Wild Card (2015): Jason Statham Vs Milo Ventimiglia (Review)

Jason Statham in Wild Card Poster

“Wild Card” is a remake of the 1986 Burt Reynolds film “Heat”. Scribed by one of the most prolific and award winning screenwriters in Hollywood, William Goldman, the first film suffered from a fractious atmosphere on set and a so-so reception from the public and critics alike.  Director Dick Richards and Reynolds had a falling out on the movie and Burt broke Dick’s jaw before firing the director.

Jason Statham worked on adapting the film into “Wild Card” over a long period and drafted Brit director Simon West into helming the project. The collaborative effort paid off with an entertaining re-imaging of  Burt’s original film.

There are a number of familiar faces in the movie – Anne Heche, Hope Davis, Stanley Tucci, Sofia Vergara and Michael Angarano to name a few. But it is Milo Ventimiglia who Statham’s  character goes up against who almost steals the show. While the actor from Derbyshire, England may be the star, there is no denying that Ventimiglia “gives good bad guy.”

On the small screen Milo is cast, more often than not, as the hero. In “The Whispers” he was the pilot who shrugged off the alien influence to help save his son and in “Heroes” he was the guy who wanted to save mankind.

Big screen Ventimiglia makes great villains. In the 2008 film “Pathology” Milo was not the nicest chap in the world and he is a real piece of work in “Wild Card.”

Statham is Nick Wild, living in Las Vegas and hiring out as a bodyguard, shill and good all rounder, the jack of all trades and soldier of fortune is a tough nut who will take a fall for the right sort of money.  A friend; Holly (Dominik García-Lorido) is picked up by Danny DeMarco (Ventimiglia) and his two bodyguards. She is sexually abused and beaten severely. She wants Nick to help her get some payback. 

Meanwhile Cyrus Kinnick (Michael Angarano) breezes into town and wants Nick to show him around the casinos and keep a protective eye on him.  Nick does some sniffing around and learns who Danny is and agrees to help Holly. He also starts to do the Cyrus job but then backs out. 

As per usual with any Statham film, the movie tough guy has some great choreographed fight scenes and easily lives up to the audiences expectations in terms of stunt fights and action.  But despite the crowd pleasing athletics, there really is nothing new here.

A performance that, apart from the stunts, could have been phoned in detracts from the overall entertainment value of the film . Most of the action takes place around Fremont Street (the old strip) and focusses on The Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino. A number of second unit shots establish that Statham is driving around Vegas, with other newer casino’s visible in the background, as well as the famous Caesar’s Palace.

It is Ventimiglia’s mafia sleaze that makes the film. He is slimy, despicable and not above lying to save himself, but not his bodyguards.  All smarmy overconfidence and snotty attitude the actor makes a brilliant villain that the audience feels free to dislike from scene one.

Stanley Tucci plays “Baby” a local “made man” who officiates over Vegas squabbles and makes the most out of a small cameo.  Angarano does well with his role of the rich guy looking for some intestinal fortitude and Davis; as the dealer Cassandra,  does more with her eyes than most actors can with their entire bodies.

While nothing to write home about, it after all just another remake, “Wild Card,” aka “Joker,” is a firm 3.5 out of 5 stars in the entertainment department.  With just enough of Las Vegas to make it sell but perhaps too little of Statham doing his action man routine, the film fails to pull in a higher entertainment factor.  Available on Amazon at the moment it will satisfy Statham fans and is well worth the time spent watching it.

Redemption aka Hummingbird (2013): A Crazy Patch Times Two

Film poster for Hummingbird, aka Redemption
Jason Statham may be trapped in “Expendables Hell,” but the man is more than “action hero” fodder for Sylvester Stallone to use as a magnet for younger female viewers, the English star can act, anyone who doubts it should see him in the 2013 film Redemption. Also known as Hummingbird, the movie’s tagline could have been “A Crazy Patch Times Two.” The 47 year-old former model and “street merchant” can act and he carries this film along with his Polish costar Agata Bazek who is a perfect fit for his character in the movie.

Written and directed by Stephen Knight (Locke, Peaky Blinders) Redemption tells the story of Joseph Smith, aka Joey Jones, a former special forces soldier on the run from a court martial for a revenge killing in Afghanistan. At the start of the film, Joey lives in a cardboard box with northern lass Isabel (Victoria Bewick) on the street. Two thugs come through their alley and when they get to Joey, he fights them.

He and Isabel get separated and he ends up in an expensive penthouse flat belonging to an actor named Damon. Making himself at home, along with taking a new bank card and some clean clothes, Joey goes on a spree, drinking nonstop. When the evening ends, he is at the Sister’s of Redemption soup kitchen where he gives Cristina (Bazek), a nun who has fed him many times, £500 that he took from Damon’s account.

Statham, as Joey, is brilliant as the man who drinks to “weaken the machine,” that he becomes when he is “sober and healthy.” The ex soldier hurts and kills people with skill and little effort. He finds out from Cristina that Isabel was found beaten and dead in the river and he tries to track down the killer.

Working for Mr Chow, he gets the name and goes after the murderer. Cristina helps him and the two go through “a crazy patch” together, which is how she explains her deviation from the church. The two damaged humans link up and later in the film consummate their temporary relationship. Before that, Joey saves all his money to give his former wife and their daughter and asks Cristina to take his picture because, “I won’t look like this much longer.”

The nun reveals that she has had a lifelong obsession with the ballet and wanted to be a dancer, but her father forced her into gymnastics. Her coach raped her repeatedly from the age of 10 and only stopped when she slit his throat. Rather than send her to prison, authorities sentenced the girl to join a convent.

With films like the three Expendables movies and the Transporter films along with Crank and so on, it is easy for many critics to overlook Statham’s talents and to underplay his acting capability. Redemption, or Hummingbird, rather unfairly, was pretty much panned by critics when it came out with little credit given to the actor for his work on the film.

When Joey gets upset in the movie it is only those with a heart of stone who do not empathize so much with the character that they get a lump in the throat and a sprinkling of tears and this is down to his performance. Statham’s doomed ex-special forces soldier on the run has got to be classed as one of his best performances.

Redemption, aka Hummingbird is on Netflix at the moment and well worth watching. Statham “action man” film fans may want to give it a miss as the violence is too sporadic and not “typical” of his usual output. 4.5 out of 5 stars, this is a cracking film that will prove that Jason can act.

RocknRolla (2008) Guy Ritchie’s Ode to New and Old London

Poster for RocknRolla
I will admit, I adore Guy Ritchie’s films, even the ones that have been bashed by the media (that’s spelt critics by the way) and have done ever since hearing a “behind the scenes” tale from my old agent. It goes something like this:

“One of my other clients got cast to be in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and we were both very pleased. Later, after he’d finished his bit he explained what was really shot versus what had been in the script.” Lennie paused and shaking his head continued.

“The pages he had originally had a bit in the pub which was around three pages long, about three minutes on screen roughly, and it was all quite convoluted, a lot like rest of the film. Clever interaction between my client and the chaps in the pub. It was to end with him getting a facefull of brandy and being set on fire. According to him, the budget was so tight that the scene kept getting smaller and smaller until it was just him being set on fire and running out of the pub!”

All this long apocryphal anecdote says is that Guy did not let the lack of money stop his using an actor he’d hired for the scene. His vision, and the implied loyalty to his cast dictated that he keep at least part of the brandy scene in and he did. You have to admire that, just as one has to admire his lifelong love affair with London.

Anyone who has been in London over the last 30 or so years can see just how much it has changed. Canary Wharf, the docklands, and South London to name a few locations which stand out the most as being very different from what they were in the early 80s. The fact that the film is, according to Ritchie, partly about the property prices skyrocketing out of control, (To the point where honest Brits have found themselves forced out of the market.) again, rings true to those who lived in Britain over the last 30 years.

Maggie Thatcher’s “right to own” opened the floodgates in the housing market and her selling off of council houses left the door wide open for big money to own property and for the little folks to slowly get pushed out of the equation. Ritchie’s film is not about Britain, however, it is about London.

Relying upon the same formula used in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels as well as Snatch, RocknRolla has that same feel minus Jason Statham and Vinnie Jones. Although the film is enjoyable, I admit that I loved it despite his use of Tom Wilkinson as Lennie who should clearly have been played by Mike Reid (Snatch, Eastenders).

Having said that, the cast, including Wilkinson, were superb. Tom Hardy, Gerard Butler, Mark Strong, Idris Elba, Thandie Newton all delivered. I was surprised to find that the comedic points in the film made me laugh as much as those in ‘Two Barrels’ did. The bit with Hardy, Butler, and later, Elba and the whole “he was going inside for 5 years” schtick had me in hysterics.

The one actor who really went above and beyond was, of course, the brilliant Toby Kebbell. Only he could have pulled off the role of Johnny Quid with his various ups and downs. The actor had me in stitches in the lift scene with Archie (Strong) and his, “Don’t hurt me Archie! I’m only little!”

Kebbell is a dynamo and his timing and delivery in all his films is beyond impeccable. I would say that my only complaint, apart from the lack of Mike Reid, is that there should have been a lot more of Toby. While this should have been a #tbt review, I could not wait to write my thoughts down after watching the bargain basement blu-ray copy last night.

A 5 out of 5 stars and a good reminder that Guy Ritchie still has the chops despite a few misfires.

11 May 2015

Michael Knox-Smith

Throw Back Thursday Review: Death Race (2008)

Poster for Death RaceIt has taken a bit of time for the concept of Throw Back Thursdays to sink in, aka #tbt but now that it has, thanks to Rich Paschall who gave us another way of looking at this sometimes annoying new trend, the beginning of The Throw Back Thursday Review has started with Death Race (2008).

This lovingly made reimagining of Roger Corman’s classic, and cult favorite, Death Race 2000 (1975), keeps up with the entertainment factor of the original. David Carradine, who starred as Frankenstein in the first film (along with a heavy-set Sylvester Stallone who played Machine Gun Joe as the winning driver’s main adversary) provides the voice of the first “Frank” in this remake as a huge nod and wink to Corman’s camp classic. Roger adores Paul W.S. Anderson (known for Event Horizon and all but one of the Resident Evil films) whom he discovered when the director made his first film Shopping in 1994 with Jude Law, Sadie Frost, Sean Pertwee, Sean Bean, Marianne Faithful and Jason Isaacs.

While Corman’s film dealt with a race taking place out on the road, where members of the public were considered targets by the drivers, the remake (which Anderson says is a prequel to the 1975 film) is a reality TV show brought to the public from inside a high security prison. Overall, the mythos is the same. Frankenstein is the “long-term” winner and crowd pleaser that dies at the beginning of the film. In the original, “Frank” was continually resurrected by faceless drivers as the real one and the subsequent replacements kept getting killed.

In the 2008 version, only one previous Frankenstein exists before Statham’s Jensen Ames puts on the mask. Machine Gun Joe, Statham’s biggest adversary is played by Tyrese Gibson and Ian McShane (Deadwood, Lovejoy) plays Coach; the man in charge of Frank’s pit crew. Joan Hall, the three time Oscar nominated actress from TV’s The Killing, plays Hennessey, the prison governor and the romantic interest in the film is filled by Natalie Martinez (Under the Dome, Secrets and Lies).

Poster for Death Race 2000
Roger Corman’s camp classic…

In this world, Frank must win one more race in order to be given his freedom. In reality the driver would not have gotten pardoned even if he had survived and won his final race. Statham steps in and faces the same opposition from Governor Hennessey who wants high ratings and big payouts for the televised race. Anderson provides action at a good pace and sets up the story well. Statham is brilliant as Jensen Ames/Frankenstein and his supporting cast are all top notch performers who deliver.

The director has admittedly based his “dreadnaught” on the 1981 film Mad Max: The Road Warrior and its petrol truck. Paul is obviously a fan, he even says so in the DVD’s special features, and he also has real respect for Ridley Scott and James Cameron. So much so the cafeteria scene in Death Race borrows a bit from Cameron’s 1986 filmAliens.

In the Cameron film, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) slaps a tray of cornbread out of the synthetic human’s (Bishop, played by Lance Henriksen) hand. Pvt. Frost glances up and says, “I guess she don’t like the cornbread either.” In Anderson’s feature, Ian McShane (Coach) and his pit crew watch Statham’s character get into a fight with Pachenko and members of his gang. As the fight concludes, Coach says, “I guess he didn’t like the oatmeal either.” In both films scenes immediately preceding the acts of violence have another character complaining about the food; Aliens – cornbread, Death Race – oatmeal.

Aliens scene from film
Frost: “I guess she don’t like the cornbread either.”

A very cleverly set up homage to another director and his film. Anderson consistently provides entertaining and action packed films, he can also terrify his audience, Event Horizon for example will give the viewer nightmares. In this 2008 film, he pays respect to Roger Corman’s original dystopian vision and brings his own mark to the world of violence presented in the “future.” I adore the film and its perfect mix of stars.

Speaking of which, Death Race earns a full 5 stars for a number of reasons, but mainly, because I am huge fan of Anderson, Statham, Gibson and McShane. The latter I actually met while working as an extra on Lovejoy in England, what a class act and real star only just surpassed by the chap who played Tinker on the series, Mr. Dudley Sutton, who treated everyone like an old mate.

7 May 2015

Michael Knox-Smith

The Expendables 2 (2012): Twice the Fun

For pure escapism and a plot that has more holes in it than a hunk of Swiss cheese, you cannot beat The Expendables 2. But damn it, it’s  entertaining and fun and who can complain about that?

Is it realistic? Hell no, no more than The Guns of Navarone or The Wild Geese was.

Are they similar? You bet.

All three films feature heroes past their prime facing outlandish, impossible odds…and winning. Sure the big bad has changed. In Navarone it was the Nazi’s and in Geese it was an African government; in each case though the bad guys were bad.

To the bone.

So are the bad guys in both The Expendables and The Expendables 2. The first film featured a villainous Eric Roberts and the second one featured Jean-Claude Van Damme as an egotistical greedy and downright nasty villain. Both men had an equally nasty cohort and a plethora of arms toting men.

Van Damme as the Vilain…

But despite the similarity in plot and the difference in directors – Sly directed the first one and Simon West directed # 2 – the film covers familiar territory and features almost all of the guys from the first film.

Conspicuous in his absence is Mickey Rourke (who says he only did the first film as a favour to Stallone anyway) and Jet Li is missing for 99% of the film – a massive disappointment as I adore Li – and Charisma Carpenter has an even smaller cameo than in the first film, but none of these things take away from the enjoyment of the actual film.

Instead we have both Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger in bigger cameo roles and they both get to shoot copious amounts of ammunition and kill absolute legions of baddies. Chuck Norris shows up for the party and it just doesn’t get any better than that.

I could almost forgive Chuck for endorsing Mitt Romney (almost but not quite) and it would have been nice to see more Jet Li, but hey; we got Nan Yu to represent the Asian member of the team and a “new” member in Liam Hemsworth as the ultimate eagle-eyed sniper “Billy the kid.”

Now for the plot, did I say, plot? Do you really care? Of course you do, no matter how ropey and loose it is, plot is important. But before we go there let’s talk about the opening of the movie.

New temporary Expendable member Maggie.

Expendables 2 opens just like Expendables did, with a hostage being rescued by the guys. Everyone infiltrates a terrorist hideout that is heavily armed and looks to be pretty impregnable. Except that these are the Expendables and they can go anywhere they like.

This time the hostage is a Chinese fellow who was supposed to be protected by Trench (Schwarzenegger) who is also a hostage. Just like the first film, our heroes kill all the bad guys and release Trench and they take the Chinese chap back home. Mid-air they put Yin Yang (Li) in charge of him; he attaches the man to himself and his parachute and they leap out of the plane. Li says that he may or may not return.

Once they get home and are celebrating in their old watering hole, Billy (Hemsworth) tells boss man Barney Ross (Stallone) that at the end of the month, he is quitting and going back to his French girlfriend. Barney leaves and heads back to his plane where he finds Church (Willis) who tells him that he has not forgiven him for stealing 5 million dollars from his organization and that Barney owes him one last mission.

Barney also finds out that he has to take a woman on board for this mission, Maggie (Yu) and over his objections that is just what he does. Their mission is to retrieve a valuable object from a plane that has been shot down in hostile territory. They accomplish this but get the object stolen by Vilain (Van Damme) – villain get it – but the bad obvious joke aside, Vilain is not a joke and he kills one of the Expendables to prove a point.

With the smell of revenge thick in their nostrils the guys and Maggie go to take down Vilain.

There are enough bullets shot and cartridges expended that the lead and brass companies could retire from the weapon’s business. There is enough blood spilt to sink the Titanic and while the violence is slightly over the top (a sniper bullet can take a man’s head right off) it is not in your face; hence the rating of 15.

With everyone making fun of their own acting careers (with the possible exception of Chuck Norris because really it is hard to tell with him) the chuckles keep coming. The cast do their usual good job in their interaction with one another and the “new girl” Maggie.

For the record the “guys” are: Dolph Lundgren, Jason Statham, Terry Crews and Randy Couture. I just thought I’d mention it, you know, in case you forgot.

Bruce and Arnie, car-pooling.

The film is a great big bundle of action-man (and action-woman) fun. The nods and the winks keep coming and the action is practically non-stop. Even though the aim of the film was to do a pastiche of the 80’s action films that made all the big names in the film famous, Sly and director Simon West have gone back even further.

Years ago, when silent films were all the newest rage, there was a cowboy star who would kiss his horse rather than kiss his leading lady (nothing strange, trust me) and Stallone does something similar at the end of The Expendable 2. Well in spirit at least.

It is not often these days that a sequel is just as good as, or better than, the original but that is this case here. Maybe the secret is in not having a too cohesive plot or not caring too much about plot; either way it works and it is pure entertainment.

Just don’t take the film seriously and you will love it.

The “Lone Wolf” aka Chuck Norris. Seriously though, how old is this guy?