Timecop (1994) Review

Director: Peter Hyams

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

Runtime: 99 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Police officer Max Walker (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is tasked with preventing the abuse of time travel, when he finds himself fighting against corrupt American politician Aaron McComb (Ron Silver), who’s been using that technology to accumulate funds for a Presidential campaign. As of the writing of this review, Wikipedia says that this is Jean-Claude Van Damme’s highest grossing movie where he played the lead role. Does it live up to that title?

When it comes to action, Timecop is definitely not the be-all-end-all Van Damme picture. The fights are actually pretty good, but the most elaborately choreographed ones are not saved for last. The ending confrontation feels forgettable in comparison to some of the set-pieces that preceded it. This feature’s finale focuses more on the emotional stakes than the physical ones, though that’s not to say that there’s no death and destruction during the third act.

The script gives the Muscles from Brussels one or two solid one-liners, but most of the comic relief is handled by Bruce McGill, who plays Eugene Matuzak, one of the higher-ups at the time travel agency. I mainly know this actor as “that one guy” from FDR: American Badass! (2012), but his attempts at providing levity are successful here. Does all of the time travel science and whatnot make sense in Timecop? Well, you’re asking the wrong person. I can’t wrap my brain around all of this complicated, scientific stuff, so I just ride with it. It’s fine in a turn-off-your-brain-and-watch-stuff-explode sort of way. It takes a high-concept idea and follows through with a fairly run-of-the-mill execution.

One can think of Timecop as a fusion of the time travel elements from the Terminator series and the sci-fi law enforcement parts of RoboCop (1987). Unfortunately, it can’t reach the high peaks of its apparent inspirations. As far as Van Damme films go, this one’s pretty average, but this average is higher than the normal score a movie starring, say, Steven Seagal would get. There are certainly better JCVD flicks out there – like The Expendables 2 (2012), Double Impact (1991), Legionnaire (1998), and Hard Target (1993) to name just a few – but this one will do in a jam.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

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.

Metropolis (1927) Review

Director: Fritz Lang

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 153 minutes (“Complete” cut), 80 minutes (Giorgio Moroder cut)

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the all-time great masterpieces of cinema, 1927’s silent science-fiction epic Metropolis was the first movie to be named to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. It may be silent, but thanks to its bombastic visuals and genius, impossibly vigorous musical score from Gottfried Huppertz, it’s loud as Hell. The story concerns itself with the city of the future, where tensions between the working and upper classes are reaching their breaking point…can some sort of mediator prevent a war between these two castes?

Yes, Metropolis has ahead-of-its-time special effects that will floor you, but there is more here than just that. The performances, while remarkably over-the-top, are stunning, and the whole motion picture is melodramatic in the very best way possible. Everything’s heightened (it is a work of German Expressionism, after all), but it’s no bloated soap opera. It even becomes an action-adventure film in the last third (or so), piling on massive, tour-de-force set-pieces.

The politics of Metropolis are often seen as na├»ve, simplistic, or half-baked. The feature’s director, Fritz Lang, essentially disowned it for this reason. It certainly does contain an odd mish-mash of symbols, ideas, and metaphors that may not make sense if analyzed too closely. Still, this is a brilliant, king-sized flick that paints in very broad strokes, so, if you can get behind that, you’ll have your mind blown.

This masterclass of filmmaking is available in both a black-and-white, “Complete” cut running about two-and-a-half hours (with a reconstruction of the original Gottfried Huppertz score) and an eighty-minute, color-tinted version from 1984 with a rock and pop soundtrack arranged by Giorgio Moroder. While I prefer the “Complete” edition, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the Moroder cut, which features some rousing music from Freddie Mercury, Pat Benatar, Jon Anderson, Cycle V, Bonnie Tyler, Loverboy, Billy Squier, Adam Ant, and Moroder himself. One of the most ambitious pictures ever released, Metropolis is still thrilling and fast-paced, making it the perfect introduction to the world of silent cinema. Few movies released since have managed to top it.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) Review

Director: Peyton Reed

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

Runtime: 118 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Ant-Man and the Wasp is a sequel that tops the original (Ant-Man [2015]) in every way. The comedy, action set-pieces, and emotional hooks are all more effective here, not that they were bad by any means in the first installment. The plot of this picture is about superhero Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), with his special suit that shrinks the wearer to ant-size, trying to help Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) rescue Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the Quantum Realm, while battling those who want to steal the size-altering technology he uses.

While this is obviously a superhero movie, the physical action often takes a backseat to the humor and characterizations. This might be detrimental to the success of any other actioner, but Ant-Man and the Wasp might be better off for it. This relatively family-friendly flick certainly is a crowd-pleaser with its well-integrated special effects and creative action.

While the jokes come fast, frequent, and funny, I didn’t get the feeling that they were undercutting the gravity of the situations onscreen quite like they did with the first film. This action-comedy is no drama, but the sympathies of audience members are pretty easily gained by this more earnest take. Even one of the villains of the story, Ava (Hannah John-Kamen), isn’t really such a bad person, and this feeds into the somewhat kiddie-friendly nature of the production.

The dramatic hooks give Ant-Man and the Wasp more weight than its predecessor. It still sticks pretty closely to the established Marvel formula, but it is probably one of the better features to employ it. I suppose that each subseries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe offers something slightly different for viewers, and these Ant-Man flicks specialize in movies where the physical stakes aren’t particularly high (by superhero media standards), but the films still manage to thrill anyway.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Ant-Man (2015) Review

Director: Peyton Reed

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

Runtime: 117 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Ant-Man is a superhero film that sticks pretty closely to the established Marvel movie formula. Fortunately, this formula works quite well, even if the feature sometimes feels like a product from an assembly line. The basic plot here is about a thief named Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) who steals a high-tech suit that can shrink the wearer to ant-size, and must use it for the greater good of humanity. It’s more of a heist picture than your typical Marvel flick, but it still has the usual save-the-world stakes.

The likable cast and inventive set-pieces involving the shrinking Ant-Man suit are the real reasons to watch. The characters are very well-defined, and the production makes you care about ants, of all things. The lengthy action climax will satisfy those looking for superhero-related chaos. Ant-Man is also pretty funny, being one of the more comedic entries into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

On the down side, this movie feels the need to follow up several moments of action and/or drama with quippy humor. This can sort of undercut the gravity of the scenes, and almost feels like a coldly calculated way of “keeping matters light.” It’s already a fairly light-weight piece, so does it really need that sort of thing? It almost appears that the film is too scared to commit to sincerity at times.

While Ant-Man would be topped by the next installment in its subseries – Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) – this flick can still be viewed as effective entertainment. Despite what I stated in the above paragraph, this work still has a solid emotional hook and it benefits from characters that the audience gives a hoot about. Cynics may look at it as just another cog in Marvel’s money-making machine, but I think it works reasonably well as a solo feature.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The War of the Worlds (1953) Review

Director: Byron Haskin

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

Runtime: 85 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

Decades before director Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005), there was a similarly-titled sci-fi picture that covered the same ground. Martians have invaded Earth, and humanity finds itself waging a seemingly losing battle against the extraterrestrial invaders. Largely set in the 1950s United States, this one feels like a bunch of aliens crashed into a Norman Rockwell painting.

Elements of this science-fiction-horror feature may seem hokey by today’s standards, but I think that it’s got it where it counts. The lead character, Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), may not be the kind of hero you’d expect from a 1950s film, but it totally works in the context of the movie. There’s a fair amount of action once things get rolling, and the flick is bleaker and darker than one might anticipate from an American production of this time period (although it’s certainly not as moody as it could’ve been).

The most notable hit-or-miss aspects of The War of the Worlds are the special effects. They won an Oscar, with some of the destruction looking quite impressive for a 1953 movie. However, not every effect is flawless, and some of the visuals have definitely dated…if they ever looked good at all (during the scene where human artillery is firing at the Martian war machines, it looks like someone tossing fire-crackers at miniatures). The aliens themselves also present a problem, since they look more cute than terrifying.

This sci-fi-thriller, which may reflect the Cold War paranoia of the time, runs a brisk eighty-five minutes, so time is rarely wasted. Modern audiences will find some parts of the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds to be cheesy or quaint, but I think that the picture’s desperate tone and focus on physical mayhem save it from being a useless 1950s relic. To be honest, I prefer the 2005 film directed by Spielberg, but this one is still worth watching.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Riders of the Whistling Skull (1937) Review

Director: Mack V. Wright

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Western

Runtime: 58 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1937 b-movie The Riders of the Whistling Skull is an early cinematic entry into the “Weird West” subgenre. That phrase refers to western genre media with fantasy/supernatural, horror, or science-fiction elements. This flick is about three cowboys – Stony Brooke (Robert Livingston), Tucson Smith (Ray Corrigan), and Lullaby Joslin (Max Terhune) – who go on a quest to find a lost city out West that’s been overrun by Native American cultists. Oh, yeah, they also bring a ventriloquist dummy with them.

This is a very low-budget affair, but that’s part of its charm. The Riders of the Whistling Skull is cheaply-made, yet it manages to keep the audience’s attention. It’s the fourth entry into the The Three Mesquiteers series, a franchise of Poverty Row westerns that featured a trio of Wild West gunslingers. John Wayne actually appeared as the Stony Brooke character in several of the pictures in the prolific series, but this isn’t one of them.

The action sequences here are fair-enough, but nothing that special, as the heroes battle against a small army of Native American cultists. Speaking of indigenous peoples, the movie’s depiction of them is somewhat racist, but what do you expect from a micro-budget 1930s b-western? If you’ve come here looking for an enlightened look at racial minorities in such a picture, then you’re barking up the wrong tree.

As of right now, Wikipedia and IMDb refer to this feature as “Riders of the Whistling Skull,” without the “The” at the beginning of the title (I’m pretty sure that I saw a “The” at the beginning of the title during the movie’s opening credits sequence). Anyway, this is a pretty solid action-adventure film all things considered. It’s less than an hour in length, so it’s a painless viewing. This western is good, corny fun with a unique plot

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Tenet (2020) Review

Director: Christopher Nolan

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

Runtime: 150 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Director Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi actioner Tenet was supposed to be one of those films to bail out the struggling movie theater industry during the COVID-19 pandemic. The picture follows a secret agent, simply referred to as “the Protagonist” (John David Washington), who must stop a group of terrorists from using time-inversion technology to threaten the planet. It’s a long, puzzling ride…is it worth the trip?

The admirably ambitious Tenet is, unfortunately, a confusing feature. With characters traveling forward in time and others backwards in time at the same time, it’s hard to keep abreast of. The complicated-for-the-sake-of-complicated nature of the film doesn’t really make me want to watch it over and over again, it just sparks apathy. Perhaps the time-inversion stuff would’ve worked better in smaller doses.

There is some nice action here, though. The opening sequence is the highlight, but numerous chases, fights, and moments of miscellaneous mayhem are littered throughout the (overlong) runtime. There’s certainly an I-haven’t-seen-that-before factor in play here, but the movie’s wildly intricate plot largely means that these scenes must be enjoyed in isolation from any compelling story.

I suppose that Tenet will appeal to those who like ambiguous mysteries in their cinema and try to watch the same flicks repeatedly in order to dissect every last detail. This movie is a lot less easy to follow than Christopher Nolan’s own Inception (2010), and it suffers from that. Although it occasionally dabbles in James Bond-style antics, this work feels like it’s intentionally trying to “lose” the audience in its complex storytelling.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Bloodsport (1988) Review

Director: Newt Arnold

Genre(s): Action, Sport

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The 1988 action film Bloodsport was one of the star-making movies for Jean-Claude Van Damme. It still stands as one of the Muscles from Brussels’ more entertaining outings. Based on the, er, “unverified” (i.e. fake) story of American martial artist Frank Dux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) entering an underground Hong Kong fighting tournament called “the Kumite,” this work of kitsch was supposedly a major inspiration on the Mortal Kombat video game series.

Okay, let’s not dance around the elephant in the room. This movie is seriously cheesy. The acting is questionable, the dialogue is unintentionally humorous, Jean-Claude Van Damme does his trademark splits approximately three thousand times, and the source material is a made-up story passed off as fact. Still, it’s hard not to enjoy this silly actioner. The good guys are likeable and the villain, Chong Li (Bolo Yeung), is a nasty piece of work. People bond in a macho manner over video games, and the theme song, “Fight to Survive” by Stan Bush, is killer.

The action choreography isn’t really up to par with that from similar movies being made by the likes of Jackie Chan at about the same time as this one. Nonetheless, the fights are still some of the highlights, and the staging of them probably isn’t as bad as I’m leading on. That being said, there is some potentially offensive content involving a Black fighter who beats up his opponents while running around on all fours. Normally, I’d say that that hasn’t aged well, but I’m pretty sure that that was never acceptable.

Bloodsport has rightfully become a cult classic since its release, due to its colorfully corny nature and cheesily earnest storytelling. It works because it has just enough of an emotional hook to get the audience invested. It’s certainly one of the better martial arts tournament flicks out there, so watch it and keep an eye out for a young Forest Whitaker as FBI agent Rawlins and a not-young Roy Chiao (better known as gangster Lao Che from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom [1984]) as Tanaka, Van Damme’s character’s mentor.

My rating is 7 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.