THURSDAY (1998)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 27 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Sexuality, Language and Drug Use

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Directed by: Skip Woods

Written by: Skip Woods

Starring: Thomas Jane, Aaron Eckhart, Paulina Porizkova, James LeGros, Paula Marshall, Michael Jeter, Glenn Plummer, Mickey Rourke, Shawn Michael Howard & Gary Dourdan

THURSDAY is the first film from director/writer Skip Woods, a man who has become slightly notorious for writing a lot of bad movies (HITMAN, SABOTAGE, X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE, etc.). Long before that reputation was born, he cut his teeth on a low-budget 1998 crime-thriller-comedy THURSDAY. To put things in context, the late 90’s and early 2000’s had a surge of Tarantino wannabe films. Some of these efforts were good and others were bad. Though it opens with promise, THURSDAY falls on the bad side of the fence. To be honest, I was pretty excited to watch this film. The trailers had me sold on the idea that maybe Skip Woods made a great movie before slipping into mediocrity. The cast even had a couple of big names (who weren’t huge at the time): Thomas Jane and Aaron Eckhart. A sense of humor mixed with bloodshed made this look like it would be a blast. I couldn’t have been more wrong, because THURSDAY is bland, mistakes ugliness for cleverness, and comes off as a lazy Tarantino imitator.

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Casey Wells (Thomas Jane) is a reformed criminal trying to do his best to stay clean in suburbia. His past comes back to haunt him when former best friend/drug dealer Nick (Aaron Eckhart) pays a visit. Despite outward appearances, Nick’s seemingly friendly visit is not as innocent as it originally seemed, because he stashed a suitcase full of heroin in Casey’s home. Disgusted by his friend’s behavior and determined to stay clean, Casey dumps the drugs down the garbage disposal…just as various menacing people start showing up and asking about Nick’s special package. Casey finds an ordinary Thursday in suburbia beset by gangsters and crooked cops. If Casey wishes to live long enough to see Friday morning, he’ll have to reignite a lifestyle that he tried to leave behind.

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THURSDAY was brimming with potential. The premise had the makings of an entertaining, tense, and funny crime-thriller. The film opens with promise as we get a prologue that showcases Nick and two cohorts attempting to buy coffee at a convenience store…only for the transaction to take a stark bloody turn. It’s a shocking, darkly hilarious opening that promised I would be in for one hell of a ride and then the movie proceeds to go downhill from that point forward. The two biggest reasons for this rapid decline in quality can be attributed to dull writing and bland characters.

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I didn’t care about Casey, even though Thomas Jane seemed to be giving his all to make this reformed thug into a compelling protagonist. We aren’t given many reasons to like him, other than he fell in love with a small-town waitress and inexplicably grew a conscience. The viewer only knows both of those things, because we’re given jarring flashbacks that abruptly come right the hell out of nowhere and pad the running time. Though he’s putting on a smarmy attitude that seems appropriate for the despicable character, Aaron Eckhart’s Nick is noticeably absent for most of the film’s proceedings too. All that leaves the viewer with is Casey and a parade of various thugs marching through his front door.

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To be fair, Paula Porizkova is effective enough as disgusting psycho-bitch Dallas, who tortures Casey in a wholly unexpected way. With better writing, this particular scene could have come off as tense and borderline terrifying…but the way it plays out feels like Skip Woods thought this would be purely shocking for the hell of it. Porizkova still remains far more convincing than James LeGros playing hick hitman Billy Hill (a.k.a. Hillbilly, get it?). Mickey Rourke shows up for a few minutes as an intimidating presence, but receives no satisfying pay-off. Meanwhile, Glenn Plummer is downright embarrassing as a Jamaican hitman/wannabe rapper (providing two of the film’s most annoying plot holes).

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Though it runs under 90 minutes in length, THURSDAY is a chore to sit through and doesn’t even bother to wrap up all of its set-up with a believable finale. When it comes to the film’s final 10 minutes, the viewer is likely to get the impression that Skip Woods simply threw his script at the wall and said “whatever!” The rest of the story isn’t exactly original either though, because nearly every scene seems ripped off from a better movie and potentially great ideas are underdeveloped. Besides the convenience store prologue, the film’s biggest highlight is a social worker coming to the Casey’s house in the middle of bloody chaos. Parts of that sequence struck a solid balance of humor and tension that actually worked. If only the rest of the film had been as clever or well-executed. As it stands, THURSDAY seems to be loved by some viewers for its shock value, but I feel the entire film is a lame Tarantino rip-off that doesn’t hold up on its own merits.

Grade: D+

MAN ON FIRE (2004)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hour 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language and Strong Violence

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Directed by: Tony Scott

Written by: Brian Helgeland

(based on the novel MAN ON FIRE by A. J. Quinnell)

Starring: Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Radha Mitchell, Marc Anthony, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Giannini, Rachel Ticotin, Jesus Ochoa, Mickey Rourke & Roberto Sosa

The second adaptation of A.J. Quinnell’s novel of the same name, MAN ON FIRE is a movie that sounds like your average action flick on paper. You’d be mistaken though, because the film is actually an intense thriller with a heavy dose of humanity injected into it. Directed in flashy style by Tony Scott and maintaining a somber tone throughout, MAN ON FIRE is a special kind of revenge thriller that came out during a time when revenge thrillers were Hollywood’s latest fad (THE PUNISHER, WALKING TALL, both KILL BILL films, and a ton of low-rent action flicks). MAN ON FIRE may be far from perfect or amazing, but it’s a solid thriller and contains one of Denzel Washington’s best performances.

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John Creasy (Denzel Washington) is a washed-up former CIA officer and Marine. Deeply depressed by his dark past, Creasy spends his days drinking himself to death and waiting for the sweet embrace of death to arrive. His life changes in Mexico City, when he’s hired by a rich family as a discount bodyguard. His charge is their nine-year-old daughter, Pita (Dakota Fanning). Though rough-around-the-edges Creasy is not looking to make friends, he soon develops a strong bond with Pita. The two get along famously as he helps her with school and competitive swimming, while she gives him a reason to live again. Their friendship comes to an abrupt end when Pita is kidnapped and Creasy is shot multiple times. Instead of taking time to heal, the rage-filled Creasy executes a chaotic revenge against all those who were remotely involved in Pita’s kidnapping…which takes him into some very dark places.

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Instead of shooting in a traditional, steady format, director Tony Scott opts for frenetic cinematography in MAN ON FIRE (which also springs up in the Tony Scott’s later work). While the quick editing and flashes occasionally become detrimental and hinder a few potentially great scenes, this stylish approach is more effective than I initially expected it to be. MAN ON FIRE could have easily been a cheap, low-rent 80’s action flick (and actually was exactly that in 1987) in other hands. Scott’s style, Denzel Washington’s performance, and Brian Helgeland’s screenplay all add deeper layers to the film. Creasy isn’t simply getting revenge for the sake of showing intense on-screen violence. Instead, we frequently see Pita in the background and flash across his mind as a constant reminder for his motivations. As a result, we support his grisly mission whole-heartedly. These touches add an appropriately somber tone to a film that contains lots of gruesome torture, firefights, and explosions.

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Washington plays the sullen Creasy in a way where I felt that I instantly knew this character…even before some exposition is delivered about his violent past. Washington’s body language and subdued line delivery clue us into the idea that Creasy is a severely damaged individual who’s worthy of sympathy…especially when his sole reason for living is stolen. Dakota Fanning plays Pita as a precocious, but likable, kid who has more knowledge about how corrupt her surroundings are than most other nine-year-olds. The convincing chemistry between Fanning and Washington is undeniable as their emerging friendship develops naturally…and makes the last 90 minutes of the film into an almost cathartic experience as Creasy inflicts brutal retribution upon everyone involved in Pita’s kidnapping.

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On the supporting side of things, Christopher Walken shows up as Creasy’s former colleague turned friend. Though his character only exists to occasionally spout exposition, Walken does the most he can with the part. Another character who serves as a one-note plot device is Lisa Ramos (Pita’s mother), played Radha Mitchell. Ironically, two seemingly minor characters who are initially set up as obvious plot devices evolve into something more as Rachel Ticotin (playing a journalist with connections) and Giancarlo Giannini (playing an honest AFI agent) receive their own subplot that weaves in and out of Creasy’s main storyline. I won’t say much about the villains as their performances are brief, but they do receive satisfying comeuppances as Washington’s Creasy begins to catch and punish them. One interrogation scene involving a creative use of C-4 is especially cringe-inducing.

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Narratively speaking, MAN ON FIRE feels far more like an adrenaline-filled mystery than a simple action flick. Creasy might be all about revenge, but he has to discover what happened in order to get that revenge. I have a big problem with the film though as a major plot twist is given away in the first ten minutes. Though some could argue that this early reveal adds extra suspense, I felt it compromised an otherwise effective surprise. For all my complaints (bland side characters, flashy quick editing, and a twist spoiled early on), MAN ON FIRE still gripped me from beginning to end. Denzel Washington is undeniably great as the somber, reserved Creasy. MAN ON FIRE puts a refreshingly emotional and believable human spin on an action formula that’s been used hundreds of times.

Grade: B

GET CARTER (2000)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Language, some Sexuality and Drug Content

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Directed by: Stephen Kay

Written by: David McKenna

(based on the novel JACK’S RETURN HOME by Ted Lewis)

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Miranda Richardson, Rachael Leigh Cook, Alan Cumming, Mickey Rourke, John C. McGinley, Michael Caine & Rhona Mitra

Though it eventually went on to win critical acclaim, 1971’s GET CARTER wasn’t originally well-received upon release. Due to marketing blunders and a studio that seemingly didn’t care, the Michael Caine revenge-thriller wound up sinking into obscurity in the USA. Two decades passed and the film gained a cult following behind it, eventually re-entering the cinematic scene during the 90’s. Where there’s popularity (no matter how niche it is), there will be a studio exec waiting to cash in on that craze. I present to you the 2000 remake of GET CARTER. This was a cooler, more hip and edgier take on the material…at least, that’s what one studio exec would have you believe. Though it’s watchable and does try to tell its story in a slightly different manner, this remake of GET CARTER ultimately feels like a bit of watered-down bore.

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Jack Carter is mob enforcer in Las Vegas (as opposed to London). When his brother winds up dead in an apparent drunk driving accident, Jack returns to his home in Seattle (as opposed to Newcastle). Something surrounding his brother’s death doesn’t seem right, so Jack goes sniffing around the darker corners of the city for answers. While on his quest for the truth, Jack bonds with his young niece and discovers a conspiracy involving a porn kingpin and a computer genius…that could be linked to his brother’s suspicious untimely demise.

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Credit where credit is due, 2000’s GET CARTER does try to tell its story in a different way. Those new spins on the material don’t quite work out, because the movie still finds itself clinging to the original to move the plot forward. However, this inferior remake is still watchable…even if it’s poorly made. Sylvester Stallone is certainly not the actor that Michael Caine is, so he plays his usual tough guy role here. Stallone aside, every other character has been slightly shaken up. The innkeeper is now Jack’s sister-in-law. Jack’s sister has now become Jack’s niece. The shady businessman has transformed into a computer geek (played in not so intimidating fashion by Alan Cumming). Then there’s Mickey Rourke as the porn kingpin who’s pretty much the same scumbag as the original character, but with a website and CD’s. While the original GET CARTER had bad guys and worse guys, this new version has been painted with a good vs. evil brush. Jack Carter wasn’t someone who you could completely root for in the original, but he’s pretty much a generic action hero in this reboot. As you might imagine, this lessens the moral ambiguity that made the original so haunting and special.

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On the technical side of things, GET CARTER feels like it’s trying way too hard to be hip and cool. For crying out loud, this new Jack Carter wears cufflinks with his initials on them. The film is over stylized to the breaking point. There are lots of useless lens flares, fast editing, quick cutting and slow motion. The movie speaks for itself in a scene where Jack makes a horrifying discovery. The original let the scene quietly play out and all the emotions break across Michael Caine’s face. This remake doesn’t give us much a glimpse of Stallone’s face in that moment that isn’t in double vision or with the camera spinning upside down. Those technical touches are supposed to portray the emotion, instead of the actor. If you’re wanted an MTV action-packed thrill-ride the first time around, then this 2000 reboot also tries to throw in lots of pointless action scenes that exist for the sake of having a chase or fight sequence. To top it all off, the stunning, depressing conclusion that so perfectly closed out the original has been replaced with a forced, uplifting Hollywoodized hodge-podge of an ending.

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I had kept my hopes at a reasonable level for this remake and was still let down. I should have taken the techno-reboot of the original’s theme as a warning. Though this new version of GET CARTER may have tried to do things differently, but none of it fully works. I did somewhat enjoy one sub-plot, but it’s only purpose was to add in pointless action scenes that never amount to anything by the ending. Michael Caine shows up in a side role as if to give his approval for this remake and that’s sort of neat, but again, it all amounts to nothing. All this dumbed down remake accomplishes is showing how vastly superior the 1971 original really was. I think I’ll let Michael Caine’s final line in this remake sum everything up. He’s walking away from Sylvester Stallone and says “I’m not turning around.” You should take his advice and just walk past this remake of GET CARTER on the DVD shelf at your local store.

Grade: D+

ANIMAL FACTORY (2000)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 34 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Language, Violence and Drug Use

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Directed by: Steve Buscemi

Written by: Edward Bunker & John Steppling

(based on the novel ANIMAL FACTORY by Edward Bunker)

Starring: Willem Dafoe, Edward Furlong, Danny Trejo, John Heard, Mickey Rourke, Tom Arnold, Seymour Cassel, Mark Boone Jr. & Steve Buscemi

I discovered ANIMAL FACTORY while perusing through one of those countless “Best Movies You’ve Never Seen” lists that exist on the internet. This sounded like a really great movie in theory and comments about the film from various people (also including apparent ex-convicts) stated that this was the most realistic look at life in prison ever brought to the screen. If that’s the case, then I’d much rather stick with my SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and other exaggerated prison films, because this movie isn’t necessarily interesting or well-done.

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Ron Decker has been convicted of drug possession and happened to be sentenced on an election year. This leads to him being sent for a lengthy stay at a harsh prison. Seeing as he’s only 21 years old and has boyish good looks, Ron is a prime target for rapists and violent gang leaders. Life inside the bars gets a lot easier for Ron once he strikes up a friendship with old veteran criminal Earl Copen. Copen has a handle on the whole prison system and is a highly respected leader to most of the inmates. Copen takes Ron under his wing to show him the ropes of daily prison life and, most of all, to help him survive on the inside.

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The cast is probably the first thing that sticks out to anyone about ANIMAL FACTORY and I have to admit that these actors were well-chosen for their parts. Surprisingly, Edward Furlong gives what’s possibly his last decent performance of his career as our protagonist. Willem Dafoe is excellently cast as Copen, who seems to be a bad man with some good left in his heart. Mickey Rourke also pops up as Ron’s transvestite cell mate, but only receives about five total minutes of screen time. Danny Trejo plays every Danny Trejo character ever as Copen’s second-in-command. Though he’s pulling directorial duty behind the camera, Steve Buscemi still finds some time to briefly appear as a parole lawyer.

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The problems with ANIMAL FACTORY come in messy pacing and boring direction. This movie just looks so plain and it’s no wonder why it debuted on television (after a brief festival run). Everything about it from the sets to just the way that scenes are framed looks and feels kind of bland. The plot starts off interestingly enough in Ron’s initial meeting with Copen, but the film picks up two weeks after Ron has been sent to prison. We don’t really experience any of the initial fear of meeting a cell mate and being introduced to the horrible environment. This seems like a development that might have made for a good introduction as opposed to just throwing the viewer two weeks into Ron’s stay. Other plot points are either rushed through far too quickly or focused on entirely too much. I would have liked more time spent on a dread-soaked subplot involving Tom Arnold as a creepy rapist who has his eye on Norton’s character. On the opposite end of the spectrum, far less time should have been dedicated to a super clichéd and overly familiar climax that felt like the ultimate shrug-inducing ending.

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Ultimately, ANIMAL FACTORY suffers from a messy script, bad pacing and boring direction behind the camera. The talented cast lends a lot of the quality to just another otherwise standard, tame prison movie. This really isn’t anything that you haven’t seen before and I can’t recommend it. Stick with SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION for the best prison movie ever made and OZ for a disturbing, dark view on the system. They might not exactly be “realistic,” but they sure aren’t as tedious and overly tame as ANIMAL FACTORY.

Grade: C

KILLSHOT (2009)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Language and brief Nudity

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Directed by: John Madden

Written by: Hossein Amini

(based on the novel KILLSHOT by Elmore Leonard)

Starring: Thomas Jane, Diane Lane, Mickey Rourke, Joseph Gordon-Levitt & Rosario Dawson

KILLSHOT is yet another victim of the Weinstein Company’s sabotaging of their own projects. This crime thriller was originally supposed to come out in 2006, but was shelved until 2009 due to frequent re-edits and test screenings. I suppose that the director’s cut would be nowhere near a masterpiece, but it could have been a lot better than this final result. One entire plot threat involving a crooked cop played by Johnny Knoxville was removed entirely, though you can look back at the older trailers and spot him in certain scenes. KILLSHOT is not a bad movie by any means, but it’s a decent predictable thriller and it reeks of potential for something more. The studio’s interfering fingerprints are all over this fast-paced simple-plotted crime tale.

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Wayne and Carmen Colson are a recently separated couple on the path to divorce. Both of them wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time and end up in the path of two murderous criminals. This dangerous duo is made up of loose-cannon amateur Richie and the calm hulking hitman Blackbird. Richie and Blackbird begin a game of cat-and-mouse with Wayne and Carmen that spans far longer than a single night. There’s enough time for multiple encounters and even different cities to be used. As Wayne and Carmen begin to fall back in love, Richie and Blackbird have tension brewing between them as they stalk the couple.

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KILLSHOT is a glamorous B-flick. It’s full of dumb decisions (especially in one notable scene when a character is on the phone and could easily tell the person she’s speaking with to call 911, but instead says “I’ll call you back” when she sees the recognizable hitman approaching from a distance). There are also plenty of coincidences that connect everything together in convenient ways. I’m not sure how good Elmore Leonard’s novel is (I’ve heard fantastic things), but this cinematic adaptation strains credibility and logic more than once. What it doesn’t deliver in smart characters, it makes up in some great tension-filled scenes. Threatening conversations, brooding moments of nothing violent really occurring, and a scenes involving shootouts (some of them very one-sided) are executed in capable ways. The plot may be strictly by the numbers, but it’s also so fast-paced that none of the logic gaps or plot holes bothered me too much. I enjoyed this in the same way I might enjoy a silly 80’s or 90’s action thriller. It’s fun while it lasts.

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The cast is a mixed bag. Thomas Jane and Diane Lane are convincing as a troubled couple experiencing marriage problems before the violent chaos even begins breaking out. However, the movie makes the odd decision of focusing far more on Mickey Rourke and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s characters. While I can buy Mickey Rourke as an intimidating cold contract killer, I thought Joseph Gordon-Levitt was way too far over-the-top as Richie. He’s imitating a so-so Southern accent and almost acts like a cartoon character at points. I get that he’s supposed to be a loose-cannon and a psycho, but he’s almost comical at points and that doesn’t seem to have been the intention. Rosario Dawson is given a rather thankless role as Richie’s wife. She has some good bits, but it seems that most of her plotline was trimmed for the scant 95 minute running time. I also wish I had seen the thread with Johnny Knoxville playing a crooked cop, which might have given some more interesting directions to the film. It’s probably too much to hope for a director’s cut with Knoxville’s scenes reinserted into the film and Rosario Dawson taking up more screen time.

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KILLSHOT might have initially been far more than the end product indicates. The heavy studio editing is apparent. The movie rushes by with a fairly predictable plotline. The script also focuses far more on the bad guys than the couple on the run from them. It’s entertaining in the B-movie sense of things. This would be right at home in the mid to late 80’s. It’s a silly little ride that has some unique characters, fun scenes, and didn’t disappoint me in being a good time-killer. It’s far from the best movie of its type, but I enjoyed it for what it was. KILLSHOT is good time for fans of crime thrillers based around cat-and-mouse games, however predictable some of them may be.

Grade: B-

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