112: Missing in Action

Let’s get it out there: Missing in Action is bad, really bad, but that probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone. As some of you will know by now I grew up in the ’80s and that’s when my movie sensibilities were formed. This meant growing up on masterpieces like E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future and so much more. It was a beautiful time to discover movies as a kid. It was also a time when cheap film-making became even more prolific than before because of the wide acceptance of the VCR. This meant that besides good movies I also saw my fair share of terrible movies. One of which was Missing in Action, although I must admit I don’t remember much of that initial viewing.

Some of the worst offenders of the ’80s bad movie boom were Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the guys who bought The Cannon Group in 1979 to indulge their adolescent fantasies of making movies in Hollywood. The result was a great many B-movies that were released during the ’80s that included several Death Wish sequels, the American Ninja series, Sylvester Stallone’s Over the Top and Cobra and most famously a lot of movies with Chuck Norris, possibly one of the worst actors ever. His most successful movie was Missing in Action, which rode the wave of First Blood‘s success and even (literally) took a page from Rambo’s playbook.

Around that time rumors went around that there were still prisoners of war left behind in Vietnam somewhere in the jungle. An intriguing subject that was picked up by none other than James Cameron. He wrote a treatment about an ex-soldier going back to Vietnam to see of he could find these lost souls. The result would eventually be Rambo: First Blood Part 2, but not after the treatment passed through the hands of Golan-Globus. They figured they could also make a movie like this, but with their own muscleman Chuck Norris. They decided to put the first two Missing in Action movies directly into production in order to get them into the theaters before Rambo would and avoid some legal trouble.

Missing in Action turned out to be something of a hit. It undoubtedly made its money back and it managed to entertain a lot of people. Some still look back on it fondly, Lord knows why. I was definitely not one of them. I happen to like the Rambo movies much more, because as bad as the Stallone vehicles get Missing in Action tops it in sheer awfulness. There are some clever sequences, but those are few and far between. Like when Norris must leave his hotel in secret to pay a visit to a nefarious General and sneak back into the hotel. It is a fun sequence, but that is all there is to it. The rest is just ludicrous. For example: Norris tries to escape from a group of thugs and reach the boat he needs to take up the river to the camp. Instead of jumping on the boat and make his escape he jumps in a truck to start a whole new chase sequence that is totally out of context and just there to be filler. It is astonishing how badly written this movie is.

From that point on the movie is really just one big orgy of gunfire, stupid dialogue and senseless violence. The culmination of which comes when Norris rises in slow motion up from the dirty river water with an enormous gun in his hand to take out (supposedly very stealthy) three guards. There is literally nothing here to lend the movie a shred of credibility. Not that we expected that from Missing in Action, but you always hold out hope for that small glimmer of something that could resemble a decent movie. In the end Missing in Action just makes Rambo look like The Deer Hunter. It should be forgotten and never brought up again.

> IMDb

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098: Kingdom of Heaven (Director’s Cut)

This is the eighteenth movie in my Ridley Scott retrospective.

Kingdom of Heaven disappointed me greatly when it was first released. I saw it in a press screening and had very little positive to say about it when I had to write my review. The movie was overlong, boring, devoid of logic and ammunition for the gun that was pointed at Ridley Scott’s head for not making those masterpieces we were used to seeing from him.

I dismissed Kingdom of Heaven completely and vowed never to spend another minute on it. To my huge surprise, a friend of mine, whose judgement I totally trust and who was not a fan of the Theatrical Cut, told me to check out the Director’s Cut. Of course I hesitated, because how could a movie that was already too long get better in an even longer form. Well, Mr. Scott managed to do it.

Scott has been known to go back to his movies and tinker with them. Sometimes with great success—like Blade Runner—and more often with dubious results—like Alien, Gladiator— although those last two were more marketing vehicles than visions of the director. Scott has said so himself. And on top of that there have been so many useless Director’s Cuts, Unrated Cuts and so forth in recent years that my misgivings were justified, I think. But with the endorsement from my friend in the back of my head I reluctantly decided to scrunch up a copy of Kingdom of Heaven, the Director’s Cut.

And I am so glad I did, because the Director’s Cut is so much better than the original. At more than three hours it is approximately forty-five minutes longer than the original release. Entire sequences are returned to the movie and several scenes are expanded on by inserting more dialogue to create a more complete picture of the motivations that drive these characters. It is truly stunning to see how different the two versions are from each other. The entire movie flows much better and is far more intelligent than what we saw before. It goes to show that sometimes the auteur really knows what’s better for his movie than the executive who stares at demographics and scorecards all day.

Scott is a director who doesn’t stick his doubts about religion and the trouble that can come from it under the table. In the Theatrical Cut of Kingdom of Heaven this sentiment was swept under the rug to create a movie that more resembled Gladiator, a movie that was more about a personal journey than the big picture. In the Director’s Cut Scott’s beef with religion and the juxtaposition with science is much more prevalent. Scott’s oecumenical approach to religion is one I can certainly ascribe to. I am myself of no faith, but I do not condemn others for having faith in a higher power. That is what Scott wants to convey with this movie. Love thy neighbor, as the Bible says. Another thing that returns a lot in Scott’s movies is the fanatical approach to religion and the way in which this has ruined so many lives. As the hospitaler says, played by David Thewlis, “I have seen religion in the eyes of too many murderers.” A very timely theme.

Kingdom of Heaven is now one of my favorite movies. I don’t watch it all that much, but when I do I get totally swept up in it, even though Orlando Bloom may not be the best actor out there, this is one of his better performances. The enormous congregation of fine actors, such as Edward Norton, Brendan Gleeson, Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, Eva Green, Ulrich Thomsen, Alexander Siddig and so many others also don’t hurt Kingdom of Heaven one bit.

> IMDb

088: Act of Valor

I have always been intrigued by people who put more on the line than me. People like firemen, policemen, off shore workers and of course, people in the military. Tremendous respect to those people for what they do every day. Now we have a movie to lavish that respect onto: Act of Valor, a true depiction of what life in the Navy Seals and its supporting units is actually like.

The idea grew from a short film directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh made for one of the Navy’s special units. This caught the Navy’s eye and they commissioned them to make a movie that depicted the work their brave men and women do in an honest manner. So not like 1990’s Navy Seals with Charlie Sheen and Michael Biehn, but like a documentary wrapped in an action movie.

Based on actual missions the Navy Seals executed we follow one unit, Seal Team 7, from the moments they leave home to the ultimate bittersweet triumph on the battlefield. While rescuing a C.I.A. operative from Costa Rica they come across information that links a notorious smuggler to a very dangerous Chechnyan terrorist who has plans for the United States that could dwarf the terror on 9/11. The Seals are deployed to stop this madman by any means necessary before it’s too late. All the roles in Act of Valor (except I think the foreign roles) are played by active servicemen and women. An enormous risk to say the least.

The fact that the directors used real servicemen and women is mostly felt in the moments when they are not on the battlefield or preparing for going into battle. Although you know their heart is into it, because they lived this, the dialogue feels staged and rehearsed. This can be forgiven, though, just because they are amateurs. And to be honest, I have seen much worse amateur actors out there.

Act of Valor shines when these people enter the battle scenes. It becomes very clear that these people know exactly what they are talking about and they are not willing to stop for the audience to explain stuff to them. There is hardly a moment in Act of Valor that is used to put the audience at ease. These guys are there to do their job and so is the audience. Tag along and take in the sights. And what sights they are.

Wow, these battle scenes are some of the best I have ever seen. This is modern warfare to the max. We see these guys take out their adversaries with pinpoint accuracy like nothing you have ever seen. I was truly surprised when I saw one of the Seals swing up behind a guy, presumably to pull him into the water and kill him. Not so, he is there to catch him as he falls into the water, after the sniper blows his head off, so he doesn’t make a splash. Mind-blowing and so cool. The inclusion of very small toy aircraft to survey the battlegrounds to give them an edge over their opponents was also a true eye opener.

What also surprised me was that the battles don’t always end in a clean fashion. Actually, none of the battles do. I always entertained the idea that these guys go into a situation quietly, do their job and leave without being noticed. I don’t know if the filmmakers took some dramatic license with these situations, but it certainly feels that way. If they went in and created such a mess every time they did their job they wouldn’t be so elite, wouldn’t they? Or am I seeing it wrong?

Act of Valor shines a compelling light on the way the members of the team behave. You would think that these were all Rambo’s and would behave accordingly. This is not the case at all. They are normal soft-spoken people who take what they do extremely serious. They speak of the importance of having your home life in order before you ship out, so their focus in completely on the mission. The home front is also well aware of this. The women don’t break down uncontrollably in front of their men. It is when the front door is closed that the wife of one of the men breaks down. She knows he isn’t going to benefit from these breakdowns.

All in all I thought Act of Valor was a good action movie with a nice twist from the casting. The action sequences are rousing and the drama, while sometimes a little sappy and manipulative, is effective. It makes you respect the actions of these men and women even more and appreciate your safety some more, because if what happens in Act of Valor is something they have to deal with on a regular basis it is better to have them on our side.

> IMDb

079: Black Hawk Down

 

This is the thirteenth movie in my Ridley Scott retrospective.

After the Oscar-winning spectacle of Gladiator and the largely panned sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, Ridley Scott agreed to take on the considerable task of filming the adaptation of Mark Bowden’s non-fiction book Black Hawk Down: a Story of Modern War. Scott’s movies had up to that point always been firmly rooted in the realm of make-believe (technically White Squall was based on true events, but that felt more like an adventure movie). Black Hawk Down would be his first movie based on an event that everybody remembered vividly from seeing that American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. It was a gamble to put such a visually inclined director in charge of a story this sensitive.

The gamble, however, paid off. Black Hawk Down is a stunning movie about the devastating consequences of war and the toll it takes on the lives of young and old soldiers alike. For those who don’t know, Black Hawk Down is based on the events that occurred on October 3 and 4 on the streets of Mogadishu. While on a mission to capture dictator Aidid, an American Black Hawk helicopter is shot down. It crashes and the crew is in grave danger. The soldiers who are on their mission elsewhere in the city are reassigned to the crash site to defend the downed helicopter, while being attacked by hundreds of Somalian militia soldiers. The events that follow will take every last bit of comradery, expertise and bravery from these soldiers. Scott is not often described as a compassionate director. He often lets the characters and the audience figure out for themselves what they have to think about each other. Not so here in Black Hawk Down.

The first twenty minutes or so are there exclusively to convey some basic ideas about the situation. It is pretty clear that Scott wants to tell us that the Somalians are also victims in this situation, because our main character (Josh Hartnett) happens to think so. There a lot more of these moments to get us on board with Scott’s intentions for Black Hawk Down. Of course, this introductory sequence is also used to explain the geographical situation in and around Mogadishu and the relationship between all the soldiers. This groundwork is needed badly, because when we’re in the thick of it, there is hardly any time to figure out where we are and who we are looking at. Controversial was Scott’s choice to put the names of the characters on the helmets. This does not happen in real life, but was certainly necessary for us to keep track of everybody.

After these first twenty minutes the mission commences and that’s when Black Hawk Down starts to really shine. This is no-holds-barred balls-to-the-wall movie warfare. This is as close as us non-soldiers will ever come to being in a war. What Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan did for our perception of the invasion in Normandy, Black Hawk Down does for desert urban warfare. I can tell you that this is not for the faint of heart, because Scott pulls no punches when he is portraying these battles between the American troops and the Somalian militias. It is a constant barrage of gunfire, explosions, helicopters, Humvees and anything that goes into urban battle.

Black Hawk Down is a veritable Who’s Who of male actors (there are no women involved here). Scott has assembled an enormous amount of talent for this story. Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana, William Fichtner, Hugh Dancy, Tom Sizemore, Sam Shepard, Jason Isaacs, Jeremy Piven are but a few names involved in Black Hawk Down. Having this many well-known faces could have been a disadvantage, but it doesn’t get in the way of the action really. Having this many good actors in one place wanting to present this story as best as they can is great for the movie. But while the American soldiers are all individualized, the Somalian population is largely represented by faceless cannon fodder. This is, however, something we see more often in American war movies or war movies in general. Platoon and the aforementioned Saving Private Ryan also didn’t really concern themselves with profiling the opposition. Black Hawk Down is therefore a movie about the plight of the American soldiers in this conflict not the population at large. Hence Scott’s explanation at the beginning of the movie about them being victims as well.

As expected, Scott does not skimp on the enormity of the situation. While this is an intimate story about soldiers being hunted in a hostile environment, Scott paints this harrowing story against a backdrop that is worthy of any huge action movie. This is probably where the influence of producer Jerry Bruckheimer comes into play. Scott has the ability to create incredible worlds with modest budgets, so given the considerably large budget for Black Hawk Down (about $92 million) it is not surprising it looks this good. The sound is truly breathtaking and worthy of the Oscars it received. Polish cinematographer Slawomir Idziak shot the whole thing in astonishing detail. With Black Hawk Down Scott has made his most daring movie yet. Handling a story like this as if it were a Call of Duty videogame and infusing these adrenaline-fueled circumstances with all this humanity and characterization is the mark of a great director. It ranks among Scott’s best movies.

> IMDb

019: War Horse

I hold Steven Spielberg in very high regard, as does every fan of the modern blockbuster. The man made Close EncountersJaws, the Indiana Jones movies, Schindler’s List and so forth. There was a time when Spielberg could do no wrong. Even when he made movies like Amistad and The Lost World I defended him. But since Catch Me If You Can he has been directing on a slippery slope.

Catch Me If You Can was an ok film, but was not his project to begin with; The Terminal was a terribly sappy tearjerker; War of the Worlds was fun, but marred by an excruciating finale; Munich was overly heavy-handed and let’s not get into Indiana Jones 4, because I am still recovering from that one. His newest attempt at a live action movie is War Horse and I am very sad to say that this downward trend has not been turned around. War Horse is bad, really bad.

In War Horse Spielberg takes us to Europe before and during the First World War, one of the most brutal altercations man has ever seen. He revolves his movie around a horse, a supposedly very special horse, that is bought by a poor farmer. This creature has a way of charming his way through life, even when the horse is sold to the military to fight in France on battlefields unimaginable in our times.

There are some moderately interesting battle scenes, but overall Spielberg is more concerned with pulling the audience’s heartstrings then telling a compelling story. And he knows no boundaries, because with a running time of close to two and a half hours it is also way overlong. Somebody needs to tell these high profile directors that making a movie that is 100 to 110 minutes is nothing to be ashamed about.

Spielberg has been known to manipulate the feelings of his audience in overt ways. He is not known for his subtlety, but in War Horse he takes that to a new level. Almost constantly during the movie the music of John Williams is slathered onto War Horse like a thick layer of icing on an incredibly sweet cake. It is ubiquitous and stifling. The audience never gets a chance to make up their own mind and is told what to feel and when. It is truly one of Spielberg’s most blatant attempts at manipulating his audience. Shockingly so.

Everything about War Horse feels like it should be a Lifetime Movie of the Week, except that it is way too pretty for that. If you like horses and like being manipulated, then War Horse is perfect for you. Otherwise, leave this for what it is and wait for better days in Spielberg’s career.

> IMDb

012: The Duellists

Ridley Scott’s feature film debut was always a film that was high on my to-view list. I just never got around to it. But with the release of Prometheus just a few months away I decided to do a retrospective of Scott’s work, starting with The Duellists. I hope to finish my retrospective by the time Prometheus hits the screens, but we’ll have to wait and see if that will be the case.

As for The Duellists, I was very impressed with the visual side of the movie. It is very clear that we are dealing with a director who has a very keen eye for staging, lighting, dressing and so forth. He had already worked in the business for more than fifteen years, and it shows. Nothing is left to chance, even though everything was filmed on location and nothing was built for the production due to budgetary restraints

What did not grab me was the story. It felt more like a series of short movies with the same protagonist and antagonist. One movie I have yet to view is Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, and the comment about The Duellists I hear most often is that this is a poor man’s Barry Lyndon. Scott has stated that Lyndon was an enormous influence on his debut movie and there is no real shame in that. Performing less than Kubrick is not something to be ashamed about either. It was his first film after all.

I can recommend The Duellists for people who are Ridley Scott completists. Just to see where his visual ideas for movies like Blade Runner and Gladiator originated. Otherwise, I have no real reason to tell people to see this.

> IMDb