Hard Eight (1996)

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Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Before Paul Thomas Anderson dared to adapt Pynchon novels he made a lovely sparse seedy neo-noir movie called ‘Hard Eight’ in the mid nineties. The film has a stellar cast including Samuel L. Jackson before he became a parody of himself, Gwyneth Paltrow before Coldplay, John C. Reilly and a cameo from the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. Such a cast is overshadowed by a perfect performance from Philip Baker Hall who plays wily fixer Sydney.

Sydney reminds me a lot of Harvey Keitel’s character from those Telly adverts, Winston something-or-other. He’s a problem solver, cool in the face of crisis. The film begins when Sydney comes across a beaten and bedraggled John (C. Reilly). John has lost money gambling. He was trying to win money to pay for his Mother’s funeral. Sydney buys John coffee, listens to his tale and then offers to teach him how to make some serious dollar.

Sydney takes John to Vegas and shows him how to hustle the casinos. The film then fast forwards to the next chapter. Two years later John is making good money. John and Sydney come across Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson) who runs security and Clementine, a wayward cocktail waitress slash prostitute (Paltrow). Like with John, Sydney tries to help out Clementine, at first she misinterprets his acts of kindness. Thinking, like most men that he wants her body.

That’s the set-up, the film ramps up the tension levels with blackmail, hostage situations and stand offs. Paul Thomas Anderson loads his films with talented charismatic actors, unusual off beat dialogue, and we know that this has become a mark of his work, but it’s fascinating to see how minimal the film is. Café-Casino-Motel Room. There’s no need to present the glitz and glamour of Vegas, this is the other reality, the lives in the shadows.

A word or two must go towards the Philip Seymour Hoffman scene, it’s brief, but brilliant, a hint of things to come. Hoffman is at his blustering obnoxious best. A gambler who goes up against Sydney. He taunts Sydney, calling him “old man” and tries to get under his skin. The scene is reminder to any actor who get gifted s a couple of minutes of screen time and a handful of lines early in their career. Give it everything, snatch the opportunity. It could launch a career. You could become an icon. Hoffman would go on to work with Paul Thomas Anderson, and it’s fair to say this scene probably convinced Anderson  about what Hoffman was all about.

– RJW

8/10

 

Hard Eight on IMDB

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Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (1998)

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There are three main rules when it comes to spotting a failed pilot for a TV show.

1: You have at least two or three supporting characters given way more backstory than usual, often with skills the lead character doesn’t have, and most importantly of all they don’t die.
2: The villain of the piece will almost always “survive” in one form or another.
3: It’ll usually throw some irrelevant world-building detail in there too.

It doesn’t take a genius to spot these – which is why I did it – and it doesn’t mean the movie is going to be bad (the Western version of “Once A Thief” is fantastic, for example), but it’s fun to look out for. Click the “pilot that crashed” tag at the bottom of the page for our reviews of others in this sub-genre.

Although we’ve been spoiled by “The Ultimates” comic and the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Nick Fury being the bald, magnificent Samuel L Jackson, in the “original” Marvel comic line, still going (I assume), Nick Fury is a grizzled white fella, constantly chewing on a cigar. He did some stuff in WW2, then got some anti-ageing serum because they realised an otherwise non-superpowered chap would be dead as the proverbial doornail by the 21st century. For most of his existence in the comics, he’s been in charge of S.H.I.E.L.D., which you may know about from the TV show currently boring us to tears, a group of mostly non-superpowered folks who help out the Avengers and deal with all manner of villains. Their base of operations is the Helicarrier, basically an enormous floating aircraft carrier.

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I know this will sound weird in 2015, but David Hasselhoff was perfect casting for this. He’s a big, strong-looking guy, fits the part as written in the comics and understands camp. You don’t get to be the star of two of the biggest TV shows of all time, with some of the ludicrous storylines they trotted out, without having a bit of a sense of humour about your own career, and that’s what some shows based on comics need. They can’t all have the seriousness of a “Dark Knight”.

Which makes the script credit even more surprising. David Goyer wrote the Christopher Nolan Batman films, “Blade”, “Man of Steel”, “Dark City”, is attached to the upcoming “Metal Gear Solid” movie, and is now one of the biggest names in Hollywood – although we ought to bear in mind he got his start with Full Moon and wrote “Demonic Toys” too. It’s strange to see a man whose name is tied to the most serious superhero movies also behind this.

Nick Fury has been living in an abandoned mine for the last five years, since being kicked out of SHIELD for reasons unknown. Brilliantly, they don’t bother explaining why, they just need him back because HYDRA, the Yin to SHIELD’s Yang, are back. Fury killed Baron Von Strucker but his kids, Andrea (aka Viper) and Werner, storm a SHIELD base, steal his body and develop a super-destructive, Ebola-beating virus from his blood. So it’s them vs. Fury and SHIELD, and there’s kidnaps and fake robot versions of people and properly evil OTT villains and weasely pencil-pushing bosses who won’t just let Nick do his job, dammit!

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Once you accept the over-the-top nature of it all is deliberate, there’s not a ton to hate about this movie – Hasselhoff knows how to do this, and Sandra Hess (“Viper”) has the rare distinction of being in two crashed pilots (this and “Beastmaster 3”). Hoff’s sidekick Lisa Rinna, US soap mainstay and last seen by us in 1993’s “Robot Wars”, behaves like she’s in a different sort of film, which is tricky, and every SHIELD agent apart from the main cast is terribly incompetent, but it’s small potatoes.

There’s a lot to enjoy about this film. The split assault at the end is really well handled, kudos to Goyer and director Rob Hardy for nailing the timing of it so well, there’s some fun banter too, and the villains understand their job is to cackle like maniacs about the murder of millions and play their parts to the hilt. Considering this film is only 2 years older than the first X-Men movie, it feels more like 20 (not that that’s a bad thing). Honestly, I’d rather watch this than any two episodes of the “Agents of SHIELD” TV show.

There’s one final thing, noticed by my friend Dave, that could make the movie very different. HYDRA send a perfect robot replica of the SHIELD director in to cause havoc and play a hologram message. Why don’t HYDRA just go into the legal robot business and make billions? Imagine the possibilities – decoys for politicians and celebrities, “adult” movie stars, scarecrows for very wealthy farmers…crime is a mug’s game, HYDRA!

Rating: thumbs up

S.W.A.T. (2003)

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Directed by: Clark Johnson

I often wonder why some stars fall in Hollywood, as some actor’s careers disappear almost overnight. I also get perplexed how some actors somehow find a niche and can churn out the same tired act over and over, sometimes for over a freaking decade. If anything these actors are the true greats, great in the arts of deception, of perfecting a role and then repeating it over and over again. Michelle Rodriguez comes to mind as one such performer, she plays the gritty street smart Latina, or variations to that affect in almost every movie, but she’s had a decent career, made money, dated Supermodels and in fairness I will also concede that some of the films she’s been in haven’t been all that bad. She is proof that variety isn’t always a good thing. I guess she is reliable, a rock in the cast to build the film around.

‘S.W.A.T.’ contains a wide scale of acting performances veering from the OTT to the can’t be arsed; you’ve got Samuel L. Jackson going through the motions, Colin Farrell coasting, Jeremy Renner straining every sinew to get noticed by casting directors, and a supporting cast that includes the aforementioned Rodriguez and LL Cool J delivering exactly what they’re paid to deliver. Fans of ‘The Wire’ will also notice minor roles for the guy who played Herc and Tommy Carcetti’s right hand man, which seems unsurprising given that the film is directed by Clark Johnson, the guy who played Gus Haynes in Season Five.

Yes, ‘S.W.A.T.’ is erratic, but in essence it is a good, if a tad unbelievable story that plays well. Farrell is Jim Street, a competent S.W.A.T. team member who almost botches a hostage situation when a hostage is seriously wounded by a stray bullet fired by his hot-headed partner Gamble (Jeremy Renner). Street and Gamble get the Riggs and Murtaugh treatment from their superior and lose their positions on the frontline. A frustrated Gamble quits the force, whereas Street decides to accept his punishment and work in the gun cage.

A chance meeting with S.W.A.T. legend Hondo Harrelson (Jackson) gives Street a chance at getting his spot back, as part of Harrelson’s newly formed group of misfits and strays that he plans to run like an old school no nonsense S.W.A.T. division. After excelling in training Harrelson’s team are assigned to escort one of the world’s most wanted criminals. Mayhem ensues.

Despite a pendulum swing of acting performances levels Clark Johnson manages to breathe life into every character, which ultimately means that we care a bit about who lives and indeed who dies. Harrelson’s team bond quickly, and each have their own motivations for being part of the force. When the bullets fly and the tyres screech it is difficult not to find yourself on the edge of your seat. ‘S.W.A.T.’ is an early noughties above average action thriller that deserves a watch.

– RJW
7/10

S.W.A.T. on IMDB

Robocop (2014)

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The original “Robocop” is a dream for cult film fans – a very very clever film pretending to be a very very stupid one. It satirises the further encroachment of capitalism and “consumer culture” on our everyday lives and asks questions about personal responsibility while at the same time being a really awesome, exciting, and violent action movie.

First things first, new Robocop will not be making anyone forget classic Robocop, and I’ll try not to assume you’ve all seen the original (although if you haven’t, seriously, what’s wrong with you?). Samuel L Jackson is Pat Novak, host of “The Novak Element”, which is the film’s idea of what Fox News will turn into in a decade or so, and his show features robots (including the iconic ED-209) pacifying the streets of an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Plus ca change, eh? Anyway, he – as a shill for Omnicorp, creator of those robots – and Omnicorp want those robots on the streets of America, but some stupid liberals are blocking the law being changed. How do you get round the law? By having a part-robot, part human crimefighting badass, and that’s where the unfortunately blown up cop Alex Murphy comes into it.

The original’s setup is simpler – OCP effectively buys the city of Detroit and starts installing its own robots on the streets – but this isn’t bad, to be honest. Nice idea, and has something to say about the world of today too. The situation muddies quickly, though. Murphy’s family were virtually invisible in 1987, as they’d been informed he died (and his memory was “wiped”), but they’re central characters here, as they attempt to deal with having a husband / father who’s a head, spine, lungs and a hand attached to a robot. OCP back in the first film were thoroughly evil, but I guess in 2014 film companies are much more a part of huge corporations than they were before, so we have to see at least some of them as good people who just want to help.

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Robocop kicks ass and takes names, but to cope with all the crime information uploaded to his head, they have to drop his dopamine levels, turning him into little better than an automaton. This, along with the reveal of what happens when his visor comes down, is an interesting commentary on what it means to be human and works well, even if the visor thing is mentioned once and then completely forgotten about. The driving force of the second half of the film is him trying to solve his own murder while Omnicorp exploit him in order to change the law.

The main issue with this film, I think, is its unwillingness to go as far as the original did. I’m sure that director Jose Padilha (who also made the extraordinary “Elite Squad” in Brazil) would have understood and largely agreed with Paul Verhoeven’s ideas, so the corporate structures mentioned above, and their innate conservatism, might be the reason? The cops actually go on strike in the original, and there are several central cop characters, but in this film they’re almost entirely absent, with the exception of the brilliant Michael K Williams as Murphy’s old partner. I don’t think any 2014 movie would show going on strike as a positive act, and would obviously rather not show it at all, just so no-one gets any ideas. The leering, demented “I’d Buy That For A Dollar” TV show from the original is referenced in one throwaway line but not replaced, which is a bummer.

The cast is packed with heavy hitters that the original didn’t have – Gary Oldman as the scientist who invents the Robocop system, Michael Keaton as the CEO of Omnicorp (in a role that was almost played by Hugh Laurie, which would have been amazing), with Jennifer Ehle and Jay Baruchel as his senior executives. Jackie Earle Haley is kind-of a rough approximation of the original’s classic villain Clarence Bodiker, but now he’s a scumbag military consultant rather than a scumbag criminal.

But it’s the body and acting of the Robocop himself which is where the film’s problems lie. Firstly, the original outfit was changed. It was a design classic, worked perfectly, but for some reason his outfit in this was a black insect-looking thing, less armour than a Batman outfit. They give him the “classic” outfit back at the end, almost as a sop to fans of the original (and to try and get us to stick around for the sequel), but we’ve already seen him in the naff other outfit for the best part of 2 hours. I already mentioned the saving of his hand, which leads to some very unusual visuals when he’s being dismantled. Why lose his arm but keep his hand? It’s so he can touch his wife and kid, I suppose, but in a film like this it just doesn’t make enough sense, and one can’t shake the idea they had a choice and went with the nice, sentimental option. Joel Kinnaman, as Murphy, is passable but absolutely nothing special, and not a patch on Peter Weller’s original performance.

A lot of reviews have said they think the creators of this film didn’t realise what made the original so good. I disagree, and think they understood perfectly, they just wanted to use the name to make money while largely removing the satirical bite that the original had. The comparison to our current use of drones to kill our enemies is made clear at the end of the film, but they don’t criticise the system that creates those killer robots, just the principles of the people pulling the trigger.

I don’t know. I feel like I’ve criticised this film a lot, when it had a lot of great action scenes and some solid performances. It just feels so…pointless. I’ve seen dozens of films that have ripped off “Robocop” down the years, and this film could have been one of them, with a few tweaks to the script and a change of setting. But all the people who funded this film cared about was the name and the few iconic images (the original suit, the ED-209, the OCP logo) that they could exploit to make money. Take out the genuinely subversive edge that made the original the beloved film it was, add in some family drama that no-one could possibly give a damn about, think better special effects = a better film, and there you have it. The evolution of a modern remake.

Rating: thumbs down