Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Forgotten Denzel Washington: Ricochet (1991)

I've always liked Denzel Washington as an actor but I've never really warmed to many of his serious roles. I far prefer him when he's in slightly trashy genre flicks like Virtuosity or Fallen that are way beneath his talent. The advantage with using Washington in these types of films that he still treats his roles as if it's Malcolm X or any of his other Oscar-nominated roles. Whereas most high profile actors slumming it would give a half hearted performance and cash their pay cheque, Washington always gives 110% in whatever he's in.
Ricochet was released in 1991 and directed by Russell Mulcahy (interestingly the same year he directed the infamous Highlander 2). The film sees Washington play Nick Styles, a cocky young beat cop who manages to arrest a notorious criminal called Blake (John Lithgow) purely by being at the right place and the right time. Flash forward seven years and Styles has worked his way up to become the Assistant DA and has a wife and two daughters. Meanwhile Blake has spent the whole time in prison, plotting his revenge. He makes a daring (and pretty unbelievable) escape and quickly sets about putting his plan in action. He's not going to kill Styles he's going to systematically destroy his life and those around him instead.

As I said before Washington is great in this, particularly the early scenes where he plays the younger version of his character. The scene in which he distracts Lithgow by taking off his clothes (...not as gay as it sounds) is expertly handled with some crackingly good dialogue. There's some also nice support from Kevin Pollak who plays Styles partner. Pollak's such a great character actor and always a welcome addition to any film. John Lithgow, I've seen play a villain twice before (in Buckaroo Banzai and Cliffhanger) but nothing prepared me for his performance here. He's deliriously unhinged as Blake and gets some very funny (and profane) one liners that will almost certainly make you laugh out loud.

Eighties action movies were always pretty crazy and silly, particularly those produced by Joel Silver such as Commando and Action Jackson. Heroes were almost bulletproof, Villains could do anything and with each successive film the plots got more and more unrealistic. Ricochet is probably where it reached breaking point. There's so many ridiculous plot developments and some of them are completely unnecessary. For instance did we really need a scene with Lithgow in the prison basement having a homemade sword fight with another prisoner, while they are both wearing books taped to their bodies like samurai armour. Probably not. If there's a complaint to be made about the film it that it didn't need to be so outlandish.

That said, you've got to love the fact that the film goes one step beyond. Anyone complaining that all action films nowadays are watered down PG-13 rubbish should go back and watch this. It should come as no surprise that the screenplay was written by Steven E De Souza, he of Die Hard fame (in fact he even re-uses the reporter character Gail Wallens from that earlier film presumably to tie both films into the same continuity!). There's some good twists and turns throughout the film and you could never call it dull. It's only towards the end, when Ice-T's lovable drug dealer character is re-introduced, that things start to get a little cliched and convoluted. 
Also the story does get pretty dark in places, darker than I thought it would go but like all 80s films, everything is wrapped up and sorted out by the end. Ricochet is a breezy little flick that's perfect for late night viewing with your brain half switched off. The performances are uniformly great, the action is ridiculous and the story is gripping. What more could you ask for?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Violent movies, kid-friendly merchandise

As a change of pace, this week's entry I'm going to be looking at the hilarious world of movie merchandise. Nowadays there's a lot of companies like McFarlane Toys who specialise in making highly detailed replica models of famous movie characters like Pinhead or Ash from Army of Darkness. And these are clearly designed for adult collectors with the figures are usually sold on the top shelves in comic book shops. But back in the 80s and early 90s these companies didn't exist. Instead you had children's toy companies like Kenner buying the merchandising rights to make action figures of some of the most violent 18-rated movies.

I remember seeing these types of figures in toy stores as a kid and being really confused. Why were they trying to sell toys related to movies that I wouldn't legally be able to watch until I was 18? I guess part of it comes from the fact that the ratings system is different in America and should a parent wish to they can take their 8 year old to see the latest Hostel film. Even so I can't help but find it highly amusing how quickly and shameless these figures were produced and what lengths they went to make them child friendly.


I've got to say, bar watching Romero's Day of the Dead, as a kid no other film has shocked me by it's violence than Paul Verhoeven's original Robocop. The part where Alex Murphy is repeatedly shot by the main criminals and somehow still survives long enough not only for Clarence Boddicker to fire a bullet point blank into his head but also to remain conscious while the doctors try to restart his heart was a true eye opener. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. The film is filled with equally graphic pieces; the young executive getting blasted by ED-209, Emil being doused in toxic waste and getting liquidised when he's run over, Boddicker getting spiked in the neck. The list is endless.

Of course, Robocop was clearly too iconic a figure not to turn into a toy. I mean just look costume design, hell even the concept of a robot cop sounds like it should be cartoon rather than a film. On the DVD commentary Verhoeven even says something to that effect when describing how he reacted on first reading the title of the script. He threw it in the bin before he turned to page 1. It was only when his wife picked it out and started reading it that she discovered it was anything but kid friendly and in fact would make a perfect fit with his back catalogue.

Famously Robocop has been dumbed down several times. Firstly, with Fred Dekker's Robocop 3 and then with the subsequent non-violent TV series and animated series. I wonder if they'll still make toys for the upcoming remake? Hell, they're probably already making the molds.



Again, like Robocop, the brand recognition was clearly too great for the producers of the Highlander series not to license their property to not only a children's TV series but also some accompanying toys. The series was quite a weird entity. It was produced by Gaumont, a French company who also partially financed the live-action series with Adrian Paul. No one loves the Highlander films than the French – I guess it's got something to do with the fact that Christopher Lambert, a Frenchman, was the original MacLeod.

Anyway, the animated show was set in a post-apocalyptic future and ignores the chronology of the films (but hey, what Highlander spin-off doesn't). Basically all the remaining immortals, including Connor Macleod, come together and agree to stop fighting each other and throw away their swords. Except one immortal, the evil Kortan, decides not to play ball and becomes ruler of the world. Sometime later a teenager called Quentin Macleod gets shot by one of Kortan's soldiers and is turned into an immortal. He's taught the ways of the being an immortal by Ramirez (seemingly not the same character that Sean Connery played in the films) and starts taking down Kortan's rule over the world. People do actually get decapitated in the show but it's always shown in shadow or done off screen. And the series also includes the new kid-friendly way of gaining someone's Quickening, they can just give it to you without having to kill them.

They made a series of toys to accompany the series as well as a game for the Atari Jaguar (what a console). Considering all the other abuses of the Highlander franchise I guess the animated series wasn't too bad. At least a lot of thought was put into the design and quirky side-characters.


Again, like Robocop the increasingly cartoonish nature of the film's sequels justified the evolution of Rambo's character to become a literal cartoon. Rambo and Forces of Freedom ran for 65 episodes during 1986 and it was clearly meant to emulate the popular GI Joe series that also ran at the same time.

The series saw Rambo and his team take on globe trotting missions handed to them by Colonel Trautman. Of course, these missions had a lot of explosions and gunfire but seemingly no one ever got shot or hurt. The villains were a nondescript paramilitary terrorist organisation called S.A.V.A.G.E (Specialist-Administrators of Vengeance, Anarchy and Global Extortion) and all the members of Rambo's team had cheesy nicknames like Touchdown (a former American Football player if you hadn't guessed). Hell, they even nicked the whole Snakes Eyes/Storm Shadow rivalry by having two ninjas - White Shadow and Black Shadow - who were brothers but worked for opposing sides. Someone should have filed a law suit!

The series was produced just after the first sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II. You could never imagine them making one just after the original film. I mean Rambo's near unintelligible speech at the end of First Blood about his dead friends is genuinely heart-felt. Whereas the bit in Part II where the beautiful Vietnamese woman asked Rambo “You take me America?” only to get shot literally 30 seconds later does feel very reminiscent of a cartoon.



Now this one didn't get an accompanying cartoon but I can't help but feel that they probably planned to make one. They released a toy for John Matrix and also several other characters who were clearly meant to be part of his special-ops team. Again, these characters had cheesy nicknames like Spex, Blaster, and Chopper. And yet again, they fought an evil organisation called F.E.A.R. lead by the evil Psycho (possibly modeled on the Bennett character from the film).

Commando was a pretty brutal film, maybe not as much as Robocop, but still had a good deal of violence. I managed to get the uncut version on DVD a while back which was a little tricky but totally worth the effort. Most versions completely remove the scene where he hides in the garden shed and then uses a bunch of tools to defeat a group of bad guys. A man gets decapitated by a circular saw bit, another gets a fork throw the chest and the last one gets his arm sliced clean off. Worst of all has to be the guy who gets an axe to the balls. I can't believe this bit got cut, Commando is already a hugely silly and enjoyable movie. It's like taking the cherry off the top of an ice cream sundae.

Anyway, I'm rambling. Mostly because I don't any more info. They made this toy. They stuck the title Commando and Schwarzenegger’s name on the front. What else is there to say.

Chuck Norris

Okay, okay. I'm slightly cheating here. Chuck Norris isn't a movie, he's just an actor. But he was an actor known for being in pretty violent movies and let's face it, he basically played the same character in all his films. Clearly, like Rambo and the Forces of Freedom, Chuck Norris also wanted a bit of that lucrative GI Joe cash so he created Chuck Norris and the Karate Kommandos (gotta love that forced alliteration).

The cartoon saw Chuck and his Kommandos go up against the evil VULTURE organisation (sorry, not sure what the acronym stood for) led by The Claw and Super Ninja. Similar to the Mr T cartoon, Norris himself would appear in live-action bookends in which he'd impart the moral lesson of the show for kids that were too thick to understand on their own. I've got to give it to Norris, the bravado of making a fictionalised version of himself as the lead character for a cartoon is very bold. He didn't want to settle for a Lone Wolf McQuade cartoon or Delta Force show. I can't help but feel that this hubris in some way laid the foundation for the popular “Chuck Norris Facts”.

Sadly, Chuck Norris and the Karate Kommandos only lasted 5 episodes but a quick search on youtube will probably lead you to some clips. Still they made toys of all the main characters and they even did a comic book drawn by Steve Ditko (who designed a lot of classic Marvel characters like Spider-man).


I saved this one until last because in my eyes it's the most baffling of all. I can just about see the thought process in turning all the above movies into cartoons. Strip out the violence and they're no different from GI Joe or Transformers. But Aliens? Really? Sure when you boil it down to it's essence it's about futuristic soldiers fighting aliens but it's also super-gory and psychologically disturbing!

Regardless, they did make a toy line in 1992 just before Alien 3 was released. Additionally they also planned a cartoon series that was going to be titled Operations: Aliens. They produced a pilot episode but so far only these stills have made it on to the internet.

The series was going to loosely adapt the 1986 Cameron movie with character like Apone, Hicks and Bishop inexplicably returning alongside Ripley. And in order to make a load of toys there were going to have lots of Aliens variations based on animals, such as Gorilla Alien or Snake Alien. Presumably no one would get killed but I guess since the xenomorphs are just monsters a lot of them would probably get blasted into oblivion.

Now anyone who's glimpsed some of HR Giger's artwork, of which the titular Alien is no doubt an absolute living embodiment, can attest to how disturbing them are. Grotesque monsters than on close inspection are nothing more than deformed male and female anatomy! Coupled with the fact that the original Alien has a lot of disturbing scenes that suggest the fear of rape by both genders. Kane is essentially violent impregnated with the alien and Ash attempts to choke Ripley with a rolled up porn magazine. And THEY WERE GOING TO MAKE A KIDS CARTOON OF THIS!?!?!?!?!? I don't think the internet has enough space for all the exclamation and question marks needed.

Anyway, the cartoon didn't come to pass but they shipped out the toys (just without the Operation: Aliens banner). The cartoon was probably shot down by how morbid and critically despised Fincher's threequel was (for the record I thought it was almost great but highy flawed). That and the fact that Ripley's character had been killed off.


So that's it for this epic entry. Any other violent movies you wished existed as cartoons or toys? Lethal Weapon? Die Hard? Re-Animator? Personally, I'd love to see a Steven Seagal cartoon and action figure. Under Siege would be the obviously chose but I'd prefer Hard to Kill. Mason Storm just sounds like it should be a cartoon character's name already.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Analysis of a flop: Hudson Hawk (1991)

I'm going to break from tradition for this entry. Usually on this site I only talk about great (or at least, semi-great) films that I like but I figured every now and then it would good to mix it up and look at something less successful. If nothing else but to put successful films in a context. I was 8 when this film first came out in the cinema and was never a huge Bruce Willis fan in my youth so it took me until last week to get around to checking it out. The reviews for Hudson Hawk were utterly scathing at the time and it's only in the last few years that it's received a little bit of a cult following. So let's see what all the fuss is about.

Bruce Willis plays Eddie Hawkins, a notorious cat burglar nicknamed Hudson Hawk. Having spent the last ten years in prison, he's eager to make a fresh start. But almost immediately after he's released he's co-opted into stealing a priceless horse statue by his old buddy Tommy (Danny Aiello) for a couple of loud yuppies – the Mayflowers (Richard E Grant and Sandra Bernhard). The Mayflowers pressgang him into stealing two further objects that have hidden inside them parts for a secret gold-making machine invented by Leonardo DaVinci. And at every turn James Coburn and his team of weird CIA agents are trying to catch Hawk and make him work for them instead.

Honestly, it's really hard to call judgement on this flick. On the one hand it is excessively loud and self indulgent but on the other hand it's incredibly anarchic and bursting with witty ideas. People thought Schwarzenegger was brave doing Last Action Hero, a film that parodied his on screen persona but arguably Bruce Willis is more brave doing this, a similar parody of action films that doesn't necessarily call attention to the fact it's parodying action films.

I can't think of another film that I've enjoyed and hated in equal measure. At the time it was released, a lot of the backlash was due to the fact that it was billed as a straight action film but really it's like a violent, swear-y live-action cartoon. The set design and over-the-top acting feel like they belong in kids film. But the swearing and explosions make it look like a film for adults. Thus to fully enjoy it you've got to be able to tolerate both kids films and action films and enjoy watching them mashed together.

The film moves at a breakneck pace, literally Hawk is flung from one scene to the next with little time to comprehend what's going on and who's who. The pace both helps and hinders the film. It helps because if one scene doesn't work, the next scene might. But it also makes it really hard to take in the gonzo free-wheeling plot. Bruce Willis gives a quite charming performance as Hawk but the film could have done with giving him a little more time to let us catch his witty one liners (which alternate between great and groan out loud). The worst performance definitely comes from Richard E Grant, who plays the eccentric Darwin Mayflower. Shouting lines and gurning wildly, like he's in a school play - he really brings the whole film down.

According to the credits Bruce Willis and Robert Kraft contributed the story and it really shows. There's a lengthy sequence in which he and Aiello croon along to the entirety of “Swinging on a Star” while they are pull off a heist. As we all now it was around this time that Willis released the album The Return of Bruno. Kraft was the producer of that album and I think if this film proves anything, it's that actors and record producers shouldn't write plots for movies.

I can quite see where this film went wrong. Kraft and Willis wrote an amateurish outline for a movie about a singing thief. Then Joel Silver, an action film producer hired Steven E De Souza (who wrote Commando and Die Hard) to turn it into an action film about a singing thief. Then Michael Lehmann was hired to direct and obviously got Daniel Waters, who wrote the darkly comic Heathers for him a few years earlier, who added an extra layer of quirky humour. So what you get is the finished film which is actually three films all vying for attention. It's like going to KFC, Burger King and Pizza Hut and buying a full meal from each and then trying to eat a chicken double cheeseburger, dipped in special sauce with pizza slices instead of buns!

Okay, enough analogies. Is there anything that works about this film? Well, yeah, a few. David Caruso is pretty funny as a mute CIA agent called hitman who constantly imitates people, the music is nice and the bare bones of the script seem interesting, if a little thin. The whole globe trotting heist aspect reminded me a lot of the Japanese anime Lupin III – whose most famous feature film was Castle of Cagliostro. I don't know if that character was an influence but there's a huge amount of similarities.

So, did Hawk deserve to flop. Yeah, as much as I like little elements it's a Frankenstein picture, stitched together from disparate parts. I can admire it from a distance for trying to break the mold of 90s movies, a lot of them felt very interchangeable and too generic, but it tried to do it by accident rather than careful planning.