Batman: The Killing Joke (2016) Review

Director: Sam Liu

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

Runtime: 76 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The animated film Batman: The Killing Joke was the first Batman movie to be released with an R rating in the United States. Based on a popular graphic novel of the same title, the picture follows clown criminal Joker’s (voiced by Mark Hamill) attempts to destroy the Gordon family, with superhero Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy) trying to save the day. Thanks to more adult content than your typical superhero flick, this one’s for the grown-ups only.

One of the best aspects of this feature is the voice talent. In some ways, this is a continuation of the revered Batman: The Animated Series, with Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprising their roles as Batman and the Joker, respectively. The voice-acting is top-notch and, along with the stirring animation, carries the movie. The pacing also garners a thumbs-up from me, with tons of material being crammed into the seventy-six demented minutes of runtime.

Batman: The Killing Joke was met with a lukewarm, at best, reception, partially thanks to the handling of Barbara Gordon (voiced by Tara Strong), better known as “Batgirl.” The film doesn’t really know what to do with her and the alarming accusations of sexism might hold water. The Joker-less first act of the motion picture is also only tangentially related to the rest, which is also something that holds the product back from true greatness.

Very dark, macabre, intense, and sinister, The Killing Joke just might have the best depiction of the Joker yet seen on film. Unfortunately, some questionable narrative decisions almost derail this train. It’s an impossible flick to turn away from, but sometimes it just doesn’t feel “right.” The work may have also been better served by a less ambiguous ending, but maybe that’s just me.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Gangster Squad (2013) Review

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Genre(s): Action, Crime

Runtime: 113 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The 2013 actioner Gangster Squad was widely panned by critics upon its release, with many professional film reviewers commenting on how it looked unfavorable when held up against The Untouchables (1987). The stories of the two pictures are almost identical, with Gangster Squad being about a team of Los Angeles police officers on an off-the-books mission to drive mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) out of the city in the years following World War II. Overall, this movie isn’t as masterful as the 1987 flick that it bears many similarities to, but I still think it’s worth watching.

The first word that springs to mind when describing this feature is “pulpy.” It doesn’t pretend to be realistic, preferring to be heightened, unsubtle, stylized, semi-cartoony, and exaggerated. It’s a “print the legend” kind of work. I think all of this threw some critics expecting something more down-to-Earth for a loop. Despite its borderline-campy nature, the film’s plot about vigilante cops is bound to make some viewers squeamish.

The plentiful sequences of action and violence are handled smoothly, with the exception of a nighttime car chase that’s probably a bit harder to follow than it needed to be. The characters are easy to distinguish from one another, thanks to an all-star cast. A special mention should go to Sean Penn, who plays the vile villain with aplomb. The narrative is straightforward and satisfying.

Fans of the pulpier side of gangster fiction (like myself) will definitely want to watch this one. Sure, it’s not as good as The Untouchables, but how many pictures are? A piece of trivia about Gangster Squad is that a shootout scene in a movie theater that was originally going to be in the flick was cut due to the 2012 theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Stone Killer (1973) Review

Director: Michael Winner

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 95 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The year before Death Wish (1974) was released, that picture’s director (Michael Winner) and star (Charles Bronson) collaborated on another crime flick, this one called The Stone Killer. The plot’s about police detective Lou Torrey (Charles Bronson) investigating a series of murders and uncovering a mob-related revenge massacre in the works. Death Wish it ain’t, but it still has its moments.

This street-tough actioner moves along at a solid pace, starting off with a figurative “bang” and rarely letting up, as the bodies start to pile up. The Stone Killer is set in a dirty, unpleasant world that reflects the American anxieties of the 1970s. This means there are a couple of scenes depicting police brutality that probably wouldn’t make it into the film if it was made nowadays.

While this movie isn’t as entertaining as Death Wish, it is noticeably more action-packed than that 1974 crime-drama. The carnage is squib-heavy and exciting, with there being a few shootings, a nice vehicle chase, and a couple of gunfights. Bronson is in full action-hero mode here, managing to fill a respectable number of body bags.

The Stone Killer may not be top-tier Bronson, but there’s enough here to like to make it worth recommending. Yeah, it does sometimes feel like the plot was just constructed so that bloody action set-pieces could hung off of it, but I can’t hold that against the movie too much. This feature also stars Martin Balsam as mafia boss Al Vescari. Balsam would later reunite with Bronson and Winner in the unintentionally hysterical Death Wish 3 (1985). Too bad this film didn’t get a cheesy sequel called The Stoner Killer where Bronson shoots hopped-up dope fiends on the loose.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Hard Times (1975) Review

Director: Walter Hill

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

Runtime: 93 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Macho filmmaker Walter Hill’s directorial debut was the excellent 1975 action-drama Hard Times. During the Great Depression, a drifter named Chaney (Charles Bronson) makes a living as a bare-knuckle boxer in the New Orleans region with the help of his shit-talking manager, Speed (James Coburn). It’s an unusual type of sports movie, being about the underground world of street-fighting, but Hill pulls it off remarkably well.

Appropriately for a film set during this time period, Hard Times has a gently melancholy tone. Some of the best things about this picture are the seedy and atmospheric New Orleans-area locations that it explores. It seems like no dank backroom in the city is left behind by the filmmakers. Charles Bronson is more taciturn than usual here and is supported by his then-wife Jill Ireland, who plays Lucy Simpson, the love interest.

This may seem like an odd comparison at first, but I think that this feature is somewhat similar to Rocky (1976), which was released one year later. Both flicks have plenty of punching and fighting, but are really about the relationships that develop outside the “ring.” Speaking of “punching and fighting,” the action scenes in Hard Times are pretty well choreographed, never lacking in impact or feeling too over-the-top.

This gritty gem is a movie that fans of tough guy cinema will want to track down. Often understated, yet always heroic, this bare-knuckle boxing saga is simultaneously sensitive and tough-as-nails. That’s a balance that’s highly satisfying when pulled off by the right filmmaker. To top things off, this motion picture features a cute cat in a supporting role.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

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.

Mr. Majestyk (1974) Review

Director: Richard Fleischer

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

Runtime: 103 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Mr. Majestyk is the 1974 film where Charles Bronson literally plays a badass melon-farmer. The movie’s straightforward plot concerns Vince Majestyk (Charles Bronson), the owner of a watermelon farm who finds himself on the run from the law with vile mob hitman Frank Renda (Al Lettieri) by his side. Yes, people will die, cars will be chased, and watermelons will be shot to shit.

How’s the action? Well, it’s not outstanding, but it’s ably-done. Perhaps the best action set-piece in the entire flick comes in the first act (it’s the one where Charles Bronson and Al Lettieri’s characters are forced to set off together after escaping from the police). It should be noted that there are some stretches with no action that might test the patience of some viewers.

Bronson is clearly the star of the show. As you might expect, he plays yet another one of his classic, silent tough guys here. However, it would be a crime to not at least mention Lettieri’s performance as a hot-headed murderer. The rest of the characters are fine. They’re pretty easy to tell apart from one another, so the filmmakers got that right.

Okay, this one has a kitsch moment or two, but it’s really a thrill to see ol’ Bronson portraying a macho, melon-farming son-of-a-bitch. Fans of the actor will find this an enjoyable ride. The shotgun-blasting Mr. Majestyk was actually released the same year as the more-famous Bronson crime-drama Death Wish (1974), which would prove to be a landmark in the actor’s career.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Another 48 Hrs. (1990) Review

Director: Walter Hill

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

Runtime: 93 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte return for more in this so-so sequel to 48 Hrs. (1982). Once again, tough guy cop Jack Cates (Nick Nolte) recruits the help of conman Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy) to help him on a case. This time, the police officer wants to take down a mysterious drug lord known as “The Iceman” as well as clear his own name after being accused of killing an unarmed man.

The plot of Another 48 Hrs. feels rather formless, which is the biggest problem with the film. In retrospect, it just seems like our dynamic duo are chasing various leads until the final shootout arrives. Sure, Nolte and Murphy do no wrong here, but the plot needed a little more meat on it. Oh well, at least the adequate pacing and relatively short runtime keep this flaw from being fatal.

The action scenes here are actually better than the ones in the first installment of this motion picture duology. They’re definitely not top-tier, but they are filmed and edited in a more coherent fashion than in 48 Hrs. This picture is somewhat famous for the amount of glass that gets smashed in it and, yeah, panes of that stuff are being broken left and right. I guess it adds to the fun of the whole experience.

Another 48 Hrs. features less racist and homophobic dialogue than the original, which may make it easier to watch for modern audiences. It’s also less grimy- and gritty-feeling, but – hey – if that’s the cost of superior action set-pieces, I’ll pay it. Okay, the bottom line is that this one isn’t quite as good as the 1982 flick, but it certainly is watchable.

My rating is 6 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.

48 Hrs. (1982) Review

Director: Walter Hill

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

Runtime: 96 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The 1982 action-comedy 48 Hrs. is an excellent example of how the right casting can save a movie. Here, Eddie Murphy is the hero of the production. The story of the picture in question is about a down-on-his-luck San Francisco police officer named Jack Cates (Nick Nolte) who reluctantly teams up with imprisoned con man Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy) to track down a pair of cop killers. It’s often considered one of the first of the “buddy-cop” subgenre, but, in this case, only one of the two main characters is a lawman.

It’s largely thanks to Eddie Murphy that this gritty crime-thriller keeps afloat. The movie really comes alive when he shows up, and it’s hard to imagine anybody else in the role. The plot may be nothing worth writing home about, but when Murphy’s on a roll, he’s on a roll. Be warned, though, that this flick contains quite a bit of racist, sexist, and homophobic language that makes it a little awkward at times.

Director Walter Hill is generally very good at handling action scenes, but I don’t think 48 Hrs. is one of his better outings when judged by carnage alone. The action here feels a little clumsy sometimes. It’s certainly not all bad, but it doesn’t feel up to the Walter Hill par. The sequences of violence, however, do feel appropriately grounded for such a tight, intimate film.

This is an important landmark in the history of buddy-cop movies, and it holds up pretty well today (except for the bigoted remarks, of course). Sure, it would be topped by Lethal Weapon (1987), but it still has a sleazy, dirt-under-the-fingernails charm all to its own. Also, David Patrick Kelly, perhaps better known as “Sully from Commando (1985)” makes an appearance as criminal Luther.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Public Enemies (2009) Review

Director: Michael Mann

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

Runtime: 140 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Public Enemies is a solid gangster flick that has the misfortune of living in the shadow of the similar Dillinger (1973), which was written and directed by John Milius. The plot of the 2009 picture in question covers the 1930s bank-robbing spree of super-criminal John Dillinger (Johnny Depp). There’s plenty to like about this movie, but just about everything about it was topped back in the 1970s.

The ferocious gunfights that director Michael Mann is known for are very much present here. It probably has as many firearms-per-frame as 1973’s Dillinger and the shootouts are probably more realistic-feeling. The expected highlight in the action department is the firefight at a lodge known as Little Bohemia, but the other sequences of violence work exceptionally well, too.

Perhaps the biggest fault of Public Enemies is how colorless many of the supporting characters are rendered. Sure, the big players in the story get their time to shine, but most of the side members of the John Dillinger gang, for example, don’t stand out at all, which is a stark contrast to how these folks were handled in the aforementioned Dillinger. “Baby Face” Nelson (Stephen Graham) manages to steal the scenes he appears in, though.

Public Enemies is a much more somber and subdued film than 1973’s Dillinger, trying to play things closer to historical fact (although there are still several deviations from what happened in real life). It’s fairly ambitious, but it lacks the flair, pizazz, and print-the-legend audacity that the Dillinger story from John Milius had. I figure that both motion pictures are worth checking out, so make it a Dillinger double feature if you can.

My rating is 7 outta 10.