It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) Review

Director: Stanley Kramer

Genre(s): Adventure, Comedy

Runtime: 154 minutes (edited version), 174 minutes (restored video version), 205 minutes (roadshow version)

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

It seems to me that It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World was attempting to be to adventure-comedies what The Longest Day (1962) was to war movies. This behemoth of a film has been released in various runtimes over the years, but it’s always retained its epic scale. This flick is about a group of strangers who encounter a dying man – “Smiler” Grogan (Jimmy Durante) – after a car wreck, who reveals to them the cryptic location of a stash of cash. Naturally, a race begins with the various witnesses setting out to try to reach the money first.

With its all-star cast, this comedy largely relies on obvious humor. Cameos come and cameos go (Jim Backus, as Tyler Fitzgerald, is perhaps the most consistently funny one), but the laughs largely come from absurdly unsubtle jokes. To the film’s credit, it does an excellent job juggling all of the characters it has to work with. Alliances shift, but it’s always pretty clear as to what’s going on. The characters are drawn both broadly and colorfully.

The truth is that It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World works better for its adventure spectacle than its comedy. The moments of action and destruction here can be stupendous. The prize for “Best Action Sequence” goes to the meticulous, intricate gas station punch-up. The slapstick stuntwork deserves a special mention. It often looks quite dangerous, and it sort of reminds me of the stunts that Hong Kong performers would later excel at.

Could this be considered the comedy version of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)? Hmmm…perhaps it would be more accurate to say that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the western version of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, considering that the latter came first. While the humor in the 1963 picture in question sometimes falters, the pacing and action-adventure-type aspects make it worth watching for the curious. Few movies expose the greedy side of mankind in such a jolly manner.

My rating is 7 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 naïve, 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.

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.

Isle of Forgotten Sins (1943) Review

Director: Edgar G. Ulmer

Genre(s): Adventure

Runtime: 74 minutes (2004 National Film Museum Incorporated cut), 82 minutes (copyright length)

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Perhaps the best thing about Isle of Forgotten Sins is its attention-getting, lurid title. Hell, in a way, they even screwed up the name of the picture at one point, by renaming it “Monsoon” for its reissue. Maybe the studio thought they could make audiences watch it again, thinking that they hadn’t seen it before. Anyway, this South Seas adventure film is about two deep-sea divers – Mike Clancy (John Carradine) and Jack Burke (Frank Fenton) – who set off to find $3 million in sunken gold before a monsoon can strike.

The first thing anybody should know about this flick is that it’s a pulpy, low-budget b-movie. It has some elements in it that make it seem like it’s trying to appeal to as many cinema-goers as possible, with a few musical numbers and a couple of surprisingly well-executed fist fights. Despite not having a lot of cash to work with, the production does an adequate job of not making a film that feels too much like a Poverty Row work.

With the exception of the aforementioned fisticuffs, Isle of Forgotten Sins doesn’t offer a whole lot in the way of action thrills. The feature does contain a couple of boring, lengthy diving sequences, though. If your idea of excitement is seeing a deep-sea diving suit meander around an underwater wreck for what seems like forever, this could be your movie. The climax is also a tad underwhelming and borderline unintentionally comic.

This flick’s pretty mediocre, although it does benefit from some South Seas pulpiness. I wouldn’t describe it as boring, but it doesn’t really build up to anything worth remembering. Director Edgar G. Ulmer has done better (see the horror film The Black Cat [1934]), and the title only reminds one of Island of Lost Souls (1932), an infinitely superior work.

My rating is 5 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.

Seven Samurai (1954) Review

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama

Runtime: 207 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Let’s get controversial for a second…and I’m talking very controversial. I’m really not that big of a fan of Seven Samurai (its original Japanese title being “Shichinin No Samurai“), the landmark 1954 picture about a team of, well, seven samurai being hired to protect a defenseless village from roaming bandits in the 1500s. This film may have laid the groundwork for the modern action-adventure movie, but I find its American western remake The Magnificent Seven (1960) far more compelling.

Compared to Seven Samurai, its 1960 remake boasts a more riveting musical score (by Elmer Bernstein), that’s pure blood-and-thunder (although Fumio Hayasaka’s score for the 1954 flick is no slouch). The Magnificent Seven also has more interesting characters, a more iconic cast, swifter pacing, and more thrilling action set-pieces. While Seven Samurai is largely about class relations between the samurai and the peasants, the 1960 picture has an intriguing Wilsonian element to it, thanks to its international settings.

The 1954 movie we’re talking about right now does feel surprisingly modern at times, though. It makes frequent use of wipe transitions and even has a couple of brief uses of slow-motion. I find the middle act, in all honesty, to be a bit on the boring side, but the first and third parts are fine. The last act is one action sequence after another, but these scenes are often more confusing than they are exciting. It should also be noted that this feature is about three-and-a-half hours long, so save it for an open afternoon.

I saw The Magnificent Seven long before viewing Seven Samurai, so that’s bound to influence how I see this work. Yes, the latter movie has inspired countless filmmakers over the years and left just about as big a mark on cinema (especially the action-adventure genre) as you can leave, but it’s just not for me. The samurai picture is certainly more influential than the western one, but I’ll take The Magnificent Seven just about any day of the week. It just speaks to me more.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) Review

Director: Rob Cohen

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

Runtime: 112 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The third film in The Mummy franchise, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, generally received negative reviews from critics, but I think it holds up a notch better than the first sequel, The Mummy Returns (2001), as this one doesn’t recycle the Ancient Egyptian motif. It’s not a great movie, but it’s watchable fare. The plot, set in the 1940s, concerns the globetrotting O’Connell family fighting to prevent the reanimated corpse of an Ancient Chinese emperor (Jet Li) from taking over the world. I think that you know the drill.

This is an action-adventure picture, obviously, so there’s lots and lots of danger, fighting, heroics, and physical mayhem. I admit that it’s a pretty juvenile work (you won’t believe the surprise in store for the audience during the action scene at the Himalayan monastery!), but it has a certain appeal. The action sequences are generally competently pulled off, although the camera is occasionally too close to the goings-on.

It’s important to note that Rachel Weisz, who played Evelyn in the previous two flicks in the series, does not return here, and is instead replaced by Maria Bello. Brendan Fraser does, however, come back as Rick O’Connell, continuing to be a surprisingly charismatic action star. The movie also benefits from the inclusion of the Chinese actors Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh (who plays Zi Yuan). Liam Cunningham makes a positive impression as “Mad Dog” Maguire, a reckless pilot.

Okay, this isn’t exactly a prestigious motion picture (although Roger Ebert did give it three out of four stars), but it’s pretty cool in an I’m-thirteen-and-this-is-badass sort of way. I wasn’t actually a teenager when I first saw it, unfortunately, but it does a satisfactory job of bringing out the inner kid in the viewer. Its blend of action, humor, horror, and characters we’ve come to enjoy seeing on the big screen make it passable entertainment.

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.

Passage to Marseille (1944) Review

Director: Michael Curtiz

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, War

Runtime: 109 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The plot of Passage to Marseille is about a Free French liaison officer named Freycinet (Claude Reins) recalling the story of how a group of French airmen fighting against the Nazis in World War II came into existence. This motion picture reunites many of the cast and crew of the iconic masterpiece Casablanca (1942), including actors Humphrey Bogart (as Jean Matrac), the aforementioned Claude Reins, Sydney Greenstreet (playing Duval), and Peter Lorre (as Marius), director Michael Curtiz, and musical composer Max Steiner. Can it recapture the magic of that movie?

Well, to be frank, it doesn’t. Perhaps the biggest problem with Passage to Marseille is its structure. This film has a flashback inside of a flashback inside of a flashback. No, I’m not kidding. Okay, the non-linear storytelling isn’t nearly as hard to follow as it sounds, but it still feels like a detriment to the finished product. Overall, the flick feels a bit on the aimless side and a lot on the formless side thanks to this.

The picture in question is blessed with some magnificent cinematography, as well as some exciting action, as one should probably expect from an adventure film directed by Michael Curtiz. The mayhem mainly kicks in in the third act, and it’s worth the wait to see Humphrey Bogart wield a Lewis machine gun. He actually gets to be pretty ruthless with it.

If you want to go into this one as spoiler-free as possible, I’d avoid reading the plot synopsis on IMDb. It sort of gives one of the movie’s more predictable twists away. With a similar cast and crew and comparable World War II-era francophilia, Passage to Marseille is sometimes called a spiritual sequel to Casablanca on the Internet. It’s certainly not the all-time classic that that feature is, but the 1944 work we’re talking about right now still might be worth watching for fans of Bogie.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Across the Pacific (1942) Review

Directors: John Huston and Vincent Sherman

Genre(s): Adventure, Romance, Thriller, War

Runtime: 97 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Despite a somewhat deceptive title, Across the Pacific from 1942 is a satisfactory war-time thriller. Set just before the United States’ entry into World War II, disgraced American serviceman Rick Leland (Humphrey Bogart) is forced out of the military for a scandal and decides to take a cruise on a Japanese ship through the Panama Canal to Asia. The boat he’s on is full of shadowy figures (himself included) and blood is bound to be spilled by the time his adventure is finished.

Across the Pacific has a fascinating plot, but it is a slow-moving picture. It’s pulpy and noirish, sure, but it feels a tad longer than its 97-minute runtime. Some modern viewers may also be turned off by the feature’s war-time depiction of Japanese people. Fortunately, the film is blessed with one huge asset: Humphrey Bogart. That guy makes everything look effortlessly cool, and his performance in this movie is no exception.

Speaking of Bogie, it’s fun to see him in full-on action hero mode here. The action doesn’t really kick in until the third act, but, when it does, it redeems the flick. The actual scenes of physical mayhem are adequately staged, but they’re extra-amusing considering that they are found in a movie released in 1942. Bogart very briefly unleashing his inner John Rambo is hard to pass up on.

Most of Across the Pacific is a romance-heavy thriller, but the last third makes a natural-feeling transition to more adventure-oriented fare. It’s far from being a great movie, but Bogart fans won’t want to miss it. It’s interesting to note that his character in this picture is called “Rick,” the same name as his role in Casablanca (1942), which was released the same year.

My rating is 6 outta 10.