Vera Cruz (1954) Review

Director: Robert Aldrich

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

Runtime: 94 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

During the Franco-Mexican War, American gunslingers Benjamin Trane (Gary Cooper) and Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster) are hired by the French-dominated Mexican government to escort Countess Marie Duvarre (Denise Darcel) across rebel-held territory in Mexico. One of the better movies that either Gary Cooper or Burt Lancaster appeared in, this action-adventure-western is not just highly engaging, it was also very influential on the western genre. Wikipedia currently claims that The Magnificent Seven (1960), the westerns directed by Sergio Leone, The Professionals (1966), and The Wild Bunch (1969) all owe a little something to Vera Cruz.

This war-time western has a mean, tough demeanor that would help inspire the tones of various western works to come. Its casual violence, amoral personalities, and stylized gunplay would all be noted by upcoming filmmakers. Vera Cruz feels ahead-of-its-time, more like a 1964 flick, than a 1954 one. The cast is also stacked, featuring the aforementioned Cooper and Lancaster, as well as Cesar Romero (as Marquis Henri de Labordere), Charles Bronson (playing Pittsburgh), Ernest Borgnine (showing up as Donnegan), and Jack Elam (as Tex).

This heightened war/western feature has tremendous action…and lots of it. The big, final battle is a highlight. Gary Cooper really gets the opportunity to show off his inner John Rambo. The runtime is only a little over an hour-and-a-half, so Vera Cruz crams plenty of action scenes and an innumerable quantity of double-crosses into its package. This is nothing if not entertaining.

Vera Cruz is essential viewing for fans of the cast and the genres. The only element that really ages the work is some “Lost Cause”-style reminiscing about the American South (due to the fact that Cooper’s character was a plantation owner). However, this is offset somewhat by the presence of the badass Ballard (played by Archie Savage), a Black gunman who used to serve in the Union military during the American Civil War.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Dune (1984) Review

Director: David Lynch

Genre(s): Adventure, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 137 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The 1984 version of Dune could be seen as director David Lynch’s attempt to break into the mainstream following the success of his The Elephant Man (1980). He was, of course, not exactly successful, and Dune became a notorious box office bomb. The complicated plot of the surreal sci-fi movie in question is not easy to sum up, but I’ll give it a shot. In the distant future, Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan) leads a revolt against the galactic forces of tyranny on the desert world of Arrakis. This synopsis only scratches the surface of the intricacies of the story.

David Lynch loves the bizarre and the grotesque, and Dune has these in spades. It would be a mistake to go into this flick expecting Eraserhead: In Space!, but it does feature Lynch’s trademark sense of the surreal and the uneasy. However, it can be difficult to tell what is dream logic and what is convoluted storytelling. There’s a big exposition dump at the beginning of the picture that’s reasonably easy to understand, but the lore of Dune‘s universe gets deeper from there. For a movie that frequently has voice-overs giving the inner thoughts of characters, this sure can be an impenetrable work.

This cold science-fiction-adventure production has some visuals that make you feel like you’re having a damned stroke. The special effects are impressive, as is the set of talent assembled. I mean, rock band Toto and Brian Eno did the music. That’s just nuts. There are some familiar faces in the cast, such as rock star Sting (playing villainous henchman Feyd-Rautha) and Patrick Stewart (as soldier Gurney Halleck).

So, is Dune worth watching? David Lynch completists obviously need to check it out, but most others will be turned off by the complex plot and lore and the general weirdness. It does feel a little awkwardly structured at times, but I found it to be mildly entertaining once it found its groove. It does feel a little torn over whether it wants to be a grand sci-fi epic or a Lynchian freakshow. I’d say “approach with caution.” Fun fact: before settling on Dune, Lynch was offered the role of director on Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983).

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Where East Is East (1929) Review

Director: Tod Browning

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 65 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Where East Is East is the last of the ten films that Lon Chaney starred in that were directed by Tod Browning. It is also Lon Chaney’s second-to-last silent movie (the final one being the now-mostly-lost Thunder [1929]). Set in Southeast Asia, Where East Is East is about animal trapper Tiger Haynes (Lon Chaney) reluctantly giving away the hand of his daughter – Toyo (Lupe Velez) – for marriage, but finding out that her fiancĂ© – Bobby Bailey (Lloyd Hughes) – may not be as faithful as he appears to be.

A silent melodrama through and through, I don’t think that this film does enough to separate itself from the rest of the bizarre lost triangle flicks Chaney did during his career. Sure, it has an exotic setting, but it doesn’t really have too many memorable set-pieces. Chaney does use a chair to handle a loose tiger in one scene, which is pretty cool, but, other than that, don’t go into this one expecting much action.

Chaney’s character’s relationship with his daughter is sort of creepy, perhaps intentionally so. They’re always hugging and kissing each other. I kind of doubt that people in the 1920s were constantly doing that, so it may have been a touch added by director Tod Browning to add some perversity to the mix. Also of note is an ape played by Charles Gemora. I mean, just look at this man’s filmography on IMDb! He must’ve been Hollywood’s go-to guy for playing gorillas on the Silver Screen. The dude even showed up in Island of Lost Souls (1932) as “Gorilla on Pier.”

Overall, this is an aggressively average outing for Lon Chaney. There are a few good moments (like the hunt in the opening scene), but it pales in comparison to the likes of The Penalty (1920) and West of Zanzibar (1928). It doesn’t have much to say (other than “don’t mess with Lon Chaney”…but you already knew that, right?), so I can’t really recommend it. There are worse movies out there, but a Chaney flick where he plays a vengeful animal trapper in Southeast Asia should’ve been so much better.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

The Black Knight (1954) Review

Director: Tay Garnett

Genre(s): Action, Adventure

Runtime: 85 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Alan Ladd is about to go medieval on your ass in this 1954 action-adventure not-quite-a-classic. In the Middle Ages, blacksmith John (Alan Ladd) fights to prevent a group of villains from overthrowing King Arthur (Anthony Bushell), the ruler of England. It’s an okay change-of-pace for fans of Ladd, but it’s my guess that nobody else will end up amused.

This is one of those old movies set in the medieval era where all the castles have well-manicured lawns, as if somebody actually lawn-mowed all that shit. This gives the film a fake-looking quality, and those silly-looking helmets worn by all the mounted soldiers and knights certainly don’t help things. Was this one of the pictures that Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) was spoofing?

According to the current words of Wikipedia, one critic, Jeffrey Richards, said that Alan Ladd was “playing the part like a tired American businessman prevailed upon to take the lead in a revival of Merrie England.” Ouch. I don’t think he was that bad in the lead role, but it is sort of jolting to see a guy who typically stars in westerns and film noir doing such a character. Well, if you don’t like Ladd, you can always follow Peter Cushing, who plays Sir Palamides here. Yes, Grand Moff “Grandma” Tarkin is in this flick.

Okay, it may sound like I hate this movie, but I really don’t. The action scenes are satisfactory (there’s even one at Stonehenge, because why the Hell not?) and Alan Ladd is always fun to watch. The runtime’s short and I see the kitschiness of it all as a plus, not a minus. There are worse ways out there to spend eighty-five minutes.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

No Time to Die (2021) Review

Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Thriller

Runtime: 163 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

No Time to Die is unconventional for an official James Bond film, which is why it’s my favorite of the series at the time of the writing of this review. It won’t appeal to all fans of 007, but its audacious, risk-taking nature makes it a winner in my book. The movie’s plot, one of its least important and remarkable components, concerns British super-spy James Bond (Daniel Craig) fighting to stop creepy terrorist Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek) from developing a world-threatening bio-weapon.

This is Bond for the age of COVID-19, but the flick’s biggest strength is that it has a lot more heart than one might expect from a 007 picture. The audience is actually invested in the characters and their struggles here, instead of just munching popcorn to the latest action-adventure spectacle (something this feature still has lots of, though). Previous Bond films have been adolescent fantasies, but this one feels different. It’s more mature, with actions having consequences.

The action scenes here (some of which appear to be inspired by the John Wick franchise) are quite good, with some prime-cut stuntwork, but they’re secondary to the characters. Speaking of characters, they are well-defined, although the villain’s motivation could’ve been expounded on more. The pacing in No Time to Die is somewhat erratic, but manages to stay on track fairly well for a nearly-three-hour flick. The third act is almost guaranteed to have you on the edge of your seat.

No Time to Die successfully pulls off for the James Bond series what Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017) less fruitfully attempted for its franchise. It shakes up the formula, but still gives the viewer something satisfying to latch onto. This is a fresh and different 007 movie that did what it took to stand out from the rest of the pack. Sure, it’s got the big-body-count carnage we’ve come to expect, but it also provides quite a bit of heart and soul.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Buccaneer (1958) Review

Director: Anthony Quinn

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

Runtime: 119 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

During the War of 1812, pirate leader Jean Lafitte (Yul Brynner) has to choose sides from between the United States and Great Britain in fighting near New Orleans. Anthony Quinn is best known as an actor, but this work finds him in the director’s chair. This is actually a remake of The Buccaneer (1938). Unfortunately, neither film is any good.

This is loosely based on a true story (Jean Lafitte was an actual high-seas brigand who became involved in the War of 1812), and Andrew Jackson (Charlton Heston) makes several appearances. There’s not really much worth reporting on the action front, as it’s pretty mediocre throughout. The movie contains a reenactment of the Battle of New Orleans, but don’t get your hopes up. It feels limited in scale and low in intensity. There are some nice pyrotechnics involving British rocket artillery, though.

The Buccaneer never feels all that authentic, with the whole production looking stagebound. A forgettable and undercooked romantic subplot turns out to be pretty important to the picture, with this melodramatic element dragging out the flick’s runtime, even after the Battle of New Orleans is over. The overall feature also feels a little too cutesy to be considered a hard-boiled war film.

So what goes right? Well, Elmer Bernstein’s musical score is quite good. It’s probably the best part of the whole thing. Sorry, Anthony Quinn, this one’s a dud. I’ve seen worse, but I still can’t recommend it. Sure, it reunited Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner after The Ten Commandments (1956), but that’s not enough for me to enjoy it. If you do happen to watch this misfire, make sure to keep your eyes peeled for Woody Strode, playing pirate Toro.

My rating is 4 outta 10.

The Double Man (1967) Review

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner

Genre(s): Adventure, Thriller

Runtime: 105 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Double Man may not be as famous, action-oriented, or spectacular as the James Bond films of the 1960s, but I think that it can hold its own against them. Like the 007 movies, this is an adventure-thriller about a badass government agent trying to stop the baddies while in an exotic location. Here, CIA operative Dan Slater (Yul Brynner) travels to the Austrian Alps after learning that his son has died in a mysterious skiing accident there (the current plot synopsis on IMDb contains what could be considered spoilers, so avoid reading it if you want to go into this one blind).

I wouldn’t consider The Double Man to be an action flick, but there is some decent action in it once things start escalating. That being said, there’s a lot more footage of people running around, chasing each other, than actually fighting one another. Despite not having a lot of exciting physicality for most of the runtime, I find this to be an engaging motion picture that sticks the landing.

A big part of this feature’s charm comes from its intense leading man, Yul Brynner. You could think of him as a more stoic and less hedonistic version of the aforementioned James Bond. He’s dead-set on finding out what happened to his son and spends the entire movie giving people icy stares that could kill you if you make eye-contact with them. He does sort of engage in some stalker-ish behavior in one scene (not cool, Yul!).

The Double Man is not a wild thrill ride of an action-adventure film like the 007 flicks from around the same period, but I think it holds up just as well. It’s more focused and the main character has a more personal stake in the plot (something that the Bond flicks sometimes struggled with). If you’re a fan of Brynner (and why wouldn’t you be?), check this one out. Yul be glad that you did (pun!).

My rating is 7 outta 10.

China Sky (1945) Review

Director: Ray Enright

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

Runtime: 78 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Of the innumerable war-time propaganda movies that Hollywood cranked out during World War II, 1945’s China Sky must be one of the lesser ones. One of the intentions of this picture was to foster a friendship between the American and Chinese peoples in the face of Japanese aggression, but that message is overshadowed by a soap opera of plot. You see, Dr. Gray Thompson (Randolph Scott) is aiding a remote Chinese village during the Second World War with its medical needs, when a romantic triangle develops between him, his colleague Dr. Sara Durand (Ruth Warrick), and his wife Louise Thompson (Ellen Drew).

There’s a good story tying to get out of China Sky, but the melodramatic romance does it no favors. Rather than focus on the nitty-gritty of warfare in the Chinese countryside, this work is more concerned with Ellen Drew’s character’s jealousy of her husband working closely with a female coworker. The end result is a dull film with a largely non-combat-related plot that I didn’t care how it resolved.

Fortunately, Anthony Quinn arrives, playing Chinese guerrilla leader Chen-Ta, which brightens things up (yes, Quinn plays a Chinese person in this feature…it’s one of those kind of movies). There is some occasional action, and the war-related part of the story is concluded by a firefight in the streets of a Chinese town. Even Randolph Scott’s Dr. Thompson gets in on the action, mowing down a few Japanese soldiers with a Thompson submachine gun. He just loves healing and killing people.

China Sky is a relatively short flick, but it is not a memorable one. I was pretty checked-out for several scenes in the middle. Even the movie’s star, Randolph Scott, wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about it, with Wikipedia currently saying that he found it “disappointing.” I suppose it had good intentions, but the outcome of the picture was somewhat boring. China (1943) is a far better World War II film with the word “China” in the title.

My rating is 4 outta 10.

Two Years Before the Mast (1946) Review

Director: John Farrow

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama

Runtime: 98 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The high-seas adventure-drama Two Years Before the Mast was just one of six movies that actor Alan Ladd made with director John Farrow. Here, Charles Stewart (Alan Ladd) is shanghaied to serve on a sea-faring ship under the thumb of a sadistic, rigid captain, Francis A. Thompson (Howard Da Silva), in the mid-1800s. Soon, threats of mutiny are in the air, as the crew struggles to survive under their tyrannical commander.

The beginning scenes of Two Years Before the Mast are actually pretty boring, but, once the Alan Ladd character is impressed to serve as a sailor, things pick up considerably. The film does a good job showing the cramped conditions aboard the Pilgrim (the boat that Ladd’s on), and the viewer really sympathizes with the crew’s predicament. The Howard Da Silva character is one mean bastard, but he’s a believable one, making him more intimidating. The feature contains a romantic subplot that doesn’t really go anywhere.

What this picture brings to the table is an interesting discussion of when revolt against authority is justified. When is it acceptable to raise a gun against the legal powers that be? Two Years Before the Mast comes to an optimistic conclusion on the matter. This flick sort of reminded me of Souls at Sea (1937), another adventure-drama that deals with moral dilemmas on the high seas. Supposedly, Alan Ladd had an uncredited role in that movie, and seascapes from it were used in the film currently being reviewed.

This motion picture doesn’t have much action, unfortunately, but it’s still watchable. Its direction is impressive, and those interested in the morality of humankind’s unending struggle for human rights and human dignity might get a kick out of it. I’m not ecstatic about it, yet I know it will have its fans. Two Years Before the Mast might be worth checking out for certain audiences.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Fighting Caravans (1931) Review

Directors: Otto Brower and David Burton

Genre(s): Adventure, Romance, Western

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Fighting Caravans is an early sound western that stars the great Gary Cooper. To be frank, it’s nothing that special. Clint Belmet (Gary Cooper) is a Wild West scout who pretends to be married to lone Frenchwoman Felice (Lili Damita) on a covered wagon caravan headed to California. Of course, the journey will be perilous (those Native Americans aren’t going to give up their land without a fight), and Clint and Felice just might fall in love for real.

This flick is decidedly an old-timey affair. There are times when it feels creaky, even by the standards of the time. The comic relief, provided by drunken mountain men Bill Jackson (Ernest Torrence) and Jim Bridger (Tully Marshall), will probably provoke as many eye-rolls as actual laughs. The action scenes, such as a large barroom brawl and a battle at a river crossing with some Native Americans, feel somewhat clunky, but they’re alright, I suppose.

The movie is not particularly friendly to the indigenous populations of North America, who’re treated as faceless baddies to be gunned down. The “i-word” (the one with a “j” in the middle) gets thrown around incessantly. This contributes to the Pre-Code nature of film, since this picture was released prior to the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code. Other Pre-Code content includes Gary Cooper’s character trying to bed Lili Damita’s character as part of their husband-wife act.

If you’re going to watch Fighting Caravans, please keep in mind its 1931 release date. Cooper and Damita (who’s probably better known as being the wife of Errol Flynn for a while) can’t really rescue this oldie. That being said, it looks like it had a decent-sized budget and there is some action to be found here. The feature was quickly remade as Wagon Wheels (1934) with Randolph Scott in the the Cooper role.

My rating is 6 outta 10.