brimley shows up as swamp-dweller Douvee, and his scenes really light up the screen. The villains, including Emil Fouchon (Lance Henriksen) and Pik van Cleaf (Arnold Vosloo), are slimy and easy to hate.

The rating description for Hard Target by the MPAA says that it is rated R “for a great amount of strong violence, and for language [italics mine].” Don’t threaten me with a good time, MPAA! An unrated cut also exists. Anyway, this terrific action movie is one of Woo’s better Hollywood works, even if it is unsubtle as Hell. Of course it ends with “Born on the Bayou” by Creedence Clearwater Revival playing on the soundtrack! It’s just that sort of film.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Penalty (1920) Review

Director: Wallace Worsley

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 90 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1920 crime-drama The Penalty was the breakout film for iconic movie star Lon Chaney. A San Francisco gangster named Blizzard (Lon Chaney), who had both of his legs unnecessarily amputated after an accident as a child, plots his revenge on the physician – Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary) – who mistakenly robbed him of his legs and against the city of San Francisco as a whole. It’s not a horror movie, like some say, but rather a grotesque drama, the kind that Chaney seemed to specialize in.

In order to play a double-amputee, Lon Chaney wore a special harness, allowing him to walk on his knees. The effect is virtually flawless, although the strain of the performance apparently damaged Chaney’s knee muscles for the rest of his life. With this knowledge, it makes every second that Blizzard (Chaney’s character) appears onscreen feel painful. This is definitely his show, but it has the interesting touch of having a female undercover agent – Rose (Ethel Grey Terry) – try to infiltrate his den of sin to bring it down.

As wonderfully pulpy and sinister as The Penalty is, it is slightly marred by a weird, anti-climactic ending. I won’t spoil it here, and it’s certainly not horrible, but it is bizarre and causes the picture to fail to live up to all of its potential. Given that the feature was released during the First Red Scare, there is some minor xenophobic content (where foreigners are not to be trusted), but it doesn’t have much of an impact on my overall impression of the work.

Sent to theaters at the beginning of the 1920s, this silent film has aged surprisingly well. It’s actually quite excellent. Not everything about it makes sense, but its intimidating mood, reasonably concise story, and fantastic performance from Lon Chaney do not lie. One of the first mobster movies, it still may be one of the better ones.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) Review

Director: Steven Spielberg

Genre(s): Drama, Kids & Family, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 115 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

If one wants to understand the influences of the popular television show Stranger Things, there’s no better place to start with than 1982’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Set in American suburbia, a troubled child named Elliott (Henry Thomas) befriends an alien that was accidentally left behind on Earth. This is an excellent movie, but what else would you expect from director Steven Spielberg?

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is full of that classic, Spielbergian sense of wonder, particularly at things that are unknown, fantastical, or misunderstood. Watching this film makes the viewer feel just about every emotion imaginable, from fear to elation, from sorrow to excitement, from awe to joy, with some laughs along the way. It manages to be warm, nostalgic, and even suspenseful (perhaps too much so for some of the very youngest audience members).

Of course, the technical aspects of this picture cannot be criticized. The glue holding the flick together is John Williams’ magical musical score. The tune that plays during the bicycle sequences is mesmerizing. The special effects also deserve a special mention. They’re not as intrusive as the effects in some other science-fiction blockbusters, but they’re still top-notch when they do show up.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was the first known film to receive the “A+” grade from audiences as calculated by CinemaScore, and, after it was screened at the United Nations, Spielberg was given a UN Peace Medal. This is a slick, sentimental favorite that has stood the test of time. All one has to do is look at the works that have aped its success, like the aforementioned Stranger Things or the movie Super 8 (2011), to see its enduring appeal.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Winchester ’73 (1950) Review

Director: Anthony Mann

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Western

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Winchester ’73 is a fabulous fusion of the psychological western and the action-adventure-western, combining the brains of the former and the brawn of the latter. This movie helped reinvent actor James Stewart’s career, allowing Hollywood’s iconic Mr. Nice Guy to be cast in somewhat tougher roles. The plot here is about cowboy Lin McAdam (James Stewart) hunting down a Winchester rifle across the Wild West that was stolen from him after he won it in a sharp-sho0ting competition.

Action-packed by the standards of its original release, this western packs a surprising amount of content into its ninety-two-minute runtime. From the contest for the titular rifle at the beginning to the bullet-ricocheting finale, this is a constantly engaging movie. James Stewart is violently obsessed with tracking down his gun, which is a notable departure from the sort of roles he enjoyed before 1950.

This firearm-filled film even has some slight war picture elements, thanks to a battle that erupts between American government troops and some Native Americans. The depiction of said Native Americans is a mixed bag for sure. On one hand, the leader of the indigenous rebels, Young Bull, is played by, uh, Rock Hudson. On the other, he does get a brief opportunity to mention the atrocities committed against his people by the White man, but it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment.

This acclaimed western movie is a treat for fans of the genre. It makes a few references to the famous events and people of the Wild West era while also creating its own legends. Jimmy Stewart plays a very slightly darker character than usual, but the psychological aspects of the picture never get in the way of the rousing action. Winchester ’73 is a flick worth cherishing.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Total Recall (1990) Review

Director: Paul Verhoeven

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

Runtime: 113 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Three years after his RoboCop (1987), another sci-fi-action film directed by Paul Verhoeven hit the big screen: the Arnold Schwarzenegger action-thriller Total Recall. This imaginative what-is-real-and-what-is-not? motion picture lives up to its reputation as an excellent mind-bender. Set in the distant future, construction worker Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) decides to have memories of a vacation to Mars he’s apparently never taken implanted into his brain…and things go wrong from there…or do they?

Total Recall benefits from a musical score from Jerry Goldsmith that’s simultaneously classy, muscular, and urgent-sounding. It’s a darkly comedic (even satirical, at times) ride, and pacing is never really an issue. A big shout-out goes to the film’s wild, glorious (and often grotesque) special effects. They really make it seem like anything is possible with practical effects (and a big enough budget).

This movie has no shortage of action, but it’s a bit of a mixed bag here. The orchestration of the action scenes is pretty average by Arnie standards (with the notable exception of their generously-pouring blood squibs), but the characters do look mighty cool when jumping through glass in slow-motion. The non-stop chasing also means the flick loses some “weight” when it needs it. Okay, the action isn’t as immaculately choreographed as it is in Commando (1985), but does it need to be?

Total Recall might surprise Schwarzenegger skeptics with its wit and clever plotting. It may not be high art, but this action flick’s got brains. The Austrian Oak’s made some great science-fiction movies over the years, and this is one of them. It’s a wildly over-the-top film, but it knows it, winking at the audience occasionally, but not enough for it to be a genuine comedy.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Super (2010) Review

Director: James Gunn

Genre(s): Comedy, Crime

Runtime: 96 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

What if Napoleon Dynamite (2004) had actually been an R-rated vigilante movie? The superhero comedy Super from 2010 channels the same quirky energy that the 2004 picture does. In it, possibly schizophrenic fry cook Frank Darbo (Rainn Wilson) decides to become a costumed superhero named the Crimson Bolt after his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) runs away with a drug lord named Jacques (Kevin Bacon).

This uproariously funny film is a vicious satire of the comic book movie subgenre. It takes a what-if-superheroes-existed-in-the-real-world? approach to the subject matter that echoes that of the two Kick-Ass flicks. For my money, Super does it much better. Hilarious one minute and disturbingly violent the next, this feature’s Blu Ray case has two quotes from the critics that bring up the word “subversive,” so don’t expect your typical action movie.

Well, Super isn’t much of an action film at all. Yes, it has some of that sort of stuff, but most of the picture focuses on guffaws and grisly carnage that doesn’t really take place in an “action” context. The finale should satisfy the action buffs out there, though. With its transgressive behavior, this could be seen as the Taxi Driver (1976) of the superhero movie generation (or does Joker [2019] fit that description?).

This film split the critics right down the middle, but I think of it quite highly. It nails the black comedy and the violence is both cathartic and unnerving. Here are a couple of fun facts: Jean-Claude Van Damme was originally cast to play the villain, Jacques, and one movie that the main character watches on television is Troma’s War (1988), another ultra-violent comedy you should watch if you like this sort of entertainment.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Elephant Man (1980) Review

Director: David Lynch

Genre(s): Biography, Drama

Runtime: 124 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

The Elephant Man was only director David Lynch’s second feature film (the first being the surrealist horror movie Eraserhead [1977]), and this is his second classic motion picture in a row. This feature is a biopic of Joseph Merrick (played by John Hurt, and referred to as “John Merrick” here), a man from Victorian Era Great Britain who was born with extreme body abnormalities. With the help of Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), he escapes from his life as a sideshow “freak.”

This black-and-white film contains some astonishing performances. John Hurt gives a moving (and Oscar-nominated) acting job as the titular character. It took eight hours each day to apply the make-up required for the role (and another two to remove it). Anthony Hopkins matches this incredible thespian talent with a performance that’s just about as far removed from Dr. Hannibal Lecter as can be imagined. They’re both intelligent and compassionate, just like the entire film itself.

It’s not a horror picture, but it’s sometimes as ominous as one. David Lynch carries over the “industrial dystopia” vibe from Eraserhead to his work here. However, this is actually a film about humans, showing how evil and wicked they can be, as well as how noble and high-minded they occasionally are. If there’s any fault with this work of art, it’s that the who’s-the-true-freak? message is a little on-the-nose at times.

The Elephant Man is easily one of the more emotionally-engaging pictures out there. It’s certainly not as surreal as some of Lynch’s other work, which makes it more accessible to the “common” filmgoer. It’s a movie that must be watched. The tagline (“A true story of courage and human dignity.”) doesn’t lie. This is an important and watchable movie.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Last Stand (2013) Review

Director: Kim Jee-woon

Genre(s): Action, Crime

Runtime: 107 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The Last Stand was supposed to be Arnold Schwarzenegger’s big comeback film, as this was his first lead role in a movie since his term as Governor of California. Unfortunately, it wasn’t exactly an overwhelming success at the box office, and critical reception was mixed. The picture is about small-town sheriff Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who must lead a posse against escaped drug lord Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega), who’s making a mad dash to the Mexican-American border. It sort of sounds like a modern-day western, doesn’t it?

This flick’s secret weapons are its clear, well-defined characters. Even the smallest acting roles can easily be distinguished from each other here. Of course, this is really Schwarzenegger’s movie, with his immense presence towering over all others. Forest Whitaker shows up as FBI agent John Bannister, giving a performance that’s so intense that one has to wonder if he knows that he’s actually in a silly action film. Harry Dean Stanton (as farmer Mr. Parsons) and Johnny Knoxville (as eccentric gun museum owner Lewis Dinkum) make positive impressions.

Yeah, the characters may be fine, but how’s the action (the real reason you’re watching)? To sum things up, the violence is pretty frequent, magnificently bloody, and excitingly orchestrated. South Korean director Kim Jee-woon handles the ever-escalating physical mayhem with commendable skill. The finale, when the good guys and bad guys duke it out for control of Schwarzenegger’s town, is a fearsome, fun fiesta of firearms fetishism. Don’t miss it!

One’s enjoyment of The Last Stand is largely dependent on how they feel about the action genre and Schwarzenegger. Fans will eat it up. There’s no romantic subplot for Arnie and the carnage comes fast and hard. From beginning to end (which features a version of “I Ain’t Superstitious” performed by Santana featuring Jonny Lang), this is one of the Austrian Oak’s most consistent efforts. I recommend it highly to his followers.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Hacksaw Ridge (2016) Review

Director: Mel Gibson

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

Runtime: 139 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The 2016 war film Hacksaw Ridge may be the Sergeant York (1941) of its generation. Both pictures are based on true stories about American conscientious objectors during a world war. Here, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) signs up to join the American military during World War II, and he finds himself fighting for his right to serve as a non-firearm-carrying medic and seeing combat in the Battle of Okinawa. This is one of the great follow-your-conscience movies.

The first half of Hacksaw Ridge is largely dedicated to setting up Doss as a character and showing the audience his struggle to avoid having to wield a gun during basic training. Many of the supporting characters in Doss’ unit feel somewhat interchangeable, reducing the impact of the battle sequences when they do arrive, but this is a minor fault. There’s plenty of religious content throughout the feature, which may turn off some viewers, but, considering that the plot is grounded in historical events, this shouldn’t be much of an issue.

The second half is where Doss and his fellow soldiers see the horrific face of war on Okinawa. The ultra-violent battles do have some glaring computer-generated blood and gore, and sometimes the choreography of the combat strays into straight action movie territory. The action scenes are highly, highly exciting, but should they be? Is excitement appropriate for a war film with pretensions of realism?

Hacksaw Ridge is an inspiring, moving, and grueling watch. Desmond Doss’ struggle to do what he feels is right in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds is easy to relate to and captivates the audience. Yes, allegations that the battle scenes are occasionally “war porn” are largely true, but they’re still pretty messy and gripping. It’s one of the stronger war flicks that I’ve seen, and it comes highly recommended.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Mirage (1965) Review

Director: Edward Dmytryk

Genre(s): Thriller

Runtime: 108 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1965 film Mirage was directed by Edward Dmytryk, but it wouldn’t feel at all out-of-place in the canon of Alfred Hitchcock. It’s a hard movie to discuss the story of without going into spoiler territory, but I’ll give it a try. Set in New York City, the power goes out in an office building and somebody just jumped from the twenty-seventh story, with accountant David Stillwell (Gregory Peck) about to be caught up in a mysterious murder plot. I’d advise against reading any synopses of this picture first (even the IMDb one), just watch it.

As I just stated, this is one of those just-trust-me-and-watch-it kind of suspense movies. Unlike some thrillers, Mirage has an easy-to-follow plot that doesn’t try to lose the audience in its efforts to put the them on the edge of their seat. In some ways, this feature resembles the style of films that Liam Neeson started doing post-Taken (2008), although it has less action (Mirage does have some physical altercation, to be sure).

The screenplay to Mirage was written by Peter Stone, who also penned the script to the somewhat similar Charade (1963). This one isn’t as overtly comedic as Charade, but the writing still feels sharp and witty. Gregory Peck is terrific, as expected, playing his usual combination of every-man, tough guy, and dauntless-man-of-integrity. A special mention must be given to George Kennedy, who plays Willard with a Terminator-esque ruthlessness.

Mirage is a taut, sophisticated thriller that is one of the hidden gems of the genre. Okay, not every single explanation related to the mystery at the heart of the movie is one-hundred-percent satisfying, but the way it builds confounding situation upon confounding situation is mighty impressive. The film even name-drops James Bond at one point, but this picture, in my opinion, is more entertaining than any 007 flicks released up to the date of this review.

My rating is 8 outta 10.