Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Hot Pursuit (1987)

Dan Bartlett (John Cusack) is distracted the entire night before his big chemistry final, resulting in his flunking.  Oh, no!  And here he was all set to go off with his girlfriend Lori Cronenberg (Wendy Gazelle, who spends about half of her screen time doing gymnastics wherever she happens to be [skilled though she is at it], because that’s just what you do, I guess) and her family to the Caribbean.  After his professor has a last minute change of heart, Dan must catch up with his gal, and all sorts of wackiness is supposed to ensue.

Steven Lisberger is most likely far better known as the writer and director of Animalympics (an animated film that was a staple of early HBO programming, and to this day, I vividly recall the scene where a male goat and a lioness fall in love during a marathon set to the strains of super-soft-rock ditty, “With You I Can Run Forever,” for better or worse) and TRON (a film I can appreciate for its technical achievements, but I’ve never found it all that entertaining), and with Hot Pursuit (aka See You Later Mr. Alligator) he tries his hand at light adventure comedy.  This is a generic mingling which can backfire pretty easily, because in order to satisfy both facets, there needs to be both humor and danger, obviously.  The problem lies in the ratio of one to the other and/or the way the two are blended.  For example, Martin Brest’s Midnight Run gets it right, primarily, I think, because it keeps the tension going in both the action and the comedy scenes.  The violence is never over the top, and it fits within the context of the narrative.  Conversely, the danger in films like Hot Pursuit feels like what it is: a device to motivate the adventure portions of the film, and the sight of dead bodies in a film, ostensibly about a puppy love relationship and the nutty lengths to which young love will go, is always jarring to me.  It’s been said that the line between horror and comedy is a fine one, and I agree, and I would further state that films such as this one are proof of just how fine a line it is (while it’s not a horror film in any way, there are those “horrific” elements).  After all of the “zany antics” (and yes, that phrase should be in quotes in regards to this picture) Dan gets into to reach his goal, suddenly he’s running around with grenades and a machine gun, and the villains are considerably bloodthirsty and savage (bolstered by the presence of a very young Ben Stiller, an actor I’ve never been especially at ease watching).   But the filmmakers’ attitude is that they want to have it both ways.  They still want us to consider this as a lark.  I’m not totally sure of what my internal criteria are for what makes this mix work or not work (in the same way that what triggers fright or laughs is very personal), but when it works, it really works, and when it doesn’t, it flops like a fish.  Hot Pursuit is just about a Muskie, in my opinion.    

There is a very sharp divide among the film’s characters along class lines.  Dan is the classic disheveled, working class attendee of an upper class boarding school (we don’t need to be told this explicitly; everything about the character and his introduction practically screams it).  He wears his tie loose, his top shirt button undone, his hair mussed.  Lori’s father (Monte Markham) is affluent and acts the part.  Nothing is too good for his daughter, and Dan will never be good enough.  He also sees Dan as a coward, and this at the very least does play into the eventual macho-fication of Dan.  But even our protagonist has preconceived notions about others in society, and the film does its best to get us to play into these prejudices.  When Dan lands on whatever island he lands on and the only taxi available gets snaked out from under him (with the warning to watch out for “the natives”), he spots Cleon (Paul Bates), Alphonso (Keith David), and Roxanne (Ursaline Bryant) in their rusty jalopy.  After making the (far-fetched) assumption that they work for the marina where Lori is staying, Alphonso invites Dan to come along with them.  Yet, the way he says it, combined with the reaction shots of Cleon, leads us to believe that something nefarious is afoot (never trust someone who smiles all the time, especially when they show you all their teeth).  Likewise, Mac (Robert Loggia) conscripts Dan into being a deckhand on his boat while in pursuit of the ship on which the Cronenbergs are cruising (actually in pursuit of someone on board; guess who).  But where Alphonso and company were all smiles, Mac is all scowls.  Everything about the grizzled old guy is rough, antagonistic, and maniacal.  Nevertheless, both groups have the same sort of attitude toward life and their place in it, as is summed up succinctly by Alphonso with the statement, “We’re not planning it, we’re just doing it.”  Furthermore, both sets of people prove to be better friends to Dan than he could hope for, a tad dubious considering how scant the amount of time they’ve known one another.  Lori’s family is not necessarily evil in contrast, they’re just generally elitist and less desirable to have as amigos.  All of this culminates in the rather facile theme of not judging a book by its cover, which we already knew, but one thing Hollywood has always loved to remind us of is how much we need to be reminded of the basics of life.

Hot Pursuit is an innocuous film in every sense of the word.  It is innocuous in characters, in plotting, in cinematography, in direction.  Everything about the film plays it safe, so the whole never ascends much past the middle ground.  The humor is cutesy and not very funny at all (again, your mileage may vary).  One could call these traits innocent since they’re seemingly ignorant of not only how the world works but how both adventure and comedy (and by extension, adventure-comedies) work.  It’s like eating pretzels without the salt.  Sure, they’re still pretzels (hell, they may even be butter pretzels, which I love), but without the coarse salt they don’t satisfy in the same way, they’re not complete.  This is the sort of film you keep on in the background while you fold your laundry or clean your house.  No real attention needs to be paid, because there is nothing going on that you haven’t seen before, and you’ve likely seen it more entertainingly done, as well (yes, I know I say that a lot, but dammit, it holds true, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it).

MVT:  Cusack has his put upon, boyish charm going in full effect, and you can see there’s a reason why he was so popular in the Eighties, even while lamenting that his assets are not thoroughly utilized in this film.

Make or Break:  The scene where Dan confronts Stiller’s Chris is satisfying in that you get to see a prick get his due.  But like so much else herein, it simply doesn’t fit or work especially well enough to be all that memorable.

Score:  5.5/10      

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Firewalker (1986)

Letter openers are not what they used to be.  Today when you buy one or are “gifted” one by some benevolent corporate entity or what have you, you get a rounded off piece of plastic with a blade surrounded by more plastic.  For your protection.  Is it safe to use?  You bet, but it’s also damned boring to look at, and it has no sense of adventure to it.  Letter openers used to look like daggers.  The looked like something some magnificent bastard in a tailored suit would brandish at you from behind a three-foot-wide oak desk.  As I was growing up, we had several of these faux death implements around my house, one of which resembled the one discovered in J. Lee Thompson’s Firewalker.  It was curved, had an ornate (yet still chintzy) scabbard, everything but the jewel in the butt of the hilt.  Nobody that I know of was ever hurt by it, but it sure looked like it could do some damage, and it was fun to pretend you were a pirate or somesuch while running around with it.  Was this unsafe for a child to play with like it was a toy?  You bet, but it sure as shit wasn’t boring.

Max Donigan (Chuck Norris) and Leo Porter (Louis Gossett, Jr.) are two pro-am treasure hunters who have apparently never actually found any treasure but have found plenty of trouble.  Following their latest near-death experience, the guys are approached by the lovely Patricia Goodwin (Melody Anderson) to aid her in finding a hoard of Aztec/Mayan gold.  Meanwhile, El Coyote (Sonny Landham) is chasing after the team for the aforementioned sacrificial dagger, and he’s not above using magic to get it.

The Cannon Group produced Firewalker based on two criteria: the popularity of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’s Indiana Jones movies and the popularity of Norris, one of the studio’s golden goose stars (alongside Charles Bronson).  Like the big budget Paramount pictures, this is an adventure with a sense of humor (whether or not that humor works is entirely up to you; it was pretty flat for me), but it’s also tonally light (despite the sacrificial aspects and an attempted rape) to the point that it threatens to float away if even a mild wind should pass through wherever it is playing.  This is rather against type for Norris who had been a monosyllabic ass-kicker, taking down villains and winning the Vietnam War for America for a long time (and before stuff like Sidekicks and Top Dog).  Unlike the Harrison Ford character (who does stumble into situations bigger than himself quite often but essentially comes from a place of expertise that goes beyond his physical skills/struggles [he is a professor of archaeology after all]; Jones understands the history and meaning behind the artifacts he pursues), Max comes off as simply gormless.  He loves to spin yarns about the escapades he and Leo have gotten into and out of (even one involving Bigfoot; why couldn’t we get that movie?), but they feel capricious more than anything else.  Max (and by extension Leo) don’t have a plan, and they don’t really have any specialized knowledge that distinguishes them as remarkable.  They’re just like two college buddies who become constantly and unwittingly ensconced in wild goings on over an extended weekend of drinking.  Thus, they don’t really stand out as anything other than schlubs (Max’s martial arts skills notwithstanding).

The relationship between Leo and Max is an interesting one.  From the film’s outset, we’re lead to believe two things:  one, that they will be opposites in characterization (like The Odd Couple but in an adventure milieu), and two, that they will be equals.  Neither of these proves true.  Although the men bicker and argue over the situations they are in, I believe it’s fair to say that both got themselves screwed equally, so neither has any leg to stand on with regards to laying the blame at the other one’s feet.  Once they get to relaxing, they are incredibly similar as well.  Both find the same dumb things funny.  Both are more than happy to start and/or end a (obligatory) bar brawl.  Both have no clue what they’re doing and simply luck upon any positive things that happen in their lives.  Aside from having someone to talk to in public, they could easily be the same person.  

To the second point, Max is (unsurprisingly) the focus of the film’s story, and he is the alpha of the duo, so to speak.  Leo is more than content to follow Max around like a dog and do whatever Max wants to do.  He even admits as much to Patricia at one point.  Max gets to save everyone in the film and play the hero.  In fact, not only does he have to rescue Patricia, but he also has to save Leo’s bacon more than once.  Max catches Patricia’s eye right off the bat, and their romance is the only one in the film.  Leo never has a chance with her or any woman in the movie, despite the possibilities for some great scenes inherent in a triangular relationship (which this film doesn’t have).  As it happens, Leo is basically Max’s valet.  Everything he does is to support his white pal/master.   Combined with the portrayals of every other non-white and/or non-American character in the film, it paints a rather clear, mildly racist picture.  For example, the sadistic General (Richard Lee-Sung) is so cliché, he speaks in clichés (“So, gentlemen, we meet again”).  The Native American, Tall Eagle (Will Sampson), who helps the trio out, is the classic old shaman/chieftain who abides by the traditions of his people but has quirky, modern sensibilities (“I don’t know how Tonto did it”).  Central American soldiers drink while on duty and are insane with lust at the sight of a woman.  Intriguingly, Max’s old pal Corky (John Rhys-Davies) is white and a man of some power, but he is also an amalgam of Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnahan from Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King and Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (read: basically power hungry and more than slightly insane).  So, he is also an “other” from Max, but he is also what Max could easily become and soon.  That this isn’t explored more fully in the narrative is a failing, but I think it is also beside the point of the story.  However, coming as all of this does from the long tradition of pulp adventure stories, none of it comes off as particularly offensive, particularly when viewed in that light.  That doesn’t automatically make these facets palatable, but it does make them a bit more acceptable for the duration of the movie.

The Blu-ray from Olive Films presents the film in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and the detail in the image is clear as a bell, accentuating Thompson’s mobile camerawork throughout (though it also needs mentioning that editor Richard Marx [I believe no relation to the singer/songwriter, but you never know] appears to either not know quite how to match many of these shots with one another or was given a jumble of disparate shots without the coverage to adequately tie them together; the world may never know).  The colors in the film are also very nicely displayed on the disc and the two combined make for a darn fine-looking visual package.  The HD 2.0 audio does an acceptable job mixing the dialogue, effects, and score (though the dialogue is less prominent than other elements on rare occasions, just not enough to ruin anything, and you’re likely not watching Firewalker for its dialogue, regardless.  The disc has no special features.     

MVT:  Despite the issues with their onscreen relationship, Norris and Gossett do have charm, and the pair have a certain chemistry together that works well enough for them.

Make or Break:  There’s a scene near the end that actually has some nice, tense action, and it involves one of my favorite action/adventure sights: people hanging over some perilous abyss/deathtrap/firestorm/anything.  So there’s that.

Score:  6.25/10

Friday, June 19, 2015

Kull the Conqueror (1997)

Directed by: John Nicolella
Runtime: 95 minutes

If you ever wanted a movie where Kevin Sorbo is shirtless most of the time this is the movie for you. This 1997 sword and sorcery film was originally to be a Conan reboot but Kevin Sorbo did not want reprise Arnold Schwarzenegger's role. So it was rewritten using another Robert E. Howard character Kull, an Atlantean pirate who becomes a introspective ruler. Thought in this film he is less introspective and more believes in prophecy, armed combat, cracking jokes, and liberty for all.

The movie opens with the history lesson about how demons used to run the world and world was covered with flames. Then the god of ice came, put an end to the demons, and left one burning flame to remind humans of godless times. Of course this flame will never be used to create conflict in this movie, really.
We then shift focus to our hero Kull and he is taking part in the worst job interview ever. Please do not get me wrong, I have been in a lot of job interviews where if they replace the questions with let's see how well you can beat the hell out of other people with a weapon would be fun. But in Kull's case he is unable to get the job because he is not of noble birth.

This awkwardness is interrupted by news that the king has lost his mind and is killing all his heirs. So Kull follows the general of the noble born guard and ends up killing the king. As thanks for mortally wounding him his last act is to make Kull king. This annoys the general and a foppish noble as thanks to the previous king's murder spree they were the last two in the line of the crown. So Kull moves quickly to annoy even more people before be crowned king and frees a priest of the ice god. He also allows the people to worship what gods they will and pisses off the head priest of the order of dicks.

In between an assassination attempt and scenes where Kull learns that he can't change the law carved in stone there is a love story. Kull and the court fortune teller slowly be come a couple and give away most of the plot with tarot cards. With is weird because, as I understand it, Robert E. Howard's characters tend to avoid the supernatural and rely more on their wits and massive muscles. But enough of that for now let get back to the people upset with Kull and are clueless as to how to kill him.

Enter burned wizard guy and his silent ape monster helper. He has a way to take out Kull in a way that his muscles and wit will not be able stop. He will reawaken a long dead demon sorceresses who will marry and kill Kull. The plan goes off more or less as expected. She seduces Kull, marries him, and then she changes her mind and drugs him instead of killing him. As a bonus, she sets up the court fortune teller as Kull's murderer.

This forces the plot to speed up from crawling to crawling with an energy drink. In short, the demon reveals to Kull she wants him as her sexy consort as turn the world into a hell on Earth. He says no and escapes with the help of the priest of the ice god, who is also the fortune teller's brother. The two of them sneak back into the city, find that a minor character, who they couldn't be bothered to give a name to, is killed and is taking Kull's place at the funeral.

So the plot throws out an action scene where the fortune teller is saved, the high priest of the order of dicks is killed, and the trio escape to find the lost island of the ice god. Kull knows of an old pirate friend who somewhat willing to give him a ship for this quest. However, once they get out to sea the pirate drugs the trio and is about to turn around and sell Kull to the demon. So Kull escapes, steals the ship, and they find the lost island of the ice god.
Back in the kingdom, the demon torments the wizard for forgetting his place. She also kills the foppish noble for being annoying and charges the general with finding Kull and the lost island of the ice god. She knows where the island is and gives the general the ability to catch up. Oh and the general is now trying to find a way to kill both Kull and the demon so he can be king.

Thanks to plot convenience the lost island of the ice god is found. Kull and friends go looking around a cave blasting cold air and find a statue of the ice god. The fortune teller consults her tarot cards and is told to go topless before the god statue and becomes the bearer of the ice god's breath. The general shows up because it has been five minutes since the last action scene and kills priest of the ice god and the ship's crew. After beating Kull in a sword fight, he kidnaps the fortune teller and leaves Kull to die in an easily escapable situation. However the general does not know Kull and makes his escape by drowning himself in freezing water because it is more heroic to escape while suffering hypothermia.

This brings us to the end of this fantastic adventure romp. The general claims the fortune teller and Kull are dead. The demon becomes more demonic as the solar eclipse approaches and forgets to kill the general when Kull sails up for the end of the movie.

Despite my petty complaints this is not a bad movie. It is also not a great movie either. If you are a Robert E. Howard fan and you haven't seen this yet go hang your head in shame. For everyone else, it is a great movie if it comes up on cable or streaming movie services and you have some time to kill.

MVT: The sound track for this movie is amazing and is one the only reasons why I have re-watched this movie.

Make or Break: Break, a lot of things in the movie that need to be explained like who characters are and what the hell is the ape monster thing is.

Score: 4.1 out of 10