New Releases for September 6, 2016
Hard Target 2
Directed by: Roel Reiné
Run time: 104 minutes
The Lowdown: Way back in 1993, action maestro John Woo made his U.S. debut with a pulpy, bone-jarring genre film called “Hard Target,” starring a then-white-hot Jean-Claude Van Damme.
I read recently a write-up of the best action flicks of the 1990s, and surprisingly, “Hard Target” was included on the list. I don’t remember much about the film other than it was set in New Orleans, it starred Lance Henriksen as the main bad guy and Van Damme’s character’s name was the ridiculously awesome Chance Boudreaux.
Flash forward 23 years, and suddenly, there’s a sequel, only it’s not starring Van-Damme. Instead, we get Scott Adkins, a popular mixed-martial-arts actor, whose wooden delivery could give Kaw-Liga a run for his money. In place of Henriksen, we get Robert Knepper, the reliably oily character actor who often gets tapped to play the big bad. And instead of the Big Easy, this time the action is set in the lush jungles of Myanmar.
I won’t lie – I miss the over-the-top action films of the 1990s. They served an escapist purpose, and often delivered a thrilling viewing experience. But if you’re going to update a film that itself was an update of the 1932 classic, “The Most Dangerous Game,” you really should put more thought into how crazy the action could be now that we’re in the 21st century.
By that measure, Hard Target 2 is pretty tepid and tame.
Adkins plays Wes “The Jailer” Baylor, an MMA fighter whose nickname clearly refers to the time-suck penalty some people will feel while watching Hard Target 2. We know exactly two things about Baylor – he broods, a lot; and in the film’s best sequence, its opening fight, he squares off against his best friend and wants to win so bad that he literally Killer KO’s him to death with one punch. As far as sympathetic heroes go, Baylor is not the most likely target.
Once he gets duped into agreeing to one final fight for $1 million by Knepper’s single-named Aldrich (we know he’s bad because he carves up his own sushi with a big Crocodile Dundee knife), suddenly Baylor has a crisis of conscience but it’s too late. He’s introduced to his hunters, which include a backwoods father-son duo; a Spanish ‘profiler,’ whatever that means; the lone female, who is raging against father issues and wears skintight leather; a big game safari hunter; and the world’s best (and most annoying) first-person-shooter videogame player.
At least in the original “Hard Target,” the bad guys were goofy but skilled.
From there, things proceed exactly as you would expect them to, and that’s the big problem with Hard Target 2. Baylor is an in-ring fighter; he’s not John Rambo. He has no ability to use his environment to his advantage, a la “First Blood.” And he really has no use for his fists since all of his hunters are equipped with crossbows, automatic weapons and mortar-firing grenade guns.
What he does have is the requisite ‘hot girl in the jungle,’ whom he stumbles upon after falling down a mountain and slamming into a sleeping elephant. Yep, I just typed that. But someone else typed it first – in the script.
The hot girl, Tha (that’s not a typo, that’s her name), knows all about the hunters because her missing brother once was their prey. So she immediately starts helping Baylor and then she immediately becomes a target too.
Hard Target Too, get it?
Anyway, through no real planning, they quickly and efficiently begin to dispatch with the bad guys, which makes Aldrich super angry because clients dying is bad for business. Baylor grimaces a lot. Tha encourages him to pray and uses lots of mystical jungle hoo-ha to soothe his inner savage beast and salve his wounds. They stumble across a bunch of cleverly hidden Buddha statues and temples, which is pretty cool, even if you have to wonder if Southeast Asia really has that many hidden temples in the jungle.
And finally, they reach the border for the climatic showdown with Aldrich, who is just as hard to kill as this franchise, apparently.
There’s a warm and fuzzy coda, which is to be expected. And a bunch of odd, cutting-room floor footage tacked into the end credits. But really, Hard Target 2 – despite trying really hard to feel like a lost action gem from the 1990s – just underwhelms.
It misses so many opportunities to ramp up the action, or do something shocking and brutal, that making it all the way to the end of the movie feels more like an act of contrition (I’m sorry, I did watch “Chill Factor” more than once back in 1999, and for that I am now being punished) than a viewing accomplishment.
The Stuff You Care About: Hot chicks – Rhona Mitra is bad-girl hot.
Nudity – No. Gore – No.
Drug use – No.
Bad Guys/Killers – Human hunters.
Buy/Rent – Rent it.
The Darkness (Universal, 93 minutes, PG-13, Blu-Ray): Greg McLean broke big into the horror genre in 2005 with “Wolf Creek,” his Australian equivalent of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” He hasn’t done much since despite the rabid (even if I don’t get why) fan-base for his first murderous creation, Mick Taylor, but McLean showed enough skill in that debut to warrant watching a new film bearing his name when one is released.
And, truth be told, his latest, The Darkness, starts off solid because it approaches its target genre – paranormal/supernatural possession/entity – from a fresh vantage point, the mythology and folklore of the Anasazi Indians. It doesn’t hurt that McClean recruited the always reliable Kevin Bacon and perpetual genre star Radha Mitchell to shoulder the bulk of the film as parents to a young autistic boy (Gotham’s David Mazouz) who brings home some ancient stones from a trip to the Grand Canyon and unknowingly unleashes five demonic Anasazi warrior spirits.
The problem with The Darkness is that McClean & Co. don’t do much with a good premise. They ping-pong from one violent outburst to another, letting the harbingers of doom almost overshadow the actual demonic spirit threat, and then, finally, when the third act does address the spirits directly, McClean basically rips off “Poltergeist” and supplants an Anasazi shaman for Tangina along with his version of a phantom void and lots of other cheap parlor tricks.
The theatrical version ends with an almost whiplash-inducing feel-good coda, which is jarring. Interestingly, the Blu-Ray includes an alternate “shocking” ending, Universal’s “emphasis,” not mine, that isn’t much better but it does work better within the context of the bulk of the original film. It’s also somewhat whiplash-y in that the alternate ending jumps right off from the “Poltergeist” rip-off and then barrels into WTF territory by moving a segment kept in the original version to the alternate end and tacking on a giant monster that is nowhere to be found in the original. Oh, and everybody dies – kids and all – which I guess is pretty shocking.
I don’t know if I had seen the alternate ending first if I would have liked The Darkness any better. I think maybe I’m just burned out on paranormal/supernatural possession/entity films for now.
Urge (Lionsgate, 104 minutes, R, Blu-Ray): Oh, Urge, how you make the wordplay just spill forth.
As in, I felt a distinct “urge” to turn you off in the first 15 minutes after you introduced a handful of truly unlikeable characters – rich, affluent millennials, one and all – that just didn’t interest me.
But I fought that “urge” and soldiered on, thankfully, long enough to see Pierce Brosnan go full-Brando, a la “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” as a sinister, cartoonish nightclub owner and local provider of the latest designer drug, the titular Urge.
Brosnan’s ridiculous, over-the-top bravado compelled me to keep watching long enough to see the Hollywood fabrication of an illicit fetish club that sadly will pale in comparison for anyone who has ever experienced a real fetish club.
I’m pretty sure the singular thrust of any movie centrally focused on a narcotic high should be to make the viewer want nothing more than to experience that high themselves. Even horrific drug allegories like “Requiem for a Dream” and “Spun” made you curious about the euphoric rush their respective characters were experiencing.
I felt no urge to try Urge, even as I resisted, but ultimately succumbed to, the urge to hit eject.
The Dead Room (Shout! Factory, 78 minutes, Unrated, Blu-Ray): Director Jason Stutter deserves props. For the majority of his genuinely unnerving, surprisingly effective haunted house thriller, The Dead Room, he manages to keep viewers alert and on edge without showing a single ghost. Stutter makes great use out of slamming doors, shattering glass, swinging light fixtures and more to convey what it might actually be like inside a legitimately haunted house. Then, in the last 15 minutes, he finally succumbs and, oddly, I wish he hadn’t. Actually, I take that back – Stutter makes the right call to show us a dead and chained individual, locked away for decades inside a hidden subterranean room. It’s a pretty chilling reveal following the spooktacular goings-on of the first two-thirds of the film. But then Stutter lets his ghost get up and move around and that’s where I wish he had left the consequences to our imagination. Still, The Dead Room is a decent little spooky story that has flown low on the radar but actually deserves to be seen.
Equals (Lionsgate, 101 minutes, Unrated, Blu-Ray): In 1976, audiences were treated to the great dystopian science-fiction thriller “Logan’s Run,” which imagined a future where people are killed on their 30th birthday to preserve the utopian society that’s been created. Cheesy and deserving of its cult status, “Logan’s Run” is ripe for a redo in our remake-happy age. Until that happens, fans may have to be satisfied by similarly-themed films like Equals, another dystopian science-fiction feature that imagines a future where people are killed for feeling feelings, touching each other or – gasp – having sex. Equals is a fascinating movie to look at with its stark, white, cold and clinical sets, its monochromatic costuming and blank-faced extras. As an involving drama, it’s a bit difficult to form a connection with despite the best intentions of its two stars, Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart, who gaze longingly at each other and bite their lips and do everything possible besides touch to convey attraction and personal heat. In “Logan’s Run,” citizens who fought against the totalitarian regime were called ‘Runners.’ In Equals, people who actually feel but suppress those feelings in order to survive are called ‘Hiders.’ You may sense the inherent problem. It’s a lot more fun to watch someone run from an oppressive government than watch someone hide from a similar government by displaying zero emotion whatsoever.
Night of the Living Deb (MPI, 84 minutes, Unrated, Blu-Ray): For anyone wishing “Shawn of the Dead” had had a female perspective, you’re in luck. Night of the Living Deb, a pretty clever title, positions itself in the zombie genre as an anti-rom-com, rom-com by making its protagonist, Deb, an awkward nerdy girl who says the wrong thing at all times in her quest to get with the hot guy who has never noticed her before. There’s no new ground broken here, but it is sporadically funny when it isn’t trying super hard to shoehorn in pop culture references, and Ray Wise is a riot as a super-wealthy snob who may or may not have caused the undead outbreak.
The Ones Below (Magnolia Pictures, 86 minutes, R, Blu-Ray): Writer-director David Farr is no stranger to variety. So far in his career, he’s helmed the subversively violent teen assassin/family drama “Hanna,” and the television adaptation of John Le Carre’s character-driven gun runner/spy thriller “The Night Manager.” In between, he made The Ones Below, a wicked slice of English terror that capably juggles such disparate themes as mental illness and motherhood. The Ones Below is a sly home invasion thriller where the invaders are actually invited in and allowed (unknowingly) to poison the well, crafting a dark, deadly plot to rob an uncertain new mother and father of their precious child that hinges on a series of believable situations, which makes the final exposition so chilling. This one is definitely recommended.
American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson (Fox, 500 minutes, Unrated, Blu-Ray): Fun fact: I almost got to cover the O,J, Simpson verdict when I was a young reporter working outside Phoenix, AZ. The “Trial of the Century” had captivated the nation for months and months, but no one at my newspaper had even volunteered to fly to Los Angeles to be at or outside the courtroom on the fateful day that Simpson was acquitted. The paper ended up forcing a columnist to go; he did an awful job, but that’s a different story.
The first installment of the purported anthology criminal justice series by the creators of “American Horror Story” is crackerjack viewing and a testament to the power of TV in 2016. Despite working with a case that most of the general public has some knowledge of, The People v. O.J. Simpson manages to thrill and educate, focusing on small behind-the-scenes details that only readers of Jeffrey Toobin’s book, “The Run of His Life” (upon which the show is based), would know.
The acting is across-the-board stellar with huge props to John Travolta (his best work in years, seriously), Courtney B. Vance, Sarah Paulson and even Cuba Gooding Jr. (so that’s why you won an Oscar!).
More than anything, this series shines a light on the beginning of the era that we now live in – the round-the-clock news cycle, the need for everyone to have an opinion, the racial tension and police injustice that continues to plague our communities, large and small.
Our current climate was ignited with Simpson’s arrest in 1994, and while the fuse took its time smoldering, make no mistake, the reality we are now experiencing owes more than a fair share to that summer and the legal and media circus that erupted in its wake.
Tale of Tales
Peanuts: A Boy Named Charlie Brown
Peanuts: Snoopy, Come Home
Road House: Collector’s Edition
Love & Friendship
R.L. Stine’s Mostly Ghostly: One Night in Doom House
Honey 3: Dare to Dance
Friday the 13th – The Series: The Complete Series
Limitless: Season One
CSI: Cyber – The Final Season
South Park: Season 19
Therapy for a Vampire