Glory (1989) Review

Director: Edward Zwick

Genre(s): Action, Drama, War

Runtime: 122 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Stories told from the Southern point-of-view tended to dominate movies made about the American Civil War for a long time. Think The Birth of a Nation (1915) or Gone with the Wind (1939). However, in 1989, the record was set straight by this unforgettable motion picture. Shortly after the Battle of Antietam, White Union officer Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) is tasked with organizing a regiment of African-American soldiers to fight the Confederacy in the American Civil War. This story is rooted in truth, and sticks pretty close to the facts.

Structured like a World War II squad movie, Glory is a powerful film that doesn’t waste a second (it doesn’t feel like two hours). No romantic subplots here, only military matters are covered, making this one a real treat for war movie lovers. In addition to being highly educational, this efficient flick features some moments of heroism that are basically guaranteed to send chills down your spine. The action scenes are beautifully choreographed and are nothing short of hair-raising.

If there’s a weak link here, it’s Matthew Broderick as the lead. He’s not terrible, but it can be hard to take the guy from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) as a tough military man. Fortunately, James Horner’s terrific musical score steps in in any questionable moments to do some dramatic heavy-lifting. Some viewers have accused Glory of having a “White savior narrative,” where African-Americans have to be led to everlasting glory by White dudes. I suppose some of these concerns have legitimacy, but, considering that the movie is based on historical fact, I don’t think that they bog down the picture.

Union officer James Montgomery (played by Cliff De Young here) sort of gets the short end of the stick in this production. In real life, he was a sincere, badass abolitionist who even considered launching a raid to rescue John Brown from prison, but, in Glory, he’s an opportunistic bigot. Well, a movie can’t be perfect. Anyway, this American Civil War epic is a must-watch. Characters are very clear, the titanic battles are thunderous, the music is rousing, and it tells an important and true story.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Top Gun: Maverick (2022) Review

Director: Joseph Kosinski

Genre(s): Action, Drama

Runtime: 130 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Released a few decades after the original Top Gun (1986), its sequel probably didn’t need to be as excellent as it is. A sequel sent to theaters thirty-six years after the first one being far superior to the original? Get out of town! Well, Top Gun: Maverick accomplishes that mission. Here, aging American test pilot Peter “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) must train the next generation of fighter pilots for the dangerous task of bombing a rogue state’s uranium enrichment plant.

While watching this flick, it’s delightfully difficult to tell what is special effects and what was actually filmed in-camera. The cast were flying in actual fighter jets for the making of the movie, giving the production an almost unprecedented realism (I say “almost,” because the World War I aviation classic Wings [1927] also had the actors in actual aircraft). The action scenes, both those involving training and actual combat, are impossible to turn away from.

While the first picture in the Top Gun franchise was largely a bunch of scenes of pilots learning to be the best of the best, this sequel greatly benefits from having an overarching mission for most of the runtime. Tom Cruise has got to teach these young punks how to bomb their hostile target and get out alive. All of the characters are distinct (a huge plus), and the pacing never falters. Yes, “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins makes a cameo appearance.

Top Gun: Maverick is nostalgic, but this never gets in the way of it moving forward. It pays its respects to the 1986 original and leaves it in its dust. It’s an edge-of-your-seat crowd-pleaser that rewards fans of the first one instead of trolling them. It appeals to just about all demographics and cements Tom Cruise’s status as one of the best action stars in cinema history. You bet your ass that it comes highly recommended.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Top Gun (1986) Review

Director: Tony Scott

Genre(s): Action, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 110 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

A military melodrama for men, Top Gun became emblematic of 1980s pop culture. Sure, just about everyone agrees that its sequel, Top Gun: Maverick (2022), is vastly superior, but the original is worth checking out for the Hell of it. The story here concerns Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise), a fighter pilot in the U.S. Navy, who, along with his backseat Radar Intercept Officer Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards), is sent to hone his skills at the country’s “Top Gun” school.

Often ridiculed as military hardware porn or as a recruitment ad, Top Gun features a searing AOR/melodic rock-oriented soundtrack complete with two Kenny Loggins songs (“Danger Zone” and “Playing with the Boys”). Depending on who you ask, this could be one of the coolest flicks ever released or one of the lamest. I suppose some enjoy it as kitsch. One’s thoughts on the famous volleyball scene will probably determine how they feel about the picture as a whole.

If you’ve got the need for speed, this action-drama serves up several high-octane flying sequences. Most of these moments are training exercises, but we do get some combat with hostile aircraft at the end. To be honest, some of the flight scenes are dizzyingly edited, requiring concentration to follow the action onscreen. Still, you’d have to be dead for that final dogfight to not get your pulse quickening just a tiny bit.

This piece of Cold War-era macho posturing can be summed up as a male-oriented soap opera. This work is a “button-pusher,” meaning that it presses the viewers’ various emotional buttons in an obvious, yet effective, way. Some audiences won’t like being manipulated like that, especially by a film that glamorizes military service, but – hey – films were meant to be manipulative. As it stands now, it’s a good movie, but, in the future, it may be best remembered as the motion picture that predated Top Gun: Maverick.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Tropic Thunder (2008) Review

Director: Ben Stiller

Genre(s): Action, Comedy

Runtime: 107 minutes (standard cut), 121 minutes (director’s cut)

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Tropic Thunder surely must be one of the most raucous, daring, boundary-pushing, and hilarious comedies of its time period. Method acting, Hollywood egotism, and Vietnam War movies are all skillfully skewered by its sharp satire. The plot concerns a group of prima donna actors – washed-up action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), blackface-clad method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), drug-addicted comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), and straight man Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) – who find themselves trapped in the jungles of Southeast Asia while filming a Vietnam War motion picture.

Bound to offend, Tropic Thunder‘s foul-mouthed screenplay deals with the issues of race and ability in ways that some viewers may be uncomfortable with or even outraged by. Still, there can be little doubt that this is a laugh-out-loud funny comedy. Moments of suspense are handled with surprising skill and the explosive action beats are up to par. The soundtrack also has some well-selected musical tracks, including “I’d Love to Change the World” by Ten Years After and “The Pusher” by Steppenwolf.

The entire star-studded cast gives committed performances that only make the humor more uproarious. Robert Downey Jr.’s role as a White actor trying to disappear into his role as an African-American soldier with surgically-applied blackface is so outrageous that it earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor (he lost to Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight [2008]). Tom Cruise has never been scarier as tyrannical film producer Les Grossman.

Tropic Thunder is a maniacal, disrespectful, raunchy party of a movie. Despite all of the ableism and blackface, this appears to be a carefully constructed work designed for maximum impact. Ben Stiller starred in, directed, and co-wrote this flick, and he knocked it out of the park. I could go on and on about how hysterical this picture is, but it would probably be best if you just watched it for yourself. Well, maybe you can skip it if you think the film’s edgier content could be too offensive or enraging.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Hamburger Hill (1987) Review

Director: John Irvin

Genre(s): Action, Drama, War

Runtime: 110 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Released one year after Platoon (1986) and the same year as Full Metal Jacket (1987), this could be seen as the muddier, bloodier sibling to those Vietnam War films. Set in 1969, a squad of American soldiers fights to survive the torturous Battle of Hamburger Hill (an actual engagement in real life) during the Vietnam War, which involves them trying to take a communist-occupied hill in South Vietnam. It’s not as masterful as Full Metal Jacket, but I’d put this one on roughly equal footing with Platoon.

A significant chunk of this movie is a series of slices-of-life from U.S. troops serving in South Vietnam. They bond, train, occasionally find themselves in combat situations, interact with the locals, and brace themselves for the next big piece of action. The characterizations that the inhabitants of this movie’s universe receive are mixed. Some are well-fleshed-out, but others fall victim to who-is-this-guy-again? syndrome. We get to adequately know the characters before all Hell breaks loose.

The Battle of Hamburger Hill is when the flick really comes into its own. Watching the battlefield transform before our eyes from a dense jungle to a barren, smoky wasteland is the reason to view this picture. The fighting is grueling and gruesome, with one of the more notable assaults on the titular hill taking place in pouring rain, with American soldiers slipping and sliding down the heights as they struggle to climb up them. Not all of the characters are going to make it out of this one alive.

Hamburger Hill isn’t quite one of the very best war pictures of all time – its first half is a bit too typical for the genre for that – but it’s still solid. Its representation of the United States’ fighting men in the Vietnam War is respectful, perhaps even a tad reverent, while just about all American civilians are media vultures, dirty hippies, backstabbing politicians, or people who simply don’t understand the plight of the U.S. military. Being one of the better Vietnam War combat flicks, I recommend it.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Platoon (1986) Review

Director: Oliver Stone

Genre(s): Action, Drama, War

Runtime: 120 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Before he became one of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s useful idiots, director Oliver Stone was a talented filmmaker, and the Vietnam War combat picture Platoon was often cited as his magnum opus. Stone was himself a veteran of the war in Southeast Asia, and he brought a sense of realism to the movie that had seldom been seen previously in the war genre. The feature is about fresh American soldier Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) being assigned to a platoon in the Vietnam War that’s divided between followers of the benevolent Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) and disciples of the cruel Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger).

The all-star cast went through a sort of Hell to make this picture, as they endured a boot-camp-style training course in the jungles of the Philippines (where the flick was filmed) to put them inside the heads of soldiers who might have served in that vicious war. The desperation, exhaustion, and fear on the actors’ faces is mostly real. Platoon may not make ideal viewing for, say, Veterans Day, because it does graphically deal with atrocities committed by U.S. troop in South Vietnam. Some Americans come off looking better than others, but innocence is undoubtedly shattered.

The intense battle sequences in Platoon are stirring and tend to avoid John Rambo-style heroics. The violence here is unforgiving, yet never gratuitous (this is no splatterfest, despite how grisly things get). The outdoor elements are just as brutal to deal with as bullets fired by the communists. Despite the hair-raising nature of the movie, I do feel like the storytelling lacks that extra “oomph” necessary to push it into masterpiece territory. It’s not that the film is episodic, it just needed to be a bit more propulsive at times.

While not one of the very best war pictures that I’ve seen, Platoon‘s lofty reputation still makes it a must-watch for fans of the genre. It played a role in upping the levels of realism in combat films, and it seems to be some sort of therapeutic exercise for director Oliver Stone, as he brings his traumatic experiences in Indochina to the big screen. While Full Metal Jacket (1987), released one year later, is currently my favorite Vietnam War flick, this one still gives the viewer plenty to think over.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Battle Royale (2000) Review

Director: Kinji Fukasaku

Genre(s): Action, Thriller

Runtime: 114 minutes (standard cut), 122 minutes (director’s cut)

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 2000 Japanese action-thriller Battle Royale (originally titled “Batoru Rowaiaru” in Japanese) could be seen as an important precursor to the Hunger Games franchise. Set in a dystopian future, a class of Japanese middle-schoolers are transported to a remote island where they must fight to the death, with only one survivor, as part of a new disciplinary program. This style-over-substance bloodbath has been a lightning rod for controversy since its release. Despite provoking strong reactions from many people, both negative and positive, my take on the flick is more muted.

Playing out like a live-action anime, I think Battle Royale stumbles a bit because of its apparent failure to give more depth to its characters. There isn’t a significant build-up to the deathmatch, so we don’t get much of a chance to understand the forgettable characters. It does make the work fast-paced, but I had a hard time becoming attached to any of the inhabitants of the movie’s universe. The easiest way to tell who was who was by looking at what weapon they were given (since every “contestant” was a handed a different one).

The bright spot in all of this is Takeshi Kitano, playing Kitano, the villainous, vengeful teacher. He’s definitely the most memorable aspect of the film, bringing some surrealism and dark humor to the proceedings. Believe it or not, Takeshi Kitano actually hosted the game show Takeshi’s Castle, which was brought to the United States with hysterically-funny alternate dubbing and called Most Extreme Elimination Challenge. In this last-man-standing TV show, Kitano’s character was renamed “Vic Romano.” Good to know!

Ultimately, I find Battle Royale to be somewhat confusing. Who exactly are these characters? Who is the target demographic for this production? What is this picture even trying to say? I mean, we all know that totalitarian governments are bad already. Takeshi Kitano’s presence makes it watchable, but why should I settle for “watchable?” Creative idea for a plot aside, I can only get so much enjoyment out of a video-gamey movie about junior high school students battling to the death on an island.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Guns for San Sebastian (1968) Review

Director: Henri Verneuil

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Western

Runtime: 111 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

Anthony Quinn goes full “spaghetti western” (Italian-made western movie) in this 1968 film. Hell, it even has a musical score from Ennio Morricone! Things don’t stop there, though, with Charles Bronson showing up as Teclo, a village Hellraiser. Set in the 1740s, this flick is about Mexican bandit Leon Alastray (Anthony Quinn) being mistaken for a priest by a remote town and helping them fight off a raid by the Yaqui Native Americans.

Yes, the plot of Guns for San Sebastian does sound vaguely similar to that found in The Magnificent Seven (1960), which Charles Bronson also starred in. Even the Mexican village set in this film looks very similar to the one from that 1960 release. Was it actually filmed at the same location? I don’t know for sure, but, despite being a European co-production, it was shot in Mexico, just like The Magnificent Seven. Anyway, the outsider(s)-defending-a-helpless-community formula makes this a watchable action-adventure flick.

While not overflowing with physical combat, Guns for San Sebastian does feature some bracing action scenes. Anthony Quinn gets a chance to pile the corpses high, and the overall body count is astronomical for a western movie. There is a great deal of explosions and people falling off of horses. Seeing Quinn and Charles Bronson in the same production is fun, even if the pacing lags a little. The narrative probably could’ve been tightened up a tiny bit.

To be honest, Guns for San Sebastian probably isn’t quite as badass as I’m hyping it up to be. The cast and action may be incredible, but the movie can be on the somewhat slow-moving side. That’s largely forgiven when the movie concludes, but it’s still a criticism that should be made. It’s worth recommending. A bit of trivia about the work is that it was originally conceived as a project for Quinn’s The Guns of Navarone (1961) co-star Gregory Peck in 1964.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Batman (2022) Review

Director: Matt Reeves

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

Runtime: 176 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Man, these Batman movies just keep getting darker and darker, don’t they? Set in Gotham City, superhero/masked vigilante Batman (Robert Pattinson) fights to stop the twisted murderer the Riddler (Paul Dano), who’s been bumping off members of the city’s elite. It’s a superhero actioner, an underworld neo-noir, a serial killer thriller, and a psychological drama all in one, without ever feeling hastily assembled or scattershot.

Robert Pattinson makes a surprisingly fearsome Batman, but a mediocre Bruce Wayne. Paul Dano’s Riddler is hold-your-breath scary, not just for his gruesome murders, but also for the philosophical threat he poses to Batman’s brand of justice. James Gordon is played by Jeffrey Wright, who knocks it out of the park with this role. The plot sometimes threatens to become convoluted, but it mostly stays understandable for somebody who’s bad at following intricate stories (like myself). The sinister musical score by Michael Giacchino sometimes resembles a high-tech, high-powered dirge.

The action sequences in The Batman might seem a little reserved at first compared to those in other entries in the Caped Crusader’s filmography. However, they feature clear camerawork, exciting choreography, and high stakes. The fist fight illuminated by automatic weapons fire, the harsh, pulse-pounding car chase, and the finale are the highlights in the action department. Pushing the MPAA’s PG-13 rating to its limits, this flick sometimes gives the audience am-I-watching-something-illegal? vibes, especially during the scenes involving the Riddler’s “dark web” presence.

The Batman is one of the best films in the superhero’s franchise. It features a solid blend of Batman doing detective work and outright battling his foes. Sure, it’s dark, intense, and oppressive, but this gamble paid off big time here, with the picture pulling off a real sense of danger and a desperate need for heroism. There are plenty of ace movies set in the Batman universe out there, and this is a welcome addition to that growing filmography.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

First to Fight (1967) Review

Director: Christian Nyby

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

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Loosely based on the real-life story of American Marine John Basilone, who became a U.S. war hero, First to Fight is a solid, if somewhat unremarkable, entry into the war genre. World War II is raging, and U.S. trooper Jack Connell (Chad Everett) is sent back to the United States to drum up support for buying war bonds after becoming a hero at the Battle of Guadalcanal in the Pacific Theater. There are some similarities with other war flicks that have been made throughout the decades, but it still manages to be watchable.

The grenade-chucking battle scenes stick out in memory. The opening, nighttime firefight is especially fearsome. The battles have some careful choreography and are fairly violent for a 1960s movie. A few blood squibs are briefly visible during the hectic action sequences. The war zone takes up a great deal of the runtime in the first and third acts, with an okay romantic subplot occupying the middle act.

When the main character is on the home front, he spends most of his time romancing Peggy Sanford (Marilyn Devin). These scenes are not intolerable, but I think that most viewers would rather see what’s going on on the front lines. The movie masterpiece Casablanca (1942) ends up getting referenced quite a bit during this section of the picture. Hell, the characters even watch it in the theater. However, all of this just makes you want to view that film instead.

All in all, First to Fight is reasonable entertainment. I’m actually a bit surprised that it’s not remembered more fondly. The action scenes alone should’ve prevented this one from being almost completely forgotten. There’s one element to the work that I haven’t commented on yet, and that’s the presence of Gene Hackman as Tweed in one of his earliest roles. This flick was released the same year as his breakout film Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and it shows his potential to be a great movie star.

My rating is 7 outta 10.