‘Rambo’ (2008) Brings Back an 80’s Action Hero, and Leaves a Ton of Blood in its Wake

Rambo 2008 movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2008 back when this film was released.

With Sylvester Stallone having revived one of his most iconic characters with “Rocky Balboa,” it was only a matter of time before he brought back John Rambo. From “First Blood” to “Rambo III,” the ex-Green Beret was forced to deal with hostile elements which kept him from putting his violent past behind him, and now he is back after a two decade hiatus during which I am guessing this character finally found a way to silence his demons for longer than a couple of years. But when he starts wielding his knife or bow and arrow, the blood starts to flow like a river, and it’s a fast-moving river to be sure!

We catch up with Rambo in “Rambo” as he is living a life of solitude in Thailand where he catches poisonous snakes and sells them, and also drives his boat up and down the river. He has completely divorced himself from the world and its major concerns and, no surprise, he would rather not go back into combat again. To so will have him be reminded of who he really is and of what he cannot escape from. Then along comes a group of missionaries who try to hire Rambo to take them upriver where they can help those who are living in terror of the Burmese army which has no remorse for their suffering. Before you know it, the army descends on the village they are working in, and they wipe out just everybody including babies. Those who survive the onslaught are taken hostage by the army which is led by a vicious general who seems to be devoid of just about every emotion other than hate.

After all these years in development hell, I kept wondering who John Rambo was going to fight this time around. There were rumors he would take on the Taliban or some cult in America. Stallone’s inclusion of the Burmese army is an interesting choice as I am not sure how aware people are of the atrocities they have inflicted. “Rambo” starts off with some documentary footage of the army and the decaying corpses they leave in their wake. While it may seem exploitive to some that Stallone would use this footage here, it effectively sets up how dangerous and cold-hearted these villains are and will be throughout. It succeeds also in anchoring these antagonists in a believable way, and it makes them all the more threatening. Stallone is smart not give us a bunch of cartoonish 1980’s villains here as it would simply take away from the story and turn it into the kind of action flick which has not aged well.

Stallone directs here again as he did with “Rocky Balboa,” and this is the first Rambo movie which has him in front of and behind. It is hard to think of another individual who could have directed it as he knows the character so damn well and so much more than just about anyone else. It is also important to note that, along with “Rocky Balboa,” this is the first time Stallone has directed any movie in about 20 years. Some get rusty when they are away from the director’s chair for too long (we are looking at you George Lucas), but Stallone looks to have stepped back into this position without having missed a beat.

And speaking of action, “Rambo” is overwhelmed with it If you thought the first 20 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan” was exceedingly violent, wait till you get a load of this film. Rambo does not just blow away his enemies, he eviscerates them in such gory detail to where Dario Argento would be in awe of what Stallone has pulled off here. The ex-Green Beret also slices and dices better than Jason Vorhees, Freddy Krueger, or even Michael Meyers ever could. He eviscerates, decapitates, disembowels, and hits his targets with absolute precision and without hesitation. Many have called this the most violent movie ever made, and this may very well be true.

My guess is since this is the first Rambo movie made in two decades, Rambo has been laying low and not causing any trouble. As a result, he has had all this tension building up inside of him for a long, long time. Now had this movie came out a few years after “Rambo III,” then maybe he would not have battled his enemies in such an immensely gory fashion. But since he has been out of action for so long, it somehow makes sense he is slightly angrier than usual when he gets stuck in situations like this. In other words, do not piss him off after a long stretch of time where he has not done any hunting.

Many of the characters we see here do come across as one-dimensional, and this quickly reminded of Stallone’s limitations as a writer. There is a group of mercenaries who are led by one loud mouth Australian who would happily be anywhere else had he not been paid so much for this one job. These characters, however, are redeemed by the end of the movie as they fight for something as opposed to just the dollar. Also, some of the dialogue is unintentionally laughable, but thank goodness there is not too much of it here.

Among the actors teamed up with Stallone is Julie Benz who plays Sarah, the woman who wins over Rambo by meeting him at his level of morality. There is no sex here as Rambo looks to have become too much of a monk to where one wonders if he will ever be sexually active again (“no time for love Dr. Jones!”). But in the end, romance really has no place in a movie like this.

“Rambo” is also helped by a stupendous music score by Brian Tyler who more than honors the themes the late Jerry Goldsmith first brought to this franchise during its humble beginnings. It more than matches the furious pace of the action unleashed on us here, and gets at the deeper feelings of all the characters, especially Rambo himself. Tyler’s score here adds tremendously to the experience of watching this movie.

“Rambo” is not as good as “Rocky Balboa,” but it does deliver as an action movie. In fact, it has set the action bar so high in terms of onscreen deaths to where it will be a complete surprise if any other film in 2008 comes even close to topping its carnage. Anything is possible, but still.

* * * out of * * * *

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‘3 From Hell’ – Rob Zombie’s Vision of Madness and Mayhem Continues

3 From Hell theatrical poster

I have no shame, nor should I, in admitting just how much I liked “The Devil’s Rejects.” While Rob Zombie’s first film, “House of a 1000 Corpses,” showed him to have a strong visual style and good taste in actors, it paled in comparison to the movies which inspired it. “The Devil’s Rejects,” however, showed him taking a number of cinematic influences and making them his own, and what transpired was a nasty grindhouse film which never pretended to be anything other than what it was. As a result, “3 From Hell,” was one of those 2019 movies I was most excited to see. How was it? Read on my fellow readers…

When we last saw Otis B. Driftwood (Bill Moseley), Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie) and Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), they were going out in a blaze of glory as the police riddled them with an endless supply of bullets while Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” played over the soundtrack. They had reached the end of the line, or so we thought. As “3 From Hell” begins, a newscaster played by the great Austin Stoker informs us they somehow miraculously survived the lethal shootout by police, and they now have a lengthy trail to look forward which will determine their ultimate fate.

Now we can agree there is no way those crazy bastards could have survived such a shootout without at the very least a bulletproof vest. Still, perhaps back in the late 1980’s, when “3 From Hell” takes place, medical science was advanced enough to where gunshot wounds could be treated more effectively. Then again, Otis, Baby and Captain Spaulding are known as the devil’s rejects, and I guess Satan still does not have enough room for them in hell any more than he does for business criminals. Street criminals on the other hand…

Anyway, the three killers are sentenced to either life in prison or death by lethal injection, but we all know they are not going to stay there. Thanks to Otis’ half-brother Winslow (Richard Brake), Otis and Baby escape their confines and head out on the road to inflict bloody mayhem on both the innocent and those who they believe “wronged” them. As you can expect, there is plenty of blood, gore and carnage on display as one bullet or stab wound is not nearly enough to take down a human being here.

One sad thing about “3 From Hell” is how briefly Sid Haig appears in it. This is because he was in ailing health when production started, and it was determined he would not able to participate as a result. Watching Haig here is heartbreaking as he is clearly not in the best shape, but Zombie still does right him and writes one hell of a monologue which Haig performs to brilliant effect as he yells out loudly, “I’m just a clown dancing to the sins of mankind.” Listening to Haig here reminded me of what Augustus Hill once said on an episode of “Oz:”

“So, what is it that separates you and me from the goldfish, the butterfly, the flat billed platypus? Our minds, huh? Our souls, huh? That fact that we can get HBO? Well maybe it’s that humans are the only species to put other animals in cages. Put its own kind in cages.”

Still, I have to say “The Devil’s Rejects” is a hard film to top, and “3 From Hell” proves this to be the case. This follow up does not have the same level of sadistic glee, nor does it have the kind of lethal antagonist which “Rejects” had in William Forsythe’s character of Sheriff John Quincey Wydell. When the Otis, Baby and Wilson are forced to deal with a Mexican gang, they also appear here by accident to where their threat does not register strongly enough with us.

But just when “3 From Hell” looks to be an unnecessary sequel, I did find myself admiring Zombie’s subversive ways as he plays around with how people see serial killers from the outside. We watch fans of the Firefly family as they are interviewed on television, and they seem them instead as folk heroes who they believe have been wrongfully convicted. While we may want to criticize these fans for worshipping the wrong people, Zombie is very clever at illustrating how we are deeply fascinated by certain people who have performed the most heinous and unforgivable acts on others. While we say we are not, there is that part of us which is even if we do not admit it. Just like Mercedes Ruehl said in “The Fisher King,” the devil is a lot more interesting.

There is even a scene where we are watching footage of Otis and some fellow prisoners (one of them played by Danny Trejo) being led to work in a field, and this same footage also shows Otis escaping and killing a prisoner in cold blood while the camera continues to roll. Now this is not something which should be shown on television, but stations still do this every so often, and we are drawn to this footage even if we know better than to watch it. With “3 From Hell” and its predecessors, Zombie makes us see how drawn we are to pure evil even as we openly despise it.

While Zombie was forced to shoot this sequel on digital instead of film, he along with cinematographer David Daniels and editor Glenn Garland succeed in making it look as grungy as your average grindhouse picture from the 1970’s to where I honestly thought this was shot on film (the end credits revealed otherwise). However, the CGI blood does leave little to be desired even if the filmmakers did what they could to make it look real.

In addition to a strong film score from Zeuss, Zombie provides us with another great soundtrack to put his grisly images to, and it includes such classic tunes as Slim Whitman’s “The Devil is Singing Our Song” and Suzi Quatro’s “The Wild One.” He even uses Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” in a key murder scene, and I admired him for daring to do so as this song has already been used to unforgettable effect in Michael Mann’s “Manhunter” and a classic episode of “The Simpsons.”

As expected, the actors revel in portraying their politically incorrect characters and do so without any shame. Moseley may very well have given his best performance as Otis in this sequel as he gives the character more dimension you might expect him to have. And while she looks to chew the scenery a bit too much at times, Sheri Moon is a blast to watch as she brings a surprising degree of vulnerability to Baby. As we see her being held in captivity, Sheri makes us see how prison life has had a harsh impact on Baby’s mental state, and it was never a particularly stable mental state to begin with.

I also have to give Richard Brake a lot of credit as he is stepping into an ensemble which has long since established its own rhythm. But as Winslow, he manages to fit in perfectly with Sheri Moon and Moseley, and he makes this character stand out in his own uniquely maniacal way. The scene where he grins ever so slightly as Otis pounds a man’s face in with the butt of his gun gives this film one of its most chilling moments, and it shows how fearless Brake is in portraying such an amoral human being.

I did my best to keep my expectation in check when I came into “3 From Hell” as “The Devil’s Rejects” was always going to be hard to top. The fact it is not the equal of its predecessor is not a surprise, but there is still much I admired here, and I have no problem saying I enjoyed what Zombie had to offer audiences this time out. No, it is not for everybody, and there are scenes of sheer brutality which will have certain audience members dashing for the exit. But for those who like especially intense horror films, I felt this one delivered.

Could there be a fourth film in this franchise? I suppose, but at some point the devil has to make room for these three as well as all the criminals on Wall Street who continue to get away with far too much.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Matthew Fox On His Grueling Physical Transformation for ‘Alex Cross’

Matthew Fox in Alex Cross

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012.

Audiences may have a hard time recognizing Matthew Fox when they see him as serial killer Picasso in Rob Cohen’s “Alex Cross.” The actor, best known for his roles on “Party of Five” and “Lost,” underwent one of the most visceral transformations any actor has gone through in a 2012 movie as he slimmed down, donned some tattoos and trained very hard to portray one of the scariest psychopaths we have seen in a movie. After watching him in “Alex Cross,” you will be ever so eager to find out how Fox pulled off such a stunning transformation.

Fox ended up losing 40 pounds to get Picasso’s toned physique down just right, and it forced him to give up eating all the things he likes to eat. This was especially hard on Fox’s mom whom he described as Italian and a fantastic cook to boot. Her favorite thing to do is feed her son great food, and unfortunately she couldn’t do so for several months when he signed up to play Picasso. According to Fox, his mom could not stand the fact he had to lose all this weight and that it really upset her. I imagine, however, now that the movie is being released, she can feed her son everything he could ever want to eat.

Fox worked with Simon Waterson, a personal trailer whose credits include helping Daniel Craig achieve the ripped body he needed to play James Bond, working with Jake Gyllenhaal on “Prince of Persia,” and in assisting Chris Evans to become the best Captain America he could ever hope to be. Fox went about describing the training he endured under Waterson’s tutelage.

“We worked really hard on this for five months,” Fox said. “The training sessions were mostly circuit training. You’re going non-stop from exercise to exercise, never taking any breaks for about an hour and a half. I was burning a lot of calories and working on certain muscle groups. It was very strategic on his part and very gradual.”

The role of Picasso forced Fox to travel to some dark places in order to better understand this particular serial killer. As a result, it challenged the actor to adopt a mindset no sane person would ever dare explore. However, it also allowed Fox to play a character which strongly differed from the ones he previously portrayed.

“It was very liberating to some degree to be able to play a guy that has no moral compass and is sort of supremely arrogant about the notion that he doesn’t have a moral compass and is out to prove to the world that a moral compass is weakness and is false actually,” Fox said.

“It was also interesting to think about what it would be like to really truly believe that and to really hold yourself that arrogantly above the rest because you can do the things that nobody else can or thinks that they can’t,” Fox continued. “A sense of power comes along with that when a guy like that feels like he has the ultimate trump card, like he cannot be trumped and he goes into every human interaction that usually ends up with him slowly snuffing out a life. He would look at that as giving a gift so it’s a very powerful place to exist, sort of invincibility.”

The lengths Fox went to in portraying Picasso greatly impressed his “Alex Cross” co-stars, especially Tyler Perry who plays the title role.

“He is brilliant,” Perry said. “The amount of dedication and the weight loss is this much of where he went. He really went to where ever he had to go. I don’t even want to know what dark places he went to to get that character, but he was amazing.”

After watching Matthew Fox in “Alex Cross,” you will find yourself in complete agreement with what Perry said. Actors revel at the chance to reinvent themselves when playing a character, and Fox got the chance to do just that with this role. Movies are full of crazy characters who haunt our dreams, and Fox’s Picasso is just the latest.

SOURCES:

Marc Malkin, “Matthew Fox Explains Shocking Weight Loss for ‘Alex Cross,’” E! Online, September 18, 2012.

Fred Topel, “Freaking Me Out: Matthew Fox on ‘Alex Cross,’ ‘World War Z’ and ‘Lost,‘” Crave Online, October 15, 2012.

Kevin P. Sullivan, “Matthew Fox Went To ‘Dark Places’ For ‘Alex Cross,’ Tyler Perry Says,” MTV Movies Blog, June 27, 2012.

James Patterson on Alex Cross and Bringing Him to the Silver Screen

Alex Cross movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is in regards to a press day which took place in 2012.

It has been over ten years since the last Alex Cross movie, “Along Came a Spider,” made it to the big screen. But now director Rob Cohen, who directed “The Fast and The Furious,” has brought the heroic detective and psychologist back in a reboot which is simply entitled “Alex Cross.” No one appears to be happier about Cross’ return to the world of film than the man who created him, James Patterson. The writer was recently at a press junket for “Alex Cross” at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, and he shared his thoughts on the new movie and the character he created.

James Patterson: I think it turned out great. Summit Entertainment (which is distributing it) has been fabulous to work with and they didn’t get in the way. They were helpful and supportive in every aspect. I think Rob did a terrific job especially given the budget ($24 million) which was not enormous and about a quarter of what he’s used to.

There was also the talk of Tyler Perry taking over the role of Alex Cross from Morgan Freeman who portrayed the character in both “Kiss the Girls” and “Along Came a Spider.” Many were baffled as to why Perry was cast, and they were also intrigued as to what Patterson thought about him in the role instead of Freeman.

JP: Morgan is Morgan, but Tyler is much closer to the character in the books. The character in the books is bigger, he’s physical and he’s bright and I think Tyler did a great job. I think he’s going to blow people’s minds with this. When I went to Atlanta to meet with him, he said to me “James, I wouldn’t do this if I wasn’t sure that I could pull it off. And I’m going to give myself over to Rob. I’m not going to be the director.” And I think that’s what he did, and he took off some weight and bulked up as well.

As for Freeman, Patterson said the actor was never contacted about this movie. Like everyone else, he thinks Freeman is a wonderful actor but remarked how he is now 77 years old, and having him play a detective at that age was not going to work this time as Cross is around the age of 40 in the books.

Patterson was actually involved in the production of “Alex Cross” and even wrote the first draft of the screenplay. He had a lot of input as he owns 40% of the movie, but he was also able to step back and stay out of the way which he said is “the most useful thing that you can do sometimes.” The script did change a lot from what he originally wrote, and Patterson said he was perfectly alright with that.

When asked how he created Alex Cross, Patterson said he grew up in a town which eventually became known as “the murder capital of New York State,” and it was half black and half white. His experiences in this town enforced his reaction to the way blacks were treated in the media.

JP: I felt for a long time that the way movies were portraying African Americans was kind of stupid. I wanted to create a hero who really was a hero; an African American guy who is bright and anti all the stereotypes. Here’s a guy who’s taking care of his family, and this movie gets more into family than the first two did. He’s taking care of his kids, he’s cool with their grandmother, he’s well educated and a graduate of John Hopkins University, etc. So, I just wanted to go against the stereotypes, and I think that has worked and that’s what I’m happy about.

Returning to the movie, Patterson said one of the things which makes “Alex Cross” especially good is it has moments that are “really emotional,” and you don’t always have those moments in a film like this.

JP: Film crews can sort of not really be into the movie they’re working on that much, but there were times where they were watching the monitor and they were crying. It was very very emotional stuff and I think that’s unusual in a movie like this.

In talking about Matthew Fox who plays Michael “Picasso” Sullivan, Patterson described him as terrific and that his performance is one of the best and most original things about the movie.

JP: I think Matthew wanted to show everyone that he had this tremendous range which he does, and he wanted to be a bad guy. Once he got the part, he really pushed it. He took off a lot of weight because he wanted to have a certain look, and he was the madman.

Patterson believes what makes “Alex Cross” work so well as a movie was everyone went into it with a real hunger to do it. Cohen wanted a hit, Perry wanted to do something different and to show he had different skills than people thought he had, QED International (one of companies producing the movie) wanted to do something which would be a break out hit, and Patterson himself wanted another movie made about this character.

JP: Everyone was hungry and I always think that’s great. That does tend to produce a pretty good product.”

This was certainly the case here as “Alex Cross” proved to be a riveting action thriller with great performances from the entire cast and a lot of real emotion which never feels faked. Here’s hoping it finds the audience it deserves when it is released on October 19, 2012.

Click on the links below to check out the exclusive interviews I did with two people involved with the making of “Alex Cross.” These are interviews I conducted on behalf of the website We Got This Covered.

Rob Cohen

Ed Burns

Rob Zombie Unleashes The First Trailer for ‘3 From Hell’

Of all the sequels coming out in 2019, I have to confess I am especially excited for “3 From Hell.” Writer and director Rob Zombie returns with his third film dealing with the murderous exploits of the Firefly family, exploits which began with 2003’s “House of 1000 Corpses” and continued on in 2005’s “The Devil’s Rejects.” This sequel has been in the making for some time now, and while we still have to wait a month or two before it comes out, we now have a new trailer which shows it to be as bloody and violent, if not more so, than its predecessors.

One thing I am especially intrigued about is how Zombie plans to explain how Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), Otis (Bill Moseley) and Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie) survived the “Wild Bunch” shootout at the climax of “The Devil’s Rejects.” For all intents and purposes, they have looked to have willfully ended their existence in a hail of bullets which no one could easily survive. Still, a news reporter confirms they somehow survived but, as their mangled bodies are hauled into the emergency room, says their chances of survival are “less than a million to one.” But as John Carpenter once said, “evil never dies.”

Surprise! The three survive and are put on trial for their vicious crimes in a public spectacle to where they look to have become folk heroes just like Mickey and Mallory were in “Natural Born Killers.” We even hear supporters in the background yelling out “free the three” to where I wonder if Zombie is making some sort of comment about how many in America typically act against their own best interests. Regardless of how you may feel about horror and exploitation films, the best ones always have some social commentary hiding just beneath the surface.

Judging from the behind the stories I have read about “3 From Hell” thus far, I assumed this movie would be about the trial. But sure enough, Captain Spaulding, Otis and Baby appear to have freed themselves from their incarcerations and go on another killing spree, and the trailer never tries to sugar coat or hide away from the brutality Zombie has in store for genre movie fans. Just watch as Otis endlessly bashes a helpless victim while Winslow Foxworth Coltrane (“31’s” Richard Brake) looks on with a twisted and detached amusement.

Like “The Devil’s Rejects,” “3 From Hell” looks to have a very grungy look which more than suits the subject matter, and my hope is Zombie got to shoot this one on film instead of digital. I eagerly await its release and its soundtrack as the ones Zombie has provided for the previous films were fantastic, and I never get sick of listening to either of them. Surely, this latest installment will have one which is every bit as good, right?

Lionsgate and Saban Films have partnered with Fathom Events to present the unrated cut of “3 From Hell” in theaters on September 16, 17 and 18, 2019, and each screening will have unique bonus content:

  • September 16th – Rob Zombie will provide a special video introduction before the screening, and the first 50 people at each theater will receive an exclusive poster (while supplies last, I imagine).
  • September 17th – There will be a half hour behind-the-scenes featurette shown about the making of this particular sequel
  • September 18th – The unrated cut of “3 From Hell” will be presented as a double feature with “The Devil’s Rejects.”

Tickets for these screenings will be available on the Fathom Events website starting on July 19. Click here to find out more.

Please check out the trailer above.

3 From Hell Teaser Poster

The First Trailer for ‘Rambo: Last Blood’ Has Finally Arrived

It has been 10 years since Sylvester Stallone revived once of his most iconic characters in “Rambo” and wreaked bloody vengeance (and I mean really bloody vengeance) against the cruelest of adversaries. Since then, we have constantly wondered if John Rambo will utilize his ruthless combat skills one more time. Stallone at one point swore that this series was over and had no desire to do another sequel, but the term “never say never” was always in the air, and now he is back as the Vietnam War vet who can never keep his past at bay for too long.

The first trailer for “Rambo: Last Blood” has now been unveiled, and the movie is scheduled to be released in September 2019. My thoughts on this trailer are particularly mixed as it makes this next adventure in the violent life of John Rambo look like any other action movie. Moreover, it almost seems like a remake of “Homefront” which Stallone wrote the screenplay for. My hope right now is for “Rambo: Last Blood” to be a much, much better movie than “Homefront” was as that one really sucked.

I have a feeling it will take a little bit for audiences to realize Stallone is playing Rambo again as the character no longer has a mullet. Instead, he has the same kind of haircut Stallone sports in most of his movies, and adds to the business as usual look this trailer gives off. It is only when Stallone wields his famous knife or picks up his bow and arrow that you realize whom he is portraying. Perhaps the moment which will make you see Stallone is playing Rambo once again is the last image of him with a bloodied face as he prepares to jam his knife down into some place where the sun don’t shine.

Stallone has said he intends for this “Rambo” chapter to be a “soulful journey” and his version of “No Country for Old Men.” Truth be told, it does have a very similar look to the Coen brothers’ Best Picture winner. Or perhaps it will be something along the lines of “Logan” which allowed Hugh Jackman and James Mangold to bring permanent closure to the story of Wolverine. Still, this trailer makes this sequel look like any other action flick, and my hope is the next trailer we get will make it look a bit more unique.

Directing “Rambo: Last Blood” is Adrian Grunberg who previously directed Mel Gibson in “Get the Gringo” and also worked with Gibson as a first assistant director on “Edge of Darkness” and “Apocalypto.” Whatever you may think of Gibson as a person these days, he has proven to be one hell of a filmmaker, and I hope Grunberg has learned a lot from his style to make this “Rambo” sequel more thrilling and bloodier than this trailer suggests.

And yes, this is said to be the last “Rambo” movie ever, but while at the Cannes Film Festival recently, Stallone did say he would continue playing John Rambo if this fifth film does well. In the end, the box office will have the final say on this.

Check out the trailer for “Rambo: Last Blood” above.

Rambo Last Blood Teaser Poster

‘John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum’ is an Action Movie Buff’s Wet Dream

John Wick Chapter 3 movie poster

The “John Wick” movies have been an action movie buff’s wet dream, and “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. It is an exhilarating ride featuring a vast assortment of brutal fight sequences with all kinds of weapons being utilized, and even horses are around to provide painful injuries to assassins eager to terminate the ex-hitman who hasn’t lost a beat since his retirement. Yes, the body count is high, and taking this into account reminded me of what Col. Trautman told Sheriff Will Teasle will need to have handy while trying to capture John Rambo in “First Blood:”

“A good supply of body bags.”

Yes, and you need a really good supply of body bags when it comes to taking down John Wick. This ex-hitman has been legendary from the get-go to where crime lords, once they realize who they are up against, can only say “oh shit” when his name is mentioned. Going into “John Wick: Chapter 3,” I hoped those looking to take out Mr. Wick bought their body bags in bulk from Costco. Better yet, they still sell coffins, right?

“John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” begins shortly after Mr. Wick was declared excommunicado by his handlers at the High Table after killing a crime lord on the grounds of the New York City Continental. Winston (Ian McShane) has given John an hour head start, and this chapter starts off with only a half hour so remaining before the $14 million bounty is made public to all assassins. As John runs furiously through the streets of New York City, even a homeless bum is aware that the contract on his life is about to begin, so who can he possibly trust?

Even before his hour is up0, we find John fighting the first of many adversaries with only a book. It certainly worked for Matt Damon in the “Jason Bourne” movies, but Keanu Reeves takes things a step further by killing someone by breaking the guy’s neck with the book, and it is a brutal kill which had me saying “ouch” out loud in the theater. I love action movies which have me reacting viscerally to the violence on screen, and this is definitely one of them. Sitting back and passively observing routine action sequences is something I have long since grown weary of watching, so it’s always reassuring when something like “John Wick” comes along as the filmmakers make you feel all the punches, bullets, knives and horse kicks which come to be inflicted on dozens upon dozens of characters, most of whom have no idea who they are dealing with.

In “John Wick: Chapter 2,” it quickly became clear that it would take more than one bullet to take out an opponent. In this chapter, the same rule applies to when knives are used as it takes three or four to stop your assailant dead in their tracks. One of the first big action sequences involves characters hurling the sharpest of knives at one another, and I’m guessing it was adrenaline which kept some going even after the second knife inserted into their bodies failed to put them down. And just when you think a knife isn’t going to be shoved into a certain part of the body, it does. It’s nice to see an action movie which not only defies your expectations, but also refuses to set limits in terms of which body parts get damaged.

But in the midst of all the crazy action scenes, there is a story and characters worth following. With what seems like the whole world coming after John Wick, you have to wonder why he still wants to have a pulse after all he has been through. His answer is he wants to preserve the memory of his late wife, Helen, and to earn the right to do so. The question is, will he be willing to pay the price to make this happen?

Keanu Reeves is an actor most people are quick to ridicule as they don’t see him as having much range, and that’s putting it nicelt. We first got to know him as Ted Theodore Logan in the “Bill & Ted” movies, and since then many have been quite to call him a terrible actor as he appears to give only one-note performances. I myself am willing to defend Reeves more than my friends are willing to on a regular basis. He has given memorable performances in “Permanent Record,” “Speed,” “Point Break,” “My Own Private Idaho” and “The Matrix.” Still, there are those who are quick to remind us of the work he did in “The Whole Truth” and “Knock Knock,” and watching him in those movies proves to be as painful as the bruises he suffers throughout this sequel.

Reeves really hits it out of the park here, and he throws himself into this role in both a literal and figurative sense. I also have to say he handles guns with such ferocity and precision to where I cannot think of another actor who can accomplish the same feat so effectively. I had no problem accepting him as a hardened assassin who is lethal beyond repair, and he has long since turned this tragic figure into much, much more than the B-movie antihero he started out as. And considering how Reeves has suffered more tragedy in his personal life than any one person should ever have to endure, he has a full understanding of John’s loss and of the importance to stay alive to keep the memory of his late wife alive. Yes, it is hard to think of another actor who could inhabit this character as effectively as he does.

Oscar winner Halle Berry shows up as Sofia, a close friend of John’s and an assassin just like him, and she handles firearms every bit as well as Reeves does. Too bad she disappears from this sequel far too soon.

The great Anjelica Huston steals every scene she has as the Director, a strict dance instructor and member of the Ruska Roma who offers John safe passage. Even as Huston makes this character look cold as steel, she allows you to see the brief glimmers of humanity she is forced to show at her most painful moments.

And as always, it is great to see Ian McShane back as Winston, the owner and manager of the Continental Hotel in New York. Ever since I first saw him in the brilliant “Sexy Beast,” McShane has never failed to make the slimiest and nefarious of characters all the more intriguing to where you can’t take your eyes off of him for a second. The same goes here as he makes Winston an enigma as the character holds his cards close to his chest while manipulating those around him with a controlled glee.

I came out of “John Wick: Chapter 2” wondering if there was any way director Chad Stahelski could top the insane mayhem that sequel had to offer. While this third chapter has a slightly lower body count, I think he has succeeded in doing so as the ways Mr. Wick dispatches his enemies are infinite to where no one can or even should feel safe around him. The only thing more insane is how it sets the ground work for a fourth chapter which is now set to be released in 2021. Personally, I cannot wait for the next chapter as this third one proves to be the kind of exhilarating and exhausting action movie I am always hoping to see at the local multiplex.

It’s almost a shame “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” is coming out now as we can only pray the other movies of the 2019 movie season can measure up to this one in terms of endless excitement and the adrenaline rush. This one was well worth the wait, and it continues to provide Keanu Reeves with some of the best work in his long career.

I also have to say this sequel may very well have more scenes of exploding glass or characters being thrown into glass with epic shattering effect since “Another 48 Hours,” and that sequel came out in 1990. If there has been another movie since then which topped it before this “John Wick” chapter did, please let me know.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Religulous’ Shows No Shame in Questioning Religion and Blind Faith

Religulous movie poster

I came into this documentary with much excitement as religion is such a fun and easy target to lampoon regardless of what your thoughts are on it. “Religulous” was directed by Larry Charles who directed one of the funniest mockumentaries ever with “Borat,” and it has Bill Maher interviewing people of different faiths. Apparently, the people interviewed were not aware Maher was going to be interviewing them until Maher showed up. This is made clear by certain moments where publicists come up to the film crew saying rather tensely that they do not want Maher talking to their clients because of what they believe he represents. Would that be logic and reason? The fact these same people still chose to be interviewed by Maher does show a lot of guts on their part as he lets them have their say even as he interrupts them when things don’t make sense to him (and this happens more than you might think).

“Religulous” starts with Maher talking with his sister and mother about why they all stopped going to church. He explains how he was brought up by a mother who was Jewish and a father who was Catholic, and of how he loved playing with his toy gun and holster which he refused to take off even when he went to church. We also get to see clips from when he was starting as a standup comic and talked about what the first circumcision must have looked like to the one it was being suggested to. Maher’s distrust and comments on religion still go on to this very day, and they are not just meant to be funny, but also to make you think about why people allow themselves to believe certain things which defy easy logic.

One thing which kept coming up is how many preachers go out of their way to purchase expensive clothes and live more luxuriously than Jesus ever did. Jesus wore robes and lived in a hut or some other dwelling, and we can all agree he did not care for making money in his father’s temple. Here, Maher interviews them while they are showing off their tailor-made suits, the kind you would never find at your average discount store, and they also wear gold rings because they feel God would want them to dress extravagantly. Maher intersperses these interviews with these same preachers hawking their own DVD’s among other items they have to offer, and it immediately reminded of L. Ron Hubbard’s response to someone who asked him why he was so keen to create his own religion:

“That’s where the money is.”

“Religulous” also opened me up to what Mormons really believe. I always thought they were the nicest people, and I did have a huge crush on one while I was in school, but I never had the slightest idea they held the belief that God is actually from another planet (I can’t remember the name of it). We watch as Maher gets kicked off of the lawn outside the Mormon Tabernacle Church, but he does get to speak with two men who have since left the church and dispute what the Mormons are taught to believe in. Every religion seems to have its own interpretation of God, and I can’t help but wonder if a consensus can ever be reached on this subject.

One of the real pivotal moments comes when Maher interviews a “reformed” homosexual (talk about a contradiction). The fact that pseudoscience facilities which practice conversion therapy exist where people are send to be “cured” of their homosexuality, will always baffle me. Furthermore, this man Maher interviews is married to a woman who claims she was “cured” of being a lesbian. This all struck me as being completely odd and inappropriate as I was always under the belief God loves us all no matter who we are. That people allow themselves to be brainwashed into what others want them to be is frightening, and practices still continue even when people should know better. Seeing Maher hug the “reformed homosexual,” I kept waiting for the “Real Time” host to do something rather provocative, but even he has the good sense not to pinch the guy’s butt.

Clearly, “Religulous” is bound to upset many religious people as Maher shows no shame in picking apart faiths of any and every kind. I personally do not see, nor do I want to see, religion as being evil, but this will not step many from believing both Maher and Charles have made something both biased and hateful. Granted, there are many Bill talks to who will ever be quick to share his problems with religion, and we even see this here from one point to the next. But “Religulous” does indeed have a strong point of view as it never hesitates to call out those religious beliefs which prove to be both misleading and very dangerous. Maher also takes the time to find similarities between Muslims and Christians as each religion has their followers believing they are the chosen people and of how the world is coming to an end and that they will be the only ones left standing.

“Religulous” ends on an ominous note as Maher discusses how religions constantly talk about the end of the world and of how we should be wary of blind faith (amen to that). Religion is supposed to be about love, and yet there is a lot of hate and fear involved in many faiths. Hearing and seeing all of this takes me back to that scene in “A Bronx Tale” where the young kid asks a known gangster:

“Is it better to be loved or feared?”

His reply:

“I would rather be feared, because fear lasts longer than love.”

Maher remains one of the smartest, not to mention one of the most provocative, and “Religulous” is further proof of this as it shows he has balls of steel. He shows no fear as he questions the religion of those who may very well kill him for defying what they hold most holy. In the end, he makes a compelling argument of how religion can be dangerous and easily corrupted, and he also gets a lot of huge laughs out of the subject.

Like I said, there are moments where Charles puts in clips from religious shows, and there is one with a man talking in a language which makes him feel so good and yet has him sounding like a baby struggling to say their first words. It’s as gut busting hilarious as it is frightening. Whatever you may feel about religion, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion about it, “Religulous” will make you see the dangers of believing certain things and of the immense dangers of blind faith.

We all keep wondering when and if we will be saved from the horrors which keep engulfing this world we all live in. Maher meets a man who plays Jesus at a religious amusement park and asks him:

“Why doesn’t he (Jesus) obliterate the devil and therefore get rid of evil in the world?”

“He will.”

“He will?”

“That’s right.”

“What’s he waiting for?”

Yeah, what is he waiting for? And how do we know he is not actually a she?

Seriously, this documentary could make a great double feature with Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Cold Pursuit’ is Far More Devious Than the Average Liam Neeson Film

Cold Pursuit movie poster

I went into “Cold Pursuit” believing it would be a typical Liam Neeson action film and a cross between “Taken” and “Death Wish.” Heck, it feels like Neeson has been doing the same movie over and over in recent years as he keeps playing characters who are either out to rescue their children or avenge the loss of a loved one. As we watch Neeson operate heavy machinery in a place which looks infinitely colder than the one he traversed in “The Grey,” I kept waiting for him to say, “I have a particular set of snow plows I have acquired over a very long career…”

Indeed, “Cold Pursuit” has the attributes of the average Neeson action flick, but I was surprised to see it also has a wonderfully twisted sense of humor. Even as the violence gets increasingly brutal and the blood flows more frequently, I found myself laughing endlessly as Neeson’s quest for revenge inadvertently sets off a war between rival gangs intent on protecting their own self-interests. As a result, this film was and was not what I expected, and as it went on I had no idea of the twists and turns the story would end up taking.

Neeson plays Nels Coxman, an ordinary man who lives a quiet life with his wife Grace (Laura Dern) and son Kyle (Micheál Richardson) in the small Colorado town of Kehoe. As “Cold Pursuit” begins, Nels has been given Kehoe’s Citizen of the Year award, something he accepts quite humbly as he considers his job as a snowplow driver nothing particularly special. Nels is also revealed to be a quiet man as his wife encourages him to speak more regularly at the dinner table and use as many words as President Abraham Lincoln said during his address at Gettysburg.

It doesn’t take long for tragedy to strike when Kyle dies of a heroin overdose. Nels refuses to believe his son could ever be a drug addict even when the police, long since hardened by the morbid work they do, remark how parents always say that. From there, the movie does not slow down as Nels goes from being the town’s key citizen to a vigilante as cold as the frosty weather he works in on a daily basis. Seeing him do deadly deeds either with a snowplow or a sawed-off rifle made me think of a line between Chevy Chase and Tim Matheson from “Fletch:”

“You shoot me, you’re liable to lose a lot of these humanitarian awards.”

Neeson inhabits the role of Nels as effectively as any he has played in the past, and I could tell he was having a lot of fun with this particular character from start to finish. Unlike the government agents and trained snipers he has played previously, Nels is nothing like them as he truly is an ordinary guy caught up in a situation he has no control over. At one point he even tells his brother, Brock “Wingman” Coxman (William Forsythe), how he learned about disposing dead bodies from a crime novel he once read.

“Cold Pursuit” also introduces to one of the slimiest and most comical drug kingpins I have seen in some time, Trevor “Viking” Calcote. Trevor is played by Tom Bateman in an inspired performance as he makes this drug dealer as brutal as he is hilariously hypocritical. While he shows no remorse in offing another human being, he is equally intense when it comes to making sure his son learns all he can about life from William Golding’s classic novel “The Lord of the Flies” while eating foods which do not contain the slightest ounce of high fructose corn syrup.

What intrigued me most about “Cold Pursuit” was how Nels’ quest for vengeance ends up triggering a turf war between drug dealers and American Indian gang members. In the process, we are subtly reminded of how America was stolen from the Indians (they are called Native Americans for a reason folks) and that the word “reservation” has more than one meaning. In this small Colorado town, a bad review on Yelp or Trip Advisor can be every bit as damaging as a bullet. This all results in a motion picture with a body count somewhere in between Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” and John Woo’s “Hard Boiled.”

“Cold Pursuit” is a remake of the 2014 Norwegian thriller “In Order of Disappearance” which starred Stellan Skarsgard, and both films were directed by the same man, Hans Petter Moland. Learning of this made me wonder if Moland would fall intro the same trap George Sluizer did when he remade “The Vanishing” in America and changed the ending to disastrous effect. However, it looks like little was loss in the translation as this remake retains much of the brutality and black humor of the original. This was a giant relief to me after witnessing the misbegotten remake of “Miss Bala” which all but neutered the original for the sake of a PG-13 rating. Unlike “Miss Bala,” this film is anything but generic.

If there is any issue I have with this film, it is the inescapable fact that Laura Dern is completely wasted here. She is always a welcome appearance in anything she appears in, but she disappears from “Cold Pursuit” way too soon to where I wondered why they bothered casting her at all. Frankly, I am getting sick of seeing Dern reduced to playing the helpless housewife whose love is wasted on male characters who fail to return it in equal measure. She deserves much better.

Still, I was pleasantly surprised by “Cold Pursuit” as it proves to be an effective thriller and a twisted delight. For those who like their humor especially black, this is a film worth checking out as it features everything including a child who knows all there is to know about the Stockholm Syndrome. More importantly, it features female characters played by Emmy Rossum and Julia Jones who are far stronger than their male counterparts who are too caught up in their own jealousy and self-interest. The scene where Jones shows how she has her ex-husband by the balls, literally and figuratively speaking, is one which will never be quickly forgotten.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

 

Oliver Stone’s ‘W.’ Gives Empathy to an Unfortunate President of the United States

W movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008.

You really have to admire what Oliver Stone pulled off here as he himself has been a big critic of the Bush Administration (and who isn’t these days?). Like “Nixon,” Stone has given us an empathetic portrait of an infamous President and tears down the stereotypes we have about this particular person so we can see him up close for who he really is. It is not a Bush bashing piece, but that would have been pointless anyway because we bash George W. Bush on a regular basis. With “W.,” Stone has given us what is essentially a father-son story as George W. is a man who spent the majority of his life trying to get his father’s, President George H.W. Bush, respect. It is clear from the start Bush Sr. respects Jeb more than he who bears his first and last name, and this leads George W. to do things he would never have done otherwise, such as run for political office.

“W.” covers George W. Bush from his days at a Yale fraternity hazing to the end of his first term as President. His second term is not covered here which is just as well as we are deep in the muck when it comes to political and financial affairs. It flashes back and forth in time from when he is President to his days as a rootless young man who is unsure of what he wants to do with his life other than party and get drunk. The movie does have the feel of a comedy, but it gets more serious in other moments. The tone Stone sets here is not always clear, and it does take away from the movie a bit. Still. it kept me engrossed as it covered the life of a man I can’t wait to see leave the White House.

George W. Bush is played here by Josh Brolin, and he had a great streak last year with “Grindhouse,” “American Gangster” and of course “No Country for Old Men.” Christian Bale was originally cast in this role, but he dropped out at the last minute due to the makeup effects not working to his liking. It’s just as well because Brolin looks like a much better fit being from Texas and all. Playing Bush to a serious degree is a difficult challenge to say the least because we have long since gotten used to seeing him being lampooned on “Saturday Night Live,” and as a result, we cannot help but look at Brolin’s performance as a caricature of George W. But in the large scheme of things, Brolin manages to make the role his own, and it becomes more than a simple impersonation which was obviously not what he was going for in the first place.

In fact, Stone did a great job of casting as he got actors who don’t simply impersonate the people we know so well, but who instead embody and inhabit them. In the process, the actors force you to look at some of these personalities a bit differently than we have in the past. Getting past the preconceptions we have of people is always tough, but it is at times necessary in order for us to better understand how certain individuals, particularly those with the most power, tick.

One actor I was most impressed with here was Richard Dreyfuss who plays Vice President Dick Cheney. Dreyfuss has a great and frightening scene where, in a private conference with all the heads of state, he makes a case for attacking Iraq and Iran in order to get control over their vast oil supplies and keep dictators like Saddam Hussein from coming down on us ever again. The one moment which sent a chill down everyone’s spine is when someone asks Cheney what the exit strategy out of Iraq is, and he replies, “There is no exit strategy. We stay there forever.”

Everyone in the theater was frozen in silence as this is the one thing we keep begging future politicians to do, provide an exit strategy. Dreyfuss plays the scene not at all as a villain, but as a man who convinces the Commander in Chief of why he sees this path of action is the right one for the administration to take.

Another really good performance comes from Toby Jones (“The Mist”) who plays the master of smear campaigns, Karl Rove. Jones ends up making Rove seem both charismatic and likable, and he also subtly brings out the emotional manipulator in the man who succeeds in getting under George W.’s skin to make him the puppet he is today. I hate Rove for everything he has done, but Jones succeeds in making us admire him, begrudgingly so, for being so fiendishly clever. Rove’s powers of manipulation are ever so subtle to the point where we barely notice them, and Jones gets this across perfectly and with amazing subtlety.

As Bush Sr., James Cromwell makes us see that this particular U.S. President is fully aware of how his children are at a huge disadvantage. While he had to work hard to get to where he ended up at, his offspring had everything handed to them on a silver platter. Bush Sr. obviously wants the best for his children, but in seeing to his black sheep of a son’s needs and troubles, he comes to see he has done more harm than good.

As the movie goes on, Cromwell goes from presenting the elder Bush as being terribly disappointed in George W. to being deeply concerned over his son’s decisions about Iraq. We see Bush Sr. the end of the first Gulf War discussing his reasoning as to why they shouldn’t go after Saddam as it might make the dictator a hero in the eyes of many. Indeed, Stone makes us sympathize with the senior Bush in ways I never expected to. The moment where we see Bush lose the Presidential election to Bill Clinton, I actually found myself saddened as it comes across how there were many opportunities which would never be realized. This was shocking to me because I really wanted to see Clinton beat Bush, and I was thrilled he did.

In the end, however, the movie really belongs to Brolin who gives us a George W. Bush that is seemingly well intentioned and yet hopelessly naïve. You may not completely blame him for all the troubles going on in the world right now, but you can never excuse him for not taking more responsibility for his actions. We see Bush embrace God and become a born-again Christian, and while this helps him with his drinking problem, it also gives him blind faith which will prove to be his flaw as a person which will eventually undo him. Brolin makes Bush goofy yet well intentioned, and he makes clear the heartache he feels as he cannot escape the shadow of his famous father.

Stone’s “W.” is not the classic political movie “JFK” was, but it is effectively made and shows how we need to understand the human side of those we brand as criminals in order to get at what makes them act the way they do. This is an important lesson to remember as we go on in life.

* * * ½ out of * * * *