Some Recent Action Movies (now with Vampires)

Pick of the bunch is Haywire, easily the best action thriller since the third Bourne movie, and more evidence of Steven Soderbergh’s astonishing range. The story of a betrayed covert operative, Mallory (played by MMA champion Gina Carano) wreaking revenge is hardly original, but Soderbergh has made an wonderfully economical little movie (coming in at 93 minutes), littered with trademark interiors and some breathtaking exteriors (a fight on a beach as the sun goes down with only seagulls and waves for sound, the wide open wilderness of New Mexico), in which the moments of frenetic action alternate with long periods of stillness, and the attention to detail shows how a craftsman makes movies. The point of using Carano, one assumes, was to make the action sequences more realistic, and it works; there is nothing in the movie that looks computer-generated or as if performed by superhumans. A long chase sequence across the roofs of Dublin looks exactly as though a very fit twenty-something woman is doing the running and jumping. Finally, Soderbergh gets wonderful small performances from the ensemble cast of Michael Douglas, Bill Paxton, Antonio Banderas and Ewan McGregor. Highly recommended.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is much more fun than it has a right to be. Directed with a much lighter touch than either the John Woo or JJ Abrams sequels, Ghost Protocol continues the progression towards big set-piece action sequences, rather than elaborate capers that were the bread and butter of the TV series. The plot is silly — I don’t even remember it — but Tom Cruise allows himself to have some fun, and Simon Pegg offers comic relief as the tech and communications member of the team (with lots of funny references to masks). Pegg, with this and his turn as Scotty in the Star Trek reboot, seems to have emerged as a favorite for this sort of light role. Anyway, nothing special here but nothing offensive either. Just good clean family entertainment about rogue nuclear weapons targeted on San Francisco (I lied: I do remember the plot).

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows suffers, for me at least, from coming at the same time as I discovered the British Sherlock. Given that both end with the famous Reichenbach Falls finale (though it is re-imagined very differently by Stephen Moffat), the contrast is stark. The movie is now little more than an excuse for poorly-choreographed action sequences held together with what passes for banter between Holmes and Watson. It was not boring exactly, but the silliness rather overwhelmed whatever else was meant to be happening. Guy Ritchie really is a crappy director. The one interesting thing was the degree of homo-eroticism between Downey and Law. If I were Jude Law, I’m not sure I’d agree to wrestle with Robert Downey Jr and end up with my head caught between his thighs. But that’s me.

Contraband is so bad that I almost walked out, and once I’ve paid my $7.00 that is very rare. The story concerns Mark Wahlberg, who once was a high end smuggler, drawn back into the game in order to protect his wife, kids and brother in law from a scenery-chewing but otherwise laughable Giovanni Ribis. Every moment is predictable, and worst of all, Kate Beckinsale is utterly wasted in the role of Wahlberg’s wife, made to look stupid by being given inane dialogue that stretches her American accent beyond credulity. Now I’m going to have to go watch Underworld: Awakening just to remind me of what she does best. The one creditable performance comes from Ben Foster as Wahlberg’s friend and [spoiler] betrayer. Oh, and Lukas Hass has not aged well; the cute Amish kid from Witness is not cute anymore.

You will be glad to know that Kate Beckinsale redeems herself in Underworld: Awakening. Sure this is an action film with a very high quota of explosions, Lycans roaring, and sharp objects flying through the air (the IMAX 3D version is also extremely loud, not to say expensive). But did you know that Beckinsale can do poignant? “My heart is not cold; it is broken” she says to her daughter. On to the story. The third iteration of the series went back in time to explain the origin of the war between vampires and Lycans and it was nearly incomprehensible. This fourth movie is set in the near future after the humans have learned of the existence of “non-humans” and launched a cleansing which has wiped out most of the vampires and Lycans and driven the remainder underground. Selene (Beckinsale) tried to escape with her lover, Michael, but was captured and frozen for 12 years. It turns out that she also had a child who is — wait for it — the first human-Lycan-vampire hybrid. Now I’m no biologist, but I don’t understand why every time a hybrid is created, it has only the strengths of its component parts, not the weaknesses. But the result is that this little girl will be the most powerful thing ever born, blah, blah, hence the humans (or are they human?) are doing experiments on her. Anyway, the plot is beside the point. If you like this genre of film, you will like this particular film; it delivers on the action without its innate silliness overwhelming it.

32 thoughts on “Some Recent Action Movies (now with Vampires)”

  1. you’ve already watched the second season of sherlock? netflix doesn’t have it yet. i enjoyed the first and third episodes of the first season, but didn’t care for the second episode at all.

  2. Agreed, and the same is true of the second season: the second episode is much worse than the first and third. I think the same person may have written both poor episodes.

    1. i am now done with episode 2 of season 2, and yes, it too is shit. but it was not written by the same person who wrote season 1, episode 2. wikipedia tells me the writer of this episode is mark gatiss (who plays mycroft) who also wrote the quite good third episode of season 1.

      the first episode of season 2 was quite good, but i didn’t care for the last bit of the ending. i assume we’re supposed to believe what we’re shown? i would think holmes would not create a fantasy for himself.

  3. Arnab, I’m just channeling the Underworld series! It is deeply hostile to lycans; they are the clear villans of the latest installment. And let’s face it, if you have to choose between a hairy, grossly distorted werewolf, and Kate in skin-tight black leather, who would you be sympathetic to?

  4. Underworld is the bluest movie I’ve seen. It’s also nice that all the vampires and lycans congregate around the same generic two-block downtown area and its parking garage…where is this, Brasilia?

  5. i did not enjoy the latest mission impossible as much as chris did. simon pegg: yes; everyone else: no. note to hollywood producers: there are indian actors other than anil kapoor. true, the others may not have been in slumdog millionaire but they do exist.

    1. yes, but do they want to hand their dignity over to Hollywood for a larger paycheck . . . well, they probably do, but kapoor’s character was a Said-worthy embarrassment . . . I’m not sure what the big fuss was/is over this movie . . . I felt like I’ve seen it all before

  6. i fear that a deeply traumatic chris/arnab schism may be developing: i also did not enjoy underworld: awakening as much as he did. incoherent stuff happens under a blue filter and kate beckinsale glides around in her leather tights, yes. but the most interesting thing about the film is a casting decision. scott speedman is not in the film, but his character is not written out. a very obvious stand-in is used for some scenes but rather than keep the character in it and recast him they choose to keep the character off-screen and gesture to his return, front and center, in the next film (and as this was apparently the most successful in the franchise there will indeed be another). so, does this mean that speedman was not able to do this one but is available for the next? or are they hoping that he will be? either way, who knew scott speedman was so sought-after. i did not say these were interesting questions; merely that they are the most interesting thing about the film.

    1. Since the standard for this kind of movie is so low, I think the onus is on Arnab to justify not enjoying something he himself describes as “incoherent stuff happens under a blue filter and kate beckinsale glides around in her leather tights.” That pretty much describes every Underworld movie. Judging by his IMDb filmography, Scott Speedman should be available for anything that comes attached to a paycheck.

  7. oh come on, chris, the first two films had a) scenery chewing and b) scripts (or at least convoluted mythology). and the third one had rhona mitra.

    what this film lacks chiefly is bill nighy (or even the guy who played the uber-vampire from the second one). things looked up when charles dance showed up but they gave him nothing to do.

  8. Charles Dance was in it? Good God! I didn’t recognize him. From Raj Quartet to Alien III to Underworld IV. I had no idea he was still alive.

  9. i may have hallucinated it. i think he was the boss of the vampire coven in hiding; the guy who was upset that selene and her brat had been brought to them. he is in hbo’s game of thrones and he’s great in it.

  10. IMDb says you are right. I’m not watching Game of Thrones; perhaps I should. Charles Dance is listed as appearing in a film version of Midnight’s Children. Interesting. I’m not sure what my expectations are for that.

    BTW, I enjoyed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Sue me!

    1. My lawyers will be in touch.

      I should post on Prometheus, which I enjoyed, but not enough to …. even finish a sentence.

      But I watched a tricky, smart little BBC show called The Fades which messes with YA preoccupations and quasi-dark-fantasy and zombie mythology with an unfamiliar pop and fizz. Chris, you’ve likely already seen it, but…

  11. i watched the avengers last night. surprisingly, i was not alone in the theater. more surprisingly (maybe) i didn’t think it was very good. or more accurately, i didn’t think it was anything more than a solid by the numbers summer blockbuster. a couple of funny moments here and there (all involving the hulk) but, on the whole, i think whedon-mania caused this to be overpraised.

  12. the grey. burdened by seriousness and metaphor, but not bad. some unusual beats for a movie of this kind, and a few very nice scenes–including one in which liam neeson eases a crash victim into death.

    i’m not sure why anyone flies in alaska. you always crash and if it’s not the wolves it’s the bears that eat you.

  13. chronicle. an odd, but finally effective science fiction film. three high school kids of different social standing at school find a mysterious, humming hole in a field by a barn where a party is taking place. they descend, find something that appears to be of alien origin and suddenly they have ever expanding telekinetic powers, which they don’t do very well with. they obviously didn’t pay attention to the whole “with great power comes great responsibility” thing in the spiderman movies.

    at first the found footage gimmick really annoyed me but it created a distancing effect that mirrored the protagonist’s state of mind quite well. it takes a while to get going–the opening 15-2o minutes are really un-involving–the script is patchy, and some of the performances are really not very good but the whole adds up to more than the sum of its parts. worth watching even if you’re not into science fiction. the emphasis here is really not on action or the science fiction element (the source or parameters of the power is not anything the film is interested in) but on the jerkiness of teenage boys and in particular the consequences of one kid’s abuse/alienation. it’s not trying to say anything very interesting about that alienation but it’s refreshing to see a superhero movie (which this very roughly is) refracted through that lens and generally uninterested in the trappings of most superhero movies.

    alas, it is another film made by young male film-makers that cannot imagine any meaningful parts for women.

  14. chris and i are bff’s again: haywire is indeed very good fun. i agree with his review on all counts except i will throw in a nod to the amazing house bill paxton’s character lives in. now i am trying to remember what happens in the third bourne movie.

  15. The trailer for the fourth Bourne has a couple of shots from the third (the Guardian journalist being shot, and the line about Jason Bourne being in New York). I’m wondering if this is shameless padding, or if the fourth movie weaves into the original trilogy in some way. Normally I’d be expecting the worst from this, but Jeremy Renner seems to have a nice light sense of humor in the trailer. I guess I’m cautiously hopeful.

    Both the Avengers and Amazing Spider-Man seemed by-the-numbers, unremarkable superhero movies. I have no memory of either, and I saw Spidey less than two days ago.

    Ted, however, is hands down the funniest movie I’ve seem in the last few years. I was embarrassed to go see it but allowed my son to persuade me, and just line after line had my laughing uncontrollably.

    1. I agree Ted was funny, though not quite as funny as Bridesmaids. Not as well made, either. Seth should have trusted someone else with this film. Maybe someone who was not so obsessed with the crane shot. Jesus! This was like Johnny LaRue’s Polynesian Town! But at least Seth avoided the shot-counter shot more than most. Also, I do think that an essential 10-minute chunk got cut from the film, about 2/3 the way through. It jumped a bit, noticeably.

      But some great moments here. And it was a stroke of genius to stick with the idea that no one gives a shit about Ted anymore, making the only threat to Ted being someone more seriously fucking regressive than John: a wacko played brilliantly by Giovanni Ribisi. I can imagine some lousy screenwriter imagining that a Hasbro exec gets it in his head to kidnap Ted in order to find a way to mass market him.

      A lot of references to the late 70s through the 80s, including a nice homage to Airplane and a serious love letter to Flash Gordon, which leads me to think that maybe Seth MacFarlane has, whether he intended to or not, made it as explicit as possible that today’s Bromance is a product of the generation born in the late 60s, early 70s. It has something to with boys like you and me, who were wishing like hell to open up that Darth Vader storage carry case on Christmas morning.

  16. wikipedia confirms that i have seen the third bourne movie. i believe the plot of the new one with jeremy renner runs in parallel to the action of the second or maybe the third one. renner plays a product of the program that succeeds treadstone (which created bourne and the clive owen character) which was shut down at the end of the first film.

  17. As I understood it, the latest movie runs in parallel with the third movie. It is the likelihood that Treadstone, Blackbriar and Jason Bourne will become public knowledge, thanks to the efforts of Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) that leads the Edward Norton character to try to temporarily close down the Outcome project (which seems to be Treadstone plus genetic engineering). That in turn sets Aaron Cross (Renner) off on his effort to save himself.

    I enjoyed it well enough, It didn’t seem much like a Bourne movie to me; just your run-of-the-mill competent action movie. The choreography of the Bourne action sequences was lacking for me (like the great scene in the third movie at Waterloo Station, or the one in Tangiers). Still, Renner was perfectly likable.

    I’ve read that we now have two parallel, somewhat competing franchises, with Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon owning the original Bourne, and Tony Gilroy and Jeremy Renner owning the offshoot.

  18. i’ve already commented about ted on another thread and so i must here register my disagreement with chris on only the new bourne film: maybe this is a function of watching it at home rather than on a big screen but i found it terribly dull (so too did reynolds, who now only posts to his legions of adoring students on facebook). the first half hour was particlarly slack but at no point did i feel any sense of urgency. perhaps this is a function of having jeremy renner as your lead with ed norton and rachel weisz in support i.e. no real hierarchy of stardom. the focus gets divided between the three in a way it never does in the first three bourne films. and the editor is not up to the task of making it work.

  19. I don’t think I was enthusiastic about the movie in my brief comments. I just said it was a fairly competent action movie. I agree it was fairly dull. But I expect Hansel & Gretel to be a thrill a minute when I see it later today!

  20. I’ll say this, after a fall in which every film I saw was over two and a half hours long, it was refreshing that H&G clocked in at a mere 88 minutes. Definitely better than Van Helsing. Not a lot of chemistry between the two leads, but an enjoyable romp, some amusing blood splatter and plenty of amusing quips. Worth a rental.

    Same goes for Parker. Nothing special, and Statham plays the identical character no matter what the movie, but J-Lo put in an affecting performance.

  21. I’ll check ’em out, Chris….I have been a bit tired of these lengthy movies, as well, having seen Django Unchained, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty all in the same week; is there such a thing as the light-on-its feet, concise drama any longer?

  22. Bullet in the Head is also only 93 minutes long, but I don’t think I’d call it light on its feet! I was hoping to do a back-to-back aging action heroes screening of Last Stand followed by Bullet in the Head, but Last Stand was pulled from movie theaters only two weeks after it opened. So I got to watch Stallone’s granite features and tortured wisecracks, but not those of Schwarzenegger.

  23. I just saw Bullet to the Head (not to be confused with the John Woo masterpiece Bullet in the Head ). It’s strangely enjoyable–partly for, as you say, Chris, Stallone’s (weird) granite features and tortured wisecracks. He even says “That’ll be the day,” in a nod to John Wayne. The main drawback is the Korean actor Sung Kang, who’s godawful. It’s not really the Walter Hill of The Driver but it did blowed up good.

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