Reservoir Dogs (1992) Review

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Genre(s): Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 99 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Writer/director Quentin Tarantino made quite the splash in the moviemaking world with his stylish, meta crime-thriller Reservoir Dogs in 1992. It’s a low-budget film, but, thanks to the talent involved, it doesn’t feel like one. The picture’s about a group of criminals trying to determine what went wrong after a jewelry heist of theirs goes South. Is there an undercover cop in their midst?

Along with Pulp Fiction (1994), also directed by Quentin Tarantino, this feature helped introduce the world to a new style of crime-thriller, one that was pop culture-savvy, self-aware, sadistically violent, and cool. The dialogue is foul-mouthed (the Trivia section on this film’s IMDb entry reports two hundred seventy-two uses of “the f-word”) and the carnage is cruel and bloody. The storytelling is non-linear, with numerous flashbacks being effectively used to explain how the characters found themselves in their current predicament.

Tarantino is a writer/director who clearly loves the sound of actors reciting his hip dialogue. This is one of the movie’s biggest strengths and one of its biggest drawbacks. The writing clearly has character, but the end result sometimes feels self-indulgent and talky. Fortunately, Reservoir Dogs has a manageable runtime, so it never becomes truly boring.

Inspired by Hong Kong actioners, this flick sometimes resembles a “heroic bloodshed” film, with all of its two-fisted gunplay and its “Mexican standoffs.” Well, that is, if we cut out the “heroic” part and reduce the amount of action. This influential thriller has distinct characters and satisfactory pacing. I certainly like it, but its meta talkiness sometimes comes across as a tad tacky.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Uncut Gems (2019) Review

Directors: Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 135 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

In 2019, Adam Sandler generated a lot of Oscar buzz for himself for his performance in the drama-thriller Uncut Gems. It’s a bit different from the typical Sandler role, and, although he wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award, he still made quite an impression. In this crime film, New York City jeweler Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) desperately finds himself trying to pay off his gambling debts in order to stay afloat.

Uncut Gems is famous for its reputation of being an assaultive panic attack in cinematic form. The movie’s style is relentlessly suspenseful, constantly having its main character being in some sort of trouble, as he moves from one bad decision to the next. Personally, I didn’t find it as anxiety-inducing as many have suggested, but that didn’t stop me from being entertained from beginning to end.

For a picture about people incessantly screaming, swearing, and talking at the same time, this is a surprisingly easy feature to follow. In terms of comprehending what was going on onscreen, I felt like I was treading water the same way that Sandler’s character was with his financial dealings. Speaking of Sandler, his performance here is rightfully celebrated. He simply disappears into the role of a fast-talking bullshitter who’s in over his head with no one to blame but himself.

For some viewers, Uncut Gems is a bit too much. Yes, it relies heavily on uncomfortable and nervous-energy-provoking scenes and there are no likable characters, but there’s never a dull moment and the comedy that is in it is effective. I especially liked the way it built up to its climax. If you know that you’re in for a film that’s not entertaining in the conventional sense of the term, you might walk away smiling.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Mine (2016) Review

Directors: Fabio Guaglione and Fabio Resinaro

Genre(s): Drama, Thriller, War

Runtime: 106 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The film Mine from 2016 is a mediocre attempt at one of those psychological thrillers with a potentially unreliable narrator where the line between reality and fantasy becomes blurred. After an assassination assignment in modern-day North Africa goes wrong, two American servicemen – Michael Stevens (Armie Hammer) and Tommy Madison (Tom Cullen) find themselves passing through an old desert minefield. It may be a war movie, but this flick is more about confronting one’s inner demons than enemy soldiers on a battlefield.

Mine often lets abstract sequences get in the way of the more interesting survival thriller elements. I love surrealism, but I question its extensive use here. Sometimes it was difficult to care about what was going on, since it might just be a mirage or a hallucination. The flick becomes a bit tiring after a while, and the project might have fared better as a short film.

Now, let’s move on to the stuff that went right. Armie Hammer gives a solid performance with what he’s given to work with, and the cinematography’s pretty. The opening scenes involving the assassination attempt on a terrorist leader are appropriately tense. Despite all of the craziness throughout the picture, I will say that it mostly manages to stick the landing.

I used the word “abstract” earlier in this review, and I feel that that word sums up a significant portion of the feature, which might make it a bit unlikable or inaccessible to many people expecting something a bit more straightforward. It’s not your typical combat movie by a long shot, it has pretensions of being something more cerebral and personal. If you enjoy this film, then more power to you, but I found it to be an average (at best) what-is-real-and-what-is-not?-style thriller. Maybe I just didn’t “get” it…

My rating is 5 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.

Extraction (2020) Review

Director: Sam Hargrave

Genre(s): Action, Thriller

Runtime: 116 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Extraction is a film that’s about one thing and one thing only: action. Okay, okay, it’s also about violence, but that’s close enough to action to count as one thing. I’m not sure if telling you the plot is worth doing, but here goes nothing: mercenary Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) must rescue an Indian crime lord’s son, Ovi Mahajan (Rudhraksh Jaiswal), from his kidnappers in Bangladesh. That’s everything about the story you need to know.

Let’s start with what goes right, shall we? The action scenes, the movie’s raison d’ĂȘtre, are strong and pull little punches in the graphic violence department, even if there is that choreographed-for-the-camera feel to them (yes, I know all film action sequences are planned and choreographed, but it feels a bit more obvious than usual here). There’s a period of action in this feature that was made to look like one continuous shot and the results are pretty stupefying. The plot of the flick eventually develops into one of those follow-your-conscience stories, so that’s a plus.

Outside of the carnage, there isn’t a whole lot to praise. Chris Hemsworth doesn’t make much of an impression as the lead actor (except when it comes to the physical stuff), and the storytelling lacks that extra “oomph” needed to keep things propulsive. Some have criticized the picture for having a White-savior-style narrative, and seeing the main character savagely mow down a bunch of Bangladeshi cops and soldiers (even if they’re supposed to be “crooked” or “dirty”) just isn’t as fun as witnessing him giving gangsters the smackdown. People not interested in bloody slaughter will find nothing worth watching here.

Extraction is a serious, humorless action-thriller movie (with emphasis on the “action” part) that still has its fans. The fights are incredible from a technical point-of-view and the plot has a nice do-the-right-thing element, yet little else goes right. Films that are almost pure action can be done properly – just look at The Raid: Redemption (2011) – but this one stumbles a bit. When it comes to this sort of action picture, I think I’ll stick with Commando (1985) for now.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Cloak and Dagger (1946) Review

Director: Fritz Lang

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

Runtime: 106 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

During World War II, American scientist Alvah Jesper (Gary Cooper) is recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to head to Europe to spy on Nazi Germany’s nuclear weapons program. Cloak and Dagger was directed by Fritz Lang, who had previously helmed the science-fiction masterpiece Metropolis (1927) and the serial killer thriller M (1931) and would later direct the excellent film noir The Big Heat (1953), and starred cinema icon Gary Cooper. Sounds like a dream team collaboration. How does it stack up?

This film is at its best in moments of action and suspense. The surprisingly hard-hitting hand-to-hand combat scenes are the highlight, featuring a Liam Neeson-esque throat punch or two. The final shootout doesn’t fare quite as well. In comparison, it feels lazily shot at times and lacks a distinct culmination. There are also some impressive espionage-related sequences that don’t deal with violence directly.

What keeps Cloak and Dagger back from greatness is its romantic subplot. The movie really hits a brick wall here. The scenes between Gary Cooper’s character and Italian resistance fighter Gina (Lilli Palmer) don’t add much to the final product, although some have commented that they put a human face on the toll of partisan warfare and fascist occupation. The pace would be much tighter if these scenes were written out of the screenplay.

At the end of the day, Cloak and Dagger is something less than the sum of its parts. When focused on the details of Gary Cooper’s mission, this war-time adventure-thriller is pretty memorable. It’s the romance that threatens to sabotage the end result. Still, it’s a watchable enough war picture for fans of Cooper or Fritz Lang.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Mirage (1965) Review

Director: Edward Dmytryk

Genre(s): Thriller

Runtime: 108 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1965 film Mirage was directed by Edward Dmytryk, but it wouldn’t feel at all out-of-place in the canon of Alfred Hitchcock. It’s a hard movie to discuss the story of without going into spoiler territory, but I’ll give it a try. Set in New York City, the power goes out in an office building and somebody just jumped from the twenty-seventh story, with accountant David Stillwell (Gregory Peck) about to be caught up in a mysterious murder plot. I’d advise against reading any synopses of this picture first (even the IMDb one), just watch it.

As I just stated, this is one of those just-trust-me-and-watch-it kind of suspense movies. Unlike some thrillers, Mirage has an easy-to-follow plot that doesn’t try to lose the audience in its efforts to put the them on the edge of their seat. In some ways, this feature resembles the style of films that Liam Neeson started doing post-Taken (2008), although it has less action (Mirage does have some physical altercation, to be sure).

The screenplay to Mirage was written by Peter Stone, who also penned the script to the somewhat similar Charade (1963). This one isn’t as overtly comedic as Charade, but the writing still feels sharp and witty. Gregory Peck is terrific, as expected, playing his usual combination of every-man, tough guy, and dauntless-man-of-integrity. A special mention must be given to George Kennedy, who plays Willard with a Terminator-esque ruthlessness.

Mirage is a taut, sophisticated thriller that is one of the hidden gems of the genre. Okay, not every single explanation related to the mystery at the heart of the movie is one-hundred-percent satisfying, but the way it builds confounding situation upon confounding situation is mighty impressive. The film even name-drops James Bond at one point, but this picture, in my opinion, is more entertaining than any 007 flicks released up to the date of this review.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Big Sleep (1946) Review

Director: Howard Hawks

Genre(s): Crime, Mystery, Thriller

Runtime: 114 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The second (of four) onscreen collaborations between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall was the endlessly complicated film-noir The Big Sleep, released in 1946. Badass, womanizing private-eye Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is called upon to investigate a blackmailing scheme, and ends up trapped in a web of gambling and murder. Sounds great, right? Well, just wait until you try to untangle the movie’s plot.

Even the most die-hard of The Big Sleep defenders are quick to admit that it’s impossible to follow what’s going on onscreen. It’s certainly one of Hollywood’s most famous examples of plot convolution. Instead of focusing on who and why people are getting killed, critics suggest paying attention to the picture’s intense, nocturnal mood and the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall.

Okay, those aspects of the feature deserve praise. This is a shadowy, sinister, seedy world that the characters inhabit, and the cinematography really brings this out. The nighttime scenes are memorable, even if you’re not sure what’s going on. The banter between the two leads (which occasionally thumbs its nose at the Hollywood Production Code of the time) is fun to listen to.

Professional critics really seem to bend over backwards for this one, loving it for what it could’ve been (if the plot was easier to follow), rather than for what it is. It’s not bad, but I generally prefer films where I can tell what is happening (unless it’s something intentionally surreal). According to one famous anecdote about the making of the motion picture, the filmmakers asked Raymond Chandler (who wrote the book that the movie’s based on) about one of the murders in the production in order to figure out the “who?” and “why?” behind the killing. Apparently, Chandler didn’t know either!

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Dark Passage (1947) Review

Director: Delmer Daves

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

Runtime: 106 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The third (of four) movies that Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made together was a film-noir with some interesting ideas called Dark Passage. After escaping from prison (where he was locked up for allegedly murdering his wife), Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) is taken in by artist Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall) to help him clear his name. The finished product really isn’t as good as it should be, but it’s still watchable.

One of the most notable aspects of Dark Passage is the heavy use of first-person point-of-view cinematography in the first half. It’s not always seamless, but it adds a cool, almost ahead-of-its-time flavor to this crime-thriller. This, and the intriguing plot built up around a man on the run with no one he can trust (well, with the possible exception of Lauren Bacall’s character), ropes in the viewer. Not every character is going to survive to the end.

Unfortunately, the first act is the best part of the movie. Not everything after that is bad by any means, but, as the picture shifts away from the first-person gimmick, it loses something. It gets significantly talkier in several sequences and the ending is quite anti-climatic. It almost feels like the filmmakers were running out of time or didn’t exactly know how to end the picture on a pleasing note and rushed the conclusion.

In retrospective, professional critics have been rather kind to this one, partially thanks to the fact that it’s just Bogie and Bacall doing what they do best (although the supporting cast also gets singled out for praise). I am less enthusiastic about it, due to its not-entirely-satisfying ending and some of its dialogue-heavy tendencies. There are certainly many films I’d recommend this over, but can I really give a thumbs-up to a flick that peaks in its first third?

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Key Largo (1948) Review

Director: John Huston

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 100 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The crime-thriller Key Largo would be the fourth and final onscreen collaboration between husband-wife acting duo Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Set in Key Largo, Florida, a small group of gangsters led by Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) hold the visitors to an ocean-side hotel, including World War II veteran Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart), hostage in the middle of a hurricane. Another captive is Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall), who was made a widow by the 1939-1945 war and who sets her eyes on McCloud.

Key Largo is based on a 1939 play with the same name, and sometimes it shows. Most of the action takes place in the Hotel Largo and this sometimes causes the movie to verge on talkiness. Still, the film is blessed with a sweaty atmosphere and the script is pretty good, too. It never really feels claustrophobic in a bad sort of way, and the final shootout gives the flick a chance to breathe.

This feature is usually classified as a film-noir, and it has a mercifully straightforward plot for a motion picture done in that style. I’m frequently turned off by the twisty-turny stories that noirs often employ, but Key Largo is refreshingly simple. Plus, it’s just fun to see two of the greatest icons of black-and-white gangster movies, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson, square off against each other in such a well-made flick.

Key Largo is a likeable mobster-noir drama with several swell performances. It’s not an action picture (though the final moments of gunplay do satisfy), but it still manages to keep the audience engaged. In a way, it feels like a reverse version of The Petrified Forest (1936). In that film, Bogie plays a criminal who holds a Western American diner hostage, and in this movie, Bogart is a prisoner to a gangster takeover of a building orchestrated by a different actor.

My rating is 7 outta 10.