Russell Crowe

The Man With The Iron Fists

2012

Universal Pictures

Directed by Rza

Produced by Eli Roth and Marc Abraham

Written by Rza and Eli Roth

It’s not necessary for you to have watched 1970’s Kung Fu movies as obsessively as I did and still do to enjoy THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS but it sure doesn’t hurt. This is the real thing in that while watching it I actually felt like I was in a 42end St. grindhouse back in the ‘70’s. The only thing missing was the smell of pot and the snoring of a wino in the last row. The style and characters and story are such vintage Kung Fu movie swave that it’s easy to just settle back and enjoy the sheer outrageousness on the screen.

In the small community of Jungle Village there is constant warfare between various clans battling for supremacy. The Lion Clan is the most powerful and due to special weapons created by Thaddeus the Blacksmith (Rza) they are able to defeat their hated enemies and prepare for a huge shipment of gold bullion that is to be transported through their village. It’s guarded by The Geminis (Andrew Lin and Grace Huang) and an army of warriors equipped with rapid firing crossbows. But this doesn’t deter Silver Lion (Byron Mann) the new leader of The Lion Clan. What does worry him is that Zen Yi, The X-Blade (Rick Yune) is returning to Jungle Village to investigate his father’s highly suspicious death. Silver Lion hires Brass Body (David Bautista) a seven foot tall mercenary who backs up his superhuman strength with the supernatural ability to turn his body into living brass to kill Zen Yi.

Meanwhile, a mysterious stranger right out of a Sergio Leone western comes to town. Jack Knife (Russell Crowe) apparently is there only to smoke opium and bang as many of Madam Blossom’s (Lucy Liu) whores as he can. But his hedonistic behavior hides a cunning, devious mind that has schemes on getting the gold himself.

Thaddeus is content to stay out of the conflict. He only cares about earning enough gold through his blacksmithing to buy his girlfriend Lady Silk (Jamie Chung) out of Madame Blossom’s  service and build a new life together far away from Jungle Village. But Thaddeus soon learns that everybody must pick a side in the epic battle for possession of the gold. Even him.

THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS starts out fast and strong and never slows down it’s plot for an instant. There’s always something interesting happening on screen, whether it’s a knock-down-drag-out beatdown or Russell Crowe getting his freak on or Silver Lion scheming with a mysterious hooded man to get the gold. All the while Rza is narrating in a voice that sounds nothing like how I imagine a black man in the 19th Century would sound. Matter of fact, Thaddeus sounds like he came to Jungle Village straight from Brooklyn’s Brownsville. But oddly enough, it just adds to the fun of the movie which also borrows heavily from spaghetti westerns. It’s also cool how each of the characters have their own special weapons with the standouts being the combined Bowie knife/pistol carried by Jack Knife or the armored suit that is made up of bladed weapons worn by Zen-Yi which gives him his nickname of The X-Blade.

You don’t go to a movie like this for the acting but it helps when it’s as good as it is here. Madame Blossom is a role Lucy Liu could play in her sleep but she throws herself into it fully. Rza was a little too laid back for me to be the main character but I think it was a wise move for him to let the more experienced actors carry the bulk of the movie. Rick Yune and the Master Killer himself, Gordon Liu also do solid acting jobs. I had a lot of fun with Byron Mann as Silver Lion because if there’s one thing I love, it’s a bad guy who enjoys being a bad guy. He struts through the movie with a psychotic grin and hair that any member of an 80’s heavy metal band would envy.

But nobody in the movie throws himself into their role with as much gusto as Russell Crowe. He looks as if he’s having the time of his life being in a Kung Fu movie and for much of the movie’s running time we’re not sure what the deal is with this guy Jack Knife. When he’s not drinking or smoking dope or banging whores he’s creeping around the village in disguise, quietly gathering information and observing what’s going on.

So should you see THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS? Absolutely. I loved how this movie is such an unashamed throwback to those wonderful 70’s Kung Fu movies done with style, fun and substance. Everybody looks as if they had a great time making it and from the sound of it the audience I watched the movie with had an equally good time watching it. I know I did.

96 minutes

Rated R

American Gangster

2007

Universal Pictures

Directed by Ridley Scott

Produced by Brain Grazer and Ridley Scott

Screenplay by Steve Zaillian

Based on the article “The Return of Superfly” by Mark Jacobson

This isn’t the first time that Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe have squared off against each other in a movie.  Anybody remember the 1995 sci-fi thriller “Virtuosity”?  In that one, Denzel Washington was the cop and Russell Crowe was the bad guy, a virtual reality serial killer unleashed on the real world.  In the years between “Virtuosity” and AMERICAN GANGSTER both actors have made an impressive amount of really fine films and they’ve both won Best Actor Oscars.  Both men have achieved a level of respect and professional achievement that few actors today can claim.  And separately just their names are enough to guarantee a big weekend box office.  So putting them together again in a movie should assure us of some really outstanding scenes between the two of them since both men have done nothing but get better at their craft since 1995, right?

I wish I could say it was so but AMERICAN GANGSTER is a lot like the Robert DeNiro/Al Pacino crime thriller “Heat” or Robert DeNiro/Kevin Costner in “The Untouchables” in that for most of the movie we’re following two separate but intertwined storylines and we have to wait about two hours before we get to what we want to see: the two main actors going at it.  It’s worth the wait to finally see Denzel and Russell face to face, trust me on that but the few scenes they have together are so good you can’t help but wish they had more of them.

It’s the 1970’s and Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) has inherited the crime empire of his boss, the legendary Harlem gangster Bumpy Johnson who has passed away from an unexpected heart attack.  Frank doesn’t waste time in consolidating his power.  To do this he intends to control the heroin traffic in Harlem by cutting out any and all middlemen and making a deal directly with the supplier.  Frank himself flies to Bangkok and with the help of his cousin (Roger Guenveur Smith) he strikes a deal for a previously unheard of amount of heroin that is 100% pure.  He gives it a brand name: ‘Blue Magic’ and sells his product for half the price of his competitors.  Frank brings up his family from North Carolina, including his elderly mother (Ruby Dee) and buys a huge mansion estate for them all to live in.  He makes his five brothers his lieutenants and they proceed to make money.  A whole lot of money.

Ritchie Roberts (Russell Crowe) isn’t having as much fun in his life as Frank is in his.  Ritchie’s wife is divorcing him because of his constant womanizing and his single-minded devotion to his job.  Ritchie is such an honest cop that he turns in a million bucks to his superiors without even thinking for a minute about keeping it for himself.  It’s simple for him because he looks at it simply: the money was made illegally.  He’s a cop.  Cops don’t take illegal money.  Haw.  Remember that this is back in the 1970’s when police corruption in New York was just part of the job.  Ritchie is ostracized by his fellow officers and so he jumps at the chance when his boss (Ted Levine) gives him a chance to head up his own squad of Untouchables who will target the high-level drug dealers.  No nickel-and-dime dealers.  Ritchie’s investigations eventually lead him to Frank Lucas who has managed to stay under the radar for so long because he doesn’t go in for the flashy pimped out lifestyle of his peers like Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) Not Frank.  He dresses in conservative business suits and takes his momma to church every Sunday.  He doesn’t get high off his own supply and he runs his organization with a professionalism that makes him the gangland equivalent of Donald Trump.

Frank intrigues Ritchie who is amazed that a black man could amass so much wealth and power that even old school Mafia kingpins like Dominic Gattano (Armand Assante) give him respect and he’s determined to take Frank down.  It’s not going to be an easy job as Ritchie has no idea how Frank is smuggling his product into the United States and there’s a crooked cop (Josh Brolin) who is making life hell for both Frank and Ritchie.  The lives of these two men intersect at a very critical juncture in their lives and once they join together their story has a unique twist.

AMERICAN GANGSTER works extremely hard at wanting to be an epic crime drama.  But I actually think it works more as a character study of the two men, Frank Lucas and Ritchie Roberts.  Frank Lucas is a cold-blooded killer who can set a man on fire without blinking and sell heroin to children without losing a night’s sleep.  But he also provides for his family, instills a (twisted) set of business values and ethics in his brothers and faithfully attends church every Sunday.  Ritchie Roberts is a helluva cop who chases bad guys by day and goes to law school at night.  He’s also a neglectful father and a lousy husband.  Family values is an elusive concept for Ritchie who seems genuinely puzzled that his wife doesn’t accept his womanizing and off-hour association with the lowlife of New York City.  I think that director Ridley Scott spends so much time on the separate stories of these two men, both of who are looking for The American Dream in their own way and allows us to examine their moral values and ethical codes and he wants us to make up our minds as to what we think of how they achieve it.

Ridley Scott is a strange choice for this type of straight-up crime thriller.  I think perhaps the closest he’s come to a movie like this is 1989’s “Black Rain” starring Michael Douglas.  Ridley Scott is not the first director you think of when it comes to crime thrillers.  In the hands of Martin Scorsese or Carl Franklin I think the movie would have had more bite to it.  As it is Scott focuses more on how these two men conduct their business and their relationships to those around them.  As a result you’re not going to find over-the-top violence such as in “Scarface” “Goodfellas” or “The Departed”.  There is violence, sure.  But it’s handled in an almost documentary like manner.

Denzel Washington turns in his usual outstanding performance as Frank Lucas.  By now we’re all so used to Denzel being so good that it’s no surprise that we’re not able to take our eyes off him when he’s on the screen.  He’s gotten really good at playing bad guys.  And Russell Crowe is easily his equal in acting ability.  Separately they create fully realized characters and both men do more in a scene by saying nothing than other actors do with ten minutes of dialog.  They’re just that good.  And they’re backed up by an equally impressive supporting cast.  Ruby Dee has a really splendid scene where she has to talk Frank down from doing something really stupid and the honesty of the scene comes right out of the screen and grabs you by the shoulders.  Josh Brolin as Detective Trupo steps up his game considerably.  He has scenes with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe and damn if he doesn’t hold his own with the both of them.  It’s an impressive acting job he does here.  Chiwetel Ejiofor and Common have roles as two of Frank’s brothers.  Cuba Gooding, Jr. continues his streak as the most puzzling actor of all time.  Why does this man continue to waste his talent in unfunny so-called comedies when he has such a gift for dramatic roles?  His five minutes as Nicky Barnes in AMERICAN GANGSTER beats out the entirety of “Boat Trip” “Rat Race” and “Snow Dogs” all put together.

I was puzzled by Joe Morton’s character of Charlie Williams who in appearance is a near dead ringer for Gordon Parks.  His character’s relationship to Frank Lucas is never really explained.  He shows up every now and then, gives Frank some sage words of wisdom and then he’s gone.  And while we’re on the subject the relationship between Frank Lucas and his wife Eva (Lymari Nadal) isn’t all that satisfying either.  Despite the scene where Frank goes ballistic on Dominic Gattano when a hit on Frank goes wrong and his wife is almost killed I wasn’t convinced that either of them were ever that much in love with the other.

So should you see AMERICAN GANGSTER?  If you’re a fan of Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe then you probably already have.  And with good reason.  Both men are at the top of their game right now and watching them work is truly a pleasure.  The supporting cast does their job and backs up the leads superbly.  The direction is realistic and not unnecessarily bombastic.  And no, I don’t think that AMERICAN GANGSTER is the great crime epic it aspires to be but it is solid entertainment that’s worth your time to watch.

157 minutes

Rated R

 

3:10 To Yuma

 

 

2007

Lionsgate Films

Directed by James Mangold

Produced by Cathy Konrad

Screenplay by Halsted Welles, Michael Brandt and Derek Haas

Based on the short story by Elmore Leonard

Those of you who have been reading these movie reviews for a while know that my favorite genre of movie is The Western.  I love movies, period and I am the type of movie nut that will literally watch anything.  Yes, even chick flicks.  But westerns…man, that’s my huckleberry right there.  Give me a Saturday afternoon, two or three good westerns to watch along with some cheeseburgers, potato chips and plenty of Coca-Cola and leave me alone.  Now some of the recent efforts to make westerns haven’t  been less than blockbuster but thankfully the remake of the classic 3:10 TO YUMA is a terrific movie.  It’s not one of these “Revisionist” Westerns or a Western where the director is really trying to tell an allegory about Our Modern Times.  It’s a horse opera, plain and simple.  Told extremely well with outstanding performances by Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.

Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is a struggling Arizona farmer desperately trying to hold onto his land.  He’s lost a lot already.  Part of his leg was taken from him in The Civil War and he no longer has the respect of his oldest son William (Logan Lerman) or his wife Alice (Gretchen Mol).  Dan is determined to hold onto his farm even though his water has been dammed up and his barn burned down by the local land baron.  His chance to hold onto his land comes when the outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is captured in the nearby town of Bisbee.  Ben Wade and his gang have robbed the Southern Pacific Railroad 20 times and their representative Grayson Butterfield (Dallas Roberts) offers $200 dollars to any man who will help him take Wade to a town two days ride away where a prison train will take Wade to Yuma.  Dan is eager to sign up along with Doc Potter (Alan Tudyk) the sheriff’s deputy (Kevin Durand) and bounty hunter Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda) who was the only survivor of Wade’s most recent robbery and would rather just as soon put a bullet in his brain than see him hang.

The journey is not going to be an easy one.  Dan and the others are pursued by Wade’s gang, led by the terrifyingly dangerous Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) Wade’s right-hand man who seems to take it as a personal insult that Dan and the other have even dared to presume to think they’re going to take Wade in to hang.  And then Dan and the others have to take a detour through country infested with bloodthirsty Apache renegades.  To make Dan’s situation even worse, his son William has taken it into his head to come along against Dan’s wishes as the 14 year old boy is plainly infatuated with Ben Wade’s legend.

There are a lot of things that makes 3:10 TO YUMA work for me but I’ll give you the main three: One is the story.  It’s a simple story, sure.  But in Westerns it’s the simple stories that work the best.  The motivations of the characters is the grease that makes the engine of the story run smoothly and everybody in this movie has a good reason for where they are and why they do what they do.  Second are the performances.  The actors in this movie all look as if they’re actually inhabiting the period they’re supposed to be living in.  The problem with a lot of recent Westerns I’ve seen is that they’re miscast and the actors look as if they’re playing dress up.  Not here.  And three is the location shooting.  3:10 TO YUMA was filmed in New Mexico and it looks absolutely terrific.  It has the look of vintage 1950’s/1960’s Westerns.

The relationship between Dan Evans and Ben Wade is at the heart of this movie and both Christian Bale and Russell Crowe do splendid jobs of acting.  Russell Crowe doesn’t play Ben Wade as a foaming-at-the-mouth-mad-dog killer.  Wade is surprisingly intelligent, charming, educated, artistic and talented.  In fact, he’s probably the smartest person in the movie and he has a scary insight into human nature.  He can sit down with you for five minutes and tell you things about yourself you’ve kept shut up deep inside yourself for years.  Dan Evans is nowhere near as smart or intelligent or talented.  But he has a soul.  A soul that intrigues Ben Wade and one he comes to respect.  One of the best things about the movie is seeing how the relationship between the two men develops in ways I certainly didn’t see coming.

Christian Bale is an actor that I think one day is going to achieve the status reserved for Brando and Olivier.  He’s just that good.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen him give a bad performance and I’ve followed his career since “Empire of The Sun”.  I was really interested in seeing how he would handle himself in a Western and I enjoyed his performance a lot.  He takes to the Western like a duck takes to water and I certainly hope he does more of them.  As for Russell Crowe, this isn’t his first Western.  He did a great job in Sam Raimi’s “The Quick And The Dead’ and here he makes his Ben Wade a totally absorbing and interesting character, one that we watch just to see what he’ll do next because this is the type of guy who never does or says what you expect.

The supporting cast does a fine job in the roles and I really liked Peter Fonda here.  Peter has a lot of fun playing a tough-as-horsehide bounty hunter here.  Fans of the TV show “Firefly” will want to keep an eye out for Alan Tudyk who plays a horse doctor who discovers he’s also a man of action.

The action scenes are thrilling and just what I expect from a Western.  There’s gunplay aplenty, especially during the last half hour of the movie where there are a number of plot twists that kept me on the edge of my seat.  And I’ve said this about a number of recent movies but I’m going to say it again: much as I love CGI there’s some movies you don’t need it for and The Western is one of them.  Sometimes it’s a pleasure to go see a movie where it’s Real People doing the stunts.

So should you see 3:10 TO YUMA?  If you’re as big a Western fan as me, Hell, yes.  Even if you’re not a Western fan and just want to see a movie with great action, solid acting and stunning cinematography, yes.  If you’re a fan of Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, definitely.  They give wonderfully strong, fully characterized performances here.  3:10 TO YUMA is well worth your time.

120 minutes

Rated R