J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for the ‘Action’ Category

The Next Three Days

Posted by J on May 15, 2011

The Next Three Days is highly entertaining, yet entirely ridiculous.  It qualifies as a how-could-a movie.  A how-could-a movie is a movie during which you keep asking yourself the question “How could?”  As in, how could Harrison Ford possibly survive that jump off the dam in The FugitiveThe Next Three Days might set the record for “how coulds?”

Consider. The main character, Russell Crowe, is a pudgy community college English teacher who has an apprehension about guns.  So of course he is the perfect character to plan and execute a jail break! Of course.  The entire premise of the movie, that Russell Crowe’s character can and will break his wife out of jail, is a how could question.

It turns out that Crowe’s wife is in prison for murder. The evidence points to her guilt, and when she loses her final appeal, she is stuck in the slammer for life. Crowe is quite depressed about this, mostly because she’s attractive. So he mopes about his daily life, playing the father to his six-year-old boy.

But then the idea hits, “why couldn’t I break my wife out of jail?”  Well, aside from the facts that no one has ever escaped this jail and that Crowe has no experience as a criminal mastermind, he certainly could break her out of jail! Why not? So Crowe hires Liam Neeson, who has escaped jail seven times, to give him advice for five minutes about how to break someone out of jail.  It turns out that you really just need willpower and a little luck.

So Crowe spends most of the movie planning the jailbreak.  He uses Youtube a lot. Youtube shows him how to make a bump key, which he tries in an elevator at the jail. That doesn’t work, so he tries to buy fake passports and social security numbers in the ghetto. After he gets beat up and robbed, he goes back to the ghetto with a gun to rob a meth dealer.  He needs money badly, in order to escape the country and bribe corrupt officials in Venezuela, his final destination after he successfully pulls off his impossible plan.  But he has only a few hundred dollars left.  This is quite strange, because even though he has sold his house and all of his furniture, he’s still hanging on to his brand new Toyota Prius, which is his getaway vehicle.

Crowe then robs the meth dealer. He sets fire to the dealer’s house, but the house does not blow up.  This allows Pittsburgh detectives to find a piece of the Prius, which broke off when Crowe ran into a bunch of trashcans while leaving the crimescene.  These detectives turn out to be the ultimate Super Sleuths. They reason that there are 7000 Priuses in the nearby metro area, and thus 7000 suspects.  But they start their search with convicted murderers. Only one murderer owns a Prius: Crowe’s wife.  She couldn’t have committed a crime, though, because she’s in jail.  Yet these Super Sleuths reason that the killer of the meth dealer must be the husband or child of the murderer who owns the Prius.  Of course!  It takes them the better part of a morning to make this brilliant deduction and track down Crowe, who on that very day is executing his elaborate jailbreak.  Chase scene alert!

It’s funny, apparently Super Sleuths don’t make good cops.  While the police detectives find Crowe within hours, they can’t stop him when he’s on a hospital elevator.  Our pudgy English professor hero has, in his infinite wisdom, gotten his diabetic jailbird wife transferred to a hospital.  He then thwarts the Super Sleuths on the hospital elevator. He descends to the parking garage, throws his clothes off of the elevator, and then goes back up to the hospital lobby.  The Sleuths think that he is in the parking garage.  Oh that clever Russell Crowe!

Once Crowe has gotten his wife out of the hospital covertly, he follows Neeson’s advice.  He’s got 35 minutes to get out of Pittsburgh.  But there’s no time to get his son.  It’s either escape now or risk capture later.  Crowe’s wife cannot bear the thought of escaping without their son, so she tries to commit suicide by jumping out of the car.  But Crowe grabs her and hangs onto her as their rental car does a 720 on the interstate at 65 mph.  This is the second time in the movie that Crowe’s wife has attempted suicide, but apparently she’s too attractive to not live with in Venezuela for the next four decades.

Does Crowe get out of the country? As the movie’s hero, should we really be rooting for him to bust a murderer out of jail? These questions I will leave you to ponder, but if you seen only a few Hollywood movies, you should know what their answers are.

These detailed plot points are provided for you to prove that this movie is bursting with unintentional comedy.  Almost none of it makes sense.  It is more a fantasy than The Lord of the Rings.  Admittedly, though, it so entertaining that I didn’t feel like falling asleep during it, the first movie I’ve watched in a while where shuteye was not an option.  If you are looking to spend a mindless evening, then this is your movie.

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The Devil’s Brigade

Posted by J on February 15, 2011

We thought there was a rule that no WWII mission movie could be unwatchable.  No such movie can go wrong, theoretically.  The premise promises adventure — a team of soldiers or commandos goes on an impossible mission in exotic territory.  The setting is wartime, and the good guys and bad guys are obvious and without ambiguity.

Yet The Devil’s Brigade is one of the lesser of WWII mission movies, unwatchable in parts, and trite in every way.  Here the mission is for a band of misfits to get in shape, then storm a mountain where unreachable Nazis fire artillery guns at will.  But the movie sucks the life out of this mission, meandering whenever it needs to move forward.

There is a standard formula for movies like this.  It goes according to this plan:

1) Commanding officer gets a special assignment, then assembles group of outcasts and criminals to prepare to perform special assignment.  Each outcast has his own wacky, distinctive personality.

2) The group of outcasts doesn’t gel at first.  There will be a fistfight or two, but then an incident occurs that unites them as a group.  Usually this incident involves fistfights, too.

3) The group of outcasts get a special assignment, but something goes wrong, except team spirit and willpower overcome whatever went wrong.  In the end, the commanding officer will survive, as will a few of the outcasts, but many of them will die and each will get his own special moment where he dies gloriously in battle.

While The Devil’s Brigade follows this generic formula, it goes wrong in a number of ways.  The first is that none of the individual members of the brigade are all that interesting.  None is a colorful character.  Even near the end of the movie, it’s hard to distinguish one guy from another, even though the movie has tried very hard to establish its characters as likeable and unique.

The second way it goes wrong is that it gives the brigade two special assignments, thereby limiting the screen time spent on each assignment.  As a result, the brigade’s first mission is incredibly dull — sneaking into a base and catching a few German officers showering.  The movie does promise that the brigade will go to Norway, which would’ve been the best route for the plot to take, except the brigade gets shipped off to Italy instead.  While this may be historically accurate, the movie does little justice to the real Devil’s Brigade anyway, so why not have a cool snow battle in Norway involving skiing and crossbows?

The movie was released in 1968, in the opening years of the Vietnam war, which means it’s really about Vietnam and not WWII.  It argues for an military alliance with Canada, a signifier for any potential foreign ally that we might not like (the Americans harbor antipathy for the Canadians in the movie) but that would be useful anyway.  It’s hard to watch this now and not think that the outcasts, criminals, and rapscallions who comprise the brigade are representative of wayward youths in the late ’60s, the kinds of guys needed in 1968 for the U.S. Army.  The movie shows us that we can trust these wayward youths, who can be turned into a valiant fighting force for good, if only we give some courageous leader like William Holden a chance.  Fortunately, the ending to The Devil’s Brigade isn’t all that happy, but any WWII mission movie like this inherently praises modern war as the pinnacle for the exhibition of several male virtues, such as courage, endurance, and toughness.  Unfortunately, to get through this movie without falling asleep, you too will need these virtues.

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The Wages of Fear

Posted by J on February 12, 2011

Apparently, there’s an audience for watching tough guys do dangerous jobs.  There’s no other explanation for the popularity of the cable TV shows about deep sea fishermen, ice road truckers, demolition experts, barbarian beef eaters, and skydiving snake handlers.  At least a few people like to dream that a tiny part of the world isn’t touched by feminine influence.  Would you be surprised to know that a 1953 French movie would fit right in on the TV schedule after Iceroad TruckersThe Wages of Fear works as a modern guy movie.

What’s fascinating is the way it’s presented nowadays.  Look at the cover from the Criterion Collection’s DVD.  It depicts a couple of tired and defeated men, looking like they’ve been watching a bunch of boring Criterion films in a row.  Reader, do not pay heed to this cover.  Look at the original movie poster above.  That’s the movie you will see.  These tired-looking men have a fantastic reason to look tired.  They’re driving a truck filled with nitroglycerin for 300 miles down a terrible road.  They could blow up at any second!  At the point in the movie where they look tired, they’ve just hauled the truck out of a pool of oil, and the guy on the left got his leg smashed.

The movie starts in South America — Brazil, Venezuela, Suriname, we don’t know — in a forsaken place where there are a few ex-pats.  Some Americans, Germans, Brits, Italians, and French hang around a tiny bar in a tiny town that exists to serve the oil industry.  The American company, SOC, operates oil wells near the town.  But the ex-pats can’t get a job, so they just bum around at the bar all day.

Jo, an old French guy, arrives in town and meets Mario, a young French guy.  Mario takes to Jo, who shows his toughness in a near-bar fight.  Mario would like to hang around Jo and leave his French girlfriend, who seems to be the local prostitute.  But how can he ditch that girlfriend?  And where will he get a job?

Well, an oil well explodes.  SOC needs to put out the fire, and it needs explosives to do it. Bill O’Brien, head of SOC’s operations, wants the job done now, without regard to safety.  He orders that regular old trucks haul containers of nitroglycerin to the oil wells.  These trucks don’t have shock absorbers, so one bad bump and BOOM!  Who will drive these trucks?  O’Brien reasons that the local ex-pats will do it.  They don’t have a union and they’ll each jump at the chance to earn $2000 for a day’s work. (This explains the Criterion’s cover, which has an implicit political message about colonialism, exploitation, capitalist greed, and whatever else is supposedly wrong with the world.)

Four drivers are selected, all of whom we’ve learned a little about in the movie’s first hour, including Jo and Mario.  Two trucks will go, two men per truck. Why two trucks? In case one of them blows up.

So the trucks begin a long journey down a perilous road.  We know this is a total guy movie because, as Mario’s truck leaves town, his girlfriend jumps onto it.  Mario pushes her off, she falls onto the road, and she watches the men leave.  The scene closes on her as if to say “no women are allowed passed this point!”  Hauling nitroglycerin, it turns out, is only a job for the toughest of guys. (The ending, which has baffled all kinds of people, absolutely reinforces this point about “no women allowed.”)

The mission seems suicidal.  What happens if the trucks hit a washboard road?  How do they handle hairpin turns up steep hills?  How do they get around boulders that have fallen into the road?  The movie’s tense moments hold up well against any modern action movie you can name.    In fact, reader, the last hour-and-a-half of The Wages of Fear is one of the best stretches in cinema’s short history.  It makes the iceroad truckers look like they are making cupcakes.

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