Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Death Warrant

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You can’t go into this thinking it’s an action movie.  There are certainly times when it wants to be, especially the ending where Van Damme goes toe to toe with one of the main villains in a prison boiler room and there are dozens of inmates gathered round cheering on Van Damme’s supposed demise in a frenzy.  But I assure you, this is a thriller/mystery more than anything else.

Really I don’t have a whole lot to say about this one but I do want to make a few points.  First, the plot is a good one involving Van Damme going undercover in jail to find out who’s been killing off the prisoners one by one.  He isn’t subtle about being a cop either.  On his first couple of days he goes so far out of his way to make friends with one particular guy (Robert Guillaume (Rafiki from The Lion King)) that he thinks can be an ally on his mission (of course he turns out to be right).  Van Damme also meets a lot of people very quickly and asks them all really suspicious questions.  I get that the filmmakers moved the investigation along for the sake of the movie but it makes all the prisoners look pretty stupid.  Anyway, we eventually find out that the prison is harvesting the inmates’ organs to sell them on the black market which I have to admit I did not see coming.  That’s kind of a crazy twist and I like it.

Image result for death warrant 1990Second, this thing looks and feels sorta cheap.  It tends to ride the border between A and B picture shuffling back and forth depending on the scene.  The reason I bring this up is because two of Van Damme’s previous films, Bloodsport and Kickboxer, both look better than this one in my opinion.  Death Warrant feels like a step back in terms of production and that was a little surprising considering his career was heating up at the time.

Third, this was written by David Goyer.  Yea, the same guy who wrote Dark City, Blade and essentially all the Nolan Batmans.  The man has good story ideas.

Fourth, this is not an action movie.

This one’s pretty lackluster and was made in the same year (1990) as arguably Van Damme’s best picture, Lionheart.  The contrast is pretty amazing between the two actually.  In Death Warrant he plays a hero cop, the film mostly takes place in one location, there are really only two fight sequences to speak of and while the story isn’t anything original (Michael Crichton’s Coma is at least one other movie about organ trafficking that came out before this) it’s one you don’t come across very often.  In Lionheart Van Damme is a French Foreign Legion deserter, the settings range from Africa to a ship bound for NY to the Big Apple itself to LA, there are a lot of fights (it’s an underground fight club movie after all) and the story had already been done many times before including twice previously by Van Damme himself.

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Death Warrant (formerly known as Dusted by the way, neither title makes a lot of sense) is definitely nonessential to include in your action or Van Damme repertoire.  It just doesn’t succeed at being a great mystery movie.  The investigation unfolds too slowly to build enough suspense and then suddenly speeds up because we’re nearing the end of the picture and shit needs to be revealed and wrapped up.  Van Damme feels out of place and the couple of fight scenes the filmmakers obviously shoehorned in when he signed on have nothing to do with the main plot.  They easily could’ve been omitted and it wouldn’t have affected the story whatsoever.

Interestingly Van Damme would make another black market organ film with Pound of Flesh in 2015.  I wanna say I liked that better but honestly I’m not sure. 

Sorry Death Warrant but I’m gonna have to put a warrant out for your…arrest?

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Jungle Book (1994)

Image result for the jungle book 1994From what I can tell this adaptation of Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” isn’t really an adaptation.  The filmmakers used pieces of the original story and Disney’s famous animated version but pretty much made up their own tale for the most part.  It’s about a dude named Mowgli (Jason Scott Lee (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Soldier) who was raised in the jungles of India by wolves and a bear and…hold on a sec.  Those animals aren’t native to India.  Oh whatever, so anyway he’s been in the wilderness for so long that he forgot what it means to be a civilized man, including speaking any recognizable language, and acts like his wild animal brothers and sisters.  He eventually stumbles upon English colonists and they try to get him to behave like a domesticated human again while also attempting to pump him for info on hidden treasure.

The story is surprisingly well crafted.  They start with the familiar Jungle Book shit that you’ve seen from Disney before to get you on board but then they change everything up to focus on Mowgli’s re-entry into society and the challenges that that brings (interestingly this version was also made by Disney, sure it was a totally different era in the company’s history but still they decided not to do a straight live action version of their animated feature and I appreciate that).  Probably the deepest the film goes is in one particularly thought-provoking scene between Mowgli and the villain, played by the brilliant Cary Elwes (Shadow of the Vampire, Dracula (1992)), where Mowgli can’t grasp why someone would want to kill another human if it wasn’t for the purpose of gathering food or defending yourself.  Elwes doesn’t really have an answer for him except “…because he’s your enemy”.

There are times when the story is incredibly rushed though.  Like Mowgli learns to speak English and adopt English customs in what seems like only a week.  Or he discovers mountains of treasure in Monkey City and then suddenly runs into the modern English folks in what feels like the same afternoon.  This was all done for the purpose of simply moving things along and in this case I don’t mind it that much.  The love triangle between Mowgli, the love interest (Lena Headey (Dredd)) and the bad guy is constructed quickly but takes its time once you know where everyone stands.  And that’s what’s impressive.  The whole middle of the picture is completely focused on these three playing off of each other and holds back on integrating pointless action scenes.  I got invested.

Image result for the jungle book 1994The other very strong aspect of the film is the cinematography.  This is one fuckin’ pretty picture man.  Juan Ruiz Anchia (Glengarry Glen Ross) did a gorgeous job capturing the beauty of India (they did actually film there) by keeping lighting and colors vibrant.  There’s a lot of movement with the camera too but it’s always graceful and makes the movie feel a little more important than it actually is.

The production designer, Allan Cameron (Showgirls, Starship Troopers), also makes the film feel bigger and more elegant with the great costumes and ridiculous set design.  He nailed turn of the century India in the most fantastic (and I’m sure totally unrealistic) way that you picture it in your mind.  I absolutely love the way this thing looks.

Bad director Stephen Sommers (Deep Rising) did this and I knew that going in.  I was prepared for something way less thoughtful like The Mummys he did but, shit, I gotta give him credit for making a damn fine movie, his best that I’ve seen.  However I wanna say that he was probably limited with the budget and this forced him to make something with less action and more character development than he probably would’ve done otherwise (watch his other pictures and you’ll see what I mean).  That didn’t stop him from inserting two closeup shots of a horrible looking fuckin’ CGI snake though.

So overall wow, this is actually a really good movie.  There are so many neat things in here like a real long stretch with no dialogue where it’s Mowgli interacting with animals and humans and it’s crystal clear what he’s communicating, they managed to use real live animals (with one exception, see above) for the characters that required it instead of some sort of animation or animatronics or etc, and the casting is spot on.    

Image result for the jungle book 1994 cary elwesIf you don’t mind anthropomorphized animals (which is a small part of the film but when it’s in there it’s at full bore) and the story abandoning the Jungle Book you know for its own thang then there’s a real cool picture here about what it means to be human, or something.

Oh and you also have to be ok with a body count that’s astonishingly high for a family movie.  There are six confirmed kills, including an asshole that gets buried alive, and then another at least seven unconfirmed deaths (mostly humans murdering other humans by the way).  Oh right and torture.  I guess you gotta be alright with that too.  Hey, this ain’t your father’s Jungle Book.