The Outpost (2019) Review

Director: Rod Lurie

Genre(s): Action, Drama, War

Runtime: 123 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The war film The Outpost (which premiered in 2019, but saw its main release in 2020) does the world a great favor by shedding some light on a ferocious, yet little-known battle of the American-led occupation of Afghanistan. In 2009, at the Battle of Kamdesh, a small base of American (and a couple of Latvian) troops located at the bottom of a mountainous valley is besieged by hordes of Taliban insurgents. Think of it as the twenty-first century’s version of Zulu (1964).

Some of the most memorable parts of this film are the vicious combat scenes. They feel mighty realistic, with little room for over-the-top, John Rambo-esque antics. The sound effects seal the deal. There’s a spontaneity to the action, with firefights having the potential to break out at any second. It’s surprising how close the combatants get to each other on one or two occasions. Every American casualty makes the viewer cringe.

If The Outpost has any downside, it’s that most of the characters don’t feel properly fleshed-out by the time the centerpiece battle sequence comes around. Yes, the movie is rightfully reverent and there are plenty of humorous moments, but very few of the characters stuck with me after the end credits rolled. This is a real shame, considering the superhuman heroism of the U.S. (and Latvian) soldiers in the actual events.

The Outpost shows some interesting glimpses of life in the armed forces, and some of the best non-action scenes have to do with military-civilian relations. Dealing with the local Afghan population must be a stressful tightrope walk, as the coalition forces in the country have to win over their “hearts and minds,” while avoiding pushing them in the direction of the Taliban. So, this picture pays tribute to some real-life heroes quite admirably, but I do wish the screenplay did a better job giving them the onscreen personalities they deserve.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Duck, You Sucker (1971) Review

Director: Sergio Leone

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

Runtime: 157 minutes, 120 minutes (initial American version)

MPAA Rating: PG (initial American version), R (longer cut)

IMDb Page

The final western that legendary director Sergio Leone helmed was the sprawling, war-themed epic Duck, You Sucker, originally titled “Giù la Testa” in Italian and also sometimes known as “A Fistful of Dynamite” in English. The plot is about a Mexican bandit named Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) and an Irish revolutionary named John H. Mallory (James Coburn) teaming up to rob the Mesa Verde bank, but ending up involved neck-deep in the Mexican Revolution. This one’s a real genre-buster, combining elements of action-adventure, comedy, drama, war, and western, with some hetero “bromance” thrown into the mix.

When it comes to directing, Sergio Leone really knows what he’s doing, so every frame of the film is electric. Frequent Leone collaborator Ennio Morricone provides the brilliant musical score, and it’s the best work of music I’ve ever heard from him (and that’s saying something!). The cinematography is top-shelf and the performances (especially those from Rod Steiger and James Coburn) are nothing short of fantastic.

The biggest downside to the masterpiece Duck, You Sucker is how muddled its thesis is (well, that and its unfortunate misogyny). The movie’s take on the nature of revolutions is frustratingly incoherent, as it veers from showing savage atrocities by Mexican government forces and displaying their malevolence to the poor of Mexico to being an “anti-Zapata western,” where politically-motivated violence by the rebellious factions is essentially condemned (think of the song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who). I don’t even know what this motion picture is trying to say…and it’s desperately trying to say something.

Okay, this work doesn’t make a lot of sense on the political side, but just about everything else is magnificent. The humor is quirky and delightfully broad, and the drama is heartrending. On the action front, this feature boasts some truly massive explosions and an apocalyptic body count. It’s a tragicomic war-western that commands the audience’s attention and gets beneath their skin.

My rating is 10 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.

Extraction (2020) Review

Director: Sam Hargrave

Genre(s): Action, Thriller

Runtime: 116 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Extraction is a film that’s about one thing and one thing only: action. Okay, okay, it’s also about violence, but that’s close enough to action to count as one thing. I’m not sure if telling you the plot is worth doing, but here goes nothing: mercenary Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) must rescue an Indian crime lord’s son, Ovi Mahajan (Rudhraksh Jaiswal), from his kidnappers in Bangladesh. That’s everything about the story you need to know.

Let’s start with what goes right, shall we? The action scenes, the movie’s raison d’être, are strong and pull little punches in the graphic violence department, even if there is that choreographed-for-the-camera feel to them (yes, I know all film action sequences are planned and choreographed, but it feels a bit more obvious than usual here). There’s a period of action in this feature that was made to look like one continuous shot and the results are pretty stupefying. The plot of the flick eventually develops into one of those follow-your-conscience stories, so that’s a plus.

Outside of the carnage, there isn’t a whole lot to praise. Chris Hemsworth doesn’t make much of an impression as the lead actor (except when it comes to the physical stuff), and the storytelling lacks that extra “oomph” needed to keep things propulsive. Some have criticized the picture for having a White-savior-style narrative, and seeing the main character savagely mow down a bunch of Bangladeshi cops and soldiers (even if they’re supposed to be “crooked” or “dirty”) just isn’t as fun as witnessing him giving gangsters the smackdown. People not interested in bloody slaughter will find nothing worth watching here.

Extraction is a serious, humorless action-thriller movie (with emphasis on the “action” part) that still has its fans. The fights are incredible from a technical point-of-view and the plot has a nice do-the-right-thing element, yet little else goes right. Films that are almost pure action can be done properly – just look at The Raid: Redemption (2011) – but this one stumbles a bit. When it comes to this sort of action picture, I think I’ll stick with Commando (1985) for now.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008) Review

Director: Dave Filoni

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Kids & Family, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 98 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

This animated Star Wars movie was the first look fans would get at the style of animation that would be employed in the Star Wars: The Clone Wars television series, which was also launched in 2008. Set in between the events of Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005), Obi-Wan Kenobi (voiced by James Arnold Taylor) and Anakin Skywalker (voiced by Matt Lanter) are tasked with rescuing gangster Jabba the Hutt’s (voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson) son, Rotta (voiced by David Acord), as the Clone Wars rage on across the galaxy. This one’s strictly for followers of the franchise only.

The film in question is actually four episodes of the aforementioned T.V. show stitched together (think of it as the series pilot). This means that the structure of the picture is on the awkward side, with several climaxes. Okay, it’s not as bad as it sounds, but it definitely feels like a small part of a larger whole, as characters come and go from the narrative. Yeah, sending this movie to theaters was clearly a cash-grab move.

This film caters to Star Wars fans who prefer the action set-pieces to the chit-chat (wait…are there any Star Wars fans who watch these flicks for the dialogue?). The action scenes are almost incessant here, with plenty of familiar-looking vehicles, weapons, droids, and gadgets thrown into the mix. They’re more over-the-top than anything viewers had seen in a Star Wars film up to the time of its original release, but I suppose that’s to be expected, as it is an animated film.

Speaking of animation, it’s certainly a mixed bag, to be sure. It often looks too mechanical, but it does look pretty at other moments. Anyway, Star Wars: The Clone Wars sticks quite close to the spirit of the franchise. Audience members who aren’t already interested in Star Wars will get lost awfully quick, but fans will find enough here to make it through the runtime. This feature took a thrashing from critics, yet people already in love with that galaxy far, far away will be far more forgiving.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special (2020) Review

Director: Ken Cunningham

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy, Kids & Family, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

It’s probably a daring move to put the words “Holiday” and “Special” together into a Star Wars movie title after the disastrous The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978), which is considered such an abomination that it’s never been given an official home video release. However, in 2020, Lego put out its own Christmas-themed Star Wars film, meeting greater acclaim than the 1978 flop. Set after the events in Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019), the good guys of that picture set out to the Wookiee homeworld of Kashyyyk to celebrate Life Day, while Rey (voiced by Helen Sadler) tries to uncover some lost Jedi knowledge, causing her to discover a gem that enables time travel.

This animated film is clearly aimed at people who are already fans of the Star Wars saga, especially the kids. It breaks no new ground, but it provides a fun nostalgia trip for viewers accustomed to that beloved galaxy far, far away. A few actors from the live-action movies even return to voice their respective characters. Anthony Daniels voices C-3PO, Billy Dee Williams does Lando Calrissian, and Kelly Marie Tran brings life to Rose Tico.

The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special is a lightweight pleasure, but it knows that it belongs to a franchise that’s seen plenty of controversy, and it gently ribs a few of the more divisive elements of the series. Its story revolves around time travel, but doesn’t really try much new with the concept, other than using it to show off a bunch of already-iconic characters and situations. Despite being set in a Lego universe, this aspect of the picture seems underused, with little toy-building in sight.

This is an inoffensive comedy that some have compared to an overlong toy commercial. If it is an advertisement, it certainly is an entertaining one, made by people who know the lore of the Star Wars galaxy. The young ones will get the most mileage out of The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special, but those who’ve followed the franchise for a while will be rewarded with an in-joke or two. It’s not essential viewing, but it’s not something you’ll regret watching.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Mummy Returns (2001) Review

Director: Stephen Sommers

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Horror

Runtime: 130 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The Mummy Returns is a sequel to The Mummy (1999) that continues on in the pulpy, over-the-top, Indiana Jones-ish style. To be frank, it’s really just a whole lot more of the same. Set mostly in the 1930s, a mummy brought to London comes to life and threatens to bring on an apocalypse with its curses and all that spooky stuff.

“Overkill” is the word of the day here. This film takes what made the first one good and amplifies it. More action, more curses, more special effects, more artifacts, more villains, more locations and lost cities, more humor, more combatants in the battle scenes, and more mummies are the name of the game. More! More! More! Sometimes this approach works for sequels, but I felt that it came close to being tiring in the case of The Mummy Returns.

The movie in question feels like a product of its time. It’s a good-natured action-adventure blockbuster with some special effects that have aged poorly (if they ever looked good at all). The action scenes are of a reasonably high quality, but there is the CGI (computer-generated imagery) overkill factor. Personally, there was also a bit too much fantasy mumbo-jumbo for my tastes. It gets a bit on the complicated side.

I’m usually a big fan of this sort of motion picture. You know, unpretentious, pulpy, action-packed, and fun. However, despite its likeable heroes, a cool musical score from Alan Silvestri, and entertaining action sequences, The Mummy Returns may throw a bit too much at the audience. This feature certainly has its fans, and that’s okay, but I think that I’ll largely stick with the Indiana Jones and Star Wars franchises for my action-adventure thrills.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

1944 (2015) Review

Director: Elmo Nüganen

Genre(s): Action, Drama, War

Runtime: 100 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Estonia – like the other two Baltic states (Latvia and Lithuania) – was caught in a very difficult position during World War II. Invaded and brutally subjugated by the Soviet Union in 1940, tens of thousands of Estonians joined the Nazi military when Adolf Hitler invaded the Soviet empire in 1941. The Estonian film 1944 is a rare cinematic glance into the Second World War from that national point-of-view, being largely about Estonians fighting on the Eastern Front of that conflict during the titular year.

The movie 1944 benefits from some excellent combat scenes that feel fairly realistic. The explosions, antique firearms, and sound effects deserve special mention. This 2015 flick does feature some electric guitar in the musical score (during battle sequences), which seems a little…”off.” Listen, I love rock music as much as the next guy, but that sort of stuff feels out-of-place in a World War II picture. The cut of the feature available on Amazon also contains English dubbing that could be considered somewhat subpar.

Banned in Russia, 1944 tries pretty desperately to show that, even though they wear the uniform of the Nazi war machine, the Estonians serving the Third Reich were not all Nazis. I’m not entirely convinced by this, but it does put a human face on the combatants. Characters in the film are, unfortunately, a bit difficult to keep track of, and there’s a clumsy-feeling perspective shift halfway through the runtime (that I won’t spoil the details of) that introduces a whole new set of people to keep abreast of.

This movie isn’t a runaway success (although it was a box office smash in Estonia), but the novelty of seeing World War II through Estonian eyes is enough to make me recommend it. The people of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were truly caught between a rock and a hard place during the Second World War, and 1944 shows some of that madness. Some clunky storytelling aside, this motion picture shows off one of the most interesting parts of the 1939-1945 war: the fates of those trapped in between the fascist and communist empires on the Eastern Front.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Texican (1966) Review

Director: Lesley Selander

Genre(s): Action, Western

Runtime: 91 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Audie Murphy does a Euro-Western? Whaaaaa?!? Technically, it’s not a “spaghetti western,” as Italy apparently wasn’t involved in its production (IMDb says it was a co-production between Spain and the United States), but it sure looks and sounds like one. Filmed in Spain, this western is about gunslinger Jess Carlin (American World War II war hero Audie Murphy) seeking revenge on town boss Luke Starr (Broderick Crawford), who’s responsible for the murder of his newspaperman brother, Roy Carlin (Victor Vilanova).

The Texican definitely feels like a “spaghetti western,” or Italian-made western, thanks to its distinctive sound effects, Ennio Morricone-wannabe musical score (from Nico Fidenco), and the obvious dubbing done for some of the non-English-speaking cast. It’s a bit strange seeing Audie Murphy in such a movie, but I suppose that that’s part of the novelty. Being one of the last films that Murphy made, it appears that he was trying to jump on the Clint Eastwood Train by invigorating his career with a Euro-Western.

This picture has a reasonably tight story, which helps it enormously. Action comes along fairly frequently, which is another plus. The low budget doesn’t really hinder the production much, only adding to the sense of atmosphere (those lonely, remote way-stations are characters of their own). Murphy is pretty much his typical white-knight hero, while Broderick Crawford makes a satisfactory villain.

As far as obscure action-westerns go, this one is pretty darn good. The plot’s easy to follow and it’s fun seeing Murphy out for vengeance. It’s not exactly high art, but not every motion picture has to be Citizen Kane (1941). Sometimes you just want to watch one of the greatest heroes of the Second World War play cowboy and beat up people in scenes where punches sound like gunshots.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Honest Thief (2020) Review

Director: Mark Williams

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

Runtime: 99 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

To enjoy the Liam Neeson crime-thriller Honest Thief, expectations should be tempered. Try to think of it as a piece of Taken (2008)-lite, and you might find yourself pulled in. Liam Neeson stars as Tom, an infamous bank robber who decides to turn himself in and lead an honest life, but, needless to say, things go awry.

Honest Thief works on the basic level of the audience wanting to see the protagonist overcome the odds and succeed. Yeah, I know that sounds like I’m damning the picture will faint praise, but the film works better as a root-for-the-good-guy-and-hiss-at-the-bad-guys drama than as an action spectacle. Liam Neeson plays his usual nice tough guy and the script is sometimes predictable or padded-feeling.

When the action scenes do arrive, they’re fair. The body count’s microscopic, so don’t expect the near-indiscriminate slaughter of, say, Taken. The somewhat restrained chaos takes the form of car chases and point-blank-range shootouts. It feels smaller in scale than some of Neeson’s other actioners, but I suppose that this gives the movie an intimacy to the onscreen happenings that some epic superhero flicks lack.

Sure, Kate Walsh (as Annie, Neeson’s character’s girlfriend) feels out-of-place at times and, sure, it feels like it would’ve gone direct-to-video if it didn’t feature a star the caliber of Neeson, but this is a well-paced action-thriller that will tie over fans of the lead actor. Well, it’s not boring, and it succeeds in a I-hope-this-character-doesn’t-die sort of way. So, I’d recommend getting in the right state of mind, and not expecting a throat-punchathon.

My rating is 7 outta 10.