Movie Review: The Gunman (2015)

August 19, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

gunmanpic

It seems every old geezer in Hollywood is turning into an action hero these days. The latest star to follow the Taken path trailblazed by Liam Neeson is Sean Penn, who is no spring chicken at 54 years of age.

Being that it is Sean Penn, there is of course a political slant to it. The plot, therefore, revolves around US mining interests and peacekeeping efforts in the Congo. Penn plays Martin Terrier, a government operative who does something unspeakable for his country and is then forced to disappear. Eight years later, Terrier’s past catches up to him, and a lot of ass-kicking is required for him to make it out alive.

What separates The Gunman from all the Taken wannabes in recent years is that it’s actually directed by the guy who brought us Taken, Pierre Morel. It’s a blessing and a curse because we know what Morel’s capable of but it also sets expectations very high.

The Gunman was almost universally panned by critics, receiving only 17% on Rotten Tomatoes and 39% on Metacritic. Many of the criticisms are valid. The plot, while interesting on its face, is not exactly well developed and fails to make the most of what should have been an intriguing opportunity. There is a fairly lame and unconvincing love triangle between Penn’s character and one played by Jasmine Trinca, an Italian actress two decades younger than him, as well as Javier Bardem’s cookie-cutter jealous a-hole. It also has its fair share of action cliches and is far too long for a movie of this kind at nearly 2 hours.

But you know what? I actually didn’t mind it. Penn is convincing as a man with a very particular set of skills, and he clearly put a lot of effort into transforming his physique just so he could show it off for a couple of seconds. His on-screen presence, physicality and acting chops make him a formidable action hero, badass but also with the right amount of resourcefulness and vulnerability.

The action sequences are Taken-esque, meaning they are done really well — brutal, bone-crunching, visceral, and often heart-pounding. There may be too many boring drama moments, but when the action is on it’s really on.

I’m not proclaiming The Gunman to be a superior action thriller; it’s just that I think it is much more serviceable than it has been made out to be. Sure, it’s not Taken, but it’s arguably better than many of the wannabes.

3.25 stars out of 5

‘The Last of Us’ Diary: Part VIII — Winter is Coming

May 27, 2015 in Uncategorized

Winter

Where are the White Walkers?

Note: This is the eighth part of a multi-part series detailing my experiences, observations and thoughts on The Last of Us on PS3. Part 1 can be found here, Part 2 can be found here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here, Part 5 here, Part 6 here and Part 7 here.

Day 14 (May 18, 2015)

After farewelling Tommy, The Last of Us begins to gather momentum towards its climax. It’s unfortunate this game has to end at all, but there’s only so much travelling a middle-aged man and a teenage girl can do across a post-apocalyptic USA.

I should also note that we are now also entering my favourite part of the game, for reasons I will discuss later.

UEC

Go Big Horns!

The mission to track down the Fireflies next takes Joel and Ellie to the University of Eastern Colorado, as instructed by Tommy. They enter through the front gate in style, on a horse, of course, and soon you’ll be able to wander around the campus with a certain level of freedom. There’s a little bit of scavenging at this point, some zombies to kill, but for the most part it’s more of the same.

The highlight of this entire chapter of the game is, needless to say, the monkeys. I know what you’re thinking, and I’m sure you know what I’m thinking.

Caesar!!!!!!!

Nothing would have pleased me more to discover that the game had a secret major twist — that the whole world has in fact been overtaken by super intelligent apes. Alas, it turned out they were just normal test monkeys, but it was still cool to see them wandering around the labs and on campus. A very nice touch, Naughty Dog.

Anyway, a little while later, the game does offer a huge twist, one that the developers actually lied to protect before the game was released.

During an ensuing cut-scene tussle with Hunters, Joel topples off a second-floor railing and pierces his torso on a protruding screw.

That's not his first piercing

That’s not his first piercing

You have to try and make it out staggering around like Lindsay Lohan on a Friday night, while Ellie saves your ass time after time against oncoming baddies. Eventually, Joel collapses and the screen fades to black.

Now what?! Is that it? Joel’s dead and the game’s over?

Then this screen pops up:

WInter is coming

…is coming

A cute little bunny bounces out of a burrow in the snow. Hi bunny!

And then…

Oops

Bye bunny

That’s Ellie’s doing. She’s still around, shooting rabbits in the snow. But where’s Joel?

We don’t find that out for now because Ellie is distracted by a deer and the next part of the game is about hunting it down.

Deer

It’s nice to see that Ellie has chosen the bow and arrow as her weapon of choice, joining a short list of strong female characters who have made the same decision.

Like her.
Katniss_Hunting

Her.

portman

And her.

kiera

And her.
evangeline

And her.

avatar

Her too.

brave

And her too.

Just kidding

Just kidding

Her as well.

ygritte

And of course her!

arya

Coincidence?

Nevertheless, the deer hunting leads Ellie to a couple of creepy dudes, led by this guy, David, a seemingly normal dude just out looking for food for his people. It is at this point that we find out that Joel is actually still alive somehow and Ellie is in need of medicine to help him stave off an infection.

The Last of Us™ Remastered_20140824200422

I’m not creepy at all!

David is the kinda guy that immediately reminds you of an actor, and in this case it’s John Hawkes, specifically from his performance in Winter’s Bone. I dunno if it’s the hair or the creepiness or just the snow, but he would be perfect for the movie version, no?

winters-bone

I’m not creepy at all!

Ellie reaches a tentative agreement for David’s nervous companion, James, to go back to their camp to get some antibiotics in exchange for the deer she shot down. Of course, as they wait for James to return, zombies — including a bloater — come attacking, and together Ellie and David have to fend them off.

As I noted earlier, the segment where you play as Ellie is probably the best of the entire game. It’s a small fraction of the story in the grand scheme of things, but it’s also the most tense in terms of gameplay and emotionally involving in terms of the storyline. Having gotten used to Joel and built him up into quite a formidable dude, it was great to have to go back to basics with Ellie, who starts off with just a bow and a knife. She can’t punch people out like Joel, so you have to use your smarts a little more, and the way she flings her entire body at enemies to take them down is more visually spectacular than what Joel does.

It’s also interesting from a plot perspective, because up to that point the player controls Joel to protect Ellie. Now it’s the other way around, and Ellie gets the opportunity to show you what she’s capable of. She’s more vulnerable than Joel, and that sense of anxiety is really transferred to the player as you control her.

Needle

That’s not his first needle, if you know what I mean

Eventually, James returns with the medicine and Ellie returns with it to Joel. It would have been funny if she had found him dead, or if the medicine kills him, but as required by the plot he recovers, though not before their hideout is discovered by David and his men and Ellie is forced to try and lead them away.

The Ellie action is unfortunately short-lived, as she is captured by David and taken back to his camp. The scene cuts to Ellie in a cage, and this is when we discover David’s poorly kept secret. Yes, in yet another Walking Dead parallel, David and his followers are cannibals! But instead of wanting to eat Ellie, David recognises her awesomeness and tries to recruit her.

Have some...er...chicken

Have some…er…KFC

I found this revelation to be extremely well done. There’s nothing particularly visceral about it; in fact, it’s kind of unveiled in a matter-of-fact manner. It’s not staged as something extra shocking, almost as though the gamemakers excepted you to have guessed it already.

Meanwhile, Joel awakens and becomes generally the same as before, albeit a little pale. Now the game shifts back to Joel, and he’s going on an exciting rampage of violence to rescue Ellie. If you’ve ever wondered how Liam Neeson feels as he goes about his business in Taken, here’s your chance to experience it first hand.

I'm going to find you, and I'm going to kill you

I’m going to find you, and I’m going to kill you

Interestingly, my playing style naturally evolved along with Joel’s emotions. I’m usually quite conservative and careful, but with Ellie’s life on the line, I’m going all out and busting caps up people’s asses left and right, taking no prisoners and beating the shit out of everything in sight.

There’s one particular scene where Joel gets his hands on a couple of David’s henchmen and must force them to spill the beans on Ellie’s whereabouts. If you’ve ever wondered how Jack Bauer feels as he goes about his business in 24, here’s your chance to experience it first hand.

Dammit!

Dammit!

If I were to guess what would happen next, I would say that Joel would find Ellie and rescue her after killing everyone in David’s camp. That’s the typical male hero fantasy gamers are used to. Thankfully, The Last of Us is no typical game, and I was ecstatic to discover that Ellie will get to finish out this chapter of the game as its protagonist. The perspective shifts back to her and she kills stupid James, setting up an epic showdown with David in a burning restaurant/inn.

Without her weapons, however, this climatic battle plays out differently. All Ellie has is a knife, and she must evade the gun-wielding David on the one hand while finding ways to sneak up behind him on the other so she can stab him. Being the tough dude David is, one stab won’t do the trick, and you’ll have to repeat the difficult task three times to trigger the next cut scene. Trust me, it’s well worth it.

EPIC

So epic

In many ways, this is the true climax of the game. It’s essentially the last time you get to use Ellie (OK, there’s one more time, but you don’t get to do anything), and the next and final chapter of the game is surprisingly tame compared to this one because it focuses more on the emotional journey of the characters. I’ll get to that in my next post, where I will also deliver my overall verdict on the game.

Movie Review: Run All Night (2015)

May 16, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

run-all-night

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: The Equalizer (2014)

January 22, 2015 in Movie Reviews

The-Equalizer-IMAX-poster

The Equalizer, or as I like to call it, “Black Taken”, is predictable, formulaic Denzel Washington excitement. For those who take comfort in familiarity, the film will probably be an enjoyable experience. For those who are sick of watching Denzel play the same bad ass over and over, it will probably not do very much for you.

Denzel plays a seemingly normal loner named Robert, qho works in a seemingly normal job at a Home Mart. But of course, he is really a man with a very specific set of skills, and if you cross him, he will find you, and he will kill you.

And so when a surely-she-can’t-be-that-young prostitute played by Chloe Moretz is roughed up by her Russian gangster pimps, Denzel decides to go on a personal rampage of revenge and justice. But you already knew that.

Typical “character development” scenes aside, The Equalizer is more or less just Denzel being Denzel, taking names and taking down baddies with brutal efficiency. Unlike Bryan Mills, however, Robert McCall is not just about doing what he needs to do without giving a damn about anything or anyone else. And that’s because, of course, Denzel characters also need to have a heart of gold. So Bob is not only a badass — he’s also a disgustingly great guy with a moral compass that always points in the same direction as Jesus’s.

In terms of action and execution, there’s not a whole lot to complain about The Equalizer. It’s powered by the stylish direction of Antoine Fuqua and it features Denzel’s always-impressive acting chops, and for all the violence it’s actually a very comfortable film to watch because you know exactly what you’re in for. I did wish, however, that Robert could have run into a little more resistance or had some more formidable foes.

I don’t think it’s quite as good as Man on Fire, but those who are happy just to watch Denzel tear up the screen should be perfectly satisfied watching him do his thing in The Equalizer.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: John Wick (2014)

November 18, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

JW

Keanu’s back! And this time, instead of Japanese demons, he’s taking on a whole army of Russian gangsters with 46 less ronin by his side.

Ted “Theodore” Logan doesn’t make a lot of films these days, so when he does I always get a little excited. After last year’s disappointing 47 Ronin, he’s back this time as the titular character in John Wick, a depressed former assassin who goes on a revenge rampage after Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), the son of the original Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), makes the mistake of messing with the wrong dude.

It sounds kinda stupid and it is, but John Wick has been a surprising hit thanks to the excellent direction of Chad Stahelski in his feature debut. The stylistic action is what sets film apart from others of the same genre, and it’s arguably the most exciting action flick in terms of gunfire and physical combat since Taken

Keanu doesn’t have a lot of expressions, and that’s perfect as Wick, a no non-sense killer and a quick, smooth and relentless one-man wrecking crew. There’s something almost mechanical in the way he beats down his opponents, and he always makes sure the job is complete with an extra bullet or two where it counts. The action sequences are long, often brutal, and extremely well choreographed, and Stahelski spares our eyes by keeping the camera steady and the rapid cuts to a minimum.

The other successful aspect of John Wick is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, but not so unseriously that it destroys the mood. The film is admittedly dark and full of death, but it’s also littered with tongue-in-cheek jokes about the assassin “industry” or “fraternity.”  There’s a code of conduct and assassins have to abide by it or face the consequences of the wider community. The film is filled with these straight-faced gags, such as a hotel that caters especially to assassins, a dedicated mop-up crew, and so forth. I also noticed there was a nice little cameo from The Newsroom‘s Thomas Sadoski which I found to be quite fun.

In addition to Keanu’s typical Keanu performance, the rest of the cast also do a fine job in their respective roles. Nyqvist milks his charm to provide us with a villain who might not be much of an opponent for Wick if they met in a dark alley, but one who knows what he is up against and remains relatively calm amid the chaos. Alfie Allen is also terrific as a spineless little twat who has less balls than his character on Game of Thrones, while Adrianne Palicki is convicing as a female assassin who’s not afraid to bend the rules. Rounding out the cast are the likes of Bridget Moynahan, Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo and Lance Reddick, each of whom have small but key roles.

After a rolling start, the film moves at such a frantic pace that you don’t really notice its flaws all that much, except when it resorts to the old cliche where the “bad guy” has the “good guy” right where he wants him but instead of killing him on the spot decides to tie him up and give him every possible opportunity to escape. With its style, tone and gaps in logic, John Wick feels almost like a graphic novel adaptation, except it’s not, though I hear there might be opportunities to spin this first film into a franchise of some sort.

At the end of the day, I enjoyed John Wick a lot. I also think it’s a victim of its own hype. It’s the type of film that I didn’t expect to be any good, but because the reviews were so positive, I ended up having unrealistic expectations. It is what it is — a really well-executed, exciting, stylistic, and not-too-serious action flick with near-non-existent plot and not much substance. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

3.5 stars out of 5

 
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