Crime Drama

The Brave One

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2007

Warner Bros.

Directed by Neil Jordan

Produced by Susan Downey and Joel Silver

Written by Roderick Taylor, Bruce A. Taylor and Cynthia Mort

Maybe because she’s been around for so long we tend to take Jodie Foster for granted and forget just how terrific an actress she is.  I remember first seeing her in the psychological thriller “The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane” way the hell back in 1975.  And in recent years I’ve tremendously enjoyed her in “Maverick” “Contact” “Anna And The King” “Flightplan” “Inside Man” and of course, “The Silence of The Lambs”.  She’s one of the few child actresses who successfully made the transition to adult stardom.  She enjoys great critical and financial acclaim and it’s sort of amusing to me when I read professional critic reviews of movies she’s done such as “Flightplan” “Panic Room” and “Silence Of The Lambs” all of which are actually Grade B potboilers in art house movie drag as is THE BRAVE ONE.

Erica Bain (Jodie Foster) has a life that appears to be perfect.  She’s the host of a highly popular radio talk show and she’s engaged to be married to a drop-dead handsome doctor (Naveen Andrews).  That life comes to a tragic and brutal end one night.  While walking their dog, Erica and her boyfriend are attacked in Central Park.

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Erica is beaten so badly that she’s in a coma for three weeks while her boyfriend dies on the operating table.   Erica recovers and tries to put her life back together.  But she knows she’s not the same person she was before that night.  In a very real sense she died as well and she struggles to deal with her traumatized emotions and find a way to re-integrate her shattered psyche.

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Erica grows increasingly frustrated with the lack of police progress in finding her boyfriend’s killers and tries to buy a gun.  Driven into a fit of anger because she refuses to wait the required 30 days, she purchases one illegally and goes out at night, deliberately setting herself up as a victim and before you can say ‘Charles Bronson’ New York’s crime rate drops sharply as there’s dead bodies of would be rapists, stick-up guys and muggers littering the streets.

Complicating the situation even more is Erica’s relationship with Detective Mercer (Terrence Howard) who is assigned to investigate the vigilante slayings.  At first, Erica manipulates Mercer because he’s a fan of her show and she plays upon that to get close to him and find out how far along he is in his investigation.  But as they grow closer and more trusting, Erica discovers a true respect and even admiration for both the cop and the man.  At the same time, small things Mercer notices start to add up and he starts to have a horrible suspicion that his newfound friend may be the vigilante killer.  But Erica can’t stop her nightly activities, especially when due to a really bizarre twist, she discovers the identity of one of the men who killed her boyfriend and if she can find one then she can damn well can find the others…

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When I saw trailers for this movie I was convinced this was a remake of the classic 1974 “Death Wish” starring Charles Bronson and directed by Michael Winner.  It’s a film that after all this time probably still is the definitive thriller advocating vigilantism as a legitimate response to the problem of urban crime.  And after seeing THE BRAVE ONE I really think there’s enough similarity to the earlier film that it can legitimately be considered a semi-remake.  But it’s the way that the movie is acted and filmed that elevates it.  I mean, after “Death Wish” there were plenty of movies produced back in the 70’s and 80’s with the same revenge plot but those were filmed with a lot less pretension than THE BRAVE ONE is.  It’s a movie that works hard at trying to be a serious, mature study of a how a woman deals with a life-shattering trauma.  The direction is measured and even because the movie is determined to be taken seriously.  As a result the tension is dialed way down until the last fifteen minutes.  In fact, if the rest of THE BRAVE ONE had been as exciting and as suspenseful as the last fifteen minutes we’d have really had something here.  As if is, we end up with a movie that tries to be both a character study and a urban thriller and really doesn’t know which one it wants to be.  The material of THE BRAVE ONE is solid pulp/grindhouse exploitation but the director and the actors play it as if they’re all going for next year’s Oscar.

Now, that’s necessarily isn’t a bad thing.  Hey, it worked for “Silence Of The Lambs” which has similar B-movie elements that was elevated by the talent of the director, actors and crew to winning five Academy Awards (and I firmly believe that Jonathan Demme included Roger Corman in the movie as a sly nod to the exploitation roots of that movie) but I don’t think that THE BRAVE ONE is going to pull the same trick.  It takes itself way too seriously and spends way too much time trying to be deep and meaningful when what it needed was more thriller elements and more cat-and-mouse between Erica and Mercer.

That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable.  It’s worth going to see just for the performances of Jodie Foster and Terrence Howard, both of who are stunningly good.  One of my favorite underrated actors, Nicky Katt is here as Howard’s wisecracking sidekick who brings some much needed humor to the movie.  Mary Steenburgen plays Erica’s boss and she does her usual solid supporting role.

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So should you see THE BRAVE ONE?  Sure.  Especially if you’re a fan of Jodie Foster and/or Terrence Howard.  It’s a well made psychological revenge thriller and on that level it’s worth your time. Enjoy.

Rated R

119 minutes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

China Girl

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1987

Vestron Pictures

Directed by Abel Ferrara

Produced by Michael Nozik

Written by Nicholas St. John

Here’s a bit of advice for all you aspiring directors: if you’re going to have scenes in your movies where the main characters dance it’s a good idea to make sure that they do indeed know how to dance. I bring this up for two reasons.

One: there’s two scenes in CHINA GIRL where our protagonists, the teenage lovers Tony (Richard Panebianco) and Tye (Sari Chang) fall in love while dancing and their absolutely horrible dance moves look more like they’re having grand mal seizures than anything else. Especially during the scene where they’re dancing to Run DMC/Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.” That scene should be edited out of the movie as it’s flat out embarrassing to watch the two actors flailing away and stumbling around without even close to being in time with the beat.

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Two: that’s the only complaint you’ll get from me about CHINA GIRL which in a lot of ways is my favorite of Abel Ferrara’s terrific films. Considering this is the director who gave us the magnificent “King of New York” and the utterly brilliant “Bad Lieutenant” that’s quite a statement, I know. But I have fond memories of seeing CHINA GIRL on 42end Street back in the 1980’s and when I learned it was on Netflix streaming I simply had to watch it again to see if it was as good as I remembered. I’m happy to say it was.

CHINA GIRL is basically a modern retelling of “Romeo And Juliet” with a heaping helping of “West Side Story” thrown in there for flavor. Tony is from Little Italy and Tye lives in Chinatown. Both of them have older siblings with connections to the organized crime groups of their respective nationalities. Tony’s brother Alby (James Russo) owns and runs a pizzeria but he has ties to the neighborhood Mafia boss Enrico Perito (Robert Miano) and has his own gang of small-time hoods. Tye’s brother Yung Gan (Russell Wong) is an up-and-comer in a Tong led by Gung Tu (James Hong) being groomed to move up higher in the organization.

The romance between Tony and Tye stirs up conflict between the two groups of young gangsters and leads to open warfare. Added to this is the activities of Yung’s cousin and second-in-command Tsu Shin (Joey Chin) Tsu is extorting money from Chinese restaurant owners located in Little Italy. This is a total violation of the agreement between the Mafia and the Tong to not encroach on each other’s territory. Tony and Tye are warned to stay away from each other but if they did that then we wouldn’t have much of a movie, would we? As the lovers make plans to have a future and life together, the fighting between Yung’s gang and Alby’s gang escalates to such a degree that Perito and Gung Tu join forces to put a stop to it. As Gung Tu puts it: “We must never allow ourselves to be divided by war… or to be interfered with by police investigations… all because a few reckless children cannot live within our tradition of our society. Our responsibility is to control our children.” And control them they do with hideously bloody disciplinary methods.

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And that’s the thing about CHINA GIRL; the two leads are sweet and likable but their romance isn’t as compelling or as interesting as the war between the Mafia and Tong gangs, the relationship between Yung and Tsu and the efforts of the big bosses to control the young hotheads who are trying to carve out a bigger piece of the criminal pie for themselves.

It also doesn’t help that all the acting powerhouses are the supporting characters who effortlessly hold our attention anytime they’re on screen. James Russo, Russell Wong, David Caruso, Robert Miano and James Hong are all solid, dependable professionals. And for me, among all these terrific actors and performances, Russell Wong walks away with the acting honors in this one. He has a great scene with absolutely no dialog where he strolls around his sister’s room, looking at all the posters of white actors and pop stars on her walls and examining the evidence on her desk of how completely she’s assimilated American culture and he says more with his body language and facial expressions than he could have with five pages of dialog. There’s another great scene he has with Joey Chin as they discuss the situation they’re in and it’s got real heart and emotion.

What else? The terrific location shooting in New York’s Little Italy and Chinatown which gives the movie such an authentic look and feel. At times CHINA GIRL looks and feels like a Martin Scorsese movie, that’s how solid the Little Italy scenes are. David Caruso’s supporting role as Alby’s psychotically racist sidekick.

So should you see CHINA GIRL? Absolutely. The energy of the acting from the marvelous supporting cast alone makes this a Must See as far as I’m concerned. Abel Ferrara is an outstanding director who knows how to tell a story with no wasted scenes or unnecessary padding. CHINA GIRL wasn’t a hit when in played in theaters back in 1987 and it didn’t find a home on any cable station like HBO or Showtime where many other movies of the 80’s found new life and were rescued from obscurity. But now that it’s available, don’t let this one get by you. If you have Netflix streaming, set aside time for CHINA GIRL. You won’t be disappointed.

89 Minutes

Rated R: And be warned that this is a movie made before Political Correctness so the racial slurs get thrown around freely. If you’re offended by that, then I suggest you give CHINA GIRL a pass. 

Brooklyn’s Finest

2010

Overture Films

Directed by Antoine Fuqua

Produced  by Basil Iwanyk, John Langley, John Thompson and Elie Cohn

Written by Michael C. Martin

It struck me even back then as somewhat unusual and even slightly humorous  that the two police/crime movies to hit theaters that year were actually throwbacks.  “Cop Out” is a homage to The 1980’s Buddy Cop Movie.  If you’ve seen “Lethal Weapon” “The Last Boy Scout” “Bulletproof” “Bad Boys” “Money Train” or “Running Scared” then you’ll know what I’m talking about.

BROOKLYN’S FINEST reminded me a lot of an old school cop movie from the 70’s or 80’s.  Amped up with a lot more violence, drug use and sex but still, it’s a throwback to an era when directors, writers and actors weren’t afraid to make their characters unlikable and unsympathetic.  Many of the characters in BROOKLYN’S FINEST do some pretty reprehensible things.  Including the three police officers the movie follows as they walk a moral tightrope that threatens to break under them every day.

Eddie Dugan (Richard Gere) has been a beat cop for twenty-two years and he’s down to his last seven days before retirement.  He has no family, no future and no desire to do anything more than ride out those last seven days as quietly as possible.  The last thing he needs or wants is to be given an ambitious rookie to train.  But his commanding officer appeals to his last crumb of pride; “Don’t you want your last week to mean something?”

Detective Sal Procida (Ethan Hawke) needs money and a lot of it.  He’s got a too small house full of kids and his wife (Lili Taylor) is pregnant with twins.  On top of that, her lungs are clogged with wood mold that aggravates her asthma and jeopardizes the health of their unborn children.  Sal heads up drug raids on crack houses where the bathtubs are full of money and he’s been helping himself here and there.  But it’s not enough.  The bills are piling up and there’s this brand new house he needs a down payment for.

Clarence Butler (Don Cheadle) aka ‘Tango’ is an extremely successful undercover detective.  He’s been working the drug trade in Brownsville and is best friends with Casanova Phillips (Wesley Snipes) one of the most powerful and successful drug lords in Brooklyn.  Tango, despite all his instincts and training has developed a real friendship with Casanova.  A friendship that means nothing to his boss Lt. Hobarts (Will Patton) and an ambitious Federal Agent (Ellen Barkin).  They want Tango to set up Casanova for a federal bust.  It means a way out of the undercover game for Tango.  A game that has already cost Tango his marriage and threatens his sanity, not to mention his life as Casanova has suspicions there’s a snitch in his camp.

Sounds like a hell of a thriller, doesn’t it?  Well, I hate to be the one to tell you this but while it is entertaining enough; BROOKLYN’S FINEST isn’t exactly the home run you would think it would be from the cast and director.  Remember that Antoine Fuqua is the director who gave us “Training Day” which really did put a new spin on the cop movie genre.   But while watching BROOKLYN’S FINEST I got the distinct feeling of ‘been there, done that’.  The influences of movies such as “Deep Cover” “New Jack City” “Cop” and “Report To The Commissioner” run through the movie.  Not that that’s a bad thing.  Not at all.  But it’s just that there’s nothing ambitious about BROOKLYN’S FINEST and no attempt to bring anything new to this familiar story of When Good Cops Go Bad.

One of the major flaws is that I never got the sense I was watching one cohesive story.  The three cops all work in the same precinct but never interact except for one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it exchange between Dugan and Procida.  And there’s a brief scene where Dugan and Tango literally bump into each other and that’s it.  The movie is constantly bouncing between the three stories and quite honestly, the Dugan story sucks the life out of the other two.  Every time we cut to Dugan the pacing and energy of the movie slowly dials down and when we get back to Tango’s story or Sal’s story, director Antoine Fuqua has to work twice as hard to regain that momentum back.

The acting is as good as you would expect from the cast.  Wesley Snipes and Don Cheadle are so good on screen together and their scenes snap, crackle and pop so much that you’ll wish the movie had been more about them.  Cheadle also has some great scenes with Ellen Barkin as Federal Agent Smith.  Barkin goes toe-to-toe with Cheadle in the acting ring and gives just as good as she gets.

Richard Gere is very good playing the soon to be retired Dugan.  We’re told several times during the movie that Dugan’s career was ‘undistinguished’ and ‘unmemorable’ but I think he’s a guy who sees being a cop as just a job and not a Holy Calling.  He’s not out to save the world like his ambitious trainee.  He just wants to go home at the end of the day and drink himself into oblivion.

I did find it funny that the tanned, handsome, obviously well-fed, fit and distinguishably silver-haired Richard Gere is supposed to be the burnt-out alcoholic when it’s Ethan Hawke who really acts like one.  With his greasy hair hanging in his face, pale as milk skin, twitchy mannerisms, chain smoking and looking as if he’s only read or heard about the beneficial personal daily use of soap and water, Ethan Hawke’s character is so wired it’s as if he’s about to run through the screen right at us screaming like a madman at any moment.   It’s also funny that even though we’re constantly told the Gere character is a raging alcoholic we only see him take a drink twice during the movie’s 133 minutes running time.

So should you see BROOKLYN’S FINEST?  I’d say yes but it’s not what I would call a Must See.  Don’t get me wrong; it’s as solidly professional a movie as you could hope for.  The acting and direction are right on point.  But the story (or should I say stories) aren’t anything new and there’s some fancy juggling the writer has to do at the end to finally have the fates of the three cops all play out in the same building in Brownsville’s Van Dyke housing project that I didn’t entirely buy but what the hell.  If you enjoy a down-and-dirty cop movie that isn’t afraid to wallow in its own excess of drugs, sex and violence then by all means check out BROOKLYN’S FINEST.

133 minutes

Rated R:  And it lives up to its rating so don’t say I didn’t warn you.  This movie has extremely vulgar language, brutal and bloody violence as well as graphic sex scenes.

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

 

88 Minutes

2008

TriStar Pictures

Written by Gary Scott Thompson

Produced and Directed by Jon Avnet

When movie fans get together and start discussing the most influential and greatest actors ever, there’s an excellent chance that Al Pacino will be in the top five if not right at the top.  And with good reason.  If Al Pacino had only performed in “The Godfather Trilogy” his place in movie history would be assured.  But he’s assembled a list of classic films that few actors today can match: “Serpico” “…And Justice For All” “Dog Day Afternoon” “Heat” “Scarface” “The Panic In Needle Park” “Dick Tracy” “Looking For Richard” “Carlito’s Way” “Glengarry Glen Ross”…hell, I even like “Bobby Deerfield” “Revolution” and “Author! Author!”  But lately Al Pacino hasn’t been hitting them outta the park the way he used to.  Oh, he played an okay bad guy in “Ocean’s Thirteen” but it was a performance that anybody could have done.  It didn’t have that magic we expect from Al Pacino.  And 88 MINUTES isn’t a movie that’s going to enhance Mr. Pacino’s reputation at all.  Even my wife Patricia who is an Al Pacino fan from way back in the day (we have epic arguments over who’s the better actor: Al Pacino or my boy Robert DeNiro) was highly disappointed with 88 MINUTES.

Dr. Jack Gramm (Al Pacino) is a popular Seattle college professor who also is a nationally renowned forensic psychologist.   He’s made a sizeable fortune from his work profiling serial killers for the FBI and various police departments around the country.  Gramm’s latest success was in convicting Jon Forster aka “The Seattle Slayer” (Neal McDonough).  Forster maintains that he’s innocent and when one of Gramm’s students turns up murdered in the exact same way as Forster’s alleged victims, there’s some doubt raised.  Gramm maintains that Forster has an accomplice on the outside who committed the murder.  FBI Special Agent Frank Parks (William Forsythe) isn’t so sure.  Y’see, Gramm’s DNA is all over the crime scene.  To complicate matters, Gramm gets a phone call telling him he only has 88 minutes to live.  Why 88 minutes?  Because 88 minutes is related to a specific case in Gramm’s past that has extraordinary personal significance for him.  Gramm must use his skills and training as a forensic psychologist to identify who the killer is before his 88 minutes run out.

Sounds like thrilling stuff, huh?  Nothing could be further from the truth.  For a movie hyped as a suspense thriller, 88 MINUTES has no suspense and even fewer thrills.  The movie is being sold on Al Pacino’s performance and even that isn’t as dynamic or exciting as we’ve come to expect from him.  The movie throws far too many potential suspects at us.  Most of who are women.  Given that Gramm is supposed to be a rampant womanizer we shouldn’t be surprised when the identity of the killer is revealed.  In fact, if you elect to watch this, I’m confident you’ll be able to identify who the killer is an hour in.

I have to say that Al Pacino looks great in the movie.  And he tries his best to make the character and the movie work.  Perhaps his best scene in the movie is when he explains to another one of his students (Alicia Witt) what personal meaning 88 minutes has for him.  It’s a scene where we can see the Al Pacino we know and love at work.  Unfortunately you’ve got to sit through a whole chunk of pretty slow scenes in order to get to it.  Amy Brenneman is a standout as Pacino’s assistant and I would have liked to have seen more scenes between them.  Which leads into one or my major peeves with this movie: There are way too many scenes where the actors are talking to each other on cell phones instead of interacting on the screen together.  I haven’t seen cell phones used this much to convey information since“24” was on the air.  Neal McDonough is a fine actor but he’s not given much to do here.  I would have liked to have seen more scenes between William Forsythe and Al Pacino as I enjoyed them both when they were in “Dick Tracy”.  The Seattle locations are nice to look at as is Deborah Kara Unger and Leelee Sobieski.

So should you see 88 MINUTES?  I can’t recommend this movie even if you’re a diehard Al Pacino fan.  I wouldn’t even recommend Netflixing it.  The mystery at the heart of the story isn’t interesting or compelling and there’s never any feeling that the Pacino character is in any real danger.  The amount of suspects thrown at us is ridiculous and when the killer is finally revealed it isn’t surprising and the killer’s motives are laughable.    Much as I love to watch Al Pacino on screen, there isn’t much good I can say about 88 MINUTES.

108 minutes

Rated R for brief nudity, language and violence

The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

1974

United Artists

Directed by Joseph Sargent

Produced by Gabriel Katzka and Edgar J. Scherick

Screenplay by Peter Stone

Based on the novel by John Godey

There are movies that just have to be made in New York.  There’s no way around it.  Of course you can change the location of a movie with a few taps on a keyboard but somehow when a movie is filmed in New York it gives the story a weight that makes you feel as if “yeah, I can see that happening in a town like New York” and this feeling is demonstrated excellently in the outstanding crime thriller THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE  This is a movie that couldn’t have been made anywhere else.  It’s such a New York movie, full of the energy, vitality and unique qualities that make New York and the people who live and work in it so utterly exciting, baffling and downright enjoyable.

It’s a typical New York day…or at least as typical as any day in New York and people are on their way to work, school or play.  And on the Number 6 train leaving Pelham Bay Park at 1:23 in the afternoon it’s a day that is about to get as bad as a day in New York can get.

Four men board the train armed with machine guns and dressed in the same trench coats, wearing the same caps pulled low over their faces, glasses and mustaches.  With military precision they effortlessly take control of the first car of the train with frightening swiftness, separating it from the rest of the train along with all its passengers, essentially hijacking it.  Parking it onto an off section of track they make their demands known: unless the City of New York pays them a ransom of one million dollars they will kill all the passengers in the car.  And the city has only one hour to pay up.  The terms are non-negotiable.  Pay or people start dying from severe lead poisoning of the worst kind.  Now of course this is met with some skepticism.  As one character puts it: “They’re hijacking trains now?  What are they gonna do?  Fly it to Cuba?”  But the hijackers make it known real soon they mean business.

Luckily Lt. Zack Garber (Walter Matthau) of The Transit Police is on the scene.  He’s been escorting a group of Japanese transit officials through the Command Center (in a scene that is very funny but be warned…it’s also not Politically Correct.  But remember, this movie was made in 1974) and he quickly takes charge of the negotiations with the leader of the hijackers, a British mercenary who only identifies himself as Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw)

In fact, I strongly suspect that Quentin Tarentino got his idea of color naming his gang of thieves in “Reservoir Dogs” from this movie as the other train hijackers are named Mr. Green (Martin Balsam) Mr. Gray (Hector Elizondo) and Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman) and the movie is just about as much a battle of wits between Garber and Mr. Blue as Garber tries various stratagems as he buys time to save the lives of the hostages as he racks his brains trying to figure out exactly how the hijackers think they’re going to get away with the money when they’re on a train underneath New York.

I really can’t recommend this movie enough.  It’s an extremely well made, tight thriller that doesn’t have a slow moment in the entire running time.  It’s not bogged down with unnecessary romances or backstory filling us in as to why these men are doing what they’re doing.  They want money.  It’s as simple as that.  Lt Garber and The New York Police Department have to stop them.  It’s as simple as that.  The movie is what it is: it’s about a daring crime and we watch on the edge of our seats and wonder how the hell this thing is gonna end and we’re highly entertained while doing so.

The performances sell the movie and there isn’t a bad one in the whole piece.  Walter Matthau is best known for his comedies but I think I like him even more as a dramatic actor.  In fact, this movie, a spy thriller called “Hopscotch” and a police procedural movie he made with Bruce Dern called ‘The Laughing Policeman” are among my favorite Matthau movies.  His Lt. Garber is a competent professional.  He’s not brilliant at his job but he does it well.  And I liked how the movie shows that his main concern is saving the lives of the hostages, especially in a scene where he grabs hold of a transit supervisor who has been giving him flack and generally being an obstinate pain in the ass through the negotiations.  In that scene Matthau is just as tough as Robert DeNiro or Sean Connery at their best and he sells it.  Robert Shaw plays Mr. Blue and no more needs to be said.  I don’t think I’ve sever seen a bad Robert Shaw performance and if there is one, please tell me.  Here he’s coldly ruthless, calculating and he’s such a master planner that you have no doubt that he’s going to pull this audacious scheme off.  Hector Elizondo does great work as Mr. Gray who we learn is so psychotically bloodthirsty that even The Mafia kicked him out.  Martin Balsam is a standout as Mr. Green, who is more or less the second-in-command of the outfit and he’s essential to the plan since he’s a fired transit motorman whose intimate knowledge of The New York Transit system is necessary to pull the job off.

One of the best things about this movie is how there is such a New York flavor in it.  Even the background characters have small bits that are standouts such as the diverse group of hostages who make up the social strata of the city and the two cops who have to transport the money from the bank to the subway station have wonderful dialog as they ferociously race to try and beat the hijacker’s deadline.  Jerry Stiller does great work as Matthau’s sidekick even though they don’t share a scene until the last ten minutes of the movie. And one of my favorite scenes of the movie is when The Deputy Mayor (Tony Roberts) is trying to convince his boss (Lee Wallace) to pay up the money.  It’s an insightful scene as to how politicians juggle lives, public opinion and professional gain in making life and death decisions and it’s got such smart dialog it makes me weep in envy.  And take a good look at The Mayor….yep, its same guy who plays The Mayor in Tim Burton’s “Batman”.  You’ve also got James Broderick (Matthew’s Dad) Doris Roberts, Julius Harris, Dick O’Neill, Sal Viscuso, Bill Cobb and Joe Seneca.  It’s a killer cast and they all do excellent work even if they’re on the screen for a couple of minutes.  And the last scene of this movie is absolutely the best any heist movie has ever had.  Even though I hate heist movies where the thieves don’t get away with it, the way the ending is set up is so perfect I forgive.

So should you see THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE ?  Absolutely.  If you’re in the mood for a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners crime thriller that I guarantee will have you on the edge of your seat from start to finish then you need to see this one.  It’s exciting, it’s funny, it’s scary, it’s thrilling…it’s a New York movie all the way.  You look at what passes for thrillers that come out of Hollywood nowadays and then you watch THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, a movie made forty years ago and you have to scratch your head and wonder what the hell happened.

P.S.  There was a Made For TV version of THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE made in 1998 that should be avoided at all costs since it was filmed in Toronto.  Nothing against Canada, mind you, but THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE depends so much on the New York atmosphere and flavor you really owe it to yourself to see the original.  There was a much better remake made in 2009 starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta.

Rated R: For the language mostly and it does get pretty raw at times.  But there’s no sex and the violence is pretty tame by modern standards.  I would advise those of you who are Politically Correct (I’m not and proud of it) that this movie was made in 1974 and so the portrayals of Blacks and Asians may make you uncomfortable.  I’m Black and I wasn’t offended because hey, we did have some of us who acted and spoke like that back then, whether you wanna believe it or not and I know because I was there.  Asians will have to defend their own selves on this one.

104 minutes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia

1974

United Artists

Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Produced by Martin Baum
Screenplay by Sam Peckinpah and Gordon T. Dawson
Story by Sam Peckinpah and Frank Kowalski

A young pregnant girl is ushered into the cavernous den of her father, a powerful Mexican industrialist/crime lord. The room is filled with family, friends and a doctor stands nearby. The industrialist has only one question for his pregnant daughter: “Who is the father?” She refuses to identify him. Three times he asks and three times she refuses. He motions to two of his men. One holds the girl down while the other, with a casual ruthlessness, breaks her arm. The girl collapses to the floor, sobbing while her mother rushes to her side, along with the other women in the family and the doctor. The doctor whispers to the girl and she hands over a locket with the picture of a man inside. It’s given to her father who recognizes the man and issues a simple order to his army of hired guns and assassins: BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA.

I related the above scene because I know that many readers of my reviews are women (God Bless ‘em, every one) and so might be sensitive to such a scene of brutality involving a girl who looks to be around 16 years old. Be advised that this scene happens in the first five minutes of the movie and Sam Peckinpah is just getting warmed up. If you think the first five minutes of BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA are horrifyingly sadistic and savagely brutal then you must not know your Peckinpah. Trust me, there’s a lot more to come during this movie. If you’re a sensitive soul as you read further you may just decide that this movie isn’t your bag and decide you don’t want to see it. Well, that’s why I write reviews for you, my friends.

The mercenaries and hired guns spread out across Mexico, hunting for Alfredo Garcia. The father has placed a million dollar price on the head. Just the head, mind you. But it’s got to be intact and plainly identifiable as Alfredo Garcia. Two American bounty hunters, Quill (Gig Young) and Sappensly (Robert Webber) wind up in a dingy fifth rate bar/whorehouse where they meet piano player Bennie (Warren Oates) who is sick to death of playing “Gunatanamera” for half-drunk tourists looking for ‘local color’. Bennie soon strikes a deal with the two men. He thinks he can find Alfredo Garcia for $10,000. Quill and Sappensly agree. With the condition that if Bennie doesn’t produce results in four days, there will be no hard feelings when they kill Bennie. Call it a breach of contract clause.

Bennie tracks down the beautiful Elita (Isela Vega) a hooker he knows has been sleeping on and off with Garcia. She’s also been sleeping with Bennie more off than on lately and he thinks it has something to do with Garcia. Turns out that Alfredo Garcia is dead and Elita knows where he’s buried. Bennie and Elita sneak out of town to go dig up the body so Bennie can get the head. But it’s not that easy. Bennie finds the body and takes the head but he has to fight for it in a truly grisly battle to the death where Elita is killed. Bennie puts the head in a burlap sack and as the movie goes on he forms a weird sort of bond with the head. He calls it “Al” and speaks as though it can hear him. Bennie starts to see that he and “Al” have a lot in common as he defends the head against all who try and take it from him. And Bennie decides to take “Al” directly to the man who asked for the head. It’s a confrontation that will end in a horrendously bloody shootout fueled by booze, grief, hatred and revenge.

BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA is by no means a fun date movie. In fact, there’s a good chance you’ll be depressed after watching it. Unless you’re like me and actually enjoy this kind of take-no-prisoners storytelling. It’s not a pretty movie to watch. You can almost taste the sweat and dirt on the characters. It’s an extremely violent movie, even by today’s standards. But this is a Sam Peckinpah movie and one of Peckinpah’s major strengths as a director and as a storyteller was that he knew how to show violence. And I mean real violence. After a fight or shootout in a Sam Peckinpah movie there’s no high-fiving or throwing off glib wisecracks. The survivors are exhausted, traumatized and oftentimes surprised to find themselves still alive. Peckinpah directed “The Wild Bunch” which has what I think is the best shootout ever filmed and the movie’s graphic violence is legendary. In fact, the movie was reissued in 1993 with an NC-17 rating because of its violence. BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA isn’t quite in that category but its close.

The movie is worth seeing just for the performance of Warren Oates alone. A major character actor, Mr. Oates had few opportunities to star in a movie and after seeing this one, I wish he had. As Bennie he goes through an amazing range of emotions and situations, from wanna-be tough guy, to drunken slob, to tender lover and finally, grim avenger. It’s an Oscar worthy performance and supposedly, Mr. Oates adopted a lot of the personal mannerisms of Sam Peckinpah himself to use as Bennie. The sunglasses he wears throughout the movie were a pair he stole from Peckinpah.

Isela Vega is remarkable as Elita. She’s simply fascinating to look at and has a mature sexuality I find irresistible. This isn’t some anorexic pop tart trying to play a woman. This is most certainly a woman in body and soul and the scenes between Vega and Oates are amazing to watch in their raw frankness. They have a scene where they wake up the next day after having sex and the scene is amazingly natural in that they act as if the camera isn’t there. You know what I’m talking about. They do the things that people do after waking up from a night of boozy sex that might make you squirm uncomfortably if you’ve ever been there.

Gig Young and Robert Webber almost seem to be winking at the camera sometimes as they play their bounty hunter characters. They’re obviously having fun. There’s a great scene where they first meet Bennie and one of the bar’s whores tries to come onto Webber’s character. Webber cold cocks her without blinking an eye and the bar empties out in 4.1 seconds, with the whore’s girlfriends picking her up and carrying her out. I wouldn’t even spoil it for you by relating Bennie’s comment here. But you may find yourself laughing out loud and then wondering just why you laughed. And there’s a great bit where Bennie asks the Gig Young character what his name his. Young smirks as he answers; “Fred C. Dobbs”. Which shows me that the character Young plays was well aware of the parallel between the situation they were in and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” And keep your eye out for a young Kris Kristofferson as a biker rapist.

So should you see BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA? I would say yes for a number of reasons: Sam Peckinpah was one of the greatest director/storytellers we’re ever gonna see and this movie is his dark, twisted masterpiece. It is so uncompromising in its vision that I honestly think it couldn’t be made today. The performance of Warren Oates is masterful. There are scenes of unrelenting psychosis as he drives toward his rendezvous with Hell, talking to the head of Alfredo Garcia that may make you think Mr. Oates is actually drinking real tequila from that bottle he keeps next to the head. You can see where notable film directors Quentin Tarentino and John Woo got a lot of their influences in this movie. But it’s a movie that shouldn’t be seen unless you’re willing to go where it’ll take you. There’s a part in the movie when Elita allows herself to be taken away to be raped and she says to Bennie; “I’ve been down this road before and you don’t know the way” I kinda get the impression that Sam Peckinpah thought the same way about directing BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA.

112 minutes
Rated R

Mr. Majestyk

1974

MGM/United Artists

Produced by Walter Mirisch

Directed by Richard Fleischer

Written by Elmore Leonard

I don’t think anybody will be surprised when I say that Charles Bronson is one of my favorite actors of the group that I call “Old Time Tough”.  I’m talking about guys like Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown, James Coburn, Steve McQueen, Robert Mitchum, Woody Strode, William Holden, Clint Eastwood, Kirk Douglas, Sean Connery…you know what I’m talking about.  These are guys tough enough to walk through Hell with sticks of TNT in their hip pockets yet cool enough that the dynamite wouldn’t dare blow up on them.  Not like the current crop of pretty boy actors.  I’m sorry, but no matter how you try, you can’t convince me that half of today’s male movie actors can beat up on anybody over the age of nine, let alone the dozens of guys they take on in a movie.

Now Charles Bronson…here’s a guy who actually looks like he can pound the ever-lovin’ piss outta you in a New York minute.  He’s got a face that’s been lived in.  It shows age and experience.  He’s got a voice that sounds like he’s been gargling with whiskey and cigarette butts since puberty.  Charles Bronson radiates quiet menace.  He very rarely raises his voice on screen.  If he’s going to kick your sorry ass he just goes ahead and does it.  Chances are you’ve done something to deserve it.  And in MR. MAJESTYK the bad guys certainly do deserve it.  After all, Bronson goes through most of the movie just trying to mind his business.  But circumstances have other plans for him.

Vince Majestyk (Charles Bronson) is a Colorado watermelon farmer.  After struggling along for a few years he stands to make a massive profit from this year’s crop of melons.  He’s got 160 acres of melons that need picking and by a lucky chance meets with the feisty migrant worker Nancy Chavez (Linda Cristal) who isn’t related to that other Chavez but she has been involved in unionizing migrant workers.

Majestyk isn’t interested in her politics but if she can get a crew to pick his melons he’ll gladly pay them the fair wages she asks for.  However, Majestyk has to run off the small time strong-arm man Bobby Kopas (Paul Koslo) who is trying to force Majestyk to hire his crew of melon pickers that are nothing more than a bunch of Skid Row drunks.  The drunks don’t know how to pick melons and Majestyk knows they’ll ruin one melon for every three they pick.  So what does Majestyk do?  Well, since this is a Charles Bronson movie, he kicks Bobby’s ass and sends his crew packing.  You expected something different, maybe?

Bobby swears out an assault warrant against Majestyk who is promptly jailed by the sardonic Lt. McAllen (Frank Maxwell) who is immune to Majestyk’s pleas that he be allowed two or three days to get his melon crop in.  While in jail, Majestyk gets on the bad side of Mafia hit man Frank Renda (Al Lettieri) Renda’s boys try to break Renda out of jail during a wild shootout that goes horribly wrong and Majestyk sees a chance.  He makes off with Renda and tries to negotiate with Lt. McAllen: drop the charges against me and let me go back to picking melons and I’ll give you Renda.  However, with the help of his girlfriend Wiley (Lee Purcell) Renda escapes and vows vengeance against Majestyk.  After hooking up with Bobby Kopas, Renda scares off Majestyk’s migrant workers, breaks the legs of Majestyk’s best friend Larry (Alejandro Rey) and worst of all, machine guns Majestyk’s melon crop.

Well, he shouldn’t have done that.

You see, Majestyk is a decorated Vietnam veteran who earned a Silver Star and who was also one of the best U.S. Army Ranger instructors and he certainly hasn’t forgotten any of his skills.  He just hasn’t had a chance to use them for a while…

I’m a big fan of 70’s action movies like MR. MAJESTYK because while they lack the pyrotechnical whiz bang of action movies nowadays they have a gritty, down-to-earth look that gives such a realistic feel to the story that you really get sucked into what the story and characters are about and you’re not just waiting for the next big action sequence.  There’s really not anything in MR. MAJESTYK that is outside the realm of possibility.  I attribute that to the terrific screenplay by Elmore Leonard, who may just be the finest crime writer of the late 20th Century.  The dialog is wonderful to listen to but if you know anything about Elmore Leonard that shouldn’t be a surprise.  Leonard writes dialog where people talk to each other and not at each other.

The performances are great.  Charles Bronson is quietly capable as the enigmatic Vince Majestyk.  He’s just trying to get his melon crop in but all this other stuff keeps getting in the way.  Early on in the movie when he has a run in with some thugs and effortlessly takes away a shotgun from one of them, he says: “You’re in the wrong business” we believe him.  We also believe that Frank Renda doesn’t stand a chance against this man who he calls ‘The Melon Picker’ once we see what Majestyk is capable of when he finally gets sufficiently pissed off.  Al Lettieri obviously has a marvelous time playing Frank Renda.  His name might not be familiar to you but back in the 70’s if there was a crime/Mafia movie then Al Lettieri was in it.  His most famous roles were in the Sam Peckinpah version of “The Getaway” and he played Sollozzo, the only guy with the cojones to order a hit on Don Vito Corleone in “The Godfather” He was a guy who actually hung around and partied with Real Life criminals and mob guys.  It was that experience that he brought to the screen in the many roles he played, usually as a mob guy.

Linda Cristal is very good here as Nancy Chavez who eventually becomes Majestyk’s girlfriend.  They had a scene in a bar that is so refreshingly honest about how people actually decide to go to bed that I felt like cheering.  Sometimes it’s not all heart-shaped boxes of flowers and serenades under the balcony.  Sometimes people have a couple of drinks in a bar and say: “Hey, wouldn’t it be a good idea if we…”  And I can’t close out this review without mentioning Mr. Majestyk’s yellow Ford pickup truck that does such remarkable stunts in the final chase scene that it should be a member of The Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Pictures.

So should you see MR. MAJESTYK?  Totally.  If you’re a fan of Charles Bronson, of Elmore Leonard, of tight well-plotted, well-written crime thrillers then this is a movie that you’re going to love.  And in terms of acting, you won’t be disappointed.  MR. MAJESTYK is one of Charles Bronson’s best movies and one well worth seeing.  If you have Turner Classic Movies you can wait for it to show up there.  But if you’re subscribed to Netflix, put it on your list next time you’re looking for a satisfying action flick.  You’ll like it.  Trust me.

103 minutes

Rated: PG