action movies

Four Brothers (2005)

Four Brothers is a everything you’d expect from a movie directed by John Singleton, starring Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson, André Benjamin, and Garrett Hedlund, and set in Detroit. It has lots of guns, a good deal of punching, and more than my daily recommended dose of alpha male machismo. But it also has Chiwetel Ejiofor, so we’ll call it even. A tale of brotherhood and justice, the movie starts with a murder, a particularly cruel one. A grandmother is gunned down at a convenience store, seemingly a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, but as her adult sons gather, little is what it seems.

The deceased is Evelyn Mercer (Fionnula Flanagan), a neighborhood guardian who’s fostered a number of children over the years. The only ones who couldn’t find permanent homes were Bobby (Wahlberg), Angel (Gibson), Jeremiah (Benjamin), and baby Jack (Hedlund), so she adopted them herself. The four – two of whom are black and two of whom are white – have drifted apart over the years, but they put their lives and differences on pause to come together and honor their mother, and to find the killers. That’s when things start to get crazy.

They deduce that her death wasn’t just the result of a robbery gone wrong but a calculated hit. Who wants to kill a sweet old grandma though? As the brothers get closer to the truth, they also find themselves tangling with the city’s criminal elements, which may involve the police. Two detectives (Terence Howard and Josh Charles) warn them off the case, and fur coat-wearing gangster Victor Sweet (Ejiofor) possibly has ties to one of the brothers.

There are a lot of characters running around, but somehow they manage to keep their distinct personalities, even if that is reduced to a few key character traits. Amongst the brothers, for example, Bobby’s the oldest and the natural leader, Angel’s the playboy, Jeremiah’s the good boy, and Jack’s the mama’s boy. These archetypes are meant to explore ideas of brotherhood, family, and identity, but they don’t amount to much more than broad overtures to a deeper social portrait. Neither the script nor the actors push the characters beyond their limited purpose within the plot, so any closer examination of race and class in this troubled part of Detroit simply fades. At the core, Four Brothers remains very much a police procedural, tense and action-packed to be sure, but not a film whose importance extends beyond whatever is happening on the screen.

Released: 2005
Prod: Lorenzo di Bonaventura
Dir: John Singleton
Writer: David Elliot, Paul Lovett
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson, André Benjamin, Garrett Hedlund, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Fionnula Flanagan, Terence Howard, Josh Charles, Sofia Vergara, Taraji P. Henson
Time: 109 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

Having never cracked open a Tom Clancy novel or seen any of the films featuring the titular hero, I watched this latest reincarnation with a willingness to embrace whatever Jack Ryan wanted to throw my way. And now that I’ve seen it and we’re a few years out, I only wish the Chris-Pine-as-Jack-Ryan tease would have lasted a little longer. A tight spy thriller that doesn’t try to outdo itself, Shadow Recruit keeps you on edge to the very end.

One reason is that our hero is not cut from the same cloth as steelier spies like James Bond or Jason Bourne or even Harrison Ford’s version of the same character. Instead, Pine sheds the bravado for a younger, untested Jack Ryan, a CIA analyst working undercover as a compliance officer on Wall Street to identify terrorist funding. His riskiest encounters happen during shadowy cinema screenings when he passes information to his handler. He is unprepared to step into the front lines of the spy world but is forced to after noticing suspicious activity on a major Russian account. Ryan goes to Moscow to investigate further but must improvise his first kill before he puts down his suitcase.

That he’s so out of his depth makes him an appealing and even reassuring lead character. Our screens are filled with so many cocky superheroes these days that Ryan’s fear and insecurity only emphasize his intelligence and humility. After he drowns his would-be assassin, Ryan fumbles his way through a call to his CIA contact and, while he’s waiting for the cleanup crew to arrive, surveys the scene with blanket shock. This isn’t what he signed up for, and in his uncertainty, you can easily see how the whole spy game might go south. But then again, this is also a guy who joined the Marines post-9/11, midway through his Ph.D at the London School of Economics. While recovering from severe injuries suffered during a helicopter explosion, in which he rescued two of his men, he rebuffs an initial offer to join the CIA because of moral objections (this being the Bush era). Pine, proving that he is equally skilled as the anti-Captain Kirk, creates a character who you trust will pull his shit together when it’s all on the line, even if Ryan has his own doubts.

This shot of realism pairs well with the Russian context, which might have seemed old hat just a few years ago. Ryan doesn’t just uncover financial dishonesty but a far more devastating plot to collapse markets and sow chaos for more terror attacks. There’s an eerie prescience to the storyline in this age of Trump. With persistent reports of Russian efforts to disrupt Western democracies, you could imagine a duplicitous Viktor Cheverin character (a delightfully cold Kenneth Branagh) lurking in the background. Though he leans towards parody – our introduction to him involves opera, drugs, and someone getting their head kicked in, Cheverin controls most of the assets in question and effectively draws the U.S. government into a daring two part chase. The first ends up being a game of cat and mouse that darts between the streets of Moscow, his glass bunker of an office, and a fancy restaurant across the way. The second is on American soil, right in the heart of Wall Street.

Grounding all this action is seasoned officer Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), who recruits Ryan and then shadows him in Moscow. His ability to keep unflappably cool and maintain an even inside voice contrasts with his edgy protégé. Costner, ageless and dignified, disappears into the role like a good spy should. Meanwhile, Keira Knightley, playing Cathy, Ryan’s doctor/girlfriend, does quite the opposite. Though the relationship could benefit from more heat between the two actors, that doesn’t lessen her performance, and she really lights up when her character crashes into Moscow like a woman scorned. Cathy is just this side of a nagging stereotype and is saved by Knightley’s resolve and occasional glower. After Ryan again pleads with her to marry him, she looks at him like he’s been asking the wrong question this whole time.

Released: 2014
Prod: Mace Neufeld, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, David Barron, Mark Vahradian
Dir: Kenneth Branagh
Writer: Adam Cozad, David Koepp
Cast: Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh, Len Kudrjawizki, Alec Utgoff, Elena Velikanova, Peter Andersson, Nonso Anozie, Gemma Chan
Time: 105 min
Lang: English, some Russian
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

White House Down (2013)

As we near Donald Trump’s first hundred days as the President of the United States, it’s safe to say that we are living in truly absurd political times. I figured the appropriate way to cope would be to watch an equally absurd politically themed movie, so here we are. As things sometimes turn out, this bombastic action thriller is marginally more sober-minded than whatever it is that we’re currently watching unravel in the nation’s capital. At least White House Down makes perfect sense within the Roland Emmerich world of apocalyptic shit shows, and there’s the satisfaction of knowing that not only do the good guys always win but the bad guys definitely get punished.

So, possibly helped by the times, I must recommend White House Down, the enjoyable political disaster movie starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx as the heroes our country desperately needs. One (Tatum) is in the mold of your traditional action star. A brusk loner with an authority problem, John Cale recognizes the sins of his past and just wants to do right by his girl, Emily (Joey King). She is his precocious middle school daughter, a walking encyclopedia of political history and current events, but is none too impressed with her estranged father. In part to earn back some daddy points, he hopes for a career upgrade from protection detail for House Speaker Eli Raphelson (Richard Jenkins) to Secret Service agent.

It’s on their way out from the interview that they crash a White House tour and meet the other man of the hour, President James Sawyer (Foxx), channeling his very best Barack Obama. Six months ago, a chill black president who’s a little too professorial and a little too much of a dove would be par for course, but now there’s something Twilight Zone about it. If only Obama really had gotten that third term, maybe we’d all be laughing now. In any case, Sawyer rebuffs Cale, not knowing that this man will save his life and his whole damn country by nightfall. That’s because a group of mercenaries, some with elite military training and a massive grudge, has infiltrated the Capitol Building and the White House, and they’ve got inside help. There is just so much treachery in Washington.

Director Emmerich guides the story along with the steady hand of one who has blown up presidential quarters before, which is useful since the White House proves to be a very big playground. The action isn’t always graceful and is too often reliant on unimpressive special effects and green screen, but the movie rushes along at a steady pace, zipping back and forth between considerable explosions, tight firefights, and actual fights. All of this is supported by a low-key chemistry between Tatum and Foxx that keeps the mood serious but only just so. Tatum has less rapport with Maggie Gyllenhaal, a former love interest and potential superior. They don’t share many scenes together, but it doesn’t matter because the appeal is Tatum shooting things whilst clad in a tiny tank top.

And to be sure, there is a lot of shooting going on here. Some people will be aghast at the carnage. I don’t mean the body count, which gets pretty high pretty quick, but the priceless artifacts that are used as target practice. The only person who senses the devastation is the droll tour guide (Nicolas Wright). In fairness though, this physical blowing up of the White House is preferable to the metaphorical one that is happening right now.

Released: 2013
Prod: Roland Emmerich, Bradley J. Fischer, Harald Kloser, James Vanderbilt, Larry Franco, Laeta Kalogridis
Dir: Roland Emmerich
Writer: James Vanderbilt
Cast: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, James Woods, Joey King, Nicolas Wright, Jimmi Simpson, Michael Murphy, Lance Reddick
Time: 131 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

Tower Heist (2011)

tower-heist

Tower Heist is a satisfying film that performs according to all expectations, never once daring to be more than it is. The heist comedy is typical Brett Ratner – slick, funny, and with only one agenda, to keep you entertained for a full 100 minutes. Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy lead a capable ensemble cast that includes Casey Affleck, Matthew Broderick, and Michael Peña as members of the misfit crew out to relieve a Bernie Madoff-like swindler, played Alan Alda, of his millions. All are pursued by Téa Leoni’s FBI agent, a woman who wishes these men would just behave themselves.

The story centers around The Tower, an exclusive Manhattan apartment complex managed by Josh Kovaks (Stiller). He’s attuned to his working class roots but maintains a close, respectful relationship with the wealthy residents under his watch. When he sees Arthur Shaw (Alda), an investment advisor, being kidnapped, he gives chase, only to be told by the FBI that Shaw was actually trying to leave the country to evade financial fraud charges. Since Josh suggested that Shaw manage his coworkers’ pension funds, he finds himself in a bit of a situation. His only recourse, naturally, is to break into Shaw’s flat and steal some – lots – of money.

The caper is no small feat and even involves weaving in and out of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, but it’s small scale if we’re comparing it to something like Ocean’s Eleven, which made great use of its sprawling and glamorous locale. That the heist is contained mostly within the sterile if upscale walls of the Tower doesn’t mean the movie’s short on action though. Besides the usual overly elaborate safe-cracking attempt, the crew make an audacious go at nicking Shaw’s prized Ferrari, the one he keeps idle in middle of his penthouse. Ratner makes the most of his expensive prop, and these sequences provide short but intense bursts of adrenaline.

The film tries to compensate for its lack of breadth and intricacy of plot with comedy. Peña stands out in almost every film he’s in and again delivers some cheeky humor as a new employee who happily goes along for the ride, because why the hell not. Broderick has some wonderfully deadpan moments as well, playing a bankrupt investor who uses the heist to come to grips with the reality of his situation. Though Stiller manages some good jabs, he also ends up directing traffic and holding the line for Murphy’s manic energy to come through. The latter plays Josh’s old classmate and a seasoned crook, of course, charged with schooling the amateurs on how to commit grand larceny. It’s a bit of a return to old form for the comic but the dynamic between his character and the rest of the gang also seem to be a vestige from the Eighties.

One thing Tower Heist willfully avoids, for better or worse, is an indictment of the criminal banking class. There’s a measure of righteous anger; Josh conceives of his plan after a coworker tries to commit suicide when he finds out his pension has disappeared. But financial fraud, class divisions, and greed merely form the backdrop. These underline the story to be sure but don’t carry that much weight once things are set in motion. Affleck’s character, an expectant father, waffles at one point and has to decide if he wants to keep his job or his friends. The more satisfying motivation, however, is simply to exact revenge on a smug asshole.

Released: 2011
Prod: Brian Grazer, Eddie Murphy, Kim Roth
Dir: Brett Ratner
Writer: Ted Griffin, Jeff Nathanson
Cast: Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Casey Affleck, Alan Alda, Matthew Broderick, Téa Leoni, Michael Peña, Gabourey Sidibe
Time: 104 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

True Memoirs of an International Assassin (2016)

true-memoirs-of-an-international-assassin

True Memoirs of an International Assassin is literally a white guy’s fantasy. Sam Larson (Kevin James) is an accountant by day, not a very good one by the looks of it, and an aspiring novelist by night, also not a very good one by the looks of it. With the help of his friend Amos (Ron Rifkin), who once did desk duty at Mossad, he’s working on a spy thriller. When an online publisher picks it up and takes some liberties with the marketing, Sam suddenly finds himself promoting what everyone assumes to be his own memoirs.

Before he can figure out how to talk his way out of this mess, he finds himself in a much more precarious situation. He’s kidnapped by some Venezuelan rebels and taken to that country where any number of people believe him to be an actual assassin and want his services. They all mistake him for the Ghost, the main character and super killer in his novel, but Sam can’t even stand up to his bullying coworker much less rebels, gangsters, and politicians. Initially he’s called upon by El Toro (Andy Garcia) to murder the president (Kim Coates) so that he and his fellow revolutionaries can stage a coup, but then Sam is intercepted by a Russian gangster (Andrew Howard) and a general (Yul Vazquez), all of whom also want his guns trained on the other parties.

Meanwhile, the CIA (Rob Riggle, Leonard Earl Howze) know he’s in Venezuela and that he’s being set up to murder the president, and nearly every other important player, but they’d rather just let things work themselves out and amuse themselves in the process. This basically describes every role Riggle plays, by the way. Sam soon finds out that his only friend is DEA agent Rosa (ass-kicking Zulay Henao), a bit of a lone shark trying to do good by her country and that of her parents.

The movie aspires to be a solid action comedy, and there are certainly elements of both. I can see why some might not like the back and forth between Sam and everyone else who wants to hire and/or kill him. It’s repetitive and predictable, like watching a multi-player ping pong match between amateurs. But I enjoy the fake outs and layers of deception, which force Sam to make some calculations about who he should be loyal to, or at least who will allow him the best chance of getting out alive. My favorite supporting character is Juan (a cool Maurice Compte who incidentally reminds me of a cool Martin Compston), El Toro’s lieutenant with whom Sam has a complex relationship.

A lot of his motivation comes from the fact that he’s a just a guy who longs for excitement and gets it the only way he knows how – by writing about it. The main joke is that he lives vicariously through his character. The editing jumps between his real life and the one in his imagination, especially in the first half of the movie. That gets distracting and tiresome pretty quickly. The initial disconnect is supposed to be funny, and it is mildly amusing, because most people aren’t going to suspect Kevin James as an international assassin. Mall cop, maybe. But as the situation escalates and fiction and reality become more entangled, the audience is asked to suspend our disbelief until we’re practically floating on air. Somewhere in the second act, the comedy wears out and the movie becomes nothing more than light action, lots of firefights with none of the consequences, at least not for our main heroes.

When Sam does take control of his life, however, the movie dives into a mucky post-modern minefield. He gets to live out the ending he wants, and I’m not going to root against a guy who desperately needs and gets some agency. But I’m also not terribly impressed that Sam Larsen played by Kevin James is the kind of guy who needs to feel empowered, especially when his getting a handle on things means gunning down shady Venezuelans and rescuing the hot girl, who until the end of the movie seems to have been on top of the situation. That this is a film about both living the stories we want to tell and giving voice to them, maybe let’s not go with the genial middle-aged white dude.

Released: 2016
Prod: Justin Begnaud, Raja Collins, Mark Fasano, Todd Garner
Dir: Jeff Wadlow
Writer: Jeff Morris, Jeff Wadlow
Cast: Kevin James, Zulay Henao, Andy Garcia, Maurice Compte, Kelen Coleman, Andrew Howard, Ron Rifkin, Rob Riggle, Leonard Earl Howze, Yul Vazquez, Kim Coates
Time: 98 min
Lang: English, some Spanish
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016