GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 16 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Sci-Fi Action and Violence, Language, and brief Suggestive Content

Directed by: James Gunn

Written by: James Gunn

(based on the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY comics by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning)

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone & Kurt Russell

Nearly three years after GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY became a surprise hit and smashed box office records, we finally have a sequel. Since director/writer James Gunn helmed Marvel’s first awesome space opera, he returned for this sequel and is already in talks for a third film. Like most sequels, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 is a step down from its predecessor. That’s not to say that this film is one of the worst Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, because AGE OF ULTRON, IRON MAN 2, and THE INCREDIBLE HULK still remain below it. GUARDIANS VOL. 2 is a lot like THOR: THE DARK WORLD in that it’s fun, has great moments and positive qualities, but is not nearly as awesome as it should be.

After slaying a giant power-sucking parasite, the Guardians of the Galaxy (Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Baby Groot) botch a mission by rudely insulting a proud race of gold-skinned aliens. As a result, the Guardians find themselves with a bounty on their head and that attracts the attention of space-pirates. Things are further complicated when Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and the gang run across mysterious stranger Ego (Kurt Russell), who claims to be Peter’s long-lost father. This leads to lots of wacky intergalactic action, humorous antics, secrets being revealed, and (as you might have assumed from the title) another rockin’ soundtrack.

As the titular Guardians (of the Galaxy), Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, and Dave Batista blend seamlessly back into their characters, while Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel provide voices. This second installment builds upon the already established chemistry of these characters and lets them do what they do best. Drax still gets major laughs, while Rocket is still the fan favorite rodent asshole. Meanwhile, Baby Groot is both hilarious and adorable at the same time. However, the developing relationship between Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord and Zoe Saldana’s Gamora feels a bit half-assed this time around. Michael Rooker’s space-pirate Yondu and Karen Gillan’s revenge-driven Nebula get more time to shine here and their solid subplots genuinely surprised me.

The film’s new additions, mainly Kurt Russell’s Ego and his insect-like companion Mantis (Pom Klementieff) are both interesting enough. Russell’s natural charisma aids his mysterious character and Klementieff’s Mantis is like a cute little kid in a bug alien’s body. I don’t want to say much about this film’s main antagonist, for fear of spoilers. I will say that I absolutely loved the idea behind this baddie and was willing to forgive a clichéd motivation because of that. It’s also worth noting that the gold-skinned Sovereign aliens and their High Priestess provide great comic relief. Also, a bored-looking Sylvester Stallone appears in a glorified cameo that was shamelessly included as set-up for future Marvel films (something that is a constant detriment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe).

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2’s main problems stem from tedious pacing and sloppy writing. There are arguably too many storylines at play here and, as a result, the movie noticeably feels unfocused. The first third of the film has pacing issues in that I was wondering where things were heading and wasn’t necessarily having fun. There’s a long-winded exposition sequence that’s only tolerable because of Kurt Russell’s charm and nothing else. The film noticeably picks up during its second act and has a very fun final third. Still, it takes a while to recover from the glacial movement and many pointless moments of the first act.

The unfocused approach and all-over-the-place pacing further dilute some would-be emotional scenes during the final act. Certain revelations and plot developments would have made more of a lasting impact, if it hadn’t been for the messy nature of this sequel’s storytelling. That being said, there are still plenty of laughs, action, and great scenes to be had. The opening credit sequence is simultaneously funny, creative and cool. Most of the humor works and the running jokes are sure to get audiences cracking up, especially a couple that are set up far in advance. The film’s set pieces are memorable, with major highlight being a scene from the original film upped to a crazy degree (you’ll know it, when you see it).

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 is a good Marvel movie that could have been a great Marvel movie, if the pacing weren’t slow in the beginning and (too many) storylines weren’t all over the place. I had fun while watching this movie and it had many positive qualities. Certain scenes are great. I like that the film attempted some surprisingly emotional moments, even if they weren’t nearly as powerful as they probably should have been. I also love the villain because the concept is so damn creative and cool. Yet, the more I think about this sequel, the less I like it. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2 doesn’t come close to hitting the highs of its predecessor, but remains fun (enough) sci-fi entertainment nonetheless.

Grade: B

RAMBO III (1988)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: Peter MacDonald

Written by: Sheldon Lettich & Sylvester Stallone

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Kurtwood Smith, Marc de Jonge, Sasson Gabai & Doudi Shoua

In 1982, FIRST BLOOD surprised audiences by being an action movie with more on its mind than mere explosions and violence. In 1985, RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD Part II cemented itself as one of the most entertainingly bombastic action extravaganzas of the 80’s. The sequel was so over-the-top, ridiculous and enjoyable that it instantly cemented the character of Rambo as a staple in the action genre. The character’s popularity grew to a point where an animated series was made, comic books were published and plenty of cheap rip-offs followed. By the summer of 1988, RAMBO III had a lot to live up to and though it banked at the box office, this third installment falls far below the previous two films.

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After fighting a corrupt small town sheriff and rescuing POWs from the jungles of Vietnam, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) has taken a breather in Thailand. He helps Buddhist monks repair their temple with money earned through underground fight clubs. Rambo’s past comes knocking when former friend Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) attempts to recruit the hardened veteran for a top-secret mission to stop Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Rambo refuses and the mission goes horribly wrong. Driven by guilt and a desire to rescue the now captive Trautman, Rambo journeys to the Middle East to band together with Afghani freedom fighters against a heavily armed, vicious Soviet force. Bullets fly. Rambo yells. Things go boom.

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RAMBO III’s problems emerge in the opening minutes in which we see a softened, reclusive Rambo receiving a clichéd as hell speech from Colonel Trautman. This more humanized version of the titular action hero might have been well done if it were directed by someone with more experience. Instead, first-timer Peter MacDonald (who served as a second unit in the second film) can’t seem to pull it off. Rambo’s Thailand Buddhist scenes are a combination of silly and stupid, being rightfully parodied to no end by plenty of comedies (HOT SHOTS 2, ACE VENTURA 2, MACGRUBER, etc.). MacDonald stated in later interviews that he attempted to turn Rambo into a funny and vulnerable character, but that he “failed miserably.” At least the director can own up to his short-comings, because the non-action sequences of RAMBO III are an endurance testing chore to sit through.

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The first 40 minutes of the 101-minute running time needlessly pad the film with filler, including: extra characters, sentimental moments of Rambo indulging in local customs (like playing a horseback game), and an annoying little kid who compromises a would-be suspenseful moment by becoming a gun-toting sidekick. Stallone seems slightly bored as Rambo and is going through the motions of his stone-faced, gruffy-voiced action hero. Meanwhile, Richard Crenna is given slightly more to do as Colonel Trautman and actually saves Rambo’s ass a few times. Crenna’s smaller moments were a nice change of pace from a series that frequently shoved Rambo into the spotlight.

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The supporting characters in RAMBO III aren’t given much to do at all. Kurtwood Smith (a regular face in cheesy action flicks) only shows up to tell Rambo that Trautman has been captured. Sasson Gabai plays a charismatic freedom fighter, but doesn’t receive too many moments to shine. His character mainly exists to cover Rambo, shoot off-screen bad guys, and make wise-cracks about Rambo being a “tourist.” Though there’s one scene near the end that I’m sure received applause when this movie originally played in theaters, Gabai’s charming sidekick is sadly wasted for a majority of the film.

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Still, Gabai’s underused freedom fighter is more interesting than boring Soviet villain Zaysen (played by a dull-as-dirt Marc de Jonge). Though his eventual demise is a show-stopping set piece and one of the film’s biggest highlights, Zaysen is a boring antagonist. At least, his Russian companions receive hilariously bad subtitled dialogue before they bite the big one. A moment in which someone yells “To the motherland!” while charging down a hallway made me laugh hysterically. These Soviet baddies contribute to the film’s whopping body count of 108 kills. If Rambo was waging a war in the second installment, then this third film is all-out genocide. It should also be noted that RAMBO III actually broke the Guinness World Record for “the most violent film ever made,” though it was eventually surpassed by 2008’s RAMBO.

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Seeing that director Peter MacDonald helped create the second film’s explosive action, it would be safe to assume that RAMBO III’s combat scenes more than deliver. These long fiery chaos-filled sequences are easily the best part of the film and mostly balance out all of the bad acting and boring patches to make for a middle-of-the-road experience. There are great fight scenes, creative bad guy deaths, a “Ra! Ra! We can do it!” attitude, and plenty of explosions. Still, the action only makes up half of this movie and the rest is dedicated to a flimsy story, Stallone trudging through the dull motions and shadows of better films in the series’ past. RAMBO III is made especially disappointing by how entertaining its two predecessors are, but remains a watchable, okay-at-best action flick.

Grade: C

RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD Part II (1985)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: George P. Cosmatos

Written by: Sylvester Stallone & James Cameron

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Charles Napier, Steven Berkoff, Julia Nickson, Martin Kove & George Cheung

1982’s FIRST BLOOD brought an iconic movie character to life and delivered social commentary through a gritty action movie lens. While FIRST BLOOD may be the most serious RAMBO film, I feel that RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD Part II is the movie that cemented John Rambo’s place in cinema history as an action hero for the ages. RAMBO is one of the coolest action movies ever made and had a profound impact on the action genre as a result. Countless rip-offs wanted to be this film, but FIRST BLOOD Part II is a highly explosive adrenaline rush that cannot be duplicated. This sequel is a very different film from the serious social commentary predecessor, but I love it as 100% pure entertainment.

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A year after the events of FIRST BLOOD, Vietnam vet John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is offered a get out of jail free card in the form of a top-secret government mission. Rambo reluctantly agrees to drop back into the jungles of Vietnam and search for possible POWs (even though the war has been over for years). However, he is instructed not to engage the enemy or rescue anyone…just take photographic evidence for a follow-up team. Rambo’s conscience gets in the way of his orders and he rescues a POW. As a result, bureaucratic baddie Marshal Murdock (Charles Napier) aborts the mission and leaves our musclebound hero for dead. This doesn’t sit well with John Rambo as he’ll go to any length to regain his freedom and rescue the remaining POWs, which means facing off against two different villainous nationalities.

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RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD Part II is a straight-forward action movie that delivers excitement from start to finish. The plot throws FIRST BLOOD’s tragic war hero into the fray with lots of explosions, gunfire, and a high body count (a total of 69 on-screen deaths). It’s a far more action-oriented film than its predecessor, but works surprisingly better as one hell of an awesome ride. Sylvester Stallone slips right back into the skin of John Rambo as if no time has passed at all. Stallone wasn’t just responsible for his performance though as he also polished the final version of the sequel’s script, which was originally a much simpler tale penned by none other than James Cameron. Stallone added political commentary into the screenplay (including a final speech that was inspired by his conversations with veterans) and reshaped a side character entirely.

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The real villain of FIRST BLOOD Part II isn’t made out to be the Viet Cong or Soviet forces that Stallone sprays with bullets, but instead the bossy bureaucrat who willingly to turns a blind eye. This point is driven not so subtly home by Charles Napier’s smarmy performance as pencil-pushing Marshall Murdock. Murdock is a scumbag and I wanted to repeatedly punch him in the face. His villainy doesn’t come in the form of directly shooting POWs, but rather from giving orders over a radio and feigning concern. The only returning side character from the original film is Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) who has a slightly bigger role to play this time around, but doesn’t really get a chance to jump in on any of the action. Rambo also receives a partner/love interest in foreign agent Co-Bao (Julia Nickson). This character doesn’t exactly have a huge arc, but the story does something cool with her nonetheless.

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RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD Part II is entirely different from its gritty predecessor and serves as perfect action-packed entertainment. The location/battleground, filmed in Mexico substituting for Vietnam, is larger and the pacing never slows down. Even when Rambo is facing a brutal interrogation and capture (an all too familiar scenario in action films), I was hooked into wondering how on earth he was going to get out of the desperate situation and how many people were going to pay for it with their blood. The level of on-screen mayhem is staggering and it’s easy to see why many consider this second installment to be the most memorable film in the RAMBO franchise. Watching John Rambo wipe out tons of Viet Cong and Soviet baddies never gets repetitive either as the film constantly finds new violent ways for him to fight. These include but are not limited to: knives, exploding arrows, rockets, machine guns, hand-to-hand combat, and a stellar stand-off between two heavily armed helicopters.

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It’s not hard to see why RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD Part II has had such a massive impact since its release. Besides being the second biggest movie of 1985 (right behind BACK TO THE FUTURE), this action classic has spawned plenty of parodies (UHF, HOT SHOTS Part Deux, etc.) as well as many rip-offs. It’s easily one of the Stallone’s best films and the peak of 80’s action. Not every film is meant to enlighten, inform or deeply move us. Sometimes, we can be entertained beyond belief and that’s precisely what RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD Part II did for me!

Grade: A+

FIRST BLOOD (1982)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 33 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: Ted Kotcheff

Written by: Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim & Sylvester Stallone

(based on the novel FIRST BLOOD by David Morrell)

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Brian Dennehy, Bill McKinney, Jack Starrett & Michael Talbott

Years after Sylvester Stallone cemented his boxing reputation in Hollywood, it was time for another, entirely different Stallone character to be born: John Rambo! As opposed to strapping on boxing gloves and telling an inspirational story, Stallone opted for a dirtier, more violent approach in 1982’s FIRST BLOOD (the first of four titles in the RAMBO franchise). This film’s plot is rather bare bones, but still packs some potent punches and is all about the execution (pardon the pun) of its wild, action-packed premise.

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Vietnam vet John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is having a bad day. He walked miles to visit a friend…only to discover that his buddy died of cancer (Agent Orange is nasty stuff). Depressed, dirty, and without a happy thought in sight, Rambo trudges through the ironically named Hope, Washington. As opposed to finding hope in this titular town, Rambo instead stumbles across the loud-mouthed, hot-tempered Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy). This arrogant law enforcer sees Rambo as someone who simply doesn’t belong in his tight-knit community and arrests him for vagrancy. Faced with Teasle’s equally abusive officers, Rambo begins to have flashbacks to his days as a POW in Vietnam and snaps. This leads to a long, violent showdown between the aggressive small town law enforcement and the hardened, combat-ready Rambo. They drew first blood from him and he’s about to draw more from them.

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One thing that can instantly be appreciated about FIRST BLOOD is that it executes its story with style and attention to detail. The film doesn’t necessarily have a massive body count, but instead builds itself on rising tension and a thick atmosphere. The tree-covered landscape, where Rambo and his enemies battle one another, instantly adds a sense of danger as the natural elements prove to be as threatening as bullets from a gun. Some of the film’s most intense moments come from Rambo making a claustrophobic trek through a collapsed mine with only the light of a torch to guide him.

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The story’s violence is executed with grittiness and feels slightly more “real” as a result. Some of the film’s most cringe-worthy moments come early on from Rambo using his Vietnam knowledge to set up makeshift booby traps to halt the Sheriff’s cronies. One of these particular traps actually made me wince, even though it didn’t show a close up of the gory details. In spite of its title, FIRST BLOOD isn’t about blood and guts, but uses the power of suggestion to add a bit more brutality to its action. As a result, FIRST BLOOD is probably the most exciting action film with a single digit body count that you’ll ever see.

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Neither of these qualities would matter much if the characters weren’t interesting to begin with. Stallone plays John Rambo as a damaged man pushed to his breaking point. He’s a war hero who was punished for no reason and finds himself in an ever-escalating conflict. Rambo is crazy enough to the point where a former Colonel (Richard Crenna) needs to be brought in to deescalate the dangerous situation. However, he’s also nice enough to go out of his way to avoid killing where he can help it. Though the film uses some flashbacks to Rambo’s Vietnam torture that could be seen as slightly cheesy, these further cement the character as a damaged guy who’s been placed into a desperate scenario. The final ten minutes pack a powerful speech from Rambo that shines as one of Stallone’s best acting moments ever. As a result, John Rambo is someone to be feared, to root for, and to feel sorry for.

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As far as supporting roles go, two characters stand out. The first is the mysterious Colonel Sam Trautman who shows up as the sole living connection to Rambo’s past.  While Trautman could be seen as a character who exists primarily for delivering exposition, Richard Crenna’s line delivery and subtle nuances show him as someone who’s more complex than that. As the film’s antagonist, Brian Dennehy is perfectly smarmy as the corrupt Sheriff Teasle. The way in which he smirks and seems to have instant disdain for everyone around him make the character into someone instantly despicable. Still, Teasle is an entertaining scumbag as he desperately wants to take on Rambo face-to-face…even if it winds up being the death of him.

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FIRST BLOOD may have a rather simple plot, but sticks out as something special when compared to many other 80’s action films. It has actual social commentary and a sympathetic hero at its core. The first RAMBO installment is an entertaining ride with good performances, a fun cheesy factor (specifically in the closing credits song), brutal violence, and an overall well-executed atmosphere of escalating tension. FIRST BLOOD is an 80’s action movie with more on its mind than just a body count and over-the-top explosions.

Grade: A

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+

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