Killing Gunther (2017)

I’ll give low-budget B-movies a fair bit of latitude, so if they show some invention or life to them, I’ll try and find something to enjoy and ignore the slow spots and technical shortcomings. But when big-budget, major studio efforts, starring famous names, do the same? They have no excuse.

Writing and directing “Killing Gunther” is the reason Taran Killam was fired from the cast of ”Saturday Night Live”, and right about now I’m willing to bet he’s wishing he hadn’t bothered. It’s a movie that expects the plot to make you laugh, because there are great long stretches where it’s just a room full of annoying people shouting at each other with nothing resembling a joke anywhere nearby.

The plot is, Killam is a hitman who’s annoyed with Gunther (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the world’s greatest hitman, so decides to kill him, assembling a team politely described as wacky to do so. There’s Donnie (Bobby Moynihan), an explosives expert; Sanaa (Hannah Simone), the cold-blooded daughter of a former terrorist – the Dad follows her round her kills cheering her on; Yong (Aaron Yoo), a poisoner; Gabe (Paul Brittain), the tech expert who’s terrible with tech; and Mia and Barold (Alison Tolman and Ryan Gaul), a couple of all-round Russian monsters. Oh, I forgot the guy with the robotic arm, who’s a one-joke character anyway, just not a good joke.

Anyway, as mentioned, most of the first two-thirds of the movie is this group of people failing to kill Gunther and arguing, with extraordinarily weak special effects for “blood spatter” and explosions, like, Troma-level bad. I mean, I’d have been embarrassed to have them in my movie, if I was Killam, and I can only imagine how bad they’d have looked on a full-size cinema screen.

For a movie with Arnie front and center on the poster, he’s barely in it. He doesn’t show up at all until 67 minutes, and then doesn’t really do a lot in the last thirty either. Well, I say thirty, there’s a long long end credit roll, like seven minutes or so. His bits are mostly great, and he shows a real flair for comedy, although I’m certain a few of the jokes were ones he asked for himself, showing that wealthy actor / former Governors are not necessarily the best judges of joke quality. But I could be wrong, it’s not like the rest of the movie is much better.

The central conceit is one that’s been done to much greater effect by other filmmakers. Christopher Guest has made many comedy mockumentaries, and they’re almost always funnier than this, despite having the “excuse” of being largely improvised. Heck, there’s even been one about a murderer, the fantastic “Man Bites Dog”, which is funnier, darker and cleverer than this could ever hope to be. I admire the lengths “Killing Gunther” goes to to maintain the conceit, though, to the extent that when the documentarians who Killam has forced to film him under pain of death abandon their cameras, the only footage we get is when the actors happen to be in the shot. Doesn’t make it any funnier, of course, but they commit.

I know it’s an obvious thing to say when the majority of your main cast are famous sketch comedy performers, but it feels like it’d have been better as a sketch. Killam isn’t much of a director, allowing the handheld nature of his format to dominate proceedings; nor is he, sadly, much of a writer, which is the most surprising part of all of it. Moynihan is the only person who emerges from proceedings with dignity intact – his part was funny and fully-realised. But Killam was dull in the main role, having a series of tics but no real character, and then there was a whole thing with his real-life wife Cobie Smulders which was a complete nothing of a subplot.

Perhaps the worst thing about it is you can occasionally see a much funnier film poking through. Performers this good are going to hit the mark occasionally, and there’s a few infectiously funny scenes and moments. But from the moment I turned it on, full of energy and anticipation, it just gradually sucked the energy out of the room, and had an ending so stupid and pointless that it managed to make a bad movie even worse.

If you want to watch a mockumentary…about killers…made by a documentary crew doing it under protest…then there are still several better options. If you don’t, there are thousands. “Killing Gunther” was almost certainly funnier to make than it was to watch.

Rating: thumbs down

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Kull The Conqueror (1997)

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Hiring Kevin Sorbo to be in your swords-and-sorcery movie in 1998 is a bit like hiring William Shatner to be in your space captain movie in 1968. Sorbo was a few seasons into “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” at the time, a show that was vastly better than it had any right to be, thanks to Sam Raimi and pals’ involvement, and despite this being a bit different, I suspect the producers knew what they were doing, hiring the guy who played the long-haired, bare-chested, ass-kicking fantasy hero Hercules to play the long-haired, bare-chested, ass-kicking fantasy hero Kull.

This film had quite the journey to the screen. Robert E Howard is the greatest pulp novelist maybe of them all – in a short life he absolutely hammered out stories and novels, for characters like Conan, John Carter of Mars, Kull, Solomon Kane, and others. The story this movie is based on, “The Hour of the Dragon”, is a Conan story, and was originally intended to be the third Conan movie, but Arnold Schwarzenegger refused; and Sorbo said he didn’t want to step into Arnie’s shoes, and would only do it if they changed the character.

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There’s a good god, Valka, and there’s an evil sorceress queen, Akivasha. She was in charge of Acheron, a pretty horrible looking place, until Valka overthrew her and built the kingdom of Valusia on Acheron’s ruins. One eternal flame remains to remind everyone of how bad things used to be, but other than that…things still seem pretty bad if you’re not wealthy, although I suppose you have the benefit of not living in a flame-drenched hell-world. Kull is trying to better his situation by joining the King’s personal guard, but he fails his entrance exam (a huge fight) because he’s not of noble blood (he’s from Atlantis, apparently a no-no). But Kull cares not for such boundaries! The king has gone crazy, killing all his heirs; thanks to some rather poor succession rules, Kull half-accidentally kills the king and then takes the crown himself.

All sorts of people want to see Kull dead – the last remaining heir, the chief of the King’s guards, the Head Priest, but most of all Akivasha, who it turns out was just in a sarcophagus the last couple of thousand years, waiting to be woken up. She turns into Tia Carrere (remember how hard some people tried to make Tia Carrere a thing?), bewitches Kull into marrying her and then poisons him, taking over. Of course, Kull’s not dead and he’s got help from a badass monk and her sister, one of the slaves in the Palace who Kull wanted to free (being a former slave himself, he’s got strong opinions on the subject). They need to get the Power of MacGuffin from a distant island, of course.

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You might be forgiven for expecting this to be a double-episode of “Hercules”, in tone and cost, but it’s not. There’s serious money on display here, from the investor who expected this to be an Arnie movie, possibly; there’s big castles and really good-looking set pieces where you can tell they went and filmed there rather than using green-screen (although there’s some green-screen too). There’s tons of extras, and some decent actors dotted about as well – Harvey Fierstein is bizarrely cast as a sleazy fence of stolen goods; Ed Tudor-Pole is fun too; and Karina Lombard is great as the exotic slave/love interest Zareta.

I think if this had been the third Conan film it’d have caused its own problems. Schwarzenegger by the 90s would have wanted it “bigger”, there’d have been A-listers with their own egos involved, and the simplicity and basic fun of what we ended up with would have been lost. It’s just a good, fun adventure, with a decent sense of humour and very little doubt about how things are going to end up. I can’t say anything interesting about these solidly above average movies! You’ll enjoy it, and won’t want to tear your own eyes out after watching it.

Rating: thumbs up

Expendables 3 (2014)

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I really didn’t like the second Expendables film. Or the first one, for that matter. Yet here I am again, giving part 3 a try. And, you know what? I think they’ve cracked it! Some of the problems remain, but I think they’ve finally embraced the ridiculousness of it all.

Stallone and his crew start by pulling off a pretty impressive moving train rescue of a prisoner, who turns out to be…Wesley Snipes! He’d been in some deep dark prison that officially didn’t exist for 8 years, but he’s a former member of the crew and I guess the motto is “never leave an Expendable behind”.

We get our first taste of the major running theme when Snipes, asked what he spent all that time in prison for, says “tax evasion”. Throughout, there are references in the script to the film itself, the process of filming it, or the previous films of its stars. So you’ll get Schwarzenegger talking about how this is his last favour to Stallone, Harrison Ford dropping a Star Wars line, and even (in one fairly appalling moment) Mel Gibson talking about how you wouldn’t like him when he gets angry. Ultimately, if people want to employ Mel Gibson again, and don’t mind that it will keep people away from the cinema (Jewish people, women, people who don’t like awful human beings), then it’s their dollar. The moral case against some films is an article for another time, perhaps.

Anyway, back to the action. While Snipes is helping them on their next mission, they run into Mel Gibson, another former Expendable who went over to the dark side. Thing is, Stallone thought he’d killed him years ago, so him now being a super-wealthy international arms dealer is a bit of a surprise, and sends Stallone into a downward spiral. He fires his old team, and then goes to mercenary-supplier Kelsey Grammer (!) to get a new team, one who don’t mind this being a one-way mission. Kellan Lutz (from Twilight) is perhaps the biggest name of the new fish, but the obvious breakout star of this lot is UFC fighter Ronda Rousey. While not, at this point, the greatest actor in the world, she can kick ass and is a strikingly beautiful woman, so I see her having a similar / perhaps slightly better career than other MMA-star-turned-actor Gina Carano.

But Stallone’s hubris gets his new team captured! What will happen! Will the original team, plus a few old friends, get in on the rescuing action? Just who else will show up?

The climactic battle is sort-of a reverse version of “The Raid” (people trapped in building, fighting to get out), I’m positive was sold to the producers in those exact terms, and it’s amazing. No two ways about it, the best fight scene in any of the three films. The reason is, they stopped trying to pretend that these people, doing this, is likely to happen in the real world. It’s an over the top slice of escapism, and the acknowledgement of this makes it more fun. Stallone shoots an insanely large number of people, tanks are commandeered, there are some sweet bike stunts and some comic relief made good.

That comic relief is Antonio Banderas, who plays a guy you think might be faking it about being a badass fighter. He keeps trying to get on Stallone’s team, talks constantly, and acts like a guy who’s never shot a gun a day in his life. And through the final battle, he still doesn’t shoot, accidentally taking out a couple of goons on the way. I thought “either he’s not going to fire a single bullet the entire time he’s there, or he’s going to be the biggest badass of them all”. I will leave that fun discovery to you, the viewer.

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Of course, it’s not perfect. The banter is still awful and wooden, which may well be a reference to how bad it was back then, but I think is more likely to be the writer (Stallone) not understanding how people sound these days – the entry of parkour into this film indicates he’s got up to the late 90s on his cultural references now. Anyway, Harrison Ford (replacing Bruce Willis as Sly’s CIA contact, dismissing Willis with the fairly clever line “he’s out of the picture”) is flying a helicopter round the scene of the final battle, and as a large group of goons are mown down by his machine gun fire, he growls “that had to hurt”. Of course it bloody hurt! You just shot them! What sort of monster are you?

There’s poor acting a-plenty, as well. Dolph Lundgren, never the greatest actor, has the good sense to stay in the background through most of this one, and I’m not sure Randy Couture gets more than a line or two. Ronda Rousey is going to be great, but she’s not here, and my favourite, Terry Crews, is sidelined for most of the film. Also, Ford, Schwarzenegger and Stallone don’t really try, realising people go to see them be them, not “act”. Still, Mel Gibson reminds us why in happier times he was a great leading man, Jason Statham continues to smirk his way through the huge paychecks he’s no doubt receiving for these movies, and the rest of the new blood remind us that in the 21st century, action stars need to be able to act as well as look good swinging through a window firing a rifle.

While not a great film, it’s certainly an entertaining one, which is more than can be said for the previous two Expendables movies. Also, now a non-action-star like Kelsey Grammer has become part of the family, it opens up all sorts of possibilities for future movies, plus you’ve got people like Pierce Brosnan saying they’re in talks for the fourth one. Ah well, if it’s as much fun as this one I’ll be happy to watch it.

Rating: thumbs up

The Expendables 2 (2012)

 I’m not entirely sure there’s any reason trying to do a normal review of this film. It defies analysis, or anything remotely approaching how a film critic (even an amateur like me) would deal with a film. But I’ll give it a go.

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That caption should read “Back (Problems) For War”

This film has literally everyone in it who ever starred in a 1980s action film. Mickey Rourke quit after the first film, but the sequel brings in  – Jean Claude Van Damme (with his co-star from the most recent Universal Soldier film as his sidekick); Chuck Norris (accompanied by the theme music from “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”, as if the filmmakers really wanted Clint Eastwood but realised the best they could afford was another right-wing nut, but one who’d not worked in a decade); Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis (who both appeared in the first one too, I guess, but had bigger parts here); and of course the main cast – Sylvester “wow, HGH sure changes a person” Stallone, Jason Statham, Randy Couture, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren and Terry Crews.

I was actually wracking my brain and can’t think of a single action star of that era who’s been left out. Maybe Barry Bosworth, star of the amazingly-titled “One Tough Bastard”? Jackie Chan, who was never really a Li-style action star? Cynthia Rothrock and Michelle Yeoh too, but I guess mature women have no place in this brave new world. I think they got all the main ones.

So, the basic plot of this film is that Stallone, Van Damme and Schwarzenegger are hugely wealthy men who paid a bunch of decent younger action stars to do this super-cool-sounding adventure with them so they can pretend to be young…oh wait, that’s real life, not the plot. The Expendables (who, for their name, lose very few members) have to stop some baddies stealing some Cold War-era nuclear material, and…no, that’s about it.

THE GOOD

The action stuff. This film was directed by Simon West, who made one of my favourite films ever (“Con Air”), a film which should have been awesome but which sucked (the first “Tomb Raider” film) and then apparently alienated a bunch of people in Hollywood and the jobs dried up. Anyway, he did what he could with this one, and the action scenes are decent. There’s also one fantastic fight – the Stath vs. JCVD’s sidekick, which is short but looks like two excellent fighters beating the crap out of each other.

Jason Statham and Terry Crews. Two guys who don’t really need this franchise, and who look suitably ashamed to be reading some of this dialogue out. And JCVD makes a decent villain too.

THE BAD

First up, the banter. Someone told these guys that a bit of playful banter in between scenes of carnage is a good thing, but unfortunately they hired a sexually frustrated teenager with no friends to write these parts. Perhaps it’s some meta joke about how bad dialogue was in those 80s action classics?

The acting mostly sucked too, but then I guess what should we expect? Schwarzenegger and Norris effectively play themselves, Randy Couture isn’t an actor and a lot of other guys were clearly not hired direct from a stint at the RSC.

THE UGLY

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BOOM! TAKE THAT YOU GUYS! (high fives imaginary audience)

In conclusion, it’s stupid and only worth bothering with if you suffered some sort of head trauma and forgot about the 80s. Remember these guys as they were – kicking ass in low-budget films in a variety of colourful locales; not as they are, which is sad old men doing the equivalent of 4 different bands all getting together to form one monstrous supergroup, years after fame left them…and trying to write new material.

The Expendables 2 on IMDB
Buy The Expendables 2 [DVD]