CON AIR (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Language

Directed by: Simon West

Written by: Scott Rosenberg

Starring: Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, Colm Meaney, Danny Trejo, M.C. Gainey, Nick Chinlund & Dave Chappelle

Even though the 80s was home to lots of cheesy R-rated action flicks, the 90s seemed bound and determined to churn out increasingly ridiculous action entertainment. Originally released in the same month as another outrageous Nicolas Cage action vehicle FACE/OFF, CON AIR is a crazy ride. It’s stupid and ludicrous, but it’s also funny and enjoyable. The material’s cheesiness lends to the entertainment factor as we get one hell of a cast, competently directed action, and unrealistically high stakes. If you want explosions and Nicolas Cage (in a mullet, trying to pull of a bad accent), then CON AIR is for you.

After killing a man to protect his wife, Army Ranger Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage) has been handed a ten-year prison sentence. Being a good guy at heart, Poe quietly serves his time and waits to go home to his loving wife and daughter (who doesn’t know him yet, but still writes him adorable letters). When he’s granted parole, Poe boards the massive prison aircraft Jailbird. Things go awry when the evil madman “Cyrus the Virus” (John Malkovich) and the rest of the dangerous convicts wind up taking over the plane. If he wishes to ever see his wife again and hopes to save some lives in the process, Poe will have to carefully help take down the prisoner-hijacked plane. Meanwhile, U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack) attempts to stop folks from simply blowing up the plane.

CON AIR is stupid, ridiculously stupid. There’s the whole prisoner revolt sequence, which seems to rely on an unlikely series of coincidences (with a prisoner smuggling gasoline on board) and a series of easily-accessible levers. As if the hijacked airplane wasn’t enough for the plot’s high stakes, they also throw in a subplot about Poe’s cellmate being diabetic and all of the syringes on the plane being smashed. To boot, the laws of physics are frequently defied and you know what? All of this stupidity and the sheer ridiculous nature of the film are the bombastic fun to watch! This is a big dumb popcorn movie and doesn’t aspire to be anything more than that.

As the heroic Poe, Nicolas Cage has horribly wooden line delivery and evokes a cheesiness that remains unrivaled in his filmography. Cage’s serious moments are hilarious and they’re not supposed to be. He also sports the worst mullet in the world and tries to pull of a terrible Southern accent (which downright disappears during a few scenes). As a so-so supporting character, John Cusack sweats on the ground level and gets involved in the finale when the action leaves the confines of the plane. Colm Meaney plays a hot-headed higher-up and adds to the tension as he seems just a tad too trigger-happy.

The convicts are the real show-stealers though, because each one of these colorful characters adds something memorable to the film. Ving Rhames plays intimidating gangster henchman Diamond Dog, while Danny Trejo (who was once a real-life convict) has the role of a rape-happy thug. M.C. Gainey is a huge highlight as hyperactive pilot prisoner “Swamp Thing” and delivers one of the cheesiest jokes in the entire film. There’s also a miscast Dave Chappelle as junkie “Pinball.” Steve Buscemi stars as serial killer Garland Greene (whose murders make the Manson Family look like the Partridge Family), coming off as both creepy and unexpectedly funny. John Malkovich gives the best performance in the film as “Cyrus the Virus.” He’s such an entertaining baddie and his death scene is probably one of my favorite action deaths ever (as it goes on for a while and he bites it in three increasingly over-the-top ways).

In terms of action, CON AIR never once gets repetitive. There are one-on-one fights, plane crashes, car chases, explosions, midair combat, and showdowns in various locations. The film is also shot in a way wherein the viewer can make out what the hell is going on and which characters are giving/receiving the blows/bullets. To say that the film gets over-the-top in its action would be a huge understatement as one scene has a broken propeller flying between Cage and Malkovich…to break up their confrontation in the most insane way possible.

CON AIR has lots of goofy details and obvious flaws. There’s the silly performance from Nicolas Cage and the colorful prisoners (who all contribute to the humor and action). The film’s soundtrack seems downright strange in places (Trisha Yearwood’s “How Do I Live” is incredibly out-of-place for this film, but still received an Oscar nomination) and the same guitar riff is played around a hundred times throughout the score. For all of its faults and stupidity, CON AIR is fun and succeeds at being entertaining from start to finish. If you’re into action movies (especially ridiculous ones) and you haven’t seen CON AIR, you owe it to yourself to sit through this one!

Grade: B

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

SURROGATES (2009)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 29 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence, Disturbing Images, Language, Sexuality and a Drug-Related Scene

Directed by: Jonathan Mostow

Written by: John Brancato & Michael Ferris

(based on the graphic novel THE SURROGATES by Robert Venditti)

Starring: Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, Jack Noseworthy, James Cromwell, Ving Rhames, Boris Kodjoe & Devin Ratray

SURROGATES is a sci-fi-action thriller that sounds really cool in theory and had a solid marketing campaign behind it. I remember being excited for back in Fall 2009 and then leaving the theater underwhelmed. Where does this high-concept, so-so delivery sci-fi flick go wrong? Well, it’s due to a variety of factors that I’ll be looking at. SURROGATES is not a bad movie, not at all. There are some cool qualities and decent entertainment value to be had, but not much else.

In the far distant future of 2025, society has embraced the usage of mind-operated androids, known as “surrogates.” These machines allow you to live your life without ever leaving your home. You change your appearance to suit your needs (regardless of age, race, gender or body type). You can never worry about disease again and avoid danger on a daily basis. Crime rates have plummeted an astounding 99% since the implementation of surrogates, but that changes when FBI agent Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) and his partner Jennifer Peters (Radha Mitchell) are called in to investigate the first homicide in years. Someone has built a weapon that can liquefy the brains of a user through their surrogate. Through a twist of fate, Tom survives an attack and must hunt the killer in a world where the only human on the streets is him.

SURROGATES has a concept that’s brimming with potential and seems incredibly relevant in the social media age. When people are more comfortable chatting as cartoon avatars or vicariously living through a celebrity’s live feed, then this film holds some truth. The social commentary sprinkled throughout SURROGATES is far from subtle, but it does remain interesting. This includes Tom’s wife, Maggie (Rosamund Pike), being all-out addicted to her surrogate to avoid a tragic reality. However, ideas of military use, surrogates as tools, murder being involved in surrogates and anti-surrogate protesters are all briefly glanced over in a shallow way. Even Maggie’s sad storyline seems a bit sidelined in the later proceedings.

The more interesting pieces of SURROGATE’s plot are placed in the backseat to make way for a rather clichéd murder-conspiracy thriller. The problem with this is that it’s predictable and feels formulaic. The 89-minute running also makes it seem like this movie wants to end as fast as it possibly can, character development and deeper meanings be damned. Taken as it is, SURROGATES is serviceable enough entertainment. However, there’s never any time for the viewer to adjust to a new plot twist or ponder a new clue that Greer discovers. This lazy script immediately spoonfeeds the audience everything. This is especially mind-boggling because the very premise of SURROGATES seems like it would provide food for thought.

As Tom Greer, Bruce Willis looks very bored. It’s almost like he realized how much of a missed opportunity this entire endeavor was and then proceeded to phone it in. Bored Willis is entertaining in a few ways, but it doesn’t feel like he’s putting much effort into his performance at all. Radha Mitchell is okay enough as Agent Peters, but it feels like some of her character’s scenes were deleted. At least, this is the impression I got from the inclusion of her non-surrogate moments that seem to have no rhyme or reason to exist. Rosamund Pike is solid as Greer’s grief-stricken, surrogate-addicted wife and easily gives the best performance of the cast.

James Cromwell makes a welcomed presence as the inventor of surrogates, but his screen time is limited to say the least. It’s almost like they brought Cromwell on for a single day of shooting and then quickly ushered him away from the set. Ving Rhames is entertaining in just about every film he’s starred in and that remains the case here. As anti-surrogate leader The Prophet, Rhames is allowed some room to ham it up and be menacing. Much like Cromwell’s scientist though, it feels like there’s just too little of him.

SURROGATES is like the feature-length version of an okay TWILIGHT ZONE episode. The effects and production values look good, as they should with an 80-million-dollar price tag attached to them. Intricacies in this android-filled world are briefly touched upon and then fast forgotten, while there is one decent deeper subplot in this film. The action is fun and the half-assed thriller script is entertaining for what it is. If this is on cable or you’re out of film choices, then I’d say give SURROGATES a watch. It’s an 89-minute time killer that will keep your attention, but leave you wondering how much better this might have been with a smarter screenplay behind it. Overall, SURROGATES is okay…when it could have been great.

Grade: B-

DARK BLUE (2003)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Language and brief Sexuality

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Directed by: Ron Shelton

Written by: David Ayer & James Ellroy

Starring: Kurt Russell, Scott Speedman, Michael Michele, Brendan Gleeson, Ving Rhames, Master P, Kurupt, Dash Mihok & Jonathan Banks

David Ayer is no stranger to gritty crime thrillers. After making a huge splash with 2001’s acclaimed TRAINING DAY, Ayer was hired on to retool a script titled THE PLAGUE SEASON. Though the new title DARK BLUE is somewhat generic, this film about corrupt cops, murderous crooks, and escalating racial tension does enough to stick out from other movies of its ilk. Though the plot moves at a slow pace for the first hour and one actor seems woefully miscast, DARK BLUE winds up being a suspenseful thriller that packs in twists, turns and a fascinating character study of a complex protagonist.

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Los Angeles, April 1992: The public nervously awaits the verdict for four police officers who viciously beat Rodney King. The city is suffocating with racial tensions at an all-time high, but this doesn’t stop corrupt police officer Eldon Perry (Kurt Russell) from doing his job with extreme prejudice. Perry’s precinct is as dirty as they come, with corruption leading straight to the top. When Perry’s rookie partner Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman) is exonerated from a suspicious shooting, Assistant Arthur Holland (Ving Rhames) and Lieutenant Beth Williamson (Michael Michele) become determined to clean up the precinct…starting with Perry, Keough, and their powerful boss Jack Van Meter (Brendan Gleeson). Meanwhile, Perry and Keough are assigned to investigate a convenience store murder-robbery that isn’t as simple as it seems.

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One big quality that immediately sticks out of DARK BLUE is Kurt Russell’s performance as Eldon Perry, a character who’s as far from likable as any protagonist can be. Perry’s cocky attitude, brash way of saying horrible things that he legitimately believes, and blatantly wicked actions make him into a fascinating lead, regardless of his mountain of shortcomings and twisted moral compass. Ultimately, Perry’s story arc becomes the most fascinating part of DARK BLUE’s plot. I won’t dare spoil what occurs, but I was more than captivated by what took place during the film’s second half. Kurt Russell plays Perry as a loud-mouthed gunfighter, which seems perfectly suited for this colorful character.

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In the opposite end of the film’s performances, we have Scott Speedman as Bobby Keough. This character isn’t exactly fleshed out to a believable degree and becomes more of a walking plot point as the film moves forward, but Speedman’s wooden line delivery certainly doesn’t salvage any humanity from this cardboard cut-out with a badge. Far more interesting is Ving Rhames as Arthur Holland who serves as a main player for the first half until he’s unceremoniously regulated to the background and his sidekick takes over. Also worth mentioning is Brendan Gleeson as the scummy Jack Van Meter. Though Gleeson occasionally lets his Irish accent slip through, he manages to keep it hidden for 90% of his performance and comes off as an intimidating figure. Kurupt and Dash Mihok shine as two dim-witted thugs with more to them than meets the eye.

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DARK BLUE’s first half works as a slow-burn of escalating conflicts and plot developments. No scene feels wasted as each moment keeps a pressure cooker going to a point where action, bloodshed and bullets will erupt. That action mainly takes place during the Rodney King riots, which are set as a threatening backdrop to the main story and further capitalize upon the issues of the time (aiding major plot points as well). The riot sequences are chaotic in a good way, with small details being replicated from actual footage of the terrifying real-life events. Though the film’s noticeably uneven pacing may turn certain viewers off, those who aren’t bothered by deliberately slow scenes will be greatly rewarded during the second half and powerful final minutes.

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DARK BLUE uses a couple of familiar cop-movie clichés and sports one very weak main character (Scott Speedman’s useless rookie), but the film delivers in being a tense thriller that mixes slow suspense with gritty realistic action. Kurt Russell’s amazing performance warrants a watch by itself, though Ving Rhames and Brendan Gleeson also deliver memorable moments. The script goes into uncomfortable places and will leave the viewer with more to mentally chew on than an average cops-and-robbers thriller. Don’t expect this film to be as amazing as TRAINING DAY, but do expect to have an interesting experience and feel complicated emotional responses whilst watching DARK BLUE!

Grade: B

THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Terror/Violence

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Directed by: Wes Craven

Written by: Wes Craven

Starring: Brandon Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie, A.J. Langer, Ving Rhames & Sean Whalen

In a filmography populated by supernatural killers, cannibal mutants, Voodoo, and shocksploitation, I’m pretty sure that THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS is Wes Craven’s strangest film…and that’s saying quite a lot. This urban horror story has lots of creativity on display and tone that seems deeply contrasted to the rest of Craven’s work. The story constantly straddles the line between goofy exaggerated comedy or demented brilliance. Sometimes, it leans a little too heavily on the comedic side of things. For the most part though, this is a grisly, fun horror flick.

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Fool is a young boy living in the Los Angeles ghetto. His situation is not ideal, especially when strange landlords give an eviction notice with 24 hours to comply. Desperate to keep his family under a roof, Fool joins up with Leroy, his sister’s criminal boyfriend, in order to break into the landlords’ house to steal a rare coin collection. This isn’t as simple as it sounds, because the Robesons are not quite your typical landlord couple. By that I mean that they’re an incestuous brother and sister who have a collection of “people” chained in their basement and a house decorated with deadly booby traps. Fool quickly finds himself stuck in the Robesons’ home and trying to escape from the nightmare that he’s found himself in.

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Wes Craven is a mixed bag director for me. On one hand, he’s directed great films that have stood as classics in the horror genre. He penned one of the best slashers of all time (involving a certain burnt, razor-glove-wearing psycho). However, a number of his scripts have great ideas, but no one to help reign them in. PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS has one of these scripts. This film is almost like a gorier version of THE GOONIES crossed with something the vein of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE or SPIDER BABY. Simply put, the material is absolutely bonkers. While that works for the most part, there are also scenes that feel like they go on for a tad too long. The climax of the film especially feels like there were great ideas that have ultimately wound up becoming too ridiculous.

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Fool comes off as a pretty bland protagonist and doesn’t appear nearly as terrified as anyone else would be in this crazy scenario. He also delivers cheesy dialogue that made me roll my eyes a few times. This was especially true during the finale. Leroy (played by Ving Rhames) has a strong presence as a hardened gangster who isn’t too bright. However, these protagonists are more than made up for in the Robesons. This insane couple are two of the most demented horror villains to ever grace the screen. I loved every scene featuring Everett McGill and Wendy Robie as the psycho siblings. They chew the scenery like it’s going out of style. Robie is entertaining as a 1950’s-style loon with a painted face. McGill is a blast to watch as a shotgun-toting maniac (wearing full BDSM gear) who constantly screams profanity-laden insults at the top of his lungs while shooting holes in his own house.

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Every moment involving the Robesons is a neat combination of depravity and hilarity. An early scene involving the “Daddy” picking buckshot out of his dinner perfectly introduces these deranged mental siblings. The dark humor works in the scenes involving the couple, but doesn’t work at all during scenes involving their flesh-eating Rottweiler. These are mainly made up of Fool’s confrontations with the dog. Know that I’m not exaggerating when he actually distracts the killer animal by yelling “Your momma slept with a cat!” and we get a dramatic shot of the dog looking up from his victim like “What did you just say?” I was rolling my eyes, but as much as when Fool punched the dog in the nose and we get a “bop” sound effect to capitalize on that.

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THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STARS mainly entertains due to its villains who steal every bit of screen time they’re given. The Robesons are two of Wes Craven’s most disturbing characters and the wild creativity on display also boosts the film. On the bad side of things, the protagonists are sort of bland other than being hapless kids. The tonal shifts between humor and full-blown horror also don’t work as well as they should. However, there’s a lot of insanity and fun to be had in watching Wes Craven’s weirdest creation.

Grade: B

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