Killing Gunther (2017)

2018 #83
Taran Killam | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English, German & Spanish | 15 / R

Killing Gunther

Do you ever have that feeling where you want to watch a film but you don’t want it to be anything too demanding or important? I do. I’ve watched (and subsequently reviewed) plenty of films with that underlying motivation. Killing Gunther is the latest that absolutely fits that bill. I had paid it absolutely no heed whatsoever until I happened to see a trailer that looked moderately amusing. Bolstered by a Rotten Tomatoes pullquote that described it as “a very affectionate take on the [hitman action] genre, so it’s much easier to overlook its shortcomings if that happens to be a genre that you’re a fan of,” I decided it was worth a punt.

Framed as a mockumentary, it’s the story of a hitman (Taran Killam) who sets out to kill the world’s greatest hitman, Gunther (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and assembles a team of oddball fellow hitman to do so. Unfortunately for them, Gunther is so damn good that he’s always several steps ahead.

As a comedy, I thought it was funny. Not always super original or absolutely hilarious, but ticking enough. As an action movie, some of the single-take assassination scenes are done quite well. It was clearly produced on a low budget, so the action sequences don’t really fulfil on an adrenaline-junkie level, but they work decently in context.

Gunther vs... that other guy

For Arnie fans, it’s worth noting that he doesn’t actually turn up until over an hour into the movie. Put another way, he’s not in 72% of the film. Really, it’s just an extended cameo. It would’ve been a neat surprise if his appearance was a secret, but the whole marketing campaign is based around him (which makes sense, but still).

If you hate mockumentaries, or indie comedies with more ambition than budget, or are coming just to see plenty of Arnie, then Killing Gunther is one to skip. If the concept and style appeals, however, it’s a decent 90 minutes for a lazy evening.

3 out of 5

Red Sonja (1985)

2015 #64
Richard Fleischer | 85 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA & Netherlands / English | 15* / PG-13

Red SonjaFrom the sword and sorcery ‘boom’ of the ’80s, Red Sonja concerns a warrioress going after the evil queen who slaughtered her family and has now seized a magical MacGuffin that will destroy the world or somesuch.

The first remarkable thing about Red Sonja is that I don’t think anyone in it can act. Our heroine is played by model Brigitte Nielsen. Discovered on the cover of a fashion magazine by producer Dino De Laurentiis, that’s more or less the extent of her acting skills. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays her love interest / fellow warrior / big name to go on the poster. He’s hardly renowned for his thespian credentials either, and this won’t do anything to persuade you otherwise. No one else fares any better, though Sandahl Bergman has a degree of entertaining over-the-top campiness as the villainess.

However, the screenplay is surprisingly not bad, provided you accept it’s trying to be funny rather than assuming it’s unintentionally so. The bluntness of Arnie’s character early on is particularly laughable… though I think that one might be unintentional. There are some character and/or plot beats that are very effective — the fate the villainess affords survivors of a temple massacre is chilling, for example. When it tries to be too serious it’s often not much cop, but generally it’s operating in a slightly-wry action-adventure tone, so it earns a cautious pass.

Technical elements are largely up to snuff, including some great production design (the skeleton bridge, for example) and some well-choreographed action scenes, with the Sonja vs. Arnie fight Lovers' tiffbeing a particular highlight. Veteran helmer Richard Fleischer’s direction seems to have come in for criticism from some quarters, but I found it adequately unremarkable. Damning with faint praise, I know, but it doesn’t merit slagging off either.

Red Sonja is by no means a good film, but it’s kind of marvellous in spite of its innumerable flaws. I sort of loved it.

3 out of 5

* Originally cut in the UK to get a PG. References to Sonja being raped and a throwing star were all that had to go, apparently (so not the two beheadings!) The first video release featured the cinema print; subsequent releases are all uncut and rated 15. ^

The Expendables 3: Extended Version (2014)

2015 #77
Patrick Hughes | 131 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & France / English | 15

The Expendables 3Oscar-nominated screenwriter Sylvester Stallone continues his examination of masculinity and machismo amongst older men in this trilogy-forming instalment of his Expendables franchise.

You think I’m joking… because I am. But there is actually an element of that in this latest action-fest, as the leader of the titular band of mercenaries, Barney Ross (Stallone), chooses to retire his team of ageing soldiers (Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, and new re-recruit Wesley Snipes) after one of their number is put in critical condition, and replace them with younger models (Kellan Lutz, Victor Ortiz, Glen Powell, and Ronda Rousey). It’s all in aid of capturing the team’s latest target, international arms dealer Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), who Ross thought he’d killed years ago…

That said, if you’re looking for any commentary on… well, anything… you’re going to have to read it in there yourself, because co-writers Stallone, Katrin Benedikt and Creighton Rothenberger, and director Patrick Hughes (now attached to The Raid remake, incidentally) are more focused on providing the simple ’80s-throwback action thrills and bad one-liners that genre fans expect from The Expendables. There’s certainly an abundance of both, to varying degrees of success: there are plenty of lines delivered in a knowing way that don’t seem to contain even a trace of humour, while the plot is naturally built to string together the combat scenes.

Fears about the PG-13 rating — lower than the R of the first two, in a misguided attempt to improve the box office — are largely misplaced. Well, unless you really like CGI blood spatters (there are none, not even added in for the ‘unrated’ longer cut) or other such special effects. The action choreography is fairly slick, Mogadishu actionthough occasionally obscured by camerawork and editing that turns it into a cacophony of violence. The Blu-ray release helps expose this: the special features include an extended version of Statham’s main battle from the climax, and in that focused form you can see how it’s been carefully constructed and designed. In the film itself, it’s chopped up into ten-second chunks and intercut with everyone else’s duels. It becomes like an impressionistic painting of shooting, punching, kicking, stabbing, running, jumping… It’s a war, as the now-double-sized team of heroes takes on a literal army, and some will revel in the over-the-top-ness of it all. The sheer excess does have a certain charm.

The best bits come a little earlier on, though. A car/van/truck chase around the Port of Mogadishu is the action highlight, in my opinion; later, the young team attempt to infiltrate an artsy modern building in a sequence that seems to emulate a Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible film, which is at least a different style for this series. Elsewise, the supporting cast of cameos provide good value — in Harrison Ford’s case, literally, as he replaced Bruce Willis after the latter demanded $4 million for four days’ work. Ford just has to turn up on screen to be cool, though he has his moments beyond that. There’s also Kelsey Grammer as a merc talent scout who seems to have a habit of kicking off whole non sequitur conversations; a bigger role for Arnie, though still on the sidelines; and a pointless appearance by martial arts expert Jet Li, performing no martial arts whatsoever. The new kids are adequate but nothing to write home about.

Parkour-performing blabbermouthThe best addition, unquestionably, is Antonio Banderas. He’s a parkour-performing blabbermouth who keeps pestering Grammer for a job, but no one wants him because he won’t stop talking. And he’s hilarious. Of the 93 changes in the five-minutes-longer extended version (yes, ninety-three), most are split-second action beats, the vast majority during that big final battle, but a handful are more of Banderas just chatting away, and those are welcome. He takes a while to turn up, but when he does it lifts the whole film. His performance is the best thing to come out of the entire franchise. I mean, it’s not a reason to watch the films if you weren’t going to, but if you are anyway…

The Expendables 3 is, for my money, much for muchness with the previous two films. They all have different pros and cons, sliding different elements up and down on the series’ mixing board with various degrees of success, and this third entry is no different. It seems Stallone intends to keep producing Expendables flicks, with talk of who might appear in a fourth outing taking place even before the third was released (Pierce Brosnan, maybe? More recently, ex-wrestlers the Rock and Hulk Hogan), though the box office of this instalment throws that into question: off a $90 million budget, it only made $39 million in the US… but then it did take almost $167 million from everywhere else — surely enough to consider a sequel? Especially if next time they can stop it leaking on the internet several weeks early…

Ageing action actorsI kind of hope they do make more. The Expendables movies aren’t great films — heck, they aren’t even really great action films — and they’re a bit too cheesy and in-joke-y for the own good — and yet, somehow, I can’t resist them, and I’ll be happy to keep watching them for as long as Stallone and co can keep making them. After all, there are an awful lot of ageing action actors who’ve not appeared yet…

3 out of 5

The Expendables 3 is available on Netflix UK as of yesterday.

Last Action Hero (1993)

2014 #108
John McTiernan | 126 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

Last Action HeroThe first film to be advertised in space (no, really) sees movie-obsessed schoolboy Danny (Austin O’Brien) acquire a golden ticket that transports him into the latest movie staring his favourite action hero, Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger). With Danny’s knowledge of the genre’s clichés, Slater can solve the murder of his favourite second cousin and stop the machinations of sharpshooting henchman Benedict (Charles Dance).

Last Action Hero is effectively a spoof of action-thrillers, albeit with a real-world framing device instead of just leaping in Airplane-style. That has distinct pros and cons. In the former’s camp, the film is most alive in the first and third acts, when the two worlds initially collide and, later, when the fictional characters enter our world only to find that not everything’s the same as in the movies.

The downside is that the bulk of the middle is set in movie-world, and it’s simply too long to spend there. The film that Danny jumps in to, Jack Slater IV, deliberately has a highly generic action-thriller plot… but that means Last Action Hero plays like one too. There’s fun stuff centred around Danny’s “impossible” knowledge of what’s going on, as well as a playfulness with genre conventions, but it quickly runs out of ways to be unique, and we’re left having to sit through a terribly rote story with flashes of humour.

Brits make the best villainsThat said, it’s probably a good thing this isn’t a whole movie of “fictional characters in the real world” — you can imagine how that would play out; all the predictable “fish out of water” hijinks. However, at just over two hours, this isn’t a short film, and cutting out some of the middle wouldn’t have hurt.

It’s also a shame it ended up with a 15 certificate over here. It’s very much a PG-13 movie — it’s got that almost-kid-friendly tone, not to mention the pre-teen protagonist. These days it would surely get a 12A, even if changes were needed. I’d argue the disjunct between certificate-based expectations and the reality of the film accounted for some of its poor reception… but as it was a PG-13 in the US and went down badly there too, who knows.

Still, there are many memorable moments, like the (in)famous Arnie-in-Hamlet sequence, and Dance makes for an excellent adversary, both humorous and genuinely villainous. Although it could benefit from numerous tweaks across the board, there’s actually an awful lot to enjoy here, even if the highlights are mainly for fans of the specific genre it’s so accurately spoofing.

3 out of 5

The Running Man (1987)

2014 #116
Paul Michael Glaser | 97 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

The Running Man25 years before Jennifer Lawrence had to fight for her life on TV, Arnie had to do the same.

In an ever-so-’80s vision of the future (my God, those costumes!), Arnie’s wrongfully-convicted fugitive ends up on TV’s most popular show, where criminals fight for their freedom against a variety of imposing opponents. Secretly, he’s there to try to overthrow the corrupt regime.

The implications of the central concept have been explored better several times since, but, despite dated design, the solid direction from Starsky (yes, as in and Hutch) ensures this is an entertaining SF action movie for genre fans.

3 out of 5

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

The Expendables 2 (2012)

2014 #66
Simon West | 103 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & Bulgaria / English | 15 / R

The Expendables 2Sylvester Stallone’s ragtag collection of former action stars (and some current ones) reassemble for another throwback fight-fest, this time upping the daftness factor, to mixed results.

The story sees Stallone’s team of mercenaries coerced into another mission by Bruce Willis, which goes askew when a gang of villains led by Jean-Claude Van Damme intervene, killing one of Stallone’s team in the process — you’ll guess who well before it happens, because the characters are so constructed from cliché that the doomed one virtually has “Will Die Later” flashing on screen during some early backstory scenes. Anyway, the guys set out for revenge, of course, and in the process seem to wind up liberating an ex-Soviet country from the rule of this evil gang. Bonus.

Whereas the first film was played straight and fairly serious, the sequel has more of the self-awareness that fans expected — and, indeed, wanted — from the franchise: the action sequences are bigger, faster and dafter; the cameos are longer and more knowing. The opening quarter-hour and climactic half-hour are what we’ve come for, a ludicrously OTT explosion of action and too-knowing fourth-wall-shattering dialogue, where the guys get to show off the skills that put them here. In between, there’s a vague kinda story that mainly links the fighting together, alongside cameos airlifted in with little regard to meaning or sense.

Granddads fightingSo is it better? Sometimes. The whole thing is inherently silly — these are (mostly) grandfather-aged chaps kicking ass with the best of ’em — and it plays up to that with sly winks to the audience and implausibly-grand combat choreography. But at times the nudge-nudge factor goes a little far, and the disregard for building a wholly plausible story, especially towards the end, is a shame.

Plus, technically speaking, it’s a mess. Apparently it cost $92 million, which must’ve all gone on salaries because it looks closer to $9.2 million. There’s the worst CGI you’ll see this side of an Asylum movie; the worst cinematography you’ll see this side of a YouTube clip. Seriously: either someone f’ed up the Blu-ray transfer or someone fluffed the technical side further back in the process, and based on comments from those who saw it in cinemas, it’s the latter. Plenty of the film actually looks fine, great even, but there are shots and scenes where the the resolution all but disappears, everything goes kinda smeary-blurry, like someone applied a paint effect… or, more likely, decided they could digitally zoom in during the edit and didn’t think how awful it would look. It’s distractingly ugly.

Time for a little sit downBut you didn’t come for that. You came for classic action stars fighting each other. In that regard, it’s pretty much the definition of brain-off brawny fun. If you don’t care for ridiculous action and cheesy dialogue, both of which are laughable in a way that’s hard to tell if it was intended or not, then this is not a film for you. If that sounds up your street, however, then The Expendables 2 is no classic, but it is a fun time.

3 out of 5

The first Expendables is on 5* tonight at 9pm. The series’ latest instalment, The Expendables 3, is in UK cinemas from today, and US theaters from tomorrow.

Total Recall (1990)

2010 #77
Paul Verhoeven | 108 mins | TV (HD) | 18 / R

Post Inception, it feels like we should be seeing a revival of interest in all things Total Recall, concerned as it is with dreams, fake memories, and what’s real and what isn’t. On the other hand, aside from an ambiguity about whether the lead character is dreaming or not — which adds texture but, arguably, is unimportant to the film’s primary thrills — there’s not that much to read into it.

For me, the joy of Total Recall is in discovering another ’80s blockbuster (ignore the fact it was released in 1990), the kind of thing I grew up watching on rented videos and BBC One Bank Holiday schedules; films like the Indiana Joneses, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, Burton’s Batman, and all the rest (I feel I’ve used these examples before; I must have some others), whose practical effects and general style and tone — not a conscious effort by these filmmakers, I’m sure, but instead just How Hollywood Films Were Then — vividly recalls that era for me; films that at the time were, to my young eyes and understanding, enduring classics of cinema that had always existed… despite the fact most were just a few years old.

I suspect it’s for this reason that my top note on Total Recall is “fantastic effects”. But, still, they are; from the wide shots of a Martian landscape and its complex of buildings, to the mutants, disguises, and blood ‘n’ gore. That it all becomes slightly cartoony — albeit the nastiest, gruesomest cartoon (apart from, y’know, some of That Japanese Stuff) — just adds to the charm. Similarly, a lot of the ‘science’ is utterly implausible or impossible — which, Open widedepending on your point of view, either supports the “it was all a dream” reading or is just a case of artistic licence, hardly uncommon in SF cinema.

Also very much ‘of the era’ is the star, Arnold Schwarzenegger (as if you needed telling). He really isn’t cut out for any role more demanding than the Terminator, though his laboured delivery and awkward presence injects a certain amateurish, humorous charm to any scene he’s in — ergo, much of the film. Conversely, Michael Ironside makes an excellent villain. Though his death is suitably dramatic, it’s a shame he’s not The Big Bad Guy — the film follows the blockbuster rule of dispatching villains in order of importance well enough, but Ronny Cox doesn’t come close to the commanding presence required to create a memorable villain in such little screen time. It leaves the viewer longing for Ironside to be featured during the final climax instead of Cox’s limp boss.

I suppose Total Recall endures in that way successful films do, because they provide a point of shared cultural awareness. I feel its influence has diminished with time — this is entirely subjective, but it doesn’t seem to come up as much as it used to — and presumably will continue to do so, as its not-unjustified absence from Best Of lists means fewer new viewers come to it and so its cultural cachet diminishes. Take this pill to forget... how to actPerhaps it’s ultimately destined for an afterlife as a film representative of its era; the kind of thing that comes up as a footnote or personal favourite in texts & documentaries specifically discussing things like The Sci-fi Cinema of the ’90s. Or perhaps I’m doing it a disservice. We shouldn’t really try to predict these things too much, it’ll only lead to embarrassment when the opposite happens.

So, Total Recall. Good fun. Quite funny. Bit gory. I liked the effects.

4 out of 5

Total Recall is on Syfy (UK) tonight, Monday 10th November 2014, at 9pm.

Terminator Salvation: Director’s Cut (2009)

2010 #72
McG | 118 mins | Blu-ray | 12 / R

Terminator Salvation begins with a title sequence that displays the film’s title twice. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and all that, but somehow it just doesn’t bode well.

However, I was somewhat surprised — after the mass of negative reviews — to discover that I quite liked Terminator Salvation. Sacrilege! But, let’s see if I can explain why…

I’ll begin with the most obvious potential flaw (other than the very concept of continuing the Terminator franchise without James Cameron, that is): director McG, he of the two risible Charlie’s Angels films. Oh dear. But it turns out he’s a surprisingly good director — he certainly does better work than the cheap hack job Jonathan Mostow made of Terminator 3. I doubt everyone agrees on this point, but whatever else you may wish to say about McG, he knows how to put an action sequence together. Most of the time. There’s still some shaky-cam business and very fast cuts, but the sense of geography and what’s actually happening is largely maintained.

This is helped by two things: one, that several sequences involve Giant Robots that benefit from very wide, often aerial, shots to show them off; and two, the apparent inspiration of Children of Men’s long-take action sequences. McG doesn’t quite have Alfonso Cuarón’s conviction in maintaining the single shot for an entire sequence, but he does use it for significant chunks. That said, the latter sometimes backfires. Early on the film feels a bit like watching someone else play a first person shooter, compounded by McG’s habit of sticking with one character throughout sequences that could benefit from a wider perspective, for example Connor’s helicopter crash. That said (again), I’m a little torn what to think of that example: keeping the camera on Connor produces an unusual spin on a potentially familiar sequence, but it’s also a bit disorientating and, as I say, compounds this sense of watching someone else play a game.

Story wise, I thought it fared fairly well. The tale of how John Connor came to meet Kyle Reese and become leader of the resistance wasn’t exactly begging to be told, but if you’re going to continue the franchise into post-Judgement Day future war territory it was probably the best place to start. Terminator 3 proved that the narrative of Arnie/any other Terminator coming back to our present to save Connor/prevent Judgement Day wasn’t in need of reheating again, so it’s also nice to be presented with a slightly more original story within the same universe.

It’s not all fine and dandy though: the behind-the-scenes issues you may have heard about are fitfully apparent on screen, with occasional awkward jumps or half-thought-out developments that smack of an unfinished script or compromised edit. Some of the dialogue’s pretty poor too — considering it starts off pleasantly economical, it’s a shame when characters begin uncomfortably stating the obvious as it wears on.

And even if you hadn’t seen it on the box or heard about it in all the film’s publicity, it’s obvious pretty early on that Marcus Wright will turn out to be a Terminator. To McG’s credit, he plays the ultimate reveal quite well — for those who know, it just about functions as a scene in its own right; for those who still hadn’t guessed, it works as a reveal — but if any filmmaker genuinely thought they’d kept it covered up they were sorely mistaken, and the first half could’ve done with a more knowing rewrite to compensate. Or just delete the prologue.

Littered throughout are numerous nods to the franchise’s history, some of which occur quite naturally, others that feel shoehorned in. I suppose it kept some people happy. The same can be said of the action sequences, though one of the most forced — an attack by a random Giant Robot on an abandoned gas station our heroes only happen to have stopped at — also turns out to be one of the best. Others though, like John Connor taking out a Moto-Terminator with a bit of rope, are more “wouldn’t that be cool to see?” than logical behaviour in the context of the story.

There’s not much for the cast to do either, with a multi-pronged story that leaves everyone feeling short changed. Christian Bale growls a bit and occasionally looks Meaningful as John Connor. At least he doesn’t use his Batman voice. His part was artificially boosted following the star’s casting, which dilutes the focus from where it should be: Marcus Wright, played by the new Colin Farrell (i.e. he’s being cast in everything based on the fact someone said he was The Next Big Thing), Sam Worthington. He’s fine as ever, though his accent seems to waver between American and his native Australian. The same can’t be said of Helena Bonham Carter’s brief turn — her voice hits a constant fake American. Meanwhile, Arnie’s digitised cameo is just that. On the one hand it’s a nice touch, on the other it’s ultimately pointless — Connor doesn’t even react to the familiar face.

Bryce Dallas Howard is severely underused as Kate Connor; one wonders if her part was massively cut back at some point, or if she was just tempted by an exceptionally good payday — considering she usually appears in smaller, better-regarded films, an almost non-existent role in a blockbuster seems an odd choice. That said, she did the same thing in Spider-Man 3 and has since plumped for a role in the Twilight exploitative moneymaker series, so I guess my analysis of her career choices is off.

Finally, then, what of the Director’s Cut? I’ve not seen the theatrical so can’t comment myself, but the changes are few and most are ultimately insignificant. There’s a thorough, illustrated list here. Perhaps the most interesting thing (and you’ll see how I meant that loosely) about the newer cut is what it once again shows about the differences between the UK and the US: over here, it retained its theatrical 12 certificate when extended by just under three minutes to include ever-so-slightly more violence and the briefest of brief nudity; in the US, that bumped it up to an R.

More interesting than these slight tweaks is the behind-the-scenes story of a very different film, which I alluded to earlier. I don’t want to discuss it at length, but this article does. Would that have made for a better film? Christ knows. I wouldn’t count on it. Probably not, even. But it is interesting.

It’s not popular to like Terminator Salvation, that’s for certain, and I suppose it depends what you expect from the film. Is it the equal of the first two genre-definers? No. Is it better than the rehashed hack-directed third? Yes. Did I actually enjoy it? You know what, I did; and considering the reviews had me expecting to hate its poorly-made guts for just about every reason under the sun, it turns out that’s a good result.

3 out of 5

Terminator Salvation begins on Sky Movies Premiere today at 10am and 8pm, and is on every day at various times until Thursday 9th September.