Marked for Death (1990) Review

Director: Dwight H. Little

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 93 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Marked for Death is one of those movies that will readily appeal to the so-bad-it’s-good crowd, and very few else. Former DEA agent John Hatcher (Steven Seagal) goes to war with some drug-pushing Jamaican-American gangsters after his family is targeted for extermination by them. Is this Steven Seagal’s best film? I couldn’t tell you that, but, of all of the ones I’ve seen (and I’ve seen quite a few), it is definitely the most entertaining.

The pony-tailed Seagal is largely a charisma black hole here (no one can say the line “Serious fun” with less joy than him), but this only adds to the enjoyable absurdity of the whole production. Fortunately, he’s blessed with one of the best sidekicks in action picture history: Max (Keith David). The primary baddie of the flick is Jamaican mob boss Screwface (Basil Wallace), who provides some of the most delicious villain ham-acting this side of Bennett from Commando (1985).

Marked for Death is essentially devoid of romance, allowing the carnage to do the talking…and what carnage it is! The action scenes are ace, highlighting Seagal’s trademark brand of bone-snapping super-sadism. There’s some enthusiastic overkill towards the end, when one character gets killed approximately four hundred times. Of course, the violence is accompanied by a fair amount of one-liners, some of which are pure non-sequiturs.

This over-the-top action film has a cool musical score from James Newton Howard and a relatively early appearance from Danny Trejo (playing Hector). The whole thing’s very lean and very mean, making it a ton of “serious fun” for fans of trash cinema (it really knows when to end). This bundle of unintentionally funny, kitschy joy also illustrates the days when, in regards to international travel, they’d let anything through customs.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967) Review

Director: Arthur Penn

Genre(s): Action, Biography, Crime, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 111 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The 1967 gangster movie Bonnie and Clyde feels just as alive, fresh, zesty, and vital now as it did during its original theatrical run. As you probably know, the plot concerns bandit duo and lovers Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty), who tear through the Central-Southern United States on a crime spree in the 1930s. One of the best of its kind, this film took the sensibilities of the French New Wave and applied them to these American folk figures.

Bonnie and Clyde remains dazzling partially because of its expert juggling of action, drama, romance, comedy, suspense, and historical context. Unless you abhor pictures that glamorize murderous criminals (which this one has a tendency to do), there’s something here for just about everybody. The feature starts off adventurous and relatively light, but, by the time of the third act, it feels like a road trip to Hell.

It’s generally a fast-paced piece of work, with some very, very good action sequences (the violence that they contain was considered shocking back in 1967). A special shout-out has to go to the cast, who all play their distinctive characters with aplomb. The Great Depression-era United States is convincingly recreated here, and the flick is surprisingly funny at times.

Bonnie and Clyde is sometimes credited with playing a critical role in tearing down the old Hollywood Production Code, which dictated what content could and couldn’t be in American movies. The film’s graphic violence, sexual undercurrents, and glorification of ruthless criminals made the Code impotent. It was soon to be replaced by the MPAA rating system (you know, like G, R, etc.). Talk about a movie that left an impact! However, this motion picture is still highly recommended, regardless of its influence and significance in cinema history.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

The Fugitive (1993) Review

Director: Andrew Davis

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

Runtime: 130 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

We all have some movies that take us to our “Happy Place.” For me, one of those elite-class films is 1993’s The Fugitive. Just in case you don’t know, the plot’s about a Chicago doctor named Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) who’s falsely accused of murdering his wife, Helen (Sela Ward), and has to escape from police custody to find the true killer. All along the way, he’ll be pursued by Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones), a relentless U.S. Marshal.

One of the best things about this classic is the cat-and-mouse game played by Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones’ characters. They’re both professionals and they, like the movie itself, never miss a beat. Ford’s an easy guy to root for and Jones, despite being an antagonist, is not demonized. Action and suspense scenes come and go, but it’s the characters that make the deepest impression.

Speaking of action sequences, there are a few stunners here that I won’t spoil. The big set-pieces are pulse-pounding, and the film captures a great sense of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants adventure. The pacing is exquisite, moving from one fight, evasion, escape, standoff, chase, or close-call to the next, with just enough dialogue to make sure the thing is comprehensible.

The Fugitive is a classy, airtight action-thriller that makes great use of its Chicago-area locations. It manages to feel somewhat plausible on one hand, but, on the other, it doesn’t feel tied down by concerns for excessive realism. The tone’s just right, being serious enough to draw the audience in without being oppressive. I would consider it essential viewing.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

The Expendables 3 (2014) Review

Director: Patrick Hughes

Genre(s): Action

Runtime: 126 minutes (standard version), 131 minutes (unrated version)

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (standard version), Not Rated (unrated version)

IMDb Page

The plot for The Expendables 3 couldn’t be simpler. A team of virtuous mercenaries is hired to capture a vicious arms dealer named Stonebanks (Mel Gibson). Yep, that’s pretty much all you need to know in terms of story. Of course, the draws aren’t the twists and turns, but the massive all-star cast and the heavy-duty action scenes.

The Expendables 3 was panned by many fans of the franchise for two reasons. The first was that this was the first movie in the series to get a PG-13 rating. Yes, the violence is significantly toned-down here, but did the computer-generated carnage in the first two pictures look realistic in the first place? The second major problem is the focus on the young, up-and-coming action stars, who use up precious screentime that could’ve been spent on the classic actors. I can’t defend this move, but the retro stars still get plenty of time to shine.

Despite a lack of blood and guts, the action sequences here are just as exhilarating as anything in the first two. The grand finale in a bombed-out casino – the perfect playground for mayhem – is prolonged and expertly-handled. The tone’s pretty light, but the villain, played by Mel Gibson, adds just enough intimidation to prevent the film from feeling flimsy or excessively jokey.

The cast is stuffed with almost too many stars and the violence feels a little restrained, but the novelty of seeing so many action legends working their magic hasn’t worn off yet. Harrison Ford, who plays Drummer, the government agent who hires the mercenary team in the first place, is a real scene-stealer. Despite drawing lots of flak, I think this is a great time at the movies. Unless all you’re craving is gore, I don’t see how an action buff can walk away from that final battle feeling unsatisfied.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

The Expendables 2 (2012) Review

Director: Simon West

Genre(s): Action

Runtime: 103 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Only two years after The Expendables (2010), another proudly lunkheaded entry into the series was unleashed in theaters. This time, our team of heroic mercenaries must prevent a cache of weapons-grade plutonium from falling into the hands of a rival group of soldiers-of-fortune. Your enjoyment of this film hinges on whether you liked the first one or not.

The Expendables 2 wrings out every possible opportunity for crazed action. The opening sequence alone probably has more death and destruction than most actioners do in their entire runtime. With the exception of the fake-looking, computer-generated blood (which is still present), many of the problems with the action scenes in the first movie are wrinkled out here. If I had to find one problem with the picture on the action front (other than the unrealistic blood), it would be that it does a questionable job building up to a climax, with the grand finale almost coming out of nowhere.

The miraculous cast from the 2010 original is expanded on here, now including the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme, who plays the bad guy, the appropriately-named Vilain. He seems to be having a fun time. The two actors (who I won’t spoil here) who only had somewhat brief cameos in the first one are given a chance to pick up a firearm and join in on the carnage. The tone in The Expendables 2 is a bit lighter and jokier than the first installment. It may be a bit too self-aware/meta for some viewers, though.

In my opinion, this picture manages to top The Expendables. It has a bigger cast and easier-to-follow action set-pieces, which more than makes up for a segment or two where the combat dries up. This one is strictly for action junkies only. There’s simply not enough comedy, drama, suspense, romance, or scares for anybody who doesn’t just want a pumped-up explosionfest with a colossal body count. However, if that sounds like something you might be interested in, The Expendables 2 delivers the goods and then some.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

The Expendables (2010) Review

Director: Sylvester Stallone

Genre(s): Action

Runtime: 103 minutes (standard version), 113 minutes (director’s cut)

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The Expendables is a special treat for fans of 1980s action cinema, even if the finished product doesn’t always follow the filmmaking conventions of an action picture from that time period. A group of mercenaries is hired to overthrow Garza (David Zayas), the dictator of the Latin American country of Vilena (should’ve been Val Verde, but whatever), and take out James Munroe (Eric Roberts), his handler, a renegade CIA agent. How does a film about a bunch of people shooting each other for over an hour-and-a-half sound to you?

This movie is very much a piece of fan service, but it does what it does so well that I can’t hold that against it. To say that the cast is “all-star” would be an understatement. The pacing is swift, but I wish the heroes had more of a Wilsonian motivation for their mission to topple Garza and restore democracy to Vilena. It would’ve given the flick a bit more justification for the borderline-senseless bloodthirstiness of the third act.

The Expendables is action-packed to the point of going past good taste, something that should have action junkies drooling. Despite often being billed as an ’80s throwback, the action often feels more like out of the twenty-first century. There’s a lot of fake-looking, computer-generated blood and the camera during the fights is occasionally too close to the combat. Combine this with some rapid-fast editing and some dark lighting, and the action sequences don’t feel optimized. Still, they’re ridiculously thrilling when it is possible to make out what’s taking place.

The Expendables is a pure action film for fans of that sort of thing. Fortunately for me, I fit that demographic, so I love it…even if I have some reservations. Don’t expect a perfect recreation of the ’80s action aesthetic and you’ll have a blast (well, if you like action movies to begin with). For me, this is an easily watchable (and rewatchable) feature. Seeing this many action stars under one roof is worth the admission price alone.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Safe (2012) Review

Director: Boaz Yakin

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 94 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

2012’s Safe is a film that feels like a love letter to action movie fans from action movie fans. In this superb picture, a former cage fighter with a shadowy past named Luke Wright (Jason Statham) decides to protect a young girl with a photographic memory named Mei (Catherine Chan) who’s on the run from the Chinese and Russian mobs in New York City. You see, Mei is being used to memorize and protect a numerical code that everybody in the city wants to know. If you’re an action fan, buckle up, because this one’s right up your alley.

This mercifully-romance-free flick has a great emotional hook to it that successfully invests the audience in the action about to unfold. One really wants to see Luke and Mei survive and help each other. The plot itself is a little complicated at times (so many different factions are fighting over Mei), but it doesn’t detract from the experience. Jason Statham gets to show just a little more range than he usually does, although it’d be a mistake to expect Oscar-caliber performances from this actioner.

The action scenes littered throughout the runtime are simply incredible. Whether it be cars chasing each other, people pummeling each other with fists, or combatants shooting it out with firearms, this movie satisfies thoroughly. New York City hasn’t seen this much big-body-count carnage since Death Wish 3 (1985). There may be a few instances when computer-generated bullet impacts are employed, yet this can be easily forgiven.

Safe feels like throwback to the macho, pumped-up, played-straight action films of yesteryear. Fans of those sort of features need to get a hold of a copy of this one. People who don’t like shoot-’em-up action-thrillers will find little to entertain themselves with, though. Here’s a fun fact: the musical score for this movie was composed by Mark Mothersbaugh, the frontman of the New Wave band Devo.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

The Night of the Hunter (1955) Review

Director: Charles Laughton

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Horror, Thriller

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Charles Laughton only directed one film in his career (well, IMDb does have him listed as an uncredited co-director for The Man on the Eiffel Tower [1949]), and that picture is the masterpiece The Night of the Hunter. Set during the Great Depression, serial-killing preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) stalks two children – John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl Harper (Sally Jane Bruce) – who’re hiding a small fortune that their late father – Ben Harper (Peter Graves) – stole for them. Often considered a film-noir, I feel that this horror-thriller classic is better classified as some sort of dark fairy tale.

Influenced by German Expressionism, this movie’s shadowy cinematography is some of the very best of all time. Robert Mitchum’s fanatical, murderous holy man is one of the greatest villains to ever grace the silver screen. There are several intentionally uncomfortable moments involving his character that’ll have you squirming in your chair. He’s a vicious, greedy wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing that the audience will love to hate.

The third act of The Night of the Hunter is decidedly less intense than the first two-thirds. It’s certainly not bad…far from it. It just lacks some of the menace that the opening and middle sequences had. There are also some touches towards the end that feel like they were mandated by the Production Code of the time. However, not even a saccharine ending can sink this ship.

The Night of the Hunter is a must-watch for people wanting to learn more about the art of cinema. It’s artistically distinguished, but can also be easily enjoyed by any type of viewer. This highly relevant story is full of suspense and drama, with a gripping, superb visual style. It has an easy-to-manage runtime of 92 minutes and one of the best baddies in the medium, so why not watch it today?

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Farewell to the King (1989) Review

Director: John Milius

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

Runtime: 117 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

One of John Milius’ more underappreciated directorial efforts is the 1989 war-time action-adventure flick Farewell to the King. During World War II, an American soldier named Learoyd (Nick Nolte) goes A.W.O.L. to become the leader of a tribe of natives deep in the jungles of Borneo. This macho, yet sensitive, war-drama is a real treat if you can get your hands on it.

Farewell to the King, of course, has very good action sequences, but the real reason to watch this obscure movie is for its human drama. Several moments, including the tearjerker ending, are bound to get an emotional reaction out of the audience. The impact of these scenes is heightened by Basil Poledouris’ musical score, which simply has to be one of the best in cinema history. There is also some grand cinematography to be found here, as the camera captures great jungle landscapes and skies.

Yeah, this motion picture might overly romanticize “underdeveloped” societies, but, hey, it’s just a movie. Being a heroic depiction of a king that doesn’t appear to have any constitutional restraints is a tad troubling, making it feel like it has monarchist sympathies. The feature also veers from bloodthirstiness to pacifism with little predictability, but, well, it’s a John Milius movie. You get what you pay for.

Farewell to the King is an underrated action-adventure gem waiting to be discovered. It works if you’re looking for high adventure with World War II as its backdrop or if you’re looking for a character-centered drama with an epic musical score to prop it up. I can’t say it’s a realistic, or even plausible, film, but it’s just too damn entertaining to miss.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

1917 (2019) Review

Director: Sam Mendes

Genre(s): Drama, Thriller, War

Runtime: 119 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Hollywood doesn’t seem to make too many World War I films these days, but, once in a while, they crank out one that gets a thumbs-up from me. My favorite movie on the First World War so far is 2019’s 1917. During that horrendous conflict, two British soldiers on the Western Front, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), are tasked with delivering a message across no-man’s-land to cancel a planned attack on the German lines that’s doomed to fail. It turns out that Blake’s brother, Joseph (Richard Madden), is one of the troopers who’s going to participate in the offensive, adding even more urgency to the proceedings.

1917 was shot in a way that makes it look like one, continuous take. It wasn’t actually one, big shot, but that doesn’t take away how meticul0us and detailed it all feels. So, does the one-take cinematography distract from the storytelling at all? I would say “not really,” even though such a “gimmick” could’ve easily made itself the focus of the picture. To the feature’s credit, the action moves along quite fluidly and the camerawork does not feel limiting. On a related note, the sets the filmmakers dealt with must’ve been absolutely massive.

Characterization here isn’t particularly detailed, but it’s enough to get the job done. It’s not hard to invest yourself emotionally with the situations that the main characters find themselves in on their journey across the wastelands of the Western Front (the only real flaw with 1917 is that landscape isn’t always as Hellish as it should be…there’s often too much grass). This is a film about war-time heroism that generally shies away from over-the-top displays of machismo. Of course, it’s not one-hundred-percent realistic, but it’s grounded enough to work properly.

While there certainly are action scenes and ferocious thrills to be found here, this isn’t quite the combat-heavy Saving Private Ryan (1998)-style treatment of the Great War that many expected. Still, I actually enjoyed it a tad more than that excellent motion picture, as I found 1917 to be tighter and more successful in its dealings with side characters. War movies as great as 1917 don’t come along often, so I highly recommend it. It’s more than just a director showing off his immense talent, it’s a dramatically satisfying and hair-raisingly intense experience. 1917 is simply outstanding.

My rating is 9 outta 10.