Gun Crazy (1950) Review

Director: Joseph H. Lewis

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

Runtime: 87 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

I’m generally not the biggest fan of film noir, but once in a while I’ll see one that really tickles my fancy. Gun Crazy is one of those movies. The story is about two firearms-obsessed crack-shots – Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) and Bart Tare (John Dall) – who fall in love and go on a crime spree. Does this sound like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) to you? It’s certainly an important precursor to that landmark picture.

Gun Crazy is an interesting dive into the United States’ fascination with firearms. It’s a fine character study, too, being a b-movie that looks like an a-movie, thanks to its production values. The budget was low, but the strong cinematography and acting do a great deal to elevate the proceedings. The runtime is only eighty-seven minutes, so it trucks along at a good pace.

This feature has more action than your average film noir, which is probably a key reason why I enjoyed it more than most examples of that style. The body count remains relatively low, but many scenes still involve somebody taking out a pistol. One of the best sequences in the film is a one-shot robbery scene that must’ve been pretty ambitious considering the low budget.

No, I don’t love this one more than the aforementioned masterpiece Bonnie and Clyde, but it’s still a very entertaining, stylish little flick. This thriller even has a non-criminal character named “Clyde” – Clyde Boston (Harry Lewis). It lives up to its lurid title and its sensationalistic tagline (“Thrill Crazy…Kill Crazy…Gun Crazy“). Even if you’re not a noir person, this one still might be worth tracking down.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Ace of Hearts (1921) Review

Director: Wallace Worsley

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

Runtime: 75 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The silent 1921 drama-thriller The Ace of Hearts may have been an attempt to recapture some of the magic from The Penalty (1920), another crime film that also starred Lon Chaney, was directed by Wallace Worsley, and was based on a work by pulp novelist Gouverneur Morris. There may be a reason why this movie isn’t as fondly remembered as The Penalty, but it’s still worth a watch. The story is about a secret society, of which Farallone (Lon Chaney) is a member, that is plotting the killing of a wealthy individual, and the assassin being chosen by the random dealing of cards (ace of hearts gets to carry out the mission).

The Ace of Hearts‘ biggest strength is its atmospheric nature, with many scenes having a strong nocturnal energy. The image of Lon Chaney waiting outside of your apartment window in a nighttime rainstorm is powerful. The picture feels pretty padded-out, even with a running time of only seventy-five minutes, but the feature does build up to a successful climax, even if it has some unsure footing along the way.

This film does have a prominent romantic triangle in it that feels a little silly, but it’s largely forgiven by the time the flick ends. You see, the backroom secret society has one female member – Lilith (Leatrice Joy) – and two of the potential assassins – Farallone and Forrest (John Bowers) – are madly in love her, both wanting a chance to be the hitman in order to show their devotion to “the Cause.” Farallone – Lon Chaney’s character – mostly just stands around looking glum in a ridiculous hairdo.

The Ace of Hearts may not hold up that well when compared to a couple of Lon Chaney’s other movies, like West of Zanzibar (1928) or the aforementioned The Penalty, but, despite an occasionally slow pace, it should have enough merits to make it worth tracking down for fans of “The Man with a Thousand Faces.” It has an interesting story with a nice payoff. Check out the audacious main title sequence, which simply shows the ace of hearts playing card (instead of text) when the title should be shown.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

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.

The Penalty (1920) Review

Director: Wallace Worsley

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 90 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1920 crime-drama The Penalty was the breakout film for iconic movie star Lon Chaney. A San Francisco gangster named Blizzard (Lon Chaney), who had both of his legs unnecessarily amputated after an accident as a child, plots his revenge on the physician – Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary) – who mistakenly robbed him of his legs and against the city of San Francisco as a whole. It’s not a horror movie, like some say, but rather a grotesque drama, the kind that Chaney seemed to specialize in.

In order to play a double-amputee, Lon Chaney wore a special harness, allowing him to walk on his knees. The effect is virtually flawless, although the strain of the performance apparently damaged Chaney’s knee muscles for the rest of his life. With this knowledge, it makes every second that Blizzard (Chaney’s character) appears onscreen feel painful. This is definitely his show, but it has the interesting touch of having a female undercover agent – Rose (Ethel Grey Terry) – try to infiltrate his den of sin to bring it down.

As wonderfully pulpy and sinister as The Penalty is, it is slightly marred by a weird, anti-climactic ending. I won’t spoil it here, and it’s certainly not horrible, but it is bizarre and causes the picture to fail to live up to all of its potential. Given that the feature was released during the First Red Scare, there is some minor xenophobic content (where foreigners are not to be trusted), but it doesn’t have much of an impact on my overall impression of the work.

Sent to theaters at the beginning of the 1920s, this silent film has aged surprisingly well. It’s actually quite excellent. Not everything about it makes sense, but its intimidating mood, reasonably concise story, and fantastic performance from Lon Chaney do not lie. One of the first mobster movies, it still may be one of the better ones.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Unholy Three (1930) Review

Director: Jack Conway

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 72 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Gather ’round, ladies and gentlemen, and hear Lon Chaney in his only role in a talking motion picture! Yes, Chaney made only one sound movie before tragically passing away from throat cancer at forty-seven. This is a remake of the 1925 film of the same title, so the plot may sound familiar: cross-dressing ventriloquist Echo (Lon Chaney), sideshow strongman Hercules (Ivan Linow), feisty little person Tweedledee (Harry Earles), and female pick-pocket Rosie O’Grady (Lila Lee) team up to plan some heists out of a pet shop.

This one is several minutes shorter than the silent original, so it chugs along at a slightly faster pace. The physical action is perhaps a tad more dynamic here, and, while it still has a courtroom finale, this one’s a hair more interesting. That being said, it’s very similar to the 1925 feature, so contrasting the two films isn’t easy.

The most notable flaw with this version of the story is that Harry Earles’ dialogue is frequently difficult to understand. Maybe silent movie-style intertitles were needed? Nah, I’m just kidding about that. The pacing probably could’ve been better, but, as it stands now, it’s an improvement over the original. It’s a preposterous, little movie, but it knows that it’s a little crazy.

Made during the Pre-Code era of Hollywood, before the enforcement of the Production Code, this nifty, slightly twisted crime-thriller is recommended for Lon Chaney fanatics…and not just because it was his last feature. It feels more streamlined than the 1925 silent film that it’s a remake of and the ludicrous premise is enough to keep it afloat. So, check out The Unholy Three if you ever get the chance.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Unholy Three (1925) Review

Director: Tod Browning

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 86 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The silent, 1925 version of The Unholy Three could be seen as director Tod Browning’s warm-up for Freaks (1932). Here, four (yes, four) criminals – cross-dressing ventriloquist Echo (Lon Chaney), sideshow strongman Hercules (Victor McLaglen), feisty little person Tweedledee (Harry Earles), and female pick-pocket Rosie O’Grady (Mae Busch) – join forces to commit a series of robberies out of a pet shop. Now, how do you like that for a plot?!?

As one might expect after reading that synopsis, this flick can get pretty absurd at times. I mean, this quartet of outlaws even own a killer ape. It’s not quite a comedy, but this crime-drama doesn’t demand that you take it too seriously. The movie gets a lot of mileage out of its silly premise. It’s hard not to get a kick out of Harry Earles’ character, dressed as a baby, chomping a cigar.

The major downside of the silent version of The Unholy Three is that it ends with a courtroom finale. I’m generally not a fan of those sorts of conclusions, and this is no exception. It wasn’t exactly a fast-paced picture to begin with, and now we have to endure a bunch of people talking before a judge? Oh well, it doesn’t hurt the overall film too much.

It’s not perfect, but this oddity might be worth watching for fans of Lon Chaney or those looking for the weirder side of silent cinema. Does the idea of this movie appeal to you, but you’re apprehensive about viewing a film without sound? Don’t fret! Five years after it was made, a sound remake of the same title (also starring Chaney) was sent to theaters.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019) Review

Director: Chad Stahelski

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 130 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The body count continues to rise in the third entry in the John Wick franchise…but is there any reason to care? Henchmen will be mowed down by the dozens and “gallons” of computer-generated blood will be spilled, yet it all feels more impersonal than ever. Here, killing machine John Wick (Keanu Reeves) finds himself on the run, as the entire underground world of hitpeople turn on him.

There’s near-constant action in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, some of it quite inventive. We see Keanu Reeves take on some motorcyclists while on horseback, and, in another scene, crotch-destroying attack dogs are employed. However, it’s all rather video-gamey, and the film feels more like a series of action choreography demonstrations, rather than like, you know, an actual film.

Who’s killing who? Does it even matter anymore? The characters in the fight scenes sometimes don’t even hate each other. They’re often just professionals doing a job. Why should I care? Where’s the fire and the passion? This picture makes the John Rambo sequels look like high drama. Those movies take a ton of shit, but at least they had villains we wanted to see die and a hero we wanted to see succeed against the odds.

Seeing hundreds of faceless goons being blasted in the face repeatedly has rarely been less thrilling. There are surely some creative moments of action choreography, but the drama’s just not there. The ludicrous worldbuilding isn’t helping at this point either. If you want to watch a real hitman action movie, I’d highly recommend the John Woo-directed masterpiece The Killer (1989).

My rating is 6 outta 10.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) Review

Director: Chad Stahelski

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 122 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

In 2017, John Wick returned to the big screen once again to continue shooting dozens of people in the face. If this premise excites you, you may want to check this sequel out. However, if you’re expecting something – anything – more than that, think twice. This time, super-assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves) finds himself once again performing the duties of a hitman when he’s forced to kill a target in Italy due to a blood debt.

The John Wick franchise is starting to have a why-should-I-care? problem at this point. The events in the first film (that I won’t spoil here) lit a fire under the main character that propelled him on his quest for revenge. In the opening scenes of this picture, on the other hand, he’s savagely killing henchmen over a car. Okay, it’s a little more than just any car, but the reasons for the mass slaughter just keep getting more and more impersonal as the movie goes on.

The action sequences are elaborately staged, but feel oddly sterile. The blood is all almost entirely computer-generated (and obviously fake), the choreography (which can get a bit repetitive) heavily favors the titular character, innocent bystanders never seem to be harmed by the chaos going on around them, and there’s virtually no emotional punch. John Wick: Chapter 2 basically just limps from one excuse for action to another until its two hours are up.

This entry into the series is also where the worldbuilding goes from intriguing to preposterous. The universe that these shadowy killers live in is hopelessly convoluted. Ultimately, even the silliest of action movies need a solid emotional hook to grab the audience and keep their attention. John Wick: Chapter 2 largely lacks that, making the big-body-count madness feel meaningless.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

John Wick (2014) Review

Directors: Chad Stahelski and David Leitch

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 101 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

In 2014, the first entry in the highly successful franchise John Wick was sent to theaters. Action movie fans were particularly thrilled with the choreography of the scenes of violence and the fact that the main character is shown reloading his firearms (the last one seems like an awfully low bar to clear, doesn’t it?). In this film, a group of goons pull a home invasion on ex-hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves), forcing him out of retirement, because they simply have no idea with who they’re messing with.

This picture sometimes feels like one of those Steven Seagal flicks where characters are constantly talking about how badass and unstoppable the Seagal character is. Indeed, Reeves is damn near invincible here. Sure, he gets hurt here and there, but the action bits often feel too easy for him. The carefully choreographed action sequences (which are orgies of headshots) have little sense of danger as Reeves barrels through them like a bull in a china shop.

John Wick does have some interesting worldbuilding, as the feature dives into an underworld society of hitpeople and the rules that dictate their behavior. The entire movie is clearly governed by the “Rule of Cool,” where whatever looks awesome goes. Unfortunately, the film feels poorly structured, not really knowing when to call it quits. The best and most memorable action scenes are in the first two acts, after all.

The first flick in the John Wick series is a pretty good piece of red meat for action aficionados. Yes, Reeves’ character barely breaks a sweat (by action hero standards) in the fights, but the crime that justifies his rampage gives the movie just enough fuel to keep going. It is a shame, though, that the third act struggles to top the mayhem that came prior to it in the runtime.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Super (2010) Review

Director: James Gunn

Genre(s): Comedy, Crime

Runtime: 96 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

What if Napoleon Dynamite (2004) had actually been an R-rated vigilante movie? The superhero comedy Super from 2010 channels the same quirky energy that the 2004 picture does. In it, possibly schizophrenic fry cook Frank Darbo (Rainn Wilson) decides to become a costumed superhero named the Crimson Bolt after his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) runs away with a drug lord named Jacques (Kevin Bacon).

This uproariously funny film is a vicious satire of the comic book movie subgenre. It takes a what-if-superheroes-existed-in-the-real-world? approach to the subject matter that echoes that of the two Kick-Ass flicks. For my money, Super does it much better. Hilarious one minute and disturbingly violent the next, this feature’s Blu Ray case has two quotes from the critics that bring up the word “subversive,” so don’t expect your typical action movie.

Well, Super isn’t much of an action film at all. Yes, it has some of that sort of stuff, but most of the picture focuses on guffaws and grisly carnage that doesn’t really take place in an “action” context. The finale should satisfy the action buffs out there, though. With its transgressive behavior, this could be seen as the Taxi Driver (1976) of the superhero movie generation (or does Joker [2019] fit that description?).

This film split the critics right down the middle, but I think of it quite highly. It nails the black comedy and the violence is both cathartic and unnerving. Here are a couple of fun facts: Jean-Claude Van Damme was originally cast to play the villain, Jacques, and one movie that the main character watches on television is Troma’s War (1988), another ultra-violent comedy you should watch if you like this sort of entertainment.

My rating is 8 outta 10.