Revenge: A Love Story

REVENGE

2014

Global View Productions

Written and Directed by Thor Moreno

Produced by Annette Duffy, Chris McAninch and Shawn McAninch

One of the fun things about reviewing movies is that every so often I’ll get a knock on my Internet door from a filmmaker who invites me to look at their work and maybe, if I like it, give a review. Sometimes I don’t like it. I wouldn’t care to tell you how many short films I’ve been invited to see the past couple of years where I simply couldn’t finish them. But thankfully I am invited by filmmakers such as Chris Regan and Parker Stanfield whose work I’ve enjoyed and that makes it all worth it for me. I’m happy to add Thor Moreno on that list.

REVENGE: A LOVE STORY is a short film, a crime thriller. It’s a tough, vicious little film about tough, vicious people. Undercover narcotics cop Brad Miller (Adam Meirick) is tired of the game. He wants out and he wants out now. He wants the promotion he was promised and he wants to enjoy life with his long suffering wife (Katie Goebel) who wants to start a family with a husband who keeps regular hours. Unfortunately Brad has a 48K gold-plated prick for a supervisor who tell him flat out the only way Brad is going to get out and get his promotion is if Brad brings him a conviction. Brad’s target is Willie Caesar (Zack Williams) the local crime kingpin.

REVENGE 2

Brad maneuvers himself into an invitation with Willie Caesar and moves up in his organization fast. A little too fast if you ask me but considering the short running time of the movie, I’m willing to go with it. Brad’s rapid rise in Caesar’s trust earns him the suspicion of Caesar’s right hand man Nicky (Shawn McAninch) who makes it his business to find out who Brad really is. He does. And that’s when the mayhem begins.

We’re talking about a short film with a 45 minute running time so there’s absolutely no fat on this meat. But despite the short running time, there’s a surprising amount of plot twists and characterization that made me feel as if I’d gotten a full-length movie. Thor Moreno is my kind of filmmaker. He puts the camera in place, puts his actors in front of the camera and lets them do their job. I appreciate any filmmaker who can show me he knows how to use his camera and his actors to tell me a story and that’s exactly what Thor Moreno does here.

REVENGE 3

He manages to get a lot of mileage out of a story that may not be wildly inventive or original by virtue of letting the plot take a couple of lefts turns I really didn’t see coming and it’s backed up by an able cast, led by Adam Meirick who is really good. He’s got a Jake Gyllenhaal-ish type of vibe going on here that I really liked. But Shawn McAninch comes awfully close to stealing a couple of scenes right out from under him. Zack Williams brings an old school, 1970’s blaxplotation gusto to his Willie Caesar that’s really fun to watch, especially in a confrontation scene he has with Meirick’s character near the end. Dave Dalton plays one of Nick’s henchmen and he stood out for me because of a scene where he’s creeping through his house with a Samurai sword, looking for an intruder. We see that his house is full of books so maybe he’s not a dumb as he makes out to be. And he pauses to fistbump a picture of Ralph Macchio as The Karate Kid. Don’t ask me why but it’s little touches like that that bring a minor character to life for me. I enjoyed the setting greatly as well. It’s not in an urban ghetto but set in Des Moines, Iowa in an almost rural location and for me that added greatly to the realism of the movie. Crime doesn’t only flourish in big cities but in small towns as well and sometimes it’s worse there is part of the theme of this movie, I think and it’s a theme that gets it’s point across well.

REVENGE 1

As I said earlier on, this is a vicious and violent film with a torture scene that had me cringing and was well able to convey the horror of the situation with very little blood and I believe that was because the director and his cast did such a good job of investing me in these characters so that I truly was interested and cared about what happened to them by the time we got to that point. REVENGE: A LOVE STORY is going to premier is at the historic Varsity Theater in Des Moines, Iowa next week. It goes to DVD right after that. It will be on sale at http://www.globalviewproductions.com next month when the site relaunches. Enjoy.

The Family

The-Family-2013-Movie-Poster

2013

EuropaCorp/Relativity Media

Directed by Luc Besson

Executive Producer: Martin Scorsese

Produced by Ryan Kavanaugh, Virginie Silla and Tucker Tooley

Written by Tonino Benacquista based on his novel “Malavita”

If you’ve seen the trailer for THE FAMILY then perhaps like me, you were expecting a mob/crime comedy with plenty of laughs and inside jokes at Robert DeNiro’s expense, poking fun at the numerous gangster roles he’s played with able backup from Michelle Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones who have made more than a few crime/mob movies themselves and know the genre.  And yes, there are some laughs in THE FAMILY at the beginning of the movie.  But the longer the movie goes on, the fewer the laughs and by the time it gets to the end there’s an appalling no holds barred bloodbath with a platoon of mob hitmen shooting it out with a pair of teenagers wielding automatic weapons like Rambo on his best day while Robert DeNiro and Michelle Pfeiffer are locked in a hideously vicious fight to the death with a killer roughly the size of Richard Kiel.

Giovanni Maznoni (Robert DeNiro) was once one of the most powerful mob bosses in Brooklyn and as such became a threat to The Boss of Bosses, Don Luchese (Stan Carp) who orders a hit on Maznoni and his family that fails. Giovanni turns snitch and Don Luchese goes to jail.  The Maznoni family enters the Witness Protection Program under the supervision of FBI Special Agent Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) and relocated to Normandy, France.

the-family-robert-de-niro

This assignment is far from being easy duty for Stansfield. In fact, the Maznoni family are a collectively big pain in his ass due to the fact that they simply cannot stop being what they are: a mob family.  Giovanni has…anger management issues, let’s say and he’s easily irritated by such things as his tap water coming out brown and nobody taking it seriously. Wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) doesn’t take kindly to the stereotypical comments that she overhears by pretending she doesn’t speak or understand French. Her response to such is…explosive, shall we say. Daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) is a sweet, soft spoken girl who falls in love with a substitute teacher who tutors her in math. She also has a ferociously violent streak that a Klingon would envy. Son Warren (John D’Leo) is a grifter/forger/hustler who in no time at all has his own junior mafia in his new school.

Michelle-Pfeiffer-The-Family-jpg

The situation is complicated by Giovanni writing a tell all book about his life in the mob. A book that both Maggie and Stansfield tell him can never be published. And through a really bizarre coincidence I just couldn’t buy, Don Luchese finds out where the Maznonis are hiding out and sends a hit team to whack ‘em out and that takes us to the blood-soaked final showdown between the mob and the Maznoni family.

Here’s what I liked about THE FAMILY: The performances are first rate but I wouldn’t expect anything less from old pros like DeNiro, Pfeiffer and Jones.  But the kids step up to the plate and hold their own with the seasoned pros.  Dianna Agron I know from “Glee” and I was surprised to see how well she inhabited this character. The movie was actually almost over before I finally remembered where I knew her from. Judging just by this movie I’d say she has a career in movies if she wants it.  John D’Leo is also a lot of fun to watch as he maneuvers his way towards running his school with the finesse and cold-bloodedness of a Michael Corleone.

I also liked how the movie doesn’t have the kids or the wife BMWing about how they want to have a normal life and why can’t they just be a normal family.  This is a mob family who have accepted and embraced their lifestyle.  They’re criminals and they don’t make any excuses for it. For them this is their “normal” life

the-family-robert-de-niro-and-tommy-lee-jones

The direction by Luc Besson is also first rate as I would expect from the writer/director/producer of some of my favorite action movies such as “Leon: The Professional” “The Fifth Element” the “Transporter” series “Taken” “Taken 2” and “District 13.”  And I think that’s the problem with THE FAMILY. Luc Besson is an action director and he seems uncomfortable with the comedy in this movie which puzzles me as I’ve seen “Angel-A” a couple of times and I know he can do comedy. Maybe what threw me off is the level of violence in THE FAMILY which is really bloody and brutal and really doesn’t mesh well with the comedy. Oh, there are are funny scenes and funny lines, don’t get me wrong. But right after that we’ll get a scene like the one with DeNiro and the plumber.  It’s a scene that would have been more at home in “Goodfellas” or “Casino” than in a movie that is billed as a comedy.

THE FAMILY

So should you see THE FAMILY? I say Yes. There’s really nothing wrong with THE FAMILY except for what I feel is an uneven tempo and off center mix of really violent violence with humor.  It’s as if Luc Besson really wanted to make this a full blown thriller but every once in a while an AD poked him with the script and reminded him he had to throw in a joke here and there.

112 minutes

Rated R

Jackie Brown

Jackie-Brown-movie-poster

1997

Miramax Films

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Executive Produced by Elmore Leonard, Bob Weinstein & Harvey Weinstein

Produced by Lawrence Bender

Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino based on the novel “Rum Punch” by Elmore Leonard

My love affair with Pamela Michelle Byrd Grier began way back in 1974 when I saw “Foxy Brown” Never before in the movies or in real life had I seen a woman of such astonishing beauty combined with her effortless confidence and assertiveness. She seemed to possess an energy that came right off the screen at me. I was hypnotized and unable to take my eyes off of her. As I got older and got my hormones under control I began to realize that she actually was a much better actor than she got credit for. And believe me, I’ve studied Pam Grier as I’ve studied few actresses. I have seen every one of her movies since “Foxy Brown” in the theater and those I didn’t I quickly bought on VHS as soon as they were available and then wore out the tapes watching them over and over again. She is truly a legendary talent and one that I’m glad to see has been appreciated in her lifetime. It took quite a while but she has properly been heralded for the great actress she is and no one is more delighted than I am to see her success.

immagine_jackie-brown_4463

JACKIE BROWN is just one of the reasons why I give Quentin Tarantino respect. There are black directors highly critical of his depiction of African-Americans in his movies and his use of the word ‘nigger’ which they think is thrown around way too freely by both black and white actors in his movies. Well, I didn’t see any black directors lining up to create movies specifically to give Pam Grier a role worthy of her talent and as for the highly controversial use of the word ‘nigger.’ Okay, it’s like this…in JACKIE BROWN we’re dealing with a character played by Samuel L. Jackson who uses the word just about every chance he gets. Because that is the character. You do a crime movie about a certain breed of criminal and he’s not going to talk like a MIT graduate. I respect a writer/director who respects his characters and is true to their nature and depicts them without the sugar coating or the bullshit of political correctness. Because I’m a big boy and I can take it. The use of the word in the context of the story being told and the character who uses it is doesn’t bother me at all. But if it bothers you then by all means, stay away from JACKIE BROWN. But that would be a shame because then you’d be depriving yourself of some terrific work by an all-star cast of actors in a truly great crime thriller.

18863587.jpg-r_640_600-b_1_D6D6D6-f_jpg-q_x-xxyxx

Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is a flight attendant working for a fourth rate Mexican airline. She supplements her income by smuggling money from Mexico to the United States for Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) a gun runner working on that one big score which will enable him to retire and spend the rest of his life spending.

Jackie is picked up by ATF agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) and L.A.P.D. detective Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen) who have had Ordell on their radar from some time. Jackie was ratted out by Beaumont Livingston (Chris Tucker) another one of Ordell’s customers who had been arrested earlier and gave up the information before he could be released by bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster)

Evading an effort by Ordell to kill her, Jackie proposes a plan to Ordell to safely bring in half a million dollars of his money. The plan is going to need the assistance of Ordell’s stoner girlfriend (Bridget Fonda) and Ordell’s former cellmate, Louis Gara (Robert DeNiro) who’s just gotten out of jail. Part of the plan involves letting Nicolette and Dargus think that Jackie is double-crossing Ordell, allowing them to use her to arraign a sting. But Jackie has a plan all of her own to double-cross everybody and take the half million for herself. The only catch is that she’s going to need Max’s help to pull it off. Jackie’s pretty sure that Max is half in love with her but will that half help her? And while Max himself is impressed with Jackie’s brains and resourcefulness, he’s not entirely sure himself how far he can trust her. After all, she may have a plan for dealing with him as well.

jackie-brown-18

The main thing I love about JACKIE BROWN is that everybody in the movie is smart. Well, everybody except for poor Louis. But it’s fun to watch Robert DeNiro play a dimwit because you have to be really smart to play really dumb and Louis is really dumb. So dumb that the only solution he can come up with to shut up a woman who won’t stop talking is to shoot her. But everybody else is really smart and for me that adds to the suspense of the story. If everybody is smart then everybody has an equal chance of figuring out what Jackie is up to and that means she’s got to work twice as hard to be twice as smart if she wants to come out of this alive and with the money.

JackieBrownpose

There are so many good scenes in this movie there’s no way to list them all but some of my favorites: when Max sees Jackie for the first time and we hear “Natural High” on the soundtrack and it encapsulates perfectly how Max is feeling at that moment. We know the moment he falls in love with her when later on Max is simply watching her smoke a cigarette, wearing a bathrobe and listening to The Delfonics sing “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time?” that may just be the sexiest moment in the entire movie. The scene where Ordell coaxes Beaumont into being a willing participant in his own murder with the promise of chicken and waffles. Any and every scene between DeNiro and Fonda as they’re all hilarious.

The relationship between Jackie and Max is one that reminds us that Tarantino makes movies for adults and not for demographics. It’s a mature relationship that is defined as much as what is not said as by what is said. As always, Tarantino’s dialog is on point and compelling to listen to. The characters in any Tarantino movie are always worth listening to and JACKIE BROWN is no exception. Robert Forster is solid in his co-starring role and Michael Keaton is always worth watching and he plays Ray Nicolette in another movie based on a Elmore Leonard novel; “Out of Sight”

So should you see JACKIE BROWN? Chances are that if you’re reading this, you already have. If you haven’t seen it by now then chances are you have no interest in seeing it. Fair enough. But for those of us who have been life-long fans of The Filmic Goddess of War, JACKIE BROWN is the crown jewel of Pam Grier’s long and remarkable career and one of the best examples of Quentin Tarantino’s directorial and storytelling talent.

Pam Grier 6

Rated R

154 minutes

The Killer

The_Killer_John_Woo

1989

Media Asia

Written and Directed by John Woo

Produced by Tsui Hark

Set the WayBack Machine for 1989, Sherman. We’ve got to go back a bit before I get into the meat of this review because it’s important. Trust me.

Even back in 1989 I had a reputation among my friends and family as a movie guy. That’s because I went to the movies two or even three times a week. This is 1989, remember. There is no Netflix, no Hulu, no Internet, no DirecTV, no 500 HD movie channels, no DVD, no Blu-Ray. VHS is king. So I would frequently take in a movie during the week with my buddies after work, maybe go to one by myself and then take Patricia (we’d been married five years by now) on the weekend. Got the picture so far? Good.

In the spring/summer of ’89 I was besieged by friends of mine who constantly asked me had I seen this Hong Kong action movie that was like nothing they had ever seen before and I absolutely had to see this thing as it would change my movie going life forever. Matter of fact, friends were telling me that this movie topped “Die Hard” and I really couldn’t believe that as I thought “Die Hard” was just about the best action movie I’d ever seen in my life up to that point. So I finally decide to go see this movie. Problem is that it’s playing only at one theater; an arthouse cinema on the East Side around 23erd St somewhere and the movie is only showing three times a day. And all those showing are during the early part of the day while I’m working. The first showing was around 11AM or something like that.

Hey, no problem. It’s the warm weather season and I don’t need much of an excuse to play hooky anyway. So I call in sick and determine I’m gonna check out this movie that everything insists I just have to SEE to believe!

I get to the theater, pay for my ticket, go in and I’m surprised to see that at this time of day the theater is packed. I get one of the very few seats remaining, sit back and wait to see what everybody has been telling me is so mollyfoggin’ amazing.

One hundred and eleven minutes later I stumble out of the theater with the rest of the audience as if I’m Moses who’s just seen The Burning Bush. Some of the audience members have seen this movie three, four or even five times already and soon I am engaged in a discussion those other people about the movie. In fact, about a dozen of us become fast friends due to our mutual admiration of movies in general and this movie in particular so we go out to get something to eat and then come back to catch the third and last showing of the day which is even more packed than the first showing to the point that people are standing in the back of the theater or sitting on the floor.

That movie was John Woo’s action masterpiece THE KILLER.

john_woo

I only relate all this because I know how much time has passed between then and now and for most of you reading this, you’ve seen so many action movies that you have absolutely no idea of the impact that THE KILLER made when it first came to American theaters. Trust me. THE KILLER was like nothing else we had ever seen. For me, it was my first exposure to John Woo and yes, my movie going life was never the same again.

Master assassin Ah Jong (Chow Yun-Fat) wants out of The Triad and agrees to take one last job in return for his freedom. During the job he accidentally blinds the nightclub singer Jenny (Sally Yeh) while trying to protect her from getting shot. Ironically it’s the muzzle flash from his own gun that blinds her.

Filled with remorse, Ah Jong visits Jennie at the club every night after he blinds her to listen to her sing and they fall in love. She has no idea he’s the reason for her being blind and Ah Jong determines to get enough money to take Jenny to America so that she can have a corneal transplant. In order to get that much money, Ah Jong has to take a high-risk hit. The hit goes bad and during his escape, Ah Jong is identified by a police detective, Li Ying (Danny Lee) who becomes obsessed with capturing Ah Jong. Li Ying is the perfect guy to catch Ah Jong since he’s on thin ice with his bosses who consider him pretty much a wild bull on thin ice anyway. But he has a gift of putting himself in the mindset of criminals and he finds it pretty easy (maybe too easy ) to get into Ah Jong’s head.

Ah Jong has to not only stay out of the gunsights of the police but also his Tong boss Wong Hoi (Shing Fui-On) who has ordered a hit on Ah Jong since his identity has been compromised. What makes THE KILLER so unique is in that Ah Jong’s pursuer Li Ying becomes his closest friend and ally as the both of them discover that they’re mirrors of each other, bound together by similar personal codes of honor and loyalty.

john-woo-the-killer

Even today when I watch THE KILLER I am astounded by the action sequences. The final shootout in the church is the second best shootout I’ve ever seen on film and it’s earned by the fact that when it comes, we’re totally invested in the characters so we care who lives and who dies. THE KILLER has a great story that is both tremendously simple and yet overwhelming complex at the same time. It’s pretty simple why Ah Jong takes on the responsibility of restoring Jenny’s sight. It’s pretty simple why Li Ying comes to admire Ah Jong. What’s not so simple is how these characters have their own agendas that come into play and have to be resolved in blood.

This is the movie that made Chow Yun-Fat a star in this country. He’s got the same kind of badass cool that made Sean Connery, Steve McQueen and James Coburn stars and it’s all there on the screen in this one. I also like Danny Lee a lot because of his character and his acting talent we to see a lot of the Ah Jong character through his eyes as he gets inside the head of his quarry.

And the gunfights…good googlymoogly…us provincials here in America had never seen gunfights like this until John Woo said “Here…let me show you how it should be done.” And he did. Each and every gunfight in THE KILLER is epic. And this is the one that begins the classic. quintessential John Woo standoff with two guys pointing guns in each other’s faces. This one has Ah Jong and Li Ying maintaining the pose that they’re having a nice, quiet and friendly conversation in Jenny’s apartment while she serves them tea. But all the while they’ve got guns on each other. Being blind she can’t see the guns. It’s a scene that’s both hilarious and suspenseful to the max.
john_woo_the_killer__spanSo should you see THE KILLER? Without a doubt, YES.

Mafia

mafiaonest

2011

Levine Pictures/Jamie Kennedy Entertainment

Directed and Written by Ryan Combs

Produced by Phillip Glasser and Brian Hartman

When I first heard about this movie my interest was immediately piqued. A urban crime thriller set in the 1970’s starring Ving Rhames, Pam Grier and Robert Patrick? Why had I not heard about this movie before now? I mean let’s consider the star power involved here for a minute:

Ving Rhames has worked with high octane directors such as Quentin Tarantino, John Woo and John Singleton. He’s proven himself to be an exceptional capable and memorable actor in many movies and I always like to point out to people that besides Tom Cruise, he’s the only other actor to have been in all five “Mission: Impossible” movies. He’s also well known for that incredible moment when he won a Golden Globe for Best Actor back in 1998 and gave his award to Jack Lemmon:

Don’t worry, Ving got a duplicate award later on.

If you’ve known me for any length of time then you know I worship Pam Grier and have ever since I started seeing her movies back in the 1970’s. Her legendary movie career during the 70’s and 80’s has enshrined her as the Queen of Blaxplotation and over the years she’s continued to flourish, demonstrating an acting ability that proved she had a range and talent that has taken her far beyond that period.

aXzo7

Robert Patrick’s career took off with his role as the T-1000 in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and just kept on taking off. I really enjoyed him when he joined the cast of “The X-Files” and I actually liked the show a lot better when he was there. So we’re agreed that we’ve got three of the best and most talented actors working today, right? Actors who certainly have no problem finding work, right?

36277356459026982643

So what are they doing in a movie like MAFIA?

I highly suspect that Ving Rhames asked Pam Grier and Robert Patrick to do him a favor and co-star in the movie because he’s recently been making quite a few movies with MAFIA’s writer/director Ryan Combs. Movies such as “King of The Avenue” “Caged Animal” and “Animal 2” Ryan Combs is an African-American writer/director I wasn’t aware of until I saw MAFIA and even though this movie doesn’t hit the bullseye I’m sufficiently intrigued by what I saw in MAFIA to check out some of his other movies. And if that was the intention behind having actors like Ving Rhames, Pam Grier and Robert Patrick in this movie then it succeeded.

Set in 1975 the movie recounts the last few days in the career of crime boss Renzo Wes (Ving Rhames) as he sets about obliterating his rival crime bosses. Renzo is in turn being pursued by police detectives James Womack (Pam Grier) and her new partner Jules Dupree (Robert Patrick) Renzo killed Womack’s ex-partner and she’s on a holy rampage to do everything and anything she can to bring him down. Dupree just wants to take it easy as he’s planning on getting married soon and doesn’t want anything going down that will interfere with that. He’s got enough on his plate as his fiancée (Melanie Marden) has told him that her brother is viciously racist.

The turf war escalates, jeopardizing Renzo’s criminal empire and straining his relationship with his right hand man Train (Sean Derry) who is rightly concerned that all the killing is going to bring the cops down on them with both feet. Renzo continues his war against his rivals while being plagued by visions of a chubby little boy holding a yellow toy truck and looking at Renzo with accusing eyes. And are his other visions of him in prison memories or premonitions?

First off, I have no idea why this movie’s title was changed to MAFIA as there is never so much as a mention of that criminal organization in the movie’s entire running time. The original title of “The Consequence of Renzo Wes” is a much better, more original title and fits the tone of the movie much better.

The movie obviously doesn’t have the kind of budget you would think a movie starring these three would have. The 1970’s period flavor is invoked strictly through the cars that are driven along with the appropriate clothing and hairstyles. In particular Pam Grier sports an afro that I would swear is the same one from “Foxy Brown” she used to hide a gun and razor blades in. But the slang used is contemporary (we didn’t say “ya feel me?” back in the 1970’s) and the music used is that fake pseudo 70’s music filmmaker use when they don’t have the budget to pay for the rights to use music and songs from that period. In addition, the city the action takes place in is never named or identified and there’s never any landmarks or anything mentioned or technology (outside of rotary phones) specific to that time period.

With a larger budget and better script, MAFIA could have been more of a notable movie. Combs deliberately films it as if it were a 1970’s exploitation crime thriller and I respond to the sincerity of the intent. But the movie is too laid back and too restrained. It doesn’t have that manic quality true 70’s exploitation B-movies had where you feel as if anything could happen at any time. Renzo has an enforcer who carries two double barreled shotguns who could have been turned into a memorable supporting character but he just stays in the background most of the time. And why is Pam Grier’s character’s first name “James”?

Mafia2011-Still1

And this is the main impression I got while watching MAFIA : that the writer hasn’t read any real hardboiled crime/gangster stories or novels and not really all that much of any sort of crime fiction at all. MAFIA feels to me like it was made by somebody who’s simply seen a bunch of 70’s black exploitation movies and said, “yeah, I wanna do that.” The problem is that there’s no heat, no passion in the movie and no originality brought to the story or the characters. This movie really needed a writer who could have fleshed out the thin story, given the characters some dimensions and brought some much needed energy to the plot and make it sing and swing instead of just going from one predictable point to another.

So should you see MAFIA? If you don’t, you won’t be missing a thing. The only actor bringing their A-game to this is Ving Rhames himself. Pam Grier and Robert Patrick stay safely on autopilot for this one. And it’s got a mercifully short running time of 82 minutes so you won’t waste too much time if you do.

Rated R

82 minutes

Alex Cross

2012

James Patterson Entertainment/Summit Entertainment

Directed by Rob Cohen

Produced by James Patterson and Leopoldo Gout

Screenplay by Marc Moss and Kerry Williamson

Based on the novel “Cross” by James Patterson

Depending on who you talk to, get ready to either get kissed on the lips or kicked in the ass when you bring up the subject of Tyler Perry. Seriously. I’m not joking. He’s a topic of conversation that has no in between. Most people I know either love his work or detest it. His career began with stage productions he wrote and directed, mostly focusing on dysfunctional families in stories that were just as much tragedies as they were comedies. Touring the country with these productions on the Urban Theater Circuit, also known as “The Chitlin’ Circuit” developed Tyler Perry’s enormous success with black audiences that are devoted to him.

And when he put on a dress and starred in movies as his signature character, Mabel ‘Madea’ Simmons he really struck pay dirt. The profane, loud-talking, pistol-packing massive elderly woman who can still open a can of Whoopass at the drop of a cigarette has been a source of much controversy. Spike Lee has said that Tyler Perry’s Madea movies are nothing but modern-day minstrel shows while Perry counters that they are simply entertainment and not to be taken seriously. Professional movie critics gave Perry’s movies such a smacking around that he stopped screening them for the press, saying that he made his movies for his audience and not for critics.

Whatever you want to say about him, there’s no doubt that he’s a powerhouse in both film and on television as he produces three sitcoms for TBS and has entered into an agreement with Oprah Winfrey to produce content for her OWN network. And his films have grossed a half billion dollars worldwide. So why then would he now decide to jump into a completely different genre, one he’s never so much as shown an interest in and take on the role of homicide detective/psychologist ALEX CROSS in an action/crime thriller?

Maybe he’s bored with what he’s been doing. I know I saw an interview with him once where he said that he wanted to do a movie where he kills Madea off so he doesn’t have to get into that dress one more time. I dunno. I applaud him for stepping waaaaayyyy out of his comfort zone to attack this role with such gusto. I don’t believe that he’s going to be treated fairly and that’s a shame because even though I wasn’t jumping up and down in my seat with excitement I also didn’t feel that my time was wasted watching him play action hero.

Detroit homicide detective Alex Cross (Tyler Perry) is summoned in the middle of the night by his superior Captain Brookwell (John C. McGinley) to report with his team to a murder scene. Cross gathers up his partner Tommy Kane (Edward Burns) who is having a hot and heavy relationship with his teammate Monica Ashe (Rachel Nichols) and the two of them report to a mansion that is full of dead bodies, one of them gruesomely tortured. Due to a bizarre drawing left at the scene, Tommy nicknames the killer Picasso and it sticks.

Picasso (Matthew Fox) is one of those serial killers that movies loves. He’s hyper-intelligent and apparently psychic since he can extrapolate any and every move the police are going to do days before they themselves even think of it. He’s in Detroit to murder a number of businessmen and he goes about it in the way that only assassins in movies can do seemingly by magic; tapping into and bypassing security systems with ridiculous ease and slipping by squads of armed men as if invisible. And naturally he kills everything he aims at with one shot while dodging blizzards of automatic fire thrown his way.

It’s during the pursuit of Picasso that Alex Cross and his team are soon turned from hunters to the hunted as Picasso seeks to revenge himself on them for their interference in one of his carefully planned assassinations and it’s here that the movie kicks it up a notch. The intellectually composed Alex Cross gives into his dark side and forsakes all in the quest for vengeance. But as his beloved Nana Mama (Cicely Tyson) asks him “If you do this, how will you face your children?”

Okay, let’s get to where the rubber meets the road: you want to know if Tyler Perry nailed it to the wall or did he stink like a houseguest that don’t know when to leave. I’ll give you the opinion of my wife Patricia to answer that. Patricia is the Alex Cross expert in our house having read most of the books or listened to them on audio. She felt that Perry wasn’t sexy enough to be Alex Cross but she freely admits there there is no man alive as sexy as the Alex Cross in her imagination. She did like to see a movie where a black man was presented as a family man enjoying a healthy relationship with his wife, children and colleagues as well as being a respected professional and not the sidekick to the hero. The movie didn’t live up to her expectations but if there’s a sequel made, she’s all for it.

ALEX CROSS is pretty much an origin story to explain his background to those who have never read one of James Patterson’s novels and as such, it works. Tyler Perry does a honest job as action hero and he certainly has the physicality for such a role but he just couldn’t convince me this Alex Cross on the screen has the same formidable intellectual power and laser-beam psychological insight the Alex Cross of the books I have read has. He takes what he’s doing seriously and he respects the character and I do think that in many ways he did capture the spirit of the character.

Fortunately he’s backed up by some truly solid supporting players. Cicely Tyson, John C. McGinley, Jean Reno, Giancarlo Esposito and Edward Burns do their jobs admirably and are generous in stepping aside and giving Tyler Perry his moments to do his thing when the script calls for it. There are no outstanding performances from any of them but I do so enjoy seeing professional work from actors where they do what they do and make it look easy. Matthew Fox is plainly having a ball playing the brilliantly deranged Picasso and I really hope he gets a chance to play another villain as he really didn’t have a chance to build a satisfying character in this one.

So should you see ALEX CROSS? There are some of you reading this who wouldn’t go see a Tyler Perry movie if you were paid to do so. And there are some of you reading this who probably already have seen it and will probably see it again. For those of you who are undecided, I’ll have to leave it up to your conscience. I myself didn’t feel that ALEX CROSS wasted my time but neither was it a superior movie in this genre. It’s way better and far more faithful to the character than the two Alex Cross movies made in the 1990’s starring Morgan Freeman but not as good as I feel it could have been. The fight sequences were a letdown for me as Rob Cohen succumbed to using that fargin’ shaky-cam again and as a result the fight scenes are a blur of arms and legs where it’s difficult to tell who’s hitting who.

Bottom line: it’s an interesting acting experiment for Tyler Perry. If you don’t want to spend your money on a DVD or Blu-ray for an experiment but are still curious, wait for it to show up on Netflix.

101 minutes

PG-13

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