Hard Target (1993, John Woo), the unrated version

There’s nothing spectacularly wrong with Hard Target. It’s a competently executed early nineties action movie. There’s a lot of good stunt work and some amazing pyrotechnics. Lance Henriksen is great as the villain. Wilford Brimley is in it as a Cajun assault archer. Almost everything about it is absurd, but not really out of the ordinary for the genre. It even tries for serious with a little bit of social consciousness–Henriksen is playing the most dangerous game with homeless veterans.

Director Woo is fantastic at making the perfunctory plot points seem sincere. He’ll slow down the close-up, leaving the viewer to inspect the actor’s reaction to something. Usually it’s Butler seeing lead Jean-Claude Van Damme do some amazing feat. One time he’s just standing there and it’s Butler in awe of the standing Van Damme. That scene is an example of something else wrong–but not spectacularly so–with Hard Target. No one’s willing to have any fun. Not even Brimley, when he finally shows up.

There’s no humor in Chuck Pfarrer’s script–at least no successful humor–but Van Damme’s character is particularly thin. He’s a man of mystery. So Woo’s impulse is to go for charming man of mystery and Van Damme botches it. Van Damme can’t even wink. He’ll make these single rapid eye movements towards a character and everyone pretends it’s a wink. He’s without charm.

But Van Damme’s not unbearable. His pseudo-Cajun accent needs work and he looks like a romance cover hero, not a down-on-his-luck street fighting merchant seaman. His stringy mullet is funny, especially once all the stunts start up and you have to wonder if Van Damme had to have the mullet because his mullet-wearing stuntmen aren’t willing to cut theirs off. And Woo’s direction of a couple Van Damme fight scenes is excellent. The fist fight isn’t Woo’s interest though; even when there are fisticuffs in post-first act fight scenes, Woo rushes to get guns in those hands. Van Damme’s not great at the gunfights, but then he starts doing somersaults through the air and seems happy again. Lots of flips in Hard Target. None of them convincing and they get old fast.

Luckily, they’re in the finale so it doesn’t matter. It’s all almost over.

There are some good performances. Henriksen, most of Arnold Vosloo (as Henriksen’s sidekick), Willie C. Carpenter; Kasi Lemmons is okay as the one cop. There’s a strike going on, which seems like it might be a subplot but isn’t. Hard Target doesn’t do subplots.

Leading lady Yancy Butler is pretty slight. Woo wants a lot of emoting. Butler emotes a little less than Van Damme, who’s got the emotional range of a rock pile. Thanks to Bob Murawski’s editing, occasionally Woo can imply something from Butler for a moment or two. It’s not like Chuck Pfarrer’s script gives her any depth either. Thank goodness for Woo.

Nice photography from Russell Carpenter. Nice editing from Murawski. Awful music from Graeme Revell.

Despite Woo’s direction, Henriksen’s villainy, the New Orleans locations, and the strong technical competence, Hard Target doesn’t click. The major action set pieces of the second half disappoint. Because the movie needs a sense of humor. Not Brimley drying gnawing at the scenery.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Woo; written by Chuck Pfarrer; director of photography, Russell Carpenter; edited by Bob Murawski; music by Graeme Revell; production designer, Phil Dagort; produced by Sean Daniel and James Jacks; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme (Chance Boudreaux), Lance Henriksen (Fouchon), Yancy Butler (Nat), Arnold Vosloo (Van Cleef), Kasi Lemmons (Mitchell), Willie C. Carpenter (Elijah), and Wilford Brimley (Uncle Douvee).


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Love with the Proper Stranger (1963, Robert Mulligan)

Love with the Proper Stranger has a lot to resolve in its third act. There’s a somewhat sizable supporting cast, the act two cliffhanger for leads Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen’s romance is precarious–there’s a lot. So it’s striking when Proper Stranger just doesn’t do a third act. Director Mulligan loves the New York location shooting and he just embraces it for the ending, doing a big crane shot but otherwise being very vérité.

Proper Stranger is a melodrama about Wood getting pregnant, McQueen being the daddy, them not being married, and McQueen not really remembering Wood anyway. It doesn’t want to be a melodrama. Mulligan and writer Arnold Schulman do everything they can to avoid traditional melodrama; long, fantastic portions of the film are just McQueen and Wood looking at each other, trying to figure out what to say. Milton R. Krasner’s photography holds the actors’ faces, Mulligan giving them time to deliberate on how to approach the other. It’s a shame this method is entirely gone by the lead-up to the end. McQueen will be furtive, then not, with Wood’s reaction expresses slow to catch up. They’re wonderful to watch together.

Shame the script doesn’t keep up with them.

Schulman gets easily distracted. He’s got a lot of depth in his scenes, which focus on Wood and McQueen, but make sure to provide a lot of activity around them. So when the film quiets that activity to spotlight Wood and McQueen, it’s affecting. Mulligan trains the viewer how to watch the stars, how to wait for them to act out.

Oops, I got distracted by something wonderful in Proper Stranger, which writer Schulman never does. Instead, he gets distracted by the Italian ethnic comedy subplot he’s got going with Wood’s family. When Wood moves out, mother Penny Santon goes into bedridden conniptions. It seems like a significant subplot, given how much time is spent with Wood’s family during the film, but maybe not. Because resolving it would be difficult and Proper Stranger eventually just wants to ride it out on Wood and McQueen’s charm and the lovely, rending Elmer Bernstein score.

Schulman and Mulligan try very hard to give Wood her agency and McQueen some unpredictability, but they don’t know after the character and actor have had that moment. Both actors have big character arcs, which the film first embraces, then ignores. Once Wood moves out, she’s no longer a protagonist, she becomes subject. Her embrace of agency reduces her part. It’s real unfortunate. Especially since it’s not like McQueen gets the extra space. It’s just wasted. Schulman and Mulligan bungle the finish without any clear motive, except it’s time for the movie to stop.

Nice support from Edie Adams, Tom Bosley (in a way too thin part in Schulman’s ethnic comedy plot line), and especially Herschel Bernardi as Wood’s most protective older brother. It’s not a great part, but Bernardi does a lot with it. Because Mulligan gives him time to react and process the plot as it unfolds. Love with the Proper Stranger goes from being patient and deliberate to dispassionately rushed.

McQueen’s good, Wood’s good. Both have some great moments, both have some not great ones. Wood’s are usually because of the script, while McQueen’s are his ambitions for the performance just not clearing. There’s a very occasional Italian accent thing he does and it never works. But their great moments more than make up for the rest.

Krasner’s photography, Bernstein’s score. Excellent. Aaron Stell’s editing, not excellent. Some bad cuts, but it might be because Mulligan’s trying different things in scenes. He’s trying to avoid the melodrama, like one more New York location shot will elevate the film. Except he just goes with Schulman’s depressing comic sequences for Wood’s family. It doesn’t make any sense.

Kind of like how it doesn’t make sense the movie doesn’t have a third act. What Proper Stranger does get done is good, but should be better. Wood and McQueen deserve better. Their performances deserve a film wholly worthy of them.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Mulligan; written by Arnold Schulman; director of photography, Milton R. Krasner; edited by Aaron Stell; music by Elmer Bernstein; produced by Alan J. Pakula; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Natalie Wood (Angie Rossini), Steve McQueen (Rocky Papasano), Herschel Bernardi (Dominick Rossini), Tom Bosley (Anthony Columbo), Edie Adams (Barbie), and Penny Santon (Mama Rossini).


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Saw (2004, James Wan)

I’m disappointed in Saw; I didn’t think I could possibly have any expectations for the movie where Farm Boy has to cut off his foot. I also didn’t know it wasn’t Danny Glover locked in the room with Cary Elwes. I wish Danny Glover had been locked in the room. He’s not. He’s a cop. And he’s terrible.

Danny Glover gives a terrible performance as a cop. Embarrassingly bad. It’s uncomfortable watching him a lot of the time, because it just feels wrong. Writer and leading man Leigh Whannell writes in movie trailer speak. Everything’s a soundbite. Not even caricatures, much less characterization. Saw’s just a bunch of actors reciting terrible dialogue without any direction from Wan. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s sad. It’s sad with Glover.

Elwes is just funny. For the first half of the movie, he’s got a husky low voice to hide his accent. Farm Boy has been acting since he was seventeen years old, but apparently on Saw, he forgot how to believably get rid of his English accent. Then the English accent comes through, then Elwes adds husky to the English accent. The third act is Elwes wailing a lot, usually without any continuity between his wailing accents.

Whannell, as a writer and an actor, is terrible. Still, he’s not unlikable. He’s not sympathetic, which is a problem because he’s being held captive in a terrible, poop-filled bathroom with a dead body and the Dread Pirate Roberts trying really hard to be so serious he might be a surgeon. But he’s also not unlikable. He’s just giving a bad performance in a terribly written part.

Ken Leung’s bad as Glover’s partner, but the writing is worse. Michael Emerson weathers his involvement a little better than his costars. Monica Potter’s fine in her scenes, which usually involve Saw threatening ten year-old Makenzie Vega with horrific death. Saw’s comfortable being craven.

If director Wan had any personality, and Armstrong’s photography weren’t so flat and Kevin Greutert’s editing weren’t so imprecise, Saw might be some kind of horror exploitation camp. But it’s not camp. It’s got all the set pieces for exploitation, but Whannell’s ponderous script and Wan’s bland visualizing shove the film into the serial killer sub-genre. Except there’s not really anything about the serial killer’s method, so it’s not an easy fit. It ought to be a psychological thriller–real time, Elwes and Whannel deciding their fates. Instead, there are a bunch of pointless flashbacks.

Because Saw can’t slow down. The one thing Wan and Whannell seem to get is the need for momentum. The film drops the audience in without any setup, so Wan’s got to make every jump scare prove the pitch’s worth. And he’s got a couple good jump scares. They’re like the only good things in the film, but it’s not nothing.

Saw sputters out in the third act. The tension is gone as the film just becomes a string of plot revelations. A lot of the film is Whannell’s fault as writer, but most of it’s on Wan. He doesn’t have any enthusiasm to his composition and he doesn’t have any interest in his actors. One or the other might’ve helped Saw.

Within reason, of course; it’s still got Cary Elwes’s risibly atrocious performance.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by James Wan; screenplay by Leigh Whannell, based on story by Wan and Whannell; director of photography, David A. Armstrong; edited by Kevin Greutert; music by Charlie Clouser; production designer, Julie Berghoff; produced by Mark Burg, Gregg Hoffman, and Oren Koules; released by Lions Gate Films.

Starring Cary Elwes (Dr. Lawrence Gordon), Leigh Whannell (Adam), Danny Glover (Detective David Tapp), Monica Potter (Alison Gordon), Ken Leung (Detective Steven Sing), Michael Emerson (Zep Hindle), Makenzie Vega (Diana Gordon), and Shawnee Smith (Amanda).


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The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle (2000, Des McAnuff)

As a musical, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle might have worked. When there’s the big Pottsylvanian national anthem scene, director McAnuff finally seems comfortable. He needs a stage; Rocky and Bullwinkle is a road movie. There aren’t any stages. The occasional set piece hints at potential for the format–CGI animated moose and squirrel opposite life action–but McAnuff never knows how to direct them. And there’s something off about the CGI.

Rocky and Bullwinkle’s “real world” is drab and generic. But not drab and generic in the right way to match the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” animation style, which the film opens with. The story has “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” forgotten in reruns, but then have to be brought over to the real world to help the FBI. Specifically, FBI agent Piper Perabo, who’s supposed to be the perky, adorable female lead.

She’s terrible. McAnuff doesn’t direct his actors at all, so it’s not like she got any help, but she’s all wrong. Her performance, whatever direction McAnuff gives, all of it; she can’t act well off the CGI moose and squirrel. Sometimes they get close, like Rocky’s flying sequence, but it’s never for long.

And since she’s the one with Rocky and Bullwinkle most of the time, it gets to be a problem. At least she’s better than cameoing Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell. They manage to be the worst of the cameos, save John Goodman. Goodman can’t even pretend in his bit.

If any part of Rocky and Bullwinkle worked–be it Perabo, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Robert De Niro, Rene Russo, and Jason Alexander as the live action idiot spies, the endless cameos–the film would be immensely better. It would be a failed ambition. But it’s not ambitious in any way. McAnuff’s direction is catatonic, Kenneth Lonergan’s script isn’t any better–the occasional laughs are all thanks to Rocky and Bullwinkle voice performers June Forey and Keith Scott. The actors look deranged or miserable. The film sets itself up to fail, betting a lot on the successful introduction of the cartoon characters into reality. When it doesn’t come off, the film stalls.

So it’s stalled for acts two and three. It stalls real early.

Thomas E. Ackerman’s photography is flat and muted. While reality is supposed to be, visually, reality, Lonergan’s script is frequently absurdist. He tries for “Rocky and Bullwinkle” type sight gags and puns for the regular residents of reality. It’d work as a musical.

Everything would work if it were a musical. Maybe even Jason Alexander, who’s lifeless and miserable. Rene Russo tries. She almost has a good scene. But there are no hidden gems in Rocky and Bullwinkle. It’s bad.

Moose and squirrel deserve better.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Des McAnuff; screenplay by Kenneth Lonergan, based on characters created by Jay Ward; director of photography, Thomas E. Ackerman; edited by Dennis Virkler; music by Mark Mothersbaugh; production designer, Gavin Bocquet; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring June Foray (Rocky), Keith Scott (Bullwinkle), Piper Perabo (Karen Sympathy), Robert De Niro (Fearless Leader), Jason Alexander (Boris), Rene Russo (Natasha), Randy Quaid (Cappy von Trapment), and Janeane Garofalo (Minnie Mogul).


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