THE SNOWMAN (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Grisly Images, Violence, some Language, Sexuality and brief Nudity

Directed by: Tomas Alfredson

Written by: Hossein Amini, Peter Straughan & Soren Sveistrup

(based on the novel THE SNOWMAN by Jo Nesbo)

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Val Kilmer, J.K. Simmons, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Ronan Vibert, Chloe Sevigny & James D’Arcy

There were plenty of reasons to look forward to THE SNOWMAN. Martin Scorsese produced it. Tomas Alfredson (who directed one of the best vampire films ever in LET THE RIGHT ONE IN) directed it. This movie was based on an acclaimed novel that tons of people love and it’s regarded as a very scary book. Also, look at that cast! Just look at that cast! This should have been a great movie. The key phrase there being “should have been,” because THE SNOWMAN is one of the biggest disappointments in quite some time. Everything you’ve heard is true. This film is terrible.

Detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) is on the trail of a mysterious serial killer, known as “The Snowman Killer.” This psycho gained this rather goofy nickname because he builds snowmen of his victims. He also cuts his victims up into little pieces with razor-sharp cord, but he also builds snowmen. So, the snow-related quality just stuck out more than his graphic dismemberment, I guess? With the help of newbie recruit Kathrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), Harry Hole must stop the Snowman Killer before the murderer strikes somewhere personal. All the while, there are flashbacks to seemingly unrelated events and a conspiracy theory about Norway trying to host the Winter Sports World Cup.

THE SNOWMAN is a trainwreck in nearly every aspect, but I’ll get the positives out of the way and state what qualities I enjoyed upfront. The cinematography is great. The Norwegian locations are cool to look at (pun fully intended). Also, there are brief effective scenes scattered throughout this film too, but these are mostly small bits that are unconnected in the grand scheme of things. I really liked a moment when the Snowman Killer was right in front of Harry’s face and he didn’t even know it, but the audience knew it and the director still managed to keep the murderer’s identity a secret in that scene. This was a truly great moment in an otherwise crappy film.

Now that I’ve given my minor praise, it’s time to dig into why this film doesn’t work. The first reason for why THE SNOWMAN doesn’t work actually comes from a troubled production that recently concluded with the film’s director stating that there are about 15 minutes of major script pages that were never even filmed. This means that there are scenes literally missing from this movie, which consequently results in baffling character decisions and last-minute plot revelations that don’t make a lick of sense. I know that the source material is widely acclaimed and I cannot even imagine what pain the novel’s fanbase will endure when they sit down to watch this clichéd, confused mess of a movie.

The second reason for why THE SNOWMAN doesn’t work is heavily tied to the first reason: a talented cast of A-list performers are trying their best and, yet, this incoherent jumbled film doesn’t make any of their characters worth remembering. It’s also a juvenile comment to make, but Harry Hole is an incredibly stupid name for the protagonist of a serious serial killer thriller. Was Hugh Jass already taken? What about I.P. Freely? Okay, I’ll stop harping on this one. Many of Michael Fassbender’s decisions don’t make a lick of sense and he makes big revelations that just sort of pop out of nowhere with no rhyme or reason. Also, J.K. Simmons is completely wasted in the role of a useless would-be important character. Val Kilmer also shows up for five minutes of embarrassingly bad flashbacks as a seemingly unrelated detective who was also after the Snowman Killer in the past. The only cast member who seems somewhat believable is Rebecca Ferguson.

As far as the film’s suspense goes, there isn’t much to be found at all. There are a couple of effective moments (ala scenes in which we see how close the Snowman Killer is to Fassbender’s Harry Hole), but everything else is a tedious slog to get through. The film can’t even nail its gory, graphic violence. A shaky-cam fight scene is filmed in such an incoherent fashion that it took me a full minute to realize who suffered a life-altering injury and how the hell that even happened. A shotgun blast and a half-blown-off head is rendered with godawful CGI that looks like it belongs in a Syfy Channel original movie. There are also long stretches where no bodies pile up because Fassbender’s Harry Hole is on the trail of a Winter Sports conspiracy…because that’s what we came to this serial killer thriller to watch, right?

THE SNOWMAN is the kind of cinematic disaster that one can pick apart scene by scene, analyzing what’s wrong with nearly every moment and observing what could be done to improve the overall film. I’m sure that the 15 minutes of unfilmed scenes also had a distinct factor to play in THE SNOWMAN’s shockingly shoddy quality. While the cinematography and locations are pretty to look at and there are a couple of effective bits, THE SNOWMAN is mostly a long bore to get through. Instead of being on the edge of their seats, viewers will likely be checking their watches to see how much more time is left in this endurance test of a grisly thriller. Don’t be fooled by the trailers, the cast, the premise, or the praise for the (undoubtedly) superior source material, THE SNOWMAN isn’t worth your time or money.

Grade: D

THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS (1996)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Violence and Gore involving Animal Attacks

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Directed by: Stephen Hopkins

Written by: William Goldman

(based on the book THE MAN-EATERS OF TSAVO by John Henry Patterson)

Starring: Val Kilmer, Michael Douglas, John Kani, Bernard Hill, Tom Wilkinson, Brian McCardie, Emily Mortimer & Om Puri

Aside from Gustav the crocodile, the Tsavo man-eaters are probably the most well-known instance of a bloodthirsty animal taking a serial killer approach and offing as many people as it possibly could. The story behind the Tsavo man-eaters is a fascinating one and filmmakers have attempted to cash in on it with a variety of films (one of which was considered to be the first 3D movie ever made). Without a doubt, the most well-known take on the material is 1996’s THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS which is pretty much a glossed over monster movie that delivers great entertainment, even if it has a few clichés.

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John Patterson is an engineer hired to complete a British railway in Africa. The project looks to be a difficult one, but John has always wished to visit the continent so he accepts the assignment. While heat, tensions between workers and tough terrain bring delays. John wins the workers over by killing a man-eating lion that attacked a man shortly after his arrival. Sadly, this is not the last man-eater that John will encounter as a pair of vicious four-legged killers take to devouring construction workers at night (going as far as to enter the tents and pull a person out into the tall grass for an easy meal). With John being wildly out of his element, famed hunter Charles Remington comes to save the day. Surprisingly, this pair of lions are far more cunning and dangerous than any that Remington has previously killed. It’s up to John, Charles and native African Samuel to take down the pair of lions before they claim more victims.

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THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS was mainly shot on a game reservation in Africa and it doesn’t feel as if anything were tame about this production. You can feel the sweat, heat and danger around every corner while watching it. The cinematography is gorgeous and the whole film takes place on a grand scale. Jerry Goldsmith (who also composed the brilliant theme from BOYS FROM BRAZIL) delivers a powerful score that enhances every shot, but never takes over the film. It should be noted that Hollywood definitely prettied up the actual story to deliver more excitement and tense scenes than what actually occurred in the real hunt for the Tsavo lions. The real take down of these man-eaters required a total of 13 bullets, but that’s not what happens in the film. It’s kind of obvious why, because if you were to watch seven shots fired into one big killer cat over the course of a long day…it could get more than a little repetitive and possibly comical. This is one of those rare cases where changing the details a bit makes for a possibly better story on film.

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Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas, both of whom were huge in 1996, headline this adventure as John Patterson and Charles Remington respectively. The two play well off each other with convincing chemistry in a mentor/protégé friendship. Taken in their own scenes, both performers pull their weight. Michael Douglas is essentially playing Quint from JAWS but in the jungle. Val Kilmer is a likable protagonist, but he uses a would-be Irish accent that comes and goes depending on the scene. John Kani is also quite good as the native Samuel who was probably my second-favorite character in this film after jungle Quint…er, I mean Remington. Tom Wilkinson shows up for a total of two scenes as a pompous asshole who cares far more for finishing his railroad than for the measly lives of 30 African construction workers who have been devoured by vicious jungle beasts. Meanwhile, Emily Mortimer is bland as Patterson’s wife…but isn’t necessarily an essential part of this film.

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The attack sequences and stalking scenes of the Tsavo lions are appropriately frightening. Usually, the more you reveal the monster, the less scary it becomes. There’s a lot of truth to that approach and it worked perfectly for JAWS. Though GHOST AND THE DARKNESS seems to be going for that in the opening, we do see a lot of the lions. It doesn’t hurt the tension whatsoever as these man-eaters were brought to life with five trained lions and seamless shots of lion puppets. It should be stated that the lions in this movie have manes and the real ones didn’t, but you’d probably be hard pressed to find tamed Tsavo lions who would work on film. The film delivers a number of tense sequences throughout and maintains a level of constant suspense. This is pretty much JAWS…with lions. Though it’s not as good as Spielberg’s classic (which is the unshakable masterpiece of killer animal movies), I had a blast watching this and felt my hairs standing on end during certain scenes. A stalking sequence in the fog-laden night is downright terrifying, especially when you know that the killer animal can clearly see you and you can’t see it. That suspense also translates well into daylight scenes, which is rare for any horror film.

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Stripped down to its bare essentials, THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS is basically JAWS in the jungle. That’s not a knock on the film in any sense. Though it suffers from Kilmer’s bad Irish accent and a couple of annoying clichés, the biggest of which are a cop-out dream sequence and a jump scare that replaces the cat with a zebra. GHOST AND THE DARKNESS can be enjoyed as both a Hollywood adventure and a straight-up monster movie that happens to be inspired by a real-life incident. Either way you take it, it remains a total blast to watch!

Grade: B+

MACGRUBER (2010)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Crude and Sexual Content, Violence, Language and some Nudity

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Directed by: Jorma Taccone

Written by: Jorma Taccone, Will Forte, John Solomon

Starring: Will Forte, Kristen Wiig, Ryan Phillippe, Powers Boothe, Val Kilmer, Maya Rudolph

Back in the golden age of parody films, Mel Brooks and Jerry Zucker were the ones to beat. Spoofs weren’t pathetic threads that pieced together out of pop-culture jokes and referenced every recent movie that could possibly be worked in. These films were downright hilarious comedies that simultaneously made fun of certain genre conventions while also being careful in constructing their own story (as familiar as they might seem). AIRPLANE, the HOT SHOTS series, the NAKED GUN trilogy and SPACEBALLS aren’t just products of their time. They are films that would wind up holding up and still be funny decades later. It really is a shame that MACGRUBER didn’t do well at the box office, because this is the kind of parody that has long been thought dead. This feature adaptation of the Saturday Night Live skit is juvenile and crass, but it’s also hilarious from start to finish!

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A nuclear warhead has been stolen by vicious terrorist Dieter Von Cunth. Upon hearing the news, one man is contacted. One hero will emerge. This mysterious mullet-sporting man is known only as MacGruber and has a personal vendetta against Cunth. He’ll recruit a special team of operatives that include the young impressionable Piper and an old flame from his past, Vicki. Together they’ll have to put a stop to Cunth, who’s become a seemingly untouchable businessman, in order to save the world. Unfortunately, MacGruber is a loose-cannon, foul-mouthed, moron that constantly screws up in the face of danger. A whole lot of hilarity follows. Seriously, this movie had me (among all the other people I’ve wound up showing it to) cracking up from the opening shot until the credits sequence! MACGRUBER is the definition of an unsung gem!

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Besides the brief references to the TV series MACGYVER (seen in MacGruber’s penchant for using homemade contraptions instead of guns and the fact that MacGruber’s name is a parody of MacGyver to begin with), this is a comedy that plays with the conventions of action movies themselves while being as totally ridiculous, over-the-top, and offensive as humanly possible. The material won’t win any awards, but it’s absolutely hysterical and that’s what a comedy of this kind should be aiming for. When I say that the laughs are non-stop, I’m not exaggerating either. You might be laughing so hard at one joke that you’ll either have to pause it to catch your breath or re-watch it to catch another comment or detail that you missed.

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MACGRUBER is one of the few recent comedies where I’ve laughed so hard that my face hurt (and done so on multiple viewings)! The pace is extremely well done as well, never leaving time for the movie to drag or focusing too long on one of the very few gags that falls flat. This is one of those rare cases for a comedy that I’d recommend watching the Unrated version (it’s only 4 minutes longer) because the moments thrown back in are hilarious as well. As briefly mentioned, there are a couple of jokes that aren’t very funny. These come from an awkward Kristen Wiig, who serves as a hit-and-miss character here, but everyone else is overshadowing her in nearly every scene. Wiig is usually great in comedies, but here she has some successful moments and doesn’t quite hit the mark with others.

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As far as the rest of the cast goes, everyone is clearly having a blast. Val Kilmer as Dieter Von Cunth is the best Kilmer performance in a solid decade. He’s a great hammy villain that seems to be incorporating all of the evil traits from every memorable action movie bad guy. Thus he offers a clear-headed menacing straight man for the hysterical force that is Will Forte as MacGruber. Forte has been seen in side roles in plenty of big comedies and most of his front-man performances haven’t been quite so good (e.g. THE BROTHERS SOLOMON), but he makes the movie work here. Working as a co-writer on the screenplay and portraying the mullet-sporting action hero himself, Forte knew exactly how scenes should play out!

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MACGRUBER is a barrage of non-stop laughs. It’s devoid of class or intelligence, but that’s simply not the kind of comedy this was meant to be from the beginning. Filled with jokes from beginning to end (one running gag kept getting incorporated in ways that had me giggling every time I saw it), this fast-paced action movie parody is crude, crass, rude, gross, and (at points) downright cruel, but it’s all in the name of hilarity. It fully delivers on that mark. There are a couple of moments that aren’t nearly as funny as the rest surrounding them, but that’s the case with nearly every comedy. In an age of lame excuses for spoofs and parodies, MACGRUBER offers a beacon of hope that these kind of films can still be nearly perfected with the right people behind them. This is an underrated, overlooked comedy that deserves a large cult following. If you want to laugh, then absolutely dive right into MACGRUBER!

Grade: A-

PLANES (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 31 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for some mild Action and Rude Humor

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Directed by: Klay Hall

Written by: Jeffrey M. Howard

Voices of: Dane Cook, Stacey Keach, Danny Mann, Priyanka Chopra, Brad Garrett, Teri Hatcher, Cedric The Entertainer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Roger Craig Smith, Gabriel Iglesias, John Cleese, Carlos Alazraqui, Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards & Sinbad

From above the world of CARS. That’s the tagline front and center on the poster of PLANES. It’s a bold-faced marketing trick that suckered enough of the unsuspecting public to believe that this film is actually Pixar creation. This is not true. PLANES is from Disney and the reason they could even use the CARS world is because the company owns Pixar. If it sounds like I’m bitter, it’s because I am. There weren’t any preconceived notions about this one. If anything, there may have been a lingering sense of hope that it might be a fun little piece of family entertainment. I was so very wrong and am firing both barrels at this thing, Let me lay down the premise for you…

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Dusty Crophopper is a plane dreaming of competing in aerial races. His role as a cropduster keeps him in the same boring routine day after day. Despite his low-class job, Dusty does go to a qualifying tournament for the prestigious Wings Across The World race. Due to a technicality, Dusty does qualify for the global race. There’s a quirky twist though. Dusty is afraid of heights (a plane afraid of heights, I’d dare call that idea wacky), so begins training under a war veteran named Skipper. Of course, his fierce competitors don’t take too kindly to a lowly farm plane competing with the likes of them. Dusty must overcome his fears, beat his rivals, and make some new friends to win this race.

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One might call PLANES an easy target for criticism, because it was intended for children. However, I will use my favorite rebuttal when reviewing films like this. Good family entertainment is entertaining for the whole family! Using the excuse of “Well, the kids liked it. Wasn’t that the point?” is not a valid point. Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks, and even Sony Animation all have their fair share of hits and misses, but the hits go on to become memorable classics to be cherished because they were absolutely GOOD films. I’m not intentionally searching out direct-to-video kiddie films to bash on. I know those are dinky little cartoons, but PLANES was released theatrically from a studio well-known for delivering fantastic entertainment. I was at the very least expecting something serviceable, but PLANES fails in every single respect.

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There’s a big difference between crude humor and adult humor. PLANES continually mistakes the former for the latter. The film is full of some sexual humor (planes remarking on the back propellers of female planes). Pop culture references that already seem dated are sprinkled in. There is a poop joke thrown in at the end for good measure and even a little offensive religious humor. This is found in the offensively stereotypical character of a plane from India that believes in recycling (instead of reincarnation, get it?) and finds tractors (instead of cows) sacred. Plenty of children’s entertainment (plenty from Disney) have showcased intelligent jokes thrown into their sweet tales of overcoming incredible odds and learning what’s truly important in life. PLANES isn’t one of these films.

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Dane Cook provides the voice of Dusty Crophopper and that alone speaks volumes to this films quality. The man can act (e.g. MR. BROOKS), but Cook sounds like he’s just reading lines with a quick paycheck being waved in front of him. In fact, that’s possibly how the recording sessions went. Other washed up comedians populate the side characters, including Gabriel Iglesias and Sinbad. Everybody speaks as if they’re baby-talking the characters for the kids. Fun fact is that this film was originally intended for a direct-to-video release. It was produced by the DisneyToon Studios portion of Disney. DisneyToon has been responsible for every terrible sequel Disney has produced, along with all those cheap-looking CGI films. The animation of PLANES looks about on the same level as these bad films. This more than deserved to make a quick buck on the home video market. It’s insulting and underhanded that Disney put this abomination out in nationwide theatrical release.

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Surprisingly, PLANES also never seems to nail precisely what kind of tone it want to use. It’s overly cutesy and familiar, but there’s also a bit of a misguided serious edge in parts. A perfect example of this is a war flashback that comes out of nowhere and involves other planes being blown up and killed. It takes a skillful hand to balance wonderment and a darker side. THE BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER is a good example of this done right. On the other hand, PLANES is a film that babies its audience for a majority of the film. It makes things a bit startling when the story decides to launch the viewer into this impromptu scene of destruction that feels so radically out-of-place, it’s almost shocking.

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The tagline of PLANES shouldn’t read “From above the world of CARS.” It should say “From the director of TINKERBELL AND THE LOST TREASURE and the studio line that gave you all those terrible direct-to-video sequels to beloved classics, comes PLANES. This film was originally slated for a direct-to-DVD release but somehow got put into theaters everywhere.” I also have written what should be the tagline for the upcoming sequel “The first one made money and your kids will drag you to see this one too. See you during next few years for BOATS and TRAINS.” Enough said!

Grade: F

TRUE ROMANCE (1993)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

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

1. True Romance

Directed by: Tony Scott

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Michael Rapaport, Bronson Pinchot, Saul Rubinek, Dennis Hopper, James Gandolfini, Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken, Chris Penn, Tom Sizemore, Brad Pitt, Val Kilmer & Samuel L. Jackson

Quentin Tarantino is a master at what he does, but he doesn’t have a few lesser films here and there. It may be blasphemous, but I think the KILL BILL movies are a bit overrated. TRUE ROMANCE is a Quentin Tarantino film that doesn’t quite fall under his name in the usual sense. Instead of directing (which he originally planned to do), Tarantino just wrote the script and sold it to another director. Some minor tweaking was done, mainly to the ending, but I have a feeling that this was pretty much the vision of Tarantino, rather than Tony Scott. This being said, TRUE ROMANCE may be a cult hit, but it’s got some problems.

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Clarence (Christian Slater) is about to go see a kung-fu triple feature, when he runs across Alabama (Patricia Arquette), a pretty young woman who seems to be into him. Three Sony Chiba movies later, the two are bonding over eating a pie at a diner, then they return to Clarence’s apartment. After some steamy sex, Alabama reveals that she is a call girl but has fallen deeply in love with Clarence as the night as gone on. Throwing caution to the wind, the two lovebirds get married.

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Clarence is still a little edgy about Alabama’s pimp, Drexl. The ghost of Elvis (Clarence’s idol) appears to him and tells him to go confront the dreadlocked dead-eyed creep and let him know that Alabama is done with him. Things go sour, the pimp is killed and Clarence mistakenly takes a suitcase full of cocaine from the scene. Now, Clarence and Alabama are on the run and have to contend with the sinister gangsters who want their cocaine back, along with some cops who are investigating these stolen drugs.

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TRUE ROMANCE is a movie that nearly gives away all of its good scenes within the first hour. The confrontation between Clarence and Drexl (played by a creepy-ass Gary Oldman) is my personal favorite scene in the movie. Everything from the background music to the carefully chosen words that continue to escalate the tension is absolutely essential to giving the audience a memorable showdown between hero and freaky villain. In lesser hands, this role of a wigger could have been a stereotypical joke, but Oldman blends into it and makes it absolutely terrifying to watch.

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Dennis Hopper shows up as Clarence’s father and lasts about two scenes, while Christopher Walken is an intimidating gangster. It’s a pity that Walken’s stone-cold killer only appears in one scene. As the movie progresses, I was expecting him to come back in a big way, but it was not to be. James Gandolfini is also quite evil as a gangster who isn’t afraid to beat a woman halfway to death.

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You may notice that I am only mentioning the villains and that’s part of the problem with TRUE ROMANCE. For the protagonists, Clarence and Alabama seem like one note characters. They’re in love. That’s about it. There are bits of exposition given about Clarence’s troubled relationship with his father, how much he loves comics and how Alabama also adores Elvis, while being smitten with Clarence. It’s throwaway stuff. The movie also throws in the subplot with the cops in the final 30 minutes as almost an afterthought. Things build to a cool few final scenes, but there’s a good chunk of movie that drags.

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TRUE ROMANCE has a cult following and while the film is a blip on the radar of when compared to other crime-thrillers, it is a decent flick. There are some major issues I have with the film that ultimately deterred my enjoyment of it. This is a perfect example where some edits would have made for a more tense and cool flick. The main couple experiencing the “True Romance” as it were, weren’t exactly worth rooting for either. They almost seemed like cardboard cutouts with a few more inches to thicken them up. Overall, the film is worth a look but is far from Tarantino’s best writing or Tony Scott’s best movie.

Grade: B-

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