Director: Boaz Yakin
Starring: Jason Statham, Catherine Chan, Chris Sarandon
The only difference between Safe and every other Jason Statham movie is that it is the one with the little girl in it. That is not meant to be a knock on Statham, just a way of acknowledging that he is a guy who knows what he is good at so keeps doing it. Statham is, today, what so many of his Expendables co-stars were 20-30 years ago. He is one of the last in a dying breed of Hollywood tough guys. After starting out in Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, Statham has carved out a career for himself in short-titled action movies like The Transporter, Crank, Death Race and The Mechanic. In Safe we get more of the same.
This time around Statham plays Luke Wright, who upon spotting a little girl hiding from some big, scary looking dudes appoints himself her protector. What he doesn’t know is this little girl is a maths prodigy who knows the combination of numbers required to open a safe containing $30million. This piece of knowledge places her square in the middle of a fight between the Triads, the Russian mafia and a unit of corrupt New York cops (you can just imagine the light bulb moment when the producer tossing up whether to do Statham vs. the Triads, Statham vs. the Russian Mafia or Statham vs. corrupt cops thought, “Why not do all three?”). However, what none of them know is that Luke Wright is a highly trained, cage-fighting, ex-elite agent who specialises in taking out the garbage. Chaos, chases and butt-kicking ensues.
Statham is the best going around at what he does, but while what he does would have seen him headlining some of the year’s biggest blockbusters in the 1980s and 1990s, today it means catering to a niche market. You know what you’re getting with a Jason Statham movie, and Safe delivers just that, nothing more and nothing less. The teaming up of Statham with a little girl attempts to give the movie a heart and provides a comic touch without falling into the goofball territory that the ‘tough-guys and kids’ movies of The Rock, Vin Diesel and Hulk Hogan tend to find themselves in, but really Safe does nothing to distinguish itself from the rest.
Rating – ★★★
Review by Duncan McLean
Directors: Mouse McCoy, Scott Waugh
Starring: Nestor Serrano, Alex Veadov, Jason Cottle
Act of Valor is a propaganda film in disguise, and not much of a disguise at that. Originally intended as a recruitment film before developing into a more traditional war film, it was made with the participation of the US Navy SEALs and is dedicated to all those Navy SEALs that have died in active duty since 9/11 (and their names all appear on screen).
The story – a fictional tale based on “real life acts of valor” but at the same time seemingly taken straight from the big book of war movie clichés – follows an elite team of Navy SEALs whose covert mission to recover a kidnapped CIA agent becomes a mission to stop a terrorist attack on the USA.
The involvement of the military in the film is really Act of Valor’s defining feature. All of the marketing for the film emphasises the fact that the Navy SEAL characters in the film are played by real life Navy SEALs, as though that were a good thing. While this means they are very comfortable doing soldier things, other aspects like character development and dramatic tension are lacking as a result of some of the most wooden acting you’ll ever see.
The strength of this film, however, is the authenticity of its action sequences. The battle and procedural sequences are impressive in a non-Hollywood kind of way. The authenticity – or what appears to be authenticity to someone who wouldn’t really know what authentic military action looks like – is where the involvement of the Navy SEALs really brings something to the film. The film captures some quite impressive manoeuvres involving helicopters, boats, trucks and submarines. The action sequences do, however, feature a great deal of first-person camera angles making it look like a videogame, which has me thinking perhaps it was intended specifically to recruit Call of Duty gamers.
While this sense of authenticity guarantees that Act of Valor does have some redeeming features, the extreme hands-on-hearts American patriotism will likely be off-putting for most non-American viewers.
Rating – ★
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Dylan McDermott, Rick Yune, Angela Bassett, Melissa Leo, Robert Forster
After watching Olympus has Fallen the makers of the Die Hard franchise must have been kicking themselves. How did they not think of this first? Olympus has Fallen is ‘Die Hard in the White House,’ but instead of Jon McClane, our one man army is Gerard Butler’s Secret Service agent Mike Banning.
Formerly a part of the Presidential Detail, Banning was stood down after a car accident cost the First Lady her life. Banning just happens to be in the vicinity of the White House, codename Olympus, when a group of North Korean terrorists attack the capital. With terrifying brutality, speed and precision, they take the building and the President as their hostage, but in the frenzy of the assault Banning works his way inside. With the rest of the military unable to enter the building for fear of prompting the terrorists to assassinate the President, Banning finds himself the nation’s only hope. But for him it is about more than just a sense of duty to his country. Banning feels a personal responsibility to protect the President and his son, and this moment provides him the opportunity for redemption not only in their eyes, but in his own.
While North Korea is a pretty safe bet for Hollywood to source its villains from – American films don’t get released in North Korea so there is no danger of alienating a potential audience – the film does emphasise the point that these particular villains are terrorists not acting under the guidance of Pyongyang. It is a peculiar moment of thoughtful diplomacy in a screenplay that is otherwise pretty simple and unthinking. It is a story you just have to go with without asking questions, no matter how far-fetched and improbable things get. The White House, undoubtedly one of the best protected buildings on the face of the Earth, is taken down in 12 minutes by a team of terrorists whose secret appears to be that they brought lots of guns and had some semblance of a plan? Don’t question it. Just go with it, because, much like Die Hard, the movie really starts once everyone is inside and everything before that is just setup.
As should be expected of a blockbuster about a siege on the White House, Olympus has Fallen is pretty gung-ho with its patriotism. You get your fair share of Stars and Stripes, whether in flames and falling to the ground, or fluttering triumphantly in the breeze. The movie’s plot device also allows us two Hollywood Presidents for the price of one. Aaron Eckhart as President Benjamin Asher, is the action hero President typified by Harrison Ford in Air Force One. We are introduced to him early in the film as he enjoys a sparring session in the ring with Banning (this introductory scene is intended to give us insight into the nature of both characters, particularly through Banning’s willingness to put one on the chin of the Commander and Chief). He is tough and brave and in the thick of the action. Morgan Freeman plays Speaker Trumble, who is promoted to Acting President for the duration of the hostage crisis. As you would expect of a Morgan Freeman character, Trumble is wise, thoughtful and measured. So between the two of them we manage to both of Hollywood’s favourite patriotic Presidential depictions.
The similarities to Die Hard mean that Olympus has Fallen will feel incredibly familiar and comfortable for fans of the action thriller genre. Butler has tried a number of different things over the years: he’s been a romantic lead, he’s done comedy, he’s done Shakespeare, and he was even the Phantom of the Opera. But the action thriller appears to be where he is most at home. Butler, Eckhart and Freemen are surrounded by a strong supporting cast including Angela Basset, Melissa Leo, Dylan McDermott and Ashley Judd, and while director Antoine Fuqua – of Training Day fame – doesn’t break any new ground, he delivers a well-crafted action film that, ironically, trumps A Good Day to Die Hard as the best Die Hard of the year.
Rating – ★★
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Justin Lin
Starring: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Sung Kang, Gai Gadot, Ludacris, Luke Evans, Gina Carano
Amazingly, as the Fast & Furious franchise extends into its sixth instalment, rather than fizzling out as it tries and squeeze every last dollar out of the concept, it appears to have found a second wind and is getting stronger. By most every measure of quality, Fast & Furious 6 is terrible, except for one… it is heaps of fun.
Adversaries become allies and the hunted become the hunters when Federal Agent Hobbs is forced to turn to Toretto and his team to help catch Owen Shaw, a terrorist he has been tracking across the globe who leads an elite mercenary team of drivers. But what is in it for Toretto and his team? Why would they abandon the high life they are all living having made off with $100m at the end of Fast Five to assist their nemesis? Because one of Shaw’s crew is none other than Toretto’s lost love Letty, who we all thought died in Fast & Furious (the fourth one, not to be confused with The Fast and the Furious, the original). Oh, and she has amnesia… seriously.
The strength of this franchise, particularly with this film and the last, is that it knows exactly what it is. This movie is completely ridiculous, but it revels in it. Fast & Furious 6 is director Justin Lin’s fourth film in the series, having come on board for The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, and he delivers a very self-assured film. He knows what this film is, he knows who its audience is and what they are there to see, and he delivers it.
The plot is farcical. The acting is wooden. The dialogue is horrendous. But none of that matters because the there are plenty of laughs (about half of which are intentional) and the action is second-to-none. Lin gives us four major car-chase sequences, each one better than the last and each one good enough to be the climax of most action movies. Of particular note are the chase on a coastal bridge in Spain which features an army tank, and the climactic chase involving a cargo plane on a military base which must have the longest runway in the world.
There’s a great little post-credit scene which is going to blow the minds of fans, and assure they are all counting down for number seven.
Rating – ★★★
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: John Moore
Starring: Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, Sebastian Koch, Yuliya Snigir, Rasha Bukvic, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
In the 1980s Hollywood was overtaken by blockbuster fever, and a major beneficiary of the studios’ quest for the perfect high concept franchise was the action movie. The 1980s saw action cinema at the peak of its prominence. Films like The Terminator, Predator and the Rambo trilogy had made Schwarzenegger and Stallone among the biggest stars on the planet. But arguably the best movie to come out of the 1980s action cinema was John McTiernan’s Die Hard. Released in 1988 it propelled Bruce Willis into mega-stardom and really raised the bar in terms of quality for action movies. It introduced a blue-print which would be followed by big and loud Hollywood action movie from then on, the one-man army. We were introduced to John McClane, an engaging and charismatic hero, a modern American cowboy who was never short of a witty wise-crack (it is interesting to see the way that McClane’s trademark “yippee-ki-yay motherfucker” starts out with a context, coming out of villain Hans Gruber’s suggestion that he is just playing cowboy, and as the series goes on it is reduced to a simple catchphrase). That hero was then placed in story with a simple but effective premise. He just happened to be in the building that was taken over by terrorists. That building then becomes a labyrinth in which a game of cat-and-mouse can take place. The original Die Hard is a legitimately great movie.
While the sequels released over the 25 years since have steadily declined in quality, the character of John McClane remains, and it is the audience’s goodwill towards this character which keeps them coming back, each time hoping against hope that this one will be better than the previous slightly underwhelming sequel. Unfortunately, this is where A Good Day to Die Hard really drops the ball. In Skip Woods’ screenplay, John McClane is practically reduced to a supporting character in his own movie. The film sees McClane travel to Moscow in order to bring home his estranged son, Jack, who he discovers has been arrested. However, it turns out that his son is actually a CIA agent on a covert mission to rescue a prisoner named Komorov who knows some rather damning information about a Russian politician. After Jack breaks Komorov out, McClane joins his less charismatic son on his mission, and spends most of the remaining screentime following his son around. As a result, the one-man-army which had been the central structure of the previous four Die Hard films is not in place here.
So rarely has a good sequel ever been built around the introduction of a child for our hero. It was worked fine in Live Free or Die Hard (known in some countries as Die Hard 4.0), where the introduced child was his daughter, who mainly served as a motivation for our hero. She was the thing he needed to rescue. But introducing a child to serve as the next generation of hero only ever seems to frustrate audiences, yet lazy writers continue to go back to that well.
Of course, the other staple of the Die Hard series is explosive action, and that is still very much present. John Moore makes sure he gives his audience the requisite amount of carnage, with a major car chase, some quite impressive sequences with a helicopter, and lots and lots of guns. Some of the action sequences do employ digitally generated shots, which can be slightly jarring, not because they are poorly executed, simply that they are stylistically inconsistent with the aesthetic of the other films in the series.
I so badly wanted this movie to be good, or at least good enough, but while it had its moments and there is plenty for the fan of large-scale, explosive action, only the most blindly devoted Die Hard fan will be really satisfied with this one.
Rating – ★★
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Dan Bradley
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Josh Peck, Josh Hutcherson, Adrianne Palicki, Isabel Lucas, Connor Cruise, Will Yun Lee
A remake of the 1984 Patrick Swayze movie, Red Dawn tells the story of a group of high schoolers who, under the guidance of a young marine recently returned from Iraq played by Chris Hemsworth, become guerrilla soldiers when their home town is overrun by a North Korean invading force. Taking on the mascot of their high school, the Wolverines become Spokane, Washington’s version of the Vietcong, terrorising the occupying forces with their superior knowledge of the local terrain, and giving hope to an imprisoned people.
If you want to enjoy Red Dawn it is important that you leave your brain at the door, because if you let yourself think about it even for a second the whole premise unravels. Whether it is little questions like how is it that the Wolverines seem to be able to move in and out of the town with such ease, or bigger ones like how can a well-drilled North Korean invading force be so easily and consistently out-skilled and out-strategised by a group of high schoolers after only a couple of weeks (the time periods are intentionally kept vague) of basic training from an early-career marine, the film just doesn’t stand up to logic. It’s pretty ludicrous stuff.
In the 1984 original, it was the Soviets who were invading, and despite the premise being the same, Cold War anxiety made the whole thing a bit more acceptable. This time around it is the North Koreans. I always find it a bit awkward when a non-historically based film speculates about a war between two actual countries. Most films of this kind will give the enemy a fictional name or leave them anonymous while subtly or unsubtly alluding to a real life country. But in this case the studio has obviously figured that they weren’t going to damage the film’s international box office potential by getting North Korea offside. Interestingly, the film had to be re-edited with certain scenes reshot, as the invading force was originally identified as Chinese. Obviously China was too big a potential market to alienate.
Directed by Dan Bradley, a stuntman, it heavily favours action over psychological insight. Only for the briefest of moments is attention given to the thought that a teenager might be psychologically conflicted by being required to take another person’s life. For Australian readers who will understand the reference, Red Dawn is Tomorrow When the War Began done American style. It’s the same concept but with a much higher ammunition and explosives budget.
Rating – ★★
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Tommy Wirkola
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Pihla Viitala, Thomas Mann, Peter Stormare
If there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, who you gonna call? Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. That’s right, the little boy and girl who got lost in the woods and found themselves in a witches cottage made of candy are all grown up, and armed with an arsenal of medieval machine guns and crossbows they travel the countryside ridding towns of their witches.
The Brothers Grimm’ tale is the latest in a growing number of traditional fairy tales to get Hollywood revisions in recent years. In 2011 we had Red Riding Hood, last year we had a double dose of Snow White with Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, and Jack the Giant Slayer is due to hit our screens in March. In actuality Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters was shot two years ago and Paramount have been waiting for the right moment to let it out. This provides some answers for those people wondering what on earth Jeremy Renner was doing in this after appearing in genuine blockbusters like The Avengers, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and The Bourne Legacy.
The first time I saw a poster for this movie I shook my head. When I saw the trailer it just made me a bit sad. Surely this had to be one of the most ridiculous premises for a movie yet, I thought. But then I saw it and guess what, it is ridiculous… but it isn’t terrible.
Don’t get ahead of yourself, it is far from being good, but it isn’t terrible. Where it drops the ball is that it doesn’t seem to realise that it is ridiculous. Ridiculousness in itself is not a bad thing. Had the filmmakers embraced the ridiculousness of the notion that Hansel and Gretel might grow up to be arse-kicking supernatural bounty hunters they could have played it up a bit, earned a bit of camp appeal and maybe even gathered a cult following. Instead the movie seems to take itself a bit too seriously, surprising given that Will Ferrel and Adam McKay of Anchorman fame are among its producers.
While most of the movie is pretty inane, there are moments of cleverness. For example, not only did their childhood experience set them on the path to their present day profession, it has also left Hansel a diabetic, suffering from “the sugar sickness” and requiring regular insulin injections.
In a movie that is so predictable that you feel like you know what is around every corner, the one thing that is surprising about Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is how schlocky it is. While the premise seems to suggest a very light gothic horror, the movie has a lot of blood, a surprising amount of coarse language and even a little bit of nudity. As a result it has been given an MA15+ rating (R in the USA) which will surely only serve to restrict the access of the primary demographic who might have been persuaded to think Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters sounded like a good idea.
Rating – ★★
Review by Duncan McLean