Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Born to Raise Hell (2010)

It's a high-octane, white knuckle thrill ride!
It was clear from the prologue that I was going to have a few problems with this movie. The opening scene features a subtitle that reads "Bucharest, Romania", which is rarely a good sign, followed by a nonsensical voiceover that is clearly not Seagal. Then there is a gunfight with Tony-Scott-on-PCP editing that goes way beyond any hope of visual comprehension. At this point the film was giving me flashbacks to early DTV Seagal like Shadow Man or The Foreigner. Not a good start.

Seagal plays Bobby Samuels, a cop working for the International Drug Task Force (IDTF). He used to be a soldier if Afghanistan, but when he learned how most terrorism is (apparently) funded by drugs he joined the IDTF so he could make the world safe for freedom etc. He also explains that his partner was killed and now he's out for revenge, although if they followed up on that plot thread I guess I missed it.

The main plot reminds me a little of Out for Justice. There's a big shot crime boss, but the main villain is a guy lower down the food chain who is out of control. The guy's name is Costel, and he likes to do home invasions on young rich couples, raping the women and murdering entire families. Costel works for a Spetznaz-trained Russian crime boss named Dimitri (Dan Badarau), but when Dimitri finds out what Costel is up to he is disgusted and wants him dead. At first Seagal is content to arrest Dimitri, but when he gets into a war with Costel Seagal forms an alliance with him. The grudging-respect-between-foes thing. I like that.

This movie was written by Seagal himself and seems to be pretty heavily influenced by his experiences on Steven Seagal: Lawman. There's a lot of cop lingo and gunpoint standoffs with criminals where Seagal shouts things like "lemme see yo' hands, bitch". At one point he shouts "I'm speaking English, it's easy" which seems condescending since he's in Romania. There are several scenes of him chewing out a junior officer for not properly securing suspects or clearing rooms because he was distracted by a woman with awesome tits. It's nothing we haven't seen before in other cop shows, but it's a little more attention to detail than you usually get for this kind of thing. Stuff like that caused the movie to grow on me.

One bit I liked was early in the film where Seagal's team bust into a house to arrest a greasy-haired drug dealer. The guy tries to drive away on his dirtbike (which is parked in his lounge room for some reason) but Seagal rips him from the seat at the last minute, sending the bike careening through a glass window. It's a nice sequence and normally that would be the last we'd see of the criminal, but here Seagal actually arrests him and takes him to the police station for questioning. Seagal gets information out of him not by busting his skull but by calmly explaining the situation. You catch more flies with honey than by breaking their wrists and throwing them through a window, I guess.

I also liked that the bad guys have a bunch of hot women who cook and smuggle their drugs and go on assassination missions. They are like sexy Terminators. There's a really funny bit where the team encounter one while on a covert survellaince mission. She appears right next to their police van like a movie monster and presses her face up against the window while the crew sit there in dead silence like she's the T-Rex from Jurassic Park. I know it's just a way to get a few more hot girls into the movie, but I really like this idea of using supermodels as henchmen. More movie villains should exploit the fact that hot woman can basically do anything they want without consequence.

Seagal has a much younger girlfriend in this one too, and there's even a subplot about how he neglects her and spends too much time with his police work. The film also continues the worrying trend of awkward sex scenes where the girl is bare-ass naked and Seagal is fully clothed. He's wearing a giant kimono/bathrobe/hoodie thing with a dragon stitched on the back. It looks ridiculous but I guess I should be grateful for it. The whole situation is pretty creepy because the girl is tiny compared to him. When he gets on top of her and starts pawing at her with his giant mitts it looks like she's being attacked by bigfoot.

I mentioned it ealier, but there is some shocking editing in this film. Whenever Costel and his men do a home invasion the film turns into an Abode After-Effects disaster, with random skipped frames, slow motion effects, freeze frames and double exposures. There's a lot of superfluous slow motion too. A scene where Costel's crew walk through a nightclub goes on for about three minutes. Gunfights are similarly over-edited, making them unbearable to watch for the most part, although I liked the bit where Seagal blasts the section of wall around a door with a shotgun so he can kick the whole wall in. He even has to pause halfway through so he can reload. I would have just blown the lock out, but I'll concede to Seagal's superior wisdom and police experience.

It's interesting how as Seagal gets older and stiffer they are trying to compensate by making the fights more brutal and violent, and Seagal's fights were always pretty brutal and violent. There are a lot of broken bones and every punch to the face sends a gallon of blood spraying out of the victim's mouth. The fist fights are pretty well directed for the most part. Costel is played by Darren Shahlavi, the guy who played Twister in Ip Man 2, so it would have been cool to see him in an actual fight, but the final showdown makes copious use of stunt doubles and is embarrassingly one-sided. More shades of Out for Justice.

The director is a French stuntman by the name of Lauro Chartrand, who also did some episodes of Seagal's new TV show/DTV movie series True Justice. I can't say I really liked his style, but I appreciate that Seagal seemed to be putting in slightly more effort than usual. Maybe he pounded a few cans of Steven Seagal's Lightning Bolt Energy Drink before every take, or maybe the fact that he wrote it himself gave him a little more vigour. Either way it's nice to see him only semi-sleepwalking through a movie. Even if half his lines were dubbed.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

A Dangerous Man (2009)

Seagal will fuck you up ugly

In a strange coincidence I received DVDs for both A Dangerous Man and A Serious Man in the mail on the same day, which left me with a difficult decision to make. One Coen brothers' black comedy about a Jewish physics professor struggling with his faith. One DTV action film where Steven Seagal kicks Chinese dudes in the junk. A difficult choice for any cinephile, but I think I made the right one.

In the prologue we learn why Seagal is the titular Man. His girlfriend Holly is waiting in her car when she gets attacked by a rapist. Seagal shows up to rescue her and chases him away, but the next day the would-be rapist shows up dead in an alley. Although Seagal swears he is innocent the cops accuse him of being an uncontrollable killing machine (understandable) and lock him up. Cut to six years later and Holly sends Seagal a "Dear John" letter. He must have known this was coming too, because he reads it outside alone in the prison yard at night in the pouring rain. That sort of heavy-handed dramatic context doesn't happen by accident.

It's not all bad news though. The very next day Seagal is released thanks to some exonerating DNA evidence, although it's never revealed who actually killed the rapist or why. He's also offered $300k by Uncle Sam but Seagal refuses, saying he only wants his life back. This is all thanks to the Innocence Project, although if they'd known what he'd get up to afterwards they probably would have reconsidered.

All Seagal wants to do now is drown his sorrows with a bottle of generic bourbon, but you can probably guess how that goes. Liquor store, muggers etc. I did like that Seagal tells the punks that he's going to "fuck [them] up ugly". I especially like that one of the muggers asks him what it means, like he couldn't have discerned its meaning from context. In this case it means that Seagal's going to steal his gun, take the slide off the barrel, repeatedly stab him in the face with the pointy end and then kick him through a window. Which is pretty ugly. Then Seagal calls him a "bitch" and steals his car.

While drinking alone in a parking lot, Seagal somehow gets caught up in a confusingly-edited gunfight between the son of a Russian crime boss, a cop and some Chinese gangsters with a kidnapped girl in their trunk. The girl is named Tia, and she's the niece of a big-shot accountant in China who has the dirt on some high-ranking officials. He was being smuggled to America until the gangsters realised how important he was and held him hostage. Seagal agrees to help the girl save her uncle, but interestingly the reason he helps her is because she says she'll help him leave the country. I don't think I've seen a movie hero with that particular motivation before.

The main bad guy is called Chen and somehow he owns all the local cops. Not just one either, the whole lot. Chen is also involved with a corrupt Chinese military official called The Colonel (played by Byron Mann from Belly of the Beast). I thought it was pretty funny how Chen acts like a bigshot with his nice suits, huge cigars, dancing with hookers etc, but he does it all out of his shitty wood-panelled dockside office. There's a bit where he tries to lure a disinterested Colonel into partying with a hooker by saying she has an "ass like a 10 year old boy", a line which I've heard before but always sticks out to me as unappealing and kind of gross. Anyway, eventually the Colonel turns on Chen and takes over his business.

For a while it seems like they're trying to set up a buddy relationship between Seagal and Sergey, but Sergey is not the most compelling character so they forget about it about halfway through. At one point I thought Sergey was shot by The Colonel's men while he was hanging out with a topless hooker in a pool, but I guess it was some other guy. Seagal is eventually helped out by Sergey's dad, who lives in one of those huge mansions where there's a party full of young, hip people going on 24 hours a day. Seems like it would get pretty annoying after a while, especially since it looks like Vlad is sitting in his office trying to work. By the end of the film Seagal and Vlad take on The Colonel I think, but by this point I was pretty confused. In my defence it was pretty boring.

I liked that The Keeper didn't indulge in the embarrassing DTV tradition of giving Seagal a much younger, hotter girlfriend, even though they had several opportunities to do so. They show no such restraint here. There's a part early in the film where Seagal sits in his stolen car and fondly reminisces about the time his girlfriend stripped butt naked and gave him a lap dance while he sat there fully clothed and fumbled with her boobs. By the epilogue it's implied that he's sleeping with Tia as well, but thankfully their on-screen shenanigans are limited to an awkward hug. Kind of a dick move though, because Sergey saved her life and it seemed like he was sweet on her.

One interesting point is that I think Seagal is supposed to be a Native American. At one point he calls Sergey "white boy", which I thought was just Seagal randomly breaking out into ebonics like he does sometimes. Later on, however, one of the bad guys refers to him as "that Native American". After all the fringed leather jackets he's worn and ancient mysticism he's spouted in his other films, it's weird that this is the one where they decided to go full on Billy Jack. Not that it figures into anything else in the film or is ever mentioned again.

There are a lot of lines that sound really strange and I can't tell if it's because they were poorly written or badly delivered or both. “I will leave you here to get eaten by the fuckin jackals, who are coming soon." Stuff like that. Seagal's delivery is generally pretty mumbly and incoherent, but it must have been particularly bad here because they dub his voice about half the time. At least the guy almost sounds like Seagal. Usually they'll get any old guy to whisper all the lines and call it a day, even though Seagal hasn't done that whispery thing in years.

The gun fights aren't particularly well shot, but they're okay. It's just alternating shots of two guys firing from behind cover until one of them falls over dead. The fight scenes are a little better and are really brutal. Seagal feeds one guy into industrial shredder, kicks another guy face-first into circular saw and pounds a chopstick into a guy's neck. Throughout the whole thing he's invincible like Jason Voorhees. Stunt doubles are used frequently and sometimes it gets a little distracting. One fight is shot through the gap in some shelving so that they don't have to go to trouble of obscuring the double's head through editing. No stunt double for the lap dance scene though. Sometimes you've just got to get your hands dirty.

This one comes courtesy of Leoni Waxman, the same guy who did The Keeper. I still haven't decided which one I like better. This film is superior in terms of quantity and brutality of action, but Seagal only wears his Half Past Dead do-rag. In The Keeper he wears a huge cowboy hat. Clearly further analysis is required.

Monday, 22 August 2011

The Keeper (2009)


I've fallen a few movies behind in my On-Deadly-Ground-style spiritual odyssey through the DTV ouvre of Mr Steven Seagal. This one had been sitting on my DVD queue for some time, but I hadn't felt compelled to review it since the two subsequent films (A Dangerous Man and Born to Raise Hell) were still MIA. A year or two later and the Region 4 DVDs have lazily flopped onto Australian shores with all the energy and vigour of DTV-era Seagal himself, so I guess I've got some catching up to do.

In this one he plays Roland Sallinger, Super Cop. As the movie begins, he and his partner raid a drug dealing operation to discover a couple of million dollars in cash. His partner suggests that they help themselves and Seagal refuses, so his partner shoots him in the chest and leaves him for dead. Seagal fakes a coma and steals a gun from his niece, so I figured this film was a Hard to Kill type deal and that his revenge would play out over the course of the film. Instead his partner returns to finish the job that night, so Seagal shoots him and frees up the next 70 minutes of screentime for a completely unrelated plot.

Seagal is forced into retirement as a result of his injuries, sending him into a depression, so he is visited by his niece who says ridiculous yet no doubt confidence-bolstering things like "You're an inspiration to everyone on the SWAT team" and "I've seen you do shit that's beyond belief." It's not quite R. Lee Ermey's "million dollar smile and a fistful of pesos" speech from On Deadly Ground, but it's enough to get Seagal montaging his way back to full health. His state of recovery is symbolised by his knife-throwing abilities, which was neat but I suspect it was because it required as little physicality from Seagal as possible.

The plot starts proper when he gets a call from an old friend in Texas. He wants Seagal to be a personal bodyguard for his daughter, who was recently the target of an attempted kidnapping by some criminals disguised as papparazzi. The bad guy behind the kidnapping attempt is a crooked real estate developer named Jason Cross, who is also a racial separatist although it never comes up as a plot point or is even mentioned again. When Seagal asks why he can't just go to the police, he replies "There are some people who think a man's race should determine his worth. These people control everything. Except me". This apparently explains everything, even though the police seem more eager to nail Cross than Seagal does.

The girl Seagal is looking after is a spoiled heiress, but I liked that they didn't push the Paris Hilton angle too hard. She's reasonably intelligent and acquits herself pretty well during the attempted kidnapping. They could have easily made her into an annoying bimbo, but instead she's sympathetic and even kind of sentimental. At one point she tells Seagal how she kept a gift he gave her when she was a little girl. She tells him that right after drunkenly barfing in an alley, but it was still kind of a sweet moment. I was worried for a moment there because it seems like she was hitting on him, but luckily Seagal Keeps it in his pants.

Her boyfriend is a showboating obnoxious asshole named Mason Silver, who is apparently a professional boxer although he sure doesn't look like one and you never see him do any fighting aside from a brief training scene at the beginning. Seems like a missed opportunity not to have him fight Seagal or at least one of the bad guys. He is a massive douchebag, so much so that you wonder if he's a red herring, but it turns out that he had some dealings with Cross in the past and now he's willing to sell out his girlfriend rather than have his hands crushed by Cross's goons. What a prick.

Actually, Seagal is kind of a prick in this one too. He's a massive dick to a limo driver, flat-out ignoring him when he tries to make conversation and then sarcastically berating him for whistling. It's okay though, because Seagal gains his respect when he stops to help the limo driver's cousin from being harrassed by a couple of thugs. Probably the most dickish moment is when Seagal breaks into Mason's house to question him and kills three of his bodyguards. At first I figured they were Cross' henchmen, but apparently not. Seagal just straight up murdered three dudes for no reason. And the cops don't even care.

The plot is some nonsense about a crooked real estate deal and a hidden uranium deposit, but it's pretty straight forward and I won't bother talking about it. The action is what's important, and it's alright I guess. The film tries it's best to convince us of Seagal's lightning fast aikido moves, but sound design and editing can do only so much. Plus the main bad guy is an old man, so it doesn't really lend itself to a thrilling final confrontation. The gunfights have lots of bloody, overfilled squibs, which is good, but they are over-edited with a general lack of geography. There's also decent car chase, even though it's clear that Seagal was being greenscreened on a soundstage somewhere.

I don't know if it's because I haven't watched these types of films in a while, but Seagal's acting seemed distractingly bad here. He wears a big cowboy hat, uses words like "pod'ner" and speaks a little Spanish, but I think those efforts used up the bulk of his acting abilities. He's never been good, but here he's struggling just to even articulate himself. A lot of his lines are awkwardly phrased, as if he only just glanced at the script and refused to do a second take. His shirts are increasingly oversized and baggy to disguise his weight and his hair is becoming more creepily fake and Dracula-like. It's rough.

That aside though, the quality level isn't among his worst. It gets off to a shabby start, with some obvious dubbing in the opening scene, plus halfway through the film Seagal's character's name changes from "Sallinger" to "Ballinger" for no reason, but at least it mostly makes sense. The plot holes are just plot holes rather than supermassive black holes that threaten to suck the whole movie into oblivion. I guess that makes it less interesting than something completely batshit like Out of Reach, but at least I felt like someone gave a shit. Someone was at least half-assing it, rather than the one eighth of an ass normally given to this kind of thing. Adequate job, guy. You did it.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Rage and Honor 2: Hostile Takeover (1993)

It's been a couple of years since the events of Rage and Honor. Kris Fairchild (Cynthia Rothrock) has made the baffling career move from schoolteacher to CIA agent and Preston Michaels (Richard Norton) is still on the run from the bogus murder charges he was framed with in the first film. Kind of a bummer that Kris didn't do more to clear his name after all they'd been through together, but I guess she's been pretty busy, what with her two whole years of specialised spy training.

For Kris' first mission she's sent to Jakarta, where she's to meet up with a colleague who is investigating a money laundering operation. When she gets there the agent is missing, so Kris is instructed to continue the investigation alone, taking up a temp job at a bank owned by the suspected criminal. While she's there she befriends the bank owner's son Tommy, played by Melrose Place alumni Patrick Muldoon. Kris finds out that Tommy's dad is working for a powerful criminal named Buntao. There's also something about a rival criminal named Dazzo and diamond smuggling etc.

Coincidentally Preston has found his way to Jakarta as well, taking up a part time job as a bouncer/bartender at at Willy's Bar. Willy's Bar appears to be a touristy seafood restaurant and not the kind of place that would require the services of a Swayze-eqsque cooler, but sure enough a bunch of goons walk in demanding protection money. This must happen frequently because the whole time the thugs are roughing up Willy the restaurant patrons don't even bat an eyelid. Eventually Preston starts beating up the goons with anything handy... a fish, an oar, a life preserver etc. Dude could do some real damage in a T.G.I. Friday's.

Tommy just so happens to witness this spectacle and begs martial arts instruction, but Preston refuses. You see, he's a renegade. A lone wolf. You know this because he wears a long trenchcoat and rides a motorcycle. Dead giveaways. Eventually though, Tommy wears him down and Preston takes him under his wing. Tommy even invites Preston to his awesome pool party, which is where Preston and Kris finally meet. Unfortunately it's one of those scenes where Kris is undercover and has to pretend she doesn't know him rather than an awesome mistaken identity fistfight.

So naturally the two of them team-up to take down Buntao, but unfortunately he's a pretty boring villain. I liked the part where he is so happy about his diamond deal that he starts singing, but apart from that he's pretty forgettable. He does, however, have a beefy henchman named Thor who, like Conrad Drago before him, has a kickin' blonde mullet. Thor has one up on Drago though, because his hair is the genuine article and not a ridiculous wig. Early in the film Thor gets out of his car and gives a little hair flip, like he's saying "Fuck you, Conrad Drago. Look at the silkiness, the managability. This is the real deal right here." I don't know what it is with this series and platinum blonde hockey hair, but I approve. At least his haircut is memorable.

I was weighing up whether or not to spoil the film, but I figure it's an 18 year old DTV action film so fuck it. It turns out that the rival criminal Dazzo is actually Tommy working under an alias. Tommy says it took a long time for him to think of the name. He wanted something "snappy and scary", and I guess it is if you find bogans named Darren terrifying, which is understandable. I don't know if it's because my brain automatically switches to standby mode in this kind of thing, but this twist actually caught me by surprise. Once Tommy's true nature as a ruthless criminal is revealed he keeps quoting all these rules of business. You know, "rule one: surround yourself with talent", "rule two: consolidate your assets" etc. It's pretty annoying, so it's probably a good thing that he was only the villian for the last half hour or so.

The final fight takes place at the construction site where they were doing the diamond exchange. It was either that or an abandoned steel mill I guess. Preston's fight with Tommy ends with Tommy hanging off the edge of a big crane. They must have read my review of the first film before travelling back in time to make the sequel, because rather than do the thing where the bad guy attacks when the hero's back is turned, thus sealing his own fate, Tommy just flat-out surrenders. Preston decides to open another Willy's Bar in L.A and reveals to Kris that he's pinched one of the diamonds. She reacts with a sly chuckle which doesn't seem particuarly realistic, but I guess turning a blind eye to diamond theft is hardly the biggest injustice the CIA have perpetrated.

I looked up the director Guy Norris, if only to see if he was any relation to Chuck, and it turns out he's a pretty awesome Australian stunt man. Fucked his leg up pretty bad on Mad Max 2. Not too many director credits, aside from some Australian TV stuff and a martial-arts themed FMV game for the Sega CD (also starring Richard Norton) which looks amazing in a terrible-FMV-game kind of way. Anyway, he does a decent job here. I think the fight scenes are choreographed and shot a little better than in the first one. I especially liked the bit where Cynthia Rothrock headbuts a guy in the nuts. I don't know if she learned that little number during her high-school teaching days or her CIA training, but it sure was effective.

I probably liked this a little more than the first one. The fights were more plentiful, the locations were more interesting and the mullets were more convincing. Rothrock and Norton are good together and this time the quality of acting surrounding them is so egregiously awful (minus one dreamy Patrick Muldoon of course) that they seem quite good in comparison.