Movie Review: Run All Night (2015)

May 16, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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In 2008, director Pierre Morel and actor Liam Neeson gave us Taken, an action film so unexpectedly awesome that it redefined the genre and spawned a new industry of copycat efforts, usually about a dude with a particular set of skills kicking ass all over the place in a life-or-death race against time. These days, just about every action movie with an “old” actor — be it Nicholas Cage, Pierce Brosnan or Sean Penn — is directly compared to Taken, whether justified or not.

Neeson himself, who discovered a brand new career thanks to Taken (and its uninspiring guilty-pleasure sequels) has made a couple of copycat efforts himself, two of which were made with the formidable Jaume Collet-Serra. Both Unknown and Non-Stop were completely preposterous and silly, but still relatively enjoyable in their own ways. Their third collaboration, Run All Night, is more grounded and serious, and it’s arguably the best of the lot. Perhaps I’d even go as far as to say that it’s Liam Neeson’s best Taken-like action film since Taken (though opinions will probably be split between The Grey — if you put it in that category — A Walk Among the Tombstones and Non-Stop).

In Run All Night, Neeson plays a retired mob enforcer named Jimmy “The Gravedigger” Collins. He is a man with a very particular set of skills, and if he finds you, he will kill you. But he’s tired of all the crap and the demons of his past actions are catching up to him. He’s abandoned his family, including his son, former boxer Michael (Joel Kinnaman, ie, the new Robocop), who wants nothing to do with his old man. When Michael witnesses a crime committed by the son of Jimmy’s boss (played by Ed Harris), however, he is drawn into their world of murder and corruption, and it’s up to Jimmy to redeem himself by making sure his son makes it through alive.

You know they’ll be running all night. The title says so. There’s no chance they won’t be running.

So what make Run All Night more enjoyable than a lot of other similar efforts in recent years? First of all, the action is superb. From car chases to the hand-to-hand combat, everything is well-choreographed and suspenseful. I don’t know about realistic, but it gets the job done.

Secondly, while the plot is relatively cookie-cutter, there is a surprisingly level of emotional heft due to the strained relationship between Jimmy and his son. We know Jimmy’s not a good guy, but we root for him because we know how much he loves his son and would do anything to make up for his regrets. It doesn’t hurt that Michael is a good guy and isn’t annoying, like say Maggie Grace is in the Taken movies.

Thirdly, the cast is wonderful. Neeson is who he is — kicking ass and taking names, so you get what you expect from him. Joel Kinnaman, on the other hand, is a solid piece of casting as his son. He’s got the height, and you can believe from his build that he could be a former boxer. Add on top of that you’ve got the reliable Ed Harris, who delivers a complex villain that is miles better than the bad guys in the other flicks, as well as Common, who is pretty good too as a contract killer. Even Vincent D’Onofrio makes his “good cop” character better than it should have been.

In terms of style and execution, Collet-Sera’s approach is rather straightforward. You get his usual grit and dark tones, and as such Run All Night doesn’t really stand out from the pack. It’s not a classic by any means, but it’s definitely entertaining and one of the best post-Taken Neeson action films to date. Fans of this type of movie wouldn’t be wasting their time checking it out.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Manny (2014)

February 2, 2015 in Boxing, Movie Reviews, Reviews, Sport

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Considering what great material the filmmakers had to work with, Manny, the new documentary on eight-weight-class Filipino world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, should have been a sure-fire KO. Instead of delivering the haymakers fans would have loved to see, however, the film ended up pulling its punches all the way through, resulting in a thoroughly unsatisfying experience that barely scratches the surface of both the man and the sport.

On its face, Manny ticks all the right boxes for a sports documentary. A poor Filipino kid from the gutter is forced to box from a young age to put food on the family table, and in the process develops a talent and ferocity that would take him to the very top of the sport. Amid the career highs (such as his superstar-making pummeling of Oscar de la Hoya in 2008) and lows (his KO loss to Juan Manuel Marquez in 2012, for instance) there are celebrity interviews and “rare” public and behind-the-scenes footage, all with the familiar voice of Liam Neeson narrating the script.

But despite an explosive start highlighting Pacquiao’s knockout loss to Marquez, Manny soon settles into conventional documentary mode and begins to skim over the stuff that would have made the film fascinating. It touches on all the things we already know about Pacquiao’s life outside of his major fights — the humble beginnings, the rise through the weight ranks, the movies and singing that came with the stardom, the foray into politics, and the apparent “religious awakening” he would experience a few years ago — but without ever getting to the “good stuff” simmering beneath the surface.

Yes, it was cool to see highlights of his training and big fights — Barrera, Morales, De la Hoya, Hatton, Cotto, Margarito, Marquez — in high definition, and it was fun to see celebrities like Mark Wahlberg, Jeremy Piven and Jimmy Kimmel talk about him, but all of these things felt superficial.

I wanted to see more footage of Manny’s daily life; I wanted to hear more about the dirty business of boxing and the disputes between his promoter Top Rank and Golden Boy; I wanted to hear about all the venomous groupies that feed of his money and all the cash he literally gives away; I wanted more depth on Manny’s dark side — the gambling and the drinking and the womanizing. It would be unfair to say the film completely ignores these issues, though it barely takes more than a jab at them. The approach by directors Leon Gast (who won the Oscar for the Ali documentary When We Were Kings) and Ryan Moore was to just touch upon all the touchy things and gloss over them quickly before moving onto the more positive aspects of Manny’s existence.

The best parts of the movie are when we see people close to Manny talk about him, from adviser Michael Koncz and ex-conditioning coach Alex Ariza to his long-time coach Freddie Roach and promoter Bob Arum. The bits with the most emotion actually all involve Pacquiao’s wife Jinkee, the only person who appears to be giving it to the viewers straight. But unfortunately, these flashes of genuine insight into Pacquiao are few and far between.

Perhaps it’s because I already know too much about Pacquiao for Manny to teach me anything new. To be honest, even the 24/7 documentaries produced by HBO before each Pacquiao fight offer more about he subject than this documentary. I just think the film would have been so much more interesting had it dared to venture deeper into things such as Alex Ariza’s unceremonious dumping from Pacquiao’s team and the subsequent feud he developed with Roach and Koncz (not discussed at all), questioning how and what really caused the negotiations with Floyd Mayweather Jr to break down multiple times (nothing apart from a couple of clips anyone could have dug up on YouTube), and some sort of definitive statement about all the allegations of performance enhancing drugs (the elephant in the room).

Even the chronological depiction of Pacquiao’s career missed important chunks. Although the footage is out there, the film ignores Pacquiao’s earlier losses before Morales and his world title fights at the lighter weight class, and completely skips his less inspiring bouts against Joshua Clottey and Shane Mosley. I know it’s hard to follow every bout of Pacquiao’s long career, but pretending that some important events of his life don’t even exist makes me question the filmmakers’ objectivity and decision-making.

At the end of the day, Manny is a film that’s more hagiography than documentary. It feels like it has been made by the same people who follow Pacquiao around all day telling him how great he is (they’re what netizens described as “Pactards”). Pacquiao is an interesting, charismatic sportsman who deserves a better biography than what he got here, and this was never more apparent when listening him spew out the awkward lines they wrote for him at the end of the movie.

Having said all that, Manny remains in a position to succeed because of Pacquiao’s immense popularity and fortunate timing — as the long-awaited showdown between him and Mayweather appears to be  getting somewhere at last. Maybe after they finally do fight each other someone else can make a more compelling documentary that can do Manny Pacquaio justice.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Taken 3 (2014)

January 26, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I’m not quite sure if this is the right way to express it, but my soft spot for the Taken franchise is…getting hard?

Look, I knew Taken 3 was more of a cash grab than a genuine attempt to rekindle the magic of the original, one of the best action films of the last decade. Taken 2 was largely an over-the-top failure with some decent moments, but at least it tried. Taken 3, on the other hand, has more or less become an unintentional parody of itself.

The beauty of Taken was in its remarkable simplicity — a relentless man with a very specific set of skills sets out to find the man who took his daughter, and kills him. Taken 3, however, has reverted to a fairly typical murder-mystery in the vein of (well, more like ripped right out of) The Fugitive, where Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) is set up for the murder of a loved one and must find the killer before the police — headed by a sleepier-than-usual Forest Whitaker — catches him.

The action is never really the problem with Taken 3.  Director Olivier Megaton, who was responsible for Taken 2, gives us plenty of car chases, shootouts and hand-to-hand combat scenes, most of which are executed rather well (with some caveats I will get to). Liam Neeson is still capable and relentless, but at 62 he has clearly lost a step, making Bryan Mills by far the most vulnerable we’ve seen him. Fortunately, he is still a regular Houdini and somehow manages to escapes certain death at least a handful of times in this film without incurring anything more than a couple of temporary scratches.

The big problem with Taken 3 is that the portrayal of the action is heavily muted for classification purposes. When audiences watch Bryan Mills they want to see swift brutality. The blood is almost expected. In Taken 3, the violence is rapid cuts at the point of impact and cutting away when the “good stuff” is about to happen. People get shot and stabbed, but we don’t actually get to see any of it. The result is a strangely unsatisfying experience that takes away a lot of the visceral thrills from the original.

The rest of the film doesn’t offer much. The script, penned by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kaman (who collaborated on the two earlier films), is truly horrendous, complete with dialogue that will make you shudder with embarrassment. Gaps in logic and common sense fails are all over the place, and I’m not even just talking about typical instances where bad guys conveniently spare lives and give the good guys opportunities to turn things around — though that happens a lot too.

And Maggie Grace’s character, Kim Mills, continues to be such an annoying, grating BIATCH that it horrifies me to realise that her father would go to all these lengths to protect her. I was secretly hoping that she would get killed all throughout the movie — which actually would have been awesome because it would have set Bryan on a historic rampage. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

At 109 minutes, the film is far too long as well, especially when you consider that Taken was a perfect 90 minutes and Taken 2 was a manageable 98 minutes. It’s as though the makers of Taken 3 have gradually stripped away everything that made the original Taken a classic and replaced it with conventional Hollywood action cliches.

Having said all that, if you are a fan of the franchise because of the first film like me, then you might still find Taken 3 to be acceptable. It’s essentially just another average Hollywood action-thriller being carried by the goodwill of the original and its familiar, iconic protagonist. For some, that might be reason enough to watch it.

2.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)

November 9, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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You can always trust Liam Neeson to find someone, then kill them.

That is why A Walk Among the Tombstones, a crime thriller based on the 1992 novel of the same name by Lawrence Block, was the perfect role for Neeson and his brooding, single-minded charisma.

Set in 1999, the film stars Neeson as Matthew Scudder, a former cop who retired eight years ago and has become an unlicensed private detective-slash-fixer or sorts. He is recruited to a drug dealer whose wife went missing, and the story opens up from there into a dark, violent journey where only Scudder’s very particular set of skills can save the day.

Don’t for one second think, however, that A Walk Among the Tombstones is anything like Taken. Yes, Neeson is a badass, but Tombstone is less action and a lot more grit and atmosphere. The first half of the film, at least, is essentially a detective film where Scudder tries to track down the sadistic perpetrators through their past crimes. He enlists the help of a street kid by the name of TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), whom he takes under his wing a little bit, and in return TJ acts as the catalyst for Scudder’s character development.

As the story progresses it morphs into a kidnap film, and then finally an old-fashioned action thriller. The action is relatively spare, but when there is action it is usually brutal and effective. I think director-writer Scott Frank (best known for penning screenplays to top-notch films like Minority Report, Out of Sight and Get Shorty) does an excellent job of keeping the film’s tones dark, but not so dark that it makes the film unpleasant to watch, and bloody but not gratuitously so. His direction is also quite stylish and makes an effort to bring back the feel of the 1990s.

While A Walk Among the Tombstones doesn’t exactly avoid genre cliches, it features a compelling storyline, strong direction and performances, and action and suspense at just the right pace. It certainly held my attention from start to finish. In fact, if you don’t count his cameo in The Dark Knight Rises and his voice performance in The Lego Movie, one could make the argument that Tombstones is Neeson’s best movie since Taken.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

June 30, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Seth MacFarlane is an acquired taste, and his latest project, A Million Ways to Die in the West, encapsulates the best and worst of his comedic sensitivities.

It’s also the first time the talented voice actor, who voiced the teddy in Ted and a multitude of characters on Family Guy, fronts the big screen as the leading man of a Hollywood production.

The result is a hit-and-miss farce that showcases some of MacFarlane’s sharp wit but also the low-brow humour he has often criticised for.

MacFarlane plays Albert Stark, a man living in the Wild West who is so self-ware that you suspect he might be from the future (and though this is never explicitly suggested, there are a couple of surprises which might be enough to convince some people).

Albert is a sheep farmer who is dumped by his big-eyed girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried), who thinks little of him as a man and prefers someone a little more macho, like, for example, the mustache-bearing Foy (Neil Patrick Harris). At his lowest point, Albert meets Anna (Charlize Theron), who decides to help him win back Louise. However, what she doesn’t tell him is that she happens to be the wife of the West’s most dangerous man (Liam Neeson).

You can guess the rest of this predictably conventional plot, but let’s be honest — no one cares about the plot. A Million Ways is all about laughs, and MacFarlane never stops trying to deliver them, however he can.

The central gag is essentially MacFarlane pointing out the absurdities of the West, from the boredom of life to its many life-shortening/life-ending dangers, as spelled out in the film’s title. Some of them work, some of them don’t. I giggled at about a handful of his “observations,” but most of the other ones felt either obvious or delivered without sufficient “punch.” There were many more “yeah, that’s a good one” kind of jokes than genuine, laugh-out-loud ones.

MacFarlane is at the top of his game when he is delivering biting satire, and while there is a lot of that in A Million Ways, the “bite” is never as sharp as it ought to be. Perhaps he’s trying to dumb down his comedy for general audiences, or perhaps his jokes are just funnier when they come from cartoon characters or a talking teddy bear rather than himself.

Speaking of dumbing things down, there are waaaay too many fart jokes in the movie. It’s not that such jokes can’t be funny, but they generally aren’t here. I love low-brow jokes as much as the next guy, but I just felt the fart (and shit and vulgar sex) jokes, which are typically very difficult to be effective, make up too high a proportion of the total gags.

MacFarlane is adequate as a leading man. He doesn’t have quite enough charm to pull off the whole thing by himself, though the chemistry he has with his co-stars — in particular Charlize Theron, the “straight man” for him to bounce jokes off — offsets his inadequacies to a some extent.

The four main supporting characters balance out MacFarlane well because they don’t have his level of self-awareness. Giovanni Ribisi plays Albert’s best friend, and his one and only gag is that his girlfriend, played by comedian Sarah Silverman, is a prostitute who won’t sleep with him until they’re married. It’s a gag that works well in principle but gets old quickly in practice.

The more dynamic duo is Amanda Seyfried and NPH, the latter of whom is in scintillating form as a douchebag for the ages. It’s a custom-made role for him and he just runs with it, and in the process nearly steals the show.

At 116 minutes, the film is about 15-20 minutes too long, and you get the sense watching it that MacFarlane struggled to cut it down because he was too in love with his own material.

To sum it up, A Million Ways is a serviceable farce comedy that takes a creative idea but can’t quite live up to its full potential. Joke for joke, I found it less funny and more uneven than Ted. On the other hand, that still makes it smarter and edgier than most comedies you’ll see these days.

3 stars out of 5

 
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