Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Striker (1988)

Striker (1988)

Tagline:

Unpredictable. Unbeatable. The ultimate freedom fighter.

Movie Review:

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John “Striker” Slade (Frank Zagarino) is an ex-military hired to rescue  journalist Frank Morris from a Nicaraguan prison. Obviously this is a First Blood Part II type film, with equal parts one-man-army Commando and its B-cousin Strike Commando to take the seriousness down a few notches. The first shot of Zags we see him in his Canadian Tuxedo, setting the tone for the film, and it’s just beautiful.

Out for a morning stroll, Zags provides a thorough arse kicking to a masked gang that try and steal his hobo bag. Zags is arrested on trumped-up drug charges and coerced into working for the government to rescue Frank. He meets up with the attractive local guide Marta (Melonee Rodgers) and helicopter pilot “The Dutchman” Houtman (Werner Pochath) to shoot, stab and exploding slingshot his way through to cartoon-character bad guy Kariasin.

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Yeah, this is what you came here for. Look at the names involved for starters. First off it stars the mighty Zags as John Rambo- .. I mean, John Slade – and believe me, like Rambo, there is one thing he better bring and that’s a good supply of body bags. And who is he rescuing but none other than Pygar himself, John Phillip Law! Next off are the co-writing duo of Tito Carpi and Umberto Lenzi. That’s Italian gold right there; the men collectively responsible for Escape from the Bronx, Light Blast, Ironmaster and Violent Naples. And if that wasn’t enough, the whole thing is directed by Enzo Castellari of Inglorious Bastards fame. What a pedigree!

John Steiner plays head goon Kariasin, and he must have had a whale of a time doing this. His moustached mouth is never without a Cuban cigar, his body permanently adorned in a tacky white safari suit. He’s holed up in his castle like Gargamel, muttering lines like “John Slade, I’ll get you yet!” and constantly calling for his number two by yelling out “SANTIAGOOOO!!” in a glorious accent. Absolutely gnawing on the scenery. In the obligatory torture scene, he slaps Zags in the face no less than five times. Great stuff.

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The Zag’s fighting style always reminds me of Dolph Lundgren – martial arts based but with a heavy thunk behind it and added punching to the chest, and even some ball squeezing for good measure. We get a bit of hand to hand in Striker, but most of the action is mowing down soldiers with machine guns to the face. Being part Rambo clone there is lots of stealth and traps, including a grenade firing slingshot and piano-wire lassos from the tops of trees, and cool stunts like ziplining with an automatic weapon and bodies exploding out castle windows. My favourite trap has to be the corpse stuffed with explosives; very satisfying when that thing goes off.

Marta, Houtman and Frank are fine secondary characters that exist to push the plot forward but besides the Zags wiping out armies single-handed, and Steiner chewing his cigar and stroking his invisible cat, it was the short cameo of Daniel Greene as the very excited amateur boxer by night, truck driver by day scene that had me smiling. He has the job of driving a tired and over-it Zags into the metaphorical sunset; when Greene asks Zags if he likes boxing, his straight forward reply is “I hate violence”. Poetic, given what we just witnessed.

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Downsides? Well, we really didn’t need the first scene in any movie to be a real live cockfight. That wasn’t cool in 1988 and it’s not cool now, but its easily fast-forwarded past. I expect that this scene might be one of the troublesome reasons we haven’t had a DVD release of the film anywhere yet. Definitely in the UK that scene would be removed entirely. That scene aside, there is nothing to complain about with Striker. I watched this on my Japanese VHS from Columbia which is uncut and in letterbox widescreen. There is something about watching Rambo clones and otherwise jungle slogs on this format. Not just VHS, but Japanese VHS. They just play so well and it seems so right.

Here’s a titbit I didn’t realise when going in. Striker is immediately followed up by 1991’s Project Eliminator, another Zags vehicle where he plays John “Striker” Slade again, but this time teamed up with David Carradine. Obviously that is going on the watch pile as soon as I can possibly make it happen. But for now, if you want your Italian junglesploitation with a muscle-bound Rambo clone, a mad, cigar-chewing stereotype bad guy and the obvious double-crossing in the third act then look no further than Striker. It comes highly recommended.

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Trailer:

Friday, October 1, 2021

Out of Death (2021)

Out of Death (2021)

Tagline:

Pick up the gun. Lay down the law.

Review:

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Shannon (Jaime King) is going to spread her fathers ashes in the forest that he loved so dearly. When leaving the brush for the road she happens upon a drug deal going bad, resulting in a corrupt cop murdering the dealer. Shannon manages to capture the event on her camera, which is noticed by the cop (Lala Kent as Billie Jean) who calls for help from the Sherrif’s office. Briefly captured and about to be executed, holidaying and retired ex-city police officer Jack Harris (Bruce Willis) causes a distraction and Shannon flees. Sheriff Hank Rivers (Michael Sirow) wants this mess cleaned up quietly before the Mayoral election and will do what it takes to silence both Shannon and Jack.

This wasn’t too bad. It also wasn’t that great. It’s by no means the Explosive Action that the title suggests; Out of Death sounds more like a Steven Seagal action film with that ridiculous name but it plays more like a Liam Neeson suspense-thriller, filtered through a desaturated lens to make it look like a modern zombie film for some reason. There’s the initial murder, a couple of gun shots and knife stabbings and that’s the action quotient for this film. Mostly it’s pistols held in a threatening manner.

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The plot is set up early and the cat and mouse game just unfolds more and more, with a few twists and turns to keep you engaged whilst the constant, hugely annoying same piece of bluegrass music plays. At one point I thought it was a character’s ringtone, it seemed stuck in a loop. Director Mike Burns also decided to split the film into chapters with their own intro cards like it was a Tarantino film. Incidentally, Out of Death is his first feature film and it’s competently shot (if by the numbers), though I do question that choice of colour grading.

So let’s address the elephant in the room. Yes, Bruce Willis is billed as the star. No, he is not the star. But it’s not the bait-and-switch we’ve come to expect from his last decade of DTV films – not exactly, anyway. The focus for most of the film is actually on the bad guys. Crooked cops. Dodgy Sheriffs. Even the co-star on the cover, Jaime King, has less scenes than the bad guys. It’s an interesting way of doing things really, focussing on the cops and the sheriff trying to work out how to get out this mess that they are seemingly just making worse.

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That’s not to say we don’t get suitable amount of Jaime and.. well, enough scenes with Bruce to warrant his inclusion. I didn’t count but I’d say there’s fifteen minutes of Bruce. We get a backstory for him being in the forest at the start, he stumbles in to save the day but that doesn’t instantly work out, and he is involved in how it all wraps up at the end. Being an ex-cop I had hoped for gunplay from him but the word that sums up his performance in Out of Death is “tired”. At least he doesn’t spend the whole film sitting down like Seagal would have, but he is his trademark unenthusiastic.

Jaime King is not an unknown actress to me, having appeared in both sequels to Escape Plan with Sylvester Stallone, and both Sin City films also with Bruce Willis. She is fine as Shannon, growing over the 95 minutes runtime from blubbering scared rabbit to accidental Rambo, before owning the role more in the final fifteen minutes of comeuppance. It would have been good to see her have a bit more oomph in the role, but I suppose the point was she was the wrong place, wrong time every-woman type.

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I quite liked both Lala Kent as corrupt officer Billie Jean, and Tyler Jon Olson as corrupt officer Tom, though not immediately. Billie Jean swore enough to make a sailor blush, and Tom had a whole pile of male bravado he needed to burn off, but both played dodgy coppers quite well. However, Michael Sirow isn’t hugely believable as Sheriff Hank Rivers, it has to be said. He looks more like a mix between IT professional and magician, sporting a black collared shirt and donning the donut beard of mystery. Sheriffs in movies are meant to be fat Texans in broad-rimmed hats, not the doorman at a Russian nightclub.

I ended up feeling something for characters in this film, but it’s not the ones you expect. I think we are meant to feel sorry for Sharron being caught up in a mess that wasn’t her doing, or for Jack having lost his wife and getting dragged into this shit, but I just don’t have any real feelings for either of them. This is probably partly due to the design of the film not having the stars be the stars, but their lack of action doesn’t help matters. It’s actually the crooked cops I felt something for.

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Officers Billie Jean and Tom may be crooked as a dog’s hind leg, but they don’t ever come across as truly bad. They do bad things but they aren’t cartoon-character evil, and as things get worse and worse for each of them, I started to feel pity for them. Both seemed well out of their depths, and neither wanting to really take control of “cleaning up”, which ultimately gives Shannon the upper hand. We hear briefly of their childhood together growing up. There’s a scene between both of them that is half touching and half devastating, and is the most memorable part of the film for me. Not sure if any of this was intended, but the characters – as surface-level nasty as they appear to be – were pretty flawed human beings that have clearly made a series of poor decisions that led them down this crooked path.

So that’s Out of Death, and at the tenth paragraph I am Out of Breath. Not anything I suggest you go out of your way to see, but you could do worse if it lands in your lap or if you are a Bruce Willis DTV tragic like myself.

Trailer:

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Redemption Day (2021)

Redemption Day (2021)

Tagline:

Fight for love. Fight for life. Fight for redemption.

Review:

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U.S. Marine Captain Brad Paxton (Gary Dourdan) suffers from PTSD caused by a mission in Syria that went bad. Struggling to return to normality, his home life is uprooted when archaeologist wife Kate goes on a dig near the Morocco-Algeria border and is kidnapped by ISIS-aligned Algerian terrorists led by Jaafar El Hadi (Samy Naceri). Bypassing the bureaucracy and Federal policies, Brad sets upon a mission into enemy territory to rescue his wife and at the same time find himself some redemption.

Let’s set expectations up front. This is not a 90 minute roller-coaster action shoot-em-up. Outside the final act, this is an intentionally paced, tense build up with little direct action for most its running time. But don’t change channels just yet, because this is no bad thing. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this was a slow burn, but it is definitely in no hurry to get to the conclusion.

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When we do get the action it’s well executed, if sporadic, military versus insurgents battle tactics. Brad gets to shine as he dispatches terrorists with total precision, be it up close with a side-arm or from a balcony with a sniper rifle. Accompanied by his Moroccan counterpart Younnes (Brice Bexter), the one-two punch in the final siege on the terrorist compound has some heart-racing moments. Headshots are bloody and not obviously CG (muzzle fire isn’t fake either). The dark tone of the film means we get some gritty closeup killings with blades as well.

So how is Gary Dourdan? Now I’ve never seen any of the series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation but apparently he was a leading character in that for eight years. What I have seen him in was Alien: Resurrection, a long time ago and looking much younger with dreadlocks, but in Redemption Day he was pretty authentic. When faced with the reality of the situation and what he must do, his character of Brad Paxton battles his own demons to rescue his wife Kate (played believably by Serinda Swan) with blazing accuracy and attention. He definitely felt like a military Captain who had seen some shit, and was laser-focused on the job. Being that the mission is not sanctioned, Brad is doing this for – as the tagline says – love. There’s a little bit of a “Taken” vibe to his portrayal which explains why he never smiles.

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Let’s talk Samy Naceri as terrorist leader Jaafar El Hadi. We last saw Samy many years ago in the French language comedy-action film Taxi, and boy is he different here. I don’t think I would have recognised him if his name wasn’t on the cover. I really liked his take on an ISIS commander. Had just the right amount of “manic” without going overboard, though he was ruthless when needed – takes out more than one of his own for being incompetent. I like that in a terrorist. He has a far more manic first officer who is like a rabid guard dog, spitting foam and quickly turning to anger and violence. I like that too.

Now, Ernie Hudson is not the kind of minor character role I would expect in a film like this, but I’ll take any Ernie over no Ernie. When it comes down to it however, he has two scenes – helping Brad Paxton face his traumas in the boxing ring, and helping Brad Paxton by taking care of his daughter in his absence. They aren’t momentous scenes but Ernie’s role as Brad’s father is meant to provide a calming Ying to Brad’s tortured Yang, which works to some degree but really, we could have used more Ernie. We did however get a reasonable amount of screen time from Andy Garcia as the Ambassador, though his role as Cuban-cigar smoking facilitator doesn’t really leave much to write about.

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There are some parts of the film that take the shine off a little; the first I might put down to poor subtitles. In a prayer scene with the terrorists, El Hadi speaks and the translation on screen is “(praising God in bad Arabic language”). There is no comedy in this film, let alone this scene, so not sure what the intentions were here but it comes off pretty rough. Maybe it was to do with his French-Algerian accent, I don’t know, but I did rewind it to check that I read it correctly.

Robert Knepper is one of those “that guy” types, apparently in the IMDB top 5000 with 142 acting credits including Transporter 3 and Hitman. He has a brief role as an Oil Tycoon that has a lot more to do with the plot than might initially be presumed, though I’ve got to say his scene was pretty damn hammy. Very Colonel Sanders Texan white suit with a wide hat and gold tipped walking cane. My oh my. This felt like an after-credits sequence rather than part of the main film. Voltage Pictures, your Seagal is showing.

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The other main thing that sticks out like a sore thumb is the brief scene with the President and the other members of the White House over video conference with the ambassadors. The acting skills drop drastically when the Executive speak, the worst coming from The President – played by Jay Footlik. According to IMDB, this guy has had a couple of minor roles spanning back to Teen Wolf but was in fact a White House advisor to President Clinton. Not sure how he ended up in the film but the quality of that scene really took me out of the moment. The final CG shot of helicopters flying over the ocean was also pretty bad, which was quite unexpected given how good the long-shots of military vehicles in the Morocco landscape were looking earlier.

Overall I dug Redemption Day. It’s not without its problems, and if you want wall to wall shootouts you came to the wrong party, but its heart was in the right place and the execution – for the most part – was well articulated and often gripping. A solid full length feature directing debut for Hicham Haji.

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Trailer:

Monday, March 1, 2021

Money Plane (2020)

Tagline:

An explosive casino heist in the sky

Review:

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Jack Reese (Adam Copeland) is a highly skilled thief with a massive gambling debt. After a failed art gallery heist, he is now owed to underworld crime boss Darius Grouch aka The Rumble (Kelsey Grammer aka Frasier). Jack and his team of heisters are forced to take one more job - board a high-stakes, airborne casino known as the "Money Plane" that flies in international airspace. Filled with the leaders of criminal syndicates from around the world, Reese and his crew must rob the plane of its cryptocurrency and cash and make it out alive.

Despite problems, I had quite a lot of fun with this. First of all, this has nothing to do with Snipes vehicle Money TRAIN so get that out of your mind right now. Straight-forward heist plot with the standard double-crossing by the person who hired the heisters – oops, spoiler (as if you didn’t see that coming). The momentum only slows down for a handful of minutes in-between the first failed gallery job and the Money Plane heist (with some pretty bad sappy dialogue, I have to say) which is a pretty good score in my books. My number one rule in movies is “don’t be boring”, and I was never bored during Money Plane.

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Adam Copeland isn’t bad as the lead. He’s quite restrained and always has this look on his face of “how did I get this gig?” which is kind of amusing, but he gets the job done. I couldn’t take my eyes off the top-knot, and yes ladies, he finally unleashes the full Fabio in the final scene. I was a bit taken back by the use of his role though. In this kind of film I’d expect him to be Kurt Russel in Executive Decision, but he was more (but not fully, so don’t get the wrong impression here) Steven Seagal in Sniper: Special Ops. The story has Copeland be the pilot on the plane, so he spends more than half the running time sitting in a chair and flying the damn plane. It seems a waste but it works with the story, so I can’t really complain. In a way it makes it funnier having beefcake Copeland fly stick while the wimpier tech guy (Trey, played by Patrick Lamont) fills in for him in the action department.

The most interesting of the protagonists for me is Katrina Norman’s character Isabella, shown on the poster in the red dress. She gets the best hand to hand action in the film with some neck-snapping, ear-ripping sex appeal pulled off with a sly smile and implied one liner. As for Thomas Jane, he plays the old friend from previous jobs. “Remember Brazil?” Copeland says to him. The two have history and Copeland relies on Jane for “Plan B”.

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The last protagonist of note is man on the ground Iggy, played by Director and co-Writer of Money Plane Andrew Lawrence. He is there to receive the downloaded money transfer with a collection of ancient gear that looks like something ET assembled to phone home. But hey, the Director can cast himself a role if he likes.

The various villains on the Money Plane are all cartoon caricatures, which is all I really want in something like this anyway. The slimy, stewardess-arse-slapping guy, the Texan big shot that never loses, the subtle Japanese high roller – it’s all here. Special props to Joseph Lawrence as the Concierge of the Money Plane, last seen around these parts playing a robot in Android Apocalypse. He, along with bookkeeper and lonnnnnng time television actor Al Sapienza, added a professional yet somewhat sinister face of the House that I really enjoyed.

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There’s a lot to be amused by in Money Plane. I don’t just mean the concept and its execution (which are frequently, unintentionally funny) but there’s a few scenes that have intentional humour; often quite black. I was shocked and laughed for a full minute at an unexpected violent death during a game of Russian Roulette. I had to pause to take breath I was laughing so hard, which doesn’t happen often to me. Much of the violence takes place during the gambling, with the Adventure Bets coming straight out of The Running Man book of sadism.

In terms of budget reflected on screen, this is mid to late 2000s era Seagal for sure. Shaky camera, CG muzzle shots and poor sound design all on display here. There’s even a bit of SyFy Channel going on with some ludicrously awful fake moustaches – check out the do on our Texan cowboy gambler. The sets are cheap but I can let it slide, as the whole thing is meant to be on a plane and you can’t very well expect a DTV action film starring an ex-wrestler to aim much higher than a faux-velvet curtained room with an Ikea bar top and a few screens on walls.

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Now, let’s talk bait and switch. The cover for the film shows stylised heads of Copeland, Denise Richards, Kelsey Grammer and Thomas Jane, with Katrina Norman wielding a machine gun. There’s a plane with an explosion behind it. Denise Richards is second billed and Frasier’s head is second biggest. Copeland looks like the bounty hunter from The X-Files with a top knot. It promises a lot, but we know what these covers are like.

Richards? She’s Copeland’s wife and has literally one line and two scenes. 45 seconds of screen time at best, which is a contrast to her other recent plane heist film (where the heist was actually of the plane) Altitude with Dolph Lundgren. She was the lead in that film but is basically cutaway footage in this one. I guess the marketers are hoping people will pick the DVD up and say “hey she was the pilot in Starship Troopers!” rather than “she was the lead in Altitude”.

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As for Frasier playing “The Rumble” (hah!), he is fun, and does get enough scenes to feel like you weren’t gipped. After the initial meet and greet he’s basically on video call to Pilot Copeland, barking orders and generally being snarky. I thought he did a decent job as the rich art collector, hamming up an attempt at Scarface with his big cigar and terracotta floors and some priceless dialogue: “You want to bet on a dude fucking an alligator? Money plane.” Wonder how Director Andrew Lawrence convinced him to be a part in it all. Thinking about it, his role is kind of like the bad guy version of his character in The Expendables 3 and has about the same screen time.

So, overall I had fun with this silly movie and it blasted through its 79 minute runtime. I’d have even accepted five minutes more to flesh out some of the paper-thin characters a bit, but whatever – the film is called Money Plane. We got money and we got a plane. Money Plane. Job done.

Trailer: