Action Adventure movies


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   
JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH. 20th Century Fox, 1959. Pat Boone, James Mason, Arlene Dahl, Diane Baker, Thayer David. Screenplay by Walter Reisch and Charles Brackett, based on the novel by Jules Verne. Director: Henry Levin.

   At the heart of Journey to the Center of the Earth is a sense of childhood wonder. It’s a film that works best for those with a passion for exploration and a ripe imagination. After all, for a movie based on a Jules Verne work to be effective, it must stimulate those parts of the brain responsible for one’s imaginative faculties. One also has to suspend disbelief. Of course, there are no giant lizard creatures lurking about in the center of the planet. But imagine if only there were!

   The plot of this 20th Century Fox live action feature is simple enough. Professor Sir Oliver Lindenbrook (James Mason) of Edinburgh is a geologist by training. Ill-mannered and more than a little sexist, Lindenbrook is seemingly more passionate about rocks than his fellow man.

   When one of his star pupils, Alec McEwan (Pat Boone) brings him a curious geological specimen, Lindenbrook becomes obsessed as to its origins. As it turns out, the rock seems to point toward something much more profound than McEwan could have imagined; namely, that there is – somewhere in Iceland – a passageway deep into the center of the earth.

   Lindenbrook and McEwan, along with the widow of Lindenbrook’s rival, an Icelandic helper, and an adorable duck named Gertrude, set course on exploring the depths of the planet. Of course, such a story could not work unless there was an antagonist who is equally determined to stop the professor.

   Here comes the Icelandic nobleman Count Saknussemm (Thayer David). He is the typical Disney villain. Ready to kill when necessary, but not overtly evil – at least not the end of the film. The conflict between these two forces provides the necessary plot tension needed to make the movie work.

   That said, what makes Journey to the Center of the Earth such an enjoyable feature is not the plot per se. It’s rather the eclectic combination of myriad factors, each of individual import, that coalesce into a coherent whole. Film scenes involving people climbing through caves can only work if there is enough clever dialogue and witty banter.

   And let me assure you, of that there is plenty. Mason, with his distinctive accent and intonation, is pitch perfect. It’s sheer joy to listen to his portrayal of an arrogant professor, one gradually begins to change his tune once he realizes that he may not be as omniscient as he thought he was.

   Adding to the mystique of the movie are three other strong factors. First, the movie has an eerie score by Bernard Herrmann which can be heard here:

   In addition, the movie has great art direction and set design. Even at the beginning of the movie – the nominally boring part – you can clearly see the attention to detail that pervades this work. Be it in Lindenbrook’s home or laboratory.

   Similarly, there are numerous great set pieces throughout the movie, including a giant subterranean mushroom forest (with shades of psychedelia) and the sunken lost city of Atlantis which the exploration party happens upon at the very end.

   But don’t mistake my high praises for a lack of clarity as to the film’s weaknesses. There are quite a few, not the least of which was the decision to kill off the duck. Such a moment must have been quite shocking for young children who went to see a fun film.

   Equally disappointing – this time for adults – is the film’s refusal to depict any sign of sadness or grief on the part of the characters. They are all a little too staid, a little too bourgeois (it’s a term used in the film for a very specific reason).

   A little more passion, a little more anger on the part of the characters would have gone a long way in heightening the proceedings. Perhaps it would have removed some of the movie’s charm. But perhaps it would have given it a little more bite.

   

BLACK SEA. Focus Features, UK, 2014; US, 2015. Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Konstantin Khabensky, Bobby Schofield. Screenwriter: Dennis Kelly. Director: Kevin Macdonald.

   I am caught between calling this a heist film, or a hunt for buried treasure one. No matter, because it includes the best elements of both. When a recently fired underwater salvage captain (a perfectly cast grizzled and determined Jude Law) learns about the possible existence of a Nazi U-Boat from World War II that was sunk off the coast of Georgia with a cargo of gold ingots, he sees a chance to get back at the company that released him, get back in touch with his estranged son, and not the least of these, if all goes well, he’ll be set financially for the rest of his life.

   The sunken ship is in contested waters, though, and the surface is constantly being patrolled by Russian ships. More, the submarine he’s able to purchase, through the aid of a mysterious benefactor, is old and decrepit, and the crew he finds is half English and half Russian, five of each.

   The reward, however, is staggering, running in the hundreds of millions of dollars, to shared equally.

   Obviously things do not go well. They never do in the movies. Only one of the Russians speaks English, for example, and tensions quickly spill over the top, violently so. But with so much money at stake, antagonisms are finally smoothed over. The underground U-Boat is found, entered, and the gold … well, there’s a small problem there. It weighs more than a few pounds.

   Lots of risky maneuvering ensues, including that of the submarine itself through a rocky trench in the ocean bed, anger between the disparate members of crew flares up again and again, a huge double cross is discovered, explosions shake the ship with water rushing in, and well, how well do either heists or treasure hunts ever go in the movies? There’s lots of fun watching this to find out. If this sounds like your kind of movie, it is. This one is a good one.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

CHAIN REACTION. 20th Century Fox, 1996. Keanu Reeves, Morgan Freeman, Rachel Weisz, Fred Ward, Kevin Dunn, Brian Cox, Joanna Cassidy. Director: Andrew Davis.

   It may not be overly memorable, but Chain Reaction is a solidly crafted 1990s thriller that benefits immensely from both a strong cast and a screenplay that never condescends to the audience. Directed by Adam Davis, who is perhaps best known for directing The Fugitive (1993) starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones, this suspense film also involves an innocent man on the run from law enforcement.

   Eddie Kasalivich (Keanu Reeves) is a scientist working on a university science project that would convert water into energy. The director of the project believes that the technology should be freely available to all countries and all peoples. In opposition to this idealism stands Paul Shannon (Morgan Freeman), a shady Washington figure who represents the interests of the defense lobby.

   When an explosion destroys the laboratory, both Eddie and his physicist partner Lily Sinclair (Rachel Weisz) are fingered as domestic terrorists. Enter FBI agent Leon Ford (Fred Ward) who begins to suspect that there is something amiss about the whole affair. As it turns out (spoiler alert), Eddie and Lily are not terrorists after all, but rather pawns in an elaborate government conspiracy headed by intelligence operative Lyman Earl Collier (Brian Cox).

   Aside from the somewhat ridiculous nature of the premise, the film overall works. It sets out what it intends to do; namely, to be a diversionary piece of entertainment. While I am not exactly convinced Reeves was the best choice for the lead role, I can say with conviction that Morgan Freeman, Brian Cox, and Fred Ward were nearly perfect choices for their respective roles. Given the fact that there are no particularly memorable lines or sequences, there’s no particular reason to watch this movie twice. But once? Certainly. You could do a lot worse.
   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN. Millennium Films, 2013. Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster, Cole Hauser, Ashley Judd, Melissa Leo, Dylan McDermott, Radha Mitchell, Rick Yune. Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Available on Blu-ray and DVD and is streaming now on Netflix.

    For the first hour or so, Olympus Has Fallen is a kinetic, exceptionally violent action movie that grabs your attention. It’s a barrage of gunfights and explosions, choreographed to near perfection by action auteur Antoine Fuqua (Training Day). With an exceptional cast – including the late Robert Forster who portrays a general tasked with responding to a major terrorist incident – the movie initially feels like a solid piece of cinematic escapism.

    All that changes, however, by the third act. That’s when the viewer begins to recognize that what one is watching is essentially a Die Hard (1988) knock-off. But unlike Die Hard, this action flic is utterly bereft of character development, offbeat humor, and memorable one-liners. It’s all the carnage of Die Hard amped up to the max, but with none of the heart.

    Gerald Butler portrays Mike Banning, a Secret Service agent tasked with saving the president from North Korean terrorists, Banning is no John McClane; he has no witty dialogue to speak of. Truth be told, he has no wit at all. Just brawn and a propensity toward cruelty toward his enemies. And while that holds the movie together for a while, it eventually wears thin.

    The only character in the film who has any depth to speak of is Speaker of the House Alan Trumbull. This is largely due to the fact that he is portrayed by the always enjoyable Morgan Freeman, who imbues the role with necessary gravitas.

    It’s not that Olympus Has Fallen is a bad movie; it’s just a rather empty one. A facsimile. Fuqua has done much better, particularly in his collaborative efforts with Denzel Washington. What went wrong here? I suspect it was the screenplay. Or the reliance on audiences not noticing how very derivative it all is. That said, the movie fared well at the box office and did spawn two sequels. Make of that what you will.

   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

RAW DEAL. De Laurentiis Entertainment, 1986. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kathryn Harrold, Sam Wanamaker, Paul Shenar, Robert Davi, Ed Lauter, Darren McGavin, Joe Regalbuto, Steven Hill. Director: John Irvin. Available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

   I know this is almost certainly an outlier opinion, but here it is: Raw Deal is actually a pretty good action movie. Although it was a box office disappointment and generally scoffed at by critics, this Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle has been unfairly maligned. One would almost say that the movie itself got a raw deal. And that it now deserves critical reappraisal.

   Years ago, Mark Kaminski (Schwarzenegger) was an FBI Agent living in New York with a bright future ahead of him. All that changed when ambitious prosecutor Marvin Baxter (Joe Regalbuto), upon seeing how badly Kaminski roughed up a child abuse suspect, gave Kaminski a choice: resign or be prosecuted. Kaminski chose the former and ended up in exile, working as a small-town sheriff where one of his biggest collars is that of a local thief impersonating a motorcycle cop.

   Enter FBI Agent Harry Shannon (Darren McGavin). He’s angry and grieving. His son, also an agent, was murdered in cold blood while working witness protection. Shannon knows that somewhere in law enforcement there is a leak, one that cost his dear son his life. He gives Kaminski an offer: work undercover, infiltrate the Chicago mob, and find out who is leaking vital information about the witness protection program. It would all be off the books, of course. No one other than he would know about it.

   It is, of course, a completely familiar plot line. One that has been used time and again. But this doesn’t stop Raw Deal from being good trashy fun. The fact that movie refuses to take itself too seriously works to its benefit. The Untouchables (1987), also a Chicago mob movie, this is not.

   What also makes the movie worth a look is the great character actor talent on display. Steven Hill, decades after he departed Mission: Impossible, is a most welcome screen presence. He portrays Martin Lamanski, a synagogue-attending Jewish gangster in a fierce rivalry with Italian mob boss Luigi Patrovita (Sam Wanamaker). Both men seem to be having a lot – and I do mean a lot – of fun with their roles. To me, this counts for a lot.

   Also look for Robert Davi, known for portraying both cops and heavies, in a supporting role as a mob enforcer. Ed Lauter, who appeared in many 1970s action films, portrays a tough nosed Chicago cop. Both actors add grit and substance to the proceedings and satisfactorily counterbalance the inevitably goofy Schwarzenegger moments.

   I think a lot of attention has been given to the final sequence, which admittedly, is excessively violent. It’s something you’d associate more with a 1970s Italian poliziotteschi than with Hollywood moviemaking. But then again this was a Dino De Laurentiis production. Make of that what you will.
   

      Played by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra:

   

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

   

NIGHT CREATURES. Hammer Films, UK, 1962, as Captain Clegg. Universal Pictures, US, 1962. Peter Cushing, Yvonne Romain, Patrick Allen, Oliver Reed, Michael Ripper. Loosely based on the character Doctor Syn, created by Russell Thorndike (not so credited). Director: Peter Graham Scott.

   Though the movie has numerous elements of horror and some strong frightful imagery of skeletal figures on horseback, Night Creatures is not a horror movie per se. Rather, it’s an thoroughly entertaining adventure film/swashbuckler that neither takes itself too seriously, nor makes a mockery of the proceedings. Released in the UK as Captain Clegg, the movie is rich in atmospherics and benefits from very good set design, costumes, and lighting. Above all, Night Creatures contains a strong leading performance by Peter Cushing and a good supporting performance by a somewhat youthful Oliver Reed whose physicality is on full display here.

   Set in late 18th-century England, the movie pits revenue men against the good (and not so good) townsfolk of a coastal village in Kent where smuggling gin is a primary livelihood. Like Southern moonshine movies of the 1970s, the film very much wants you to be sympathetic, at least somewhat, to the smugglers. The authorities are cold, cruel, and not overly likeable. Holding the town together is the local preacher, Dr. Blyss (Cushing). He seems to have their welfare at heart. But preaching isn’t the only thing he does! He moonlights as the ringleader of the local smuggling outfit.

   As the story unfolds, it turns out that Blyss (Cushing) spoilers alert has a secret. It turns out that Captain Klegg, an infamous pirate who long outwitted the authorities and was presumed dead, isn’t buried in the local graveyard after all. Blyss, it is revealed, is Clegg and has been living under an assumed identity for all these years. There’s also a subplot involving a love affair between the squire’s son (Reed) and Blyss’s daughter (Yvonne Romaine). It works well and serves to humanize Blyss/Clegg.

   All told, the movie is worth your attention. This was my second viewing and I appreciated it a lot more this time. Cushing, because he primarily did horror films, never received the proper acclaim for his acting skills. This movie should prove skeptics wrong. He’s very good here, with the proper amount of cheekiness and deviousness. Captain Clegg is a memorable antihero. Good escapist fun with the proper amount of understatedness. Look for Irish actor Jack MacGowran in a small role.

   

   

DEADLIER THAN THE MALE. Rank, UK, 1966. Universal, US, 1967. Richard Johnson (Hugh Drummond), Elke Sommer, Sylva Koscina, Nigel Green, Suzanna Leigh, Steve Carlson. Screenwriters: Jimmy Sangster, David Osborn) & Liz Charles-Williams, based on a original story by Jimmy Sangster and the character Bulldog Drummond created by Herman C. McNeile (as Sapper) & Gerard Fairlie. Directed by Ralph Thomas.

   If my count is correct, there were 22 films between 1922 and 1951 in which Bulldog Drmmond was the leading character. Various actors played the role, with John Howard getting the nod the most often. Others include Ronald Colman, Ray Milland, Tom Conway and Walter Pidgeon. Spurred on by the success of the James Bond films, Deadlier Than the Male was the first of two additional outings for the character in the late 60s; Some Girls Do (1969) was the second.

   By this time, though, I can easily imagine that audiences had more or less forgotten the character. The role played by Richard Johnson could easily have been any debonair insurance investigator. I may be mistaken, but in Deadlier than the Male, I do not believe he is even called “Bulldog” Drummond.

   He’s brought in on the case when a series of accidents have taken out some of the top level executives of various oil companies. Responsible, although he doesn’t know it at first, are two eye-catching female assassins (Elke Summer, she of the cantilevered bikini, and almost as luscious Sylvia Koscina). But even with such eye candy on hand, the story doesn’t really get into high gear until Drummond’s arch enemy Carl Peterson reveals himself as the man behind the killings.

   In spite of all the action that takes place in the last thirty minutes, I found the overall product only semi-satisfactory at best. As I mentioned earlier, there was a sequel, so this first of the two must have done all right, but unless someone can tell me otherwise, the adventures of Bulldog Drummond essentially ended with the second of the pair, content perhaps as being the model and/or inspiration for the many other characters of derrng-do who followed in his footsteps.

   

   

NOTE: For Dan Stumpf’s much more personal take on this film, posted on this blog almost nine years ago, go here.

   

BLACK MOON RISING. New World Pictures, 1986. Tommy Lee Jones, Linda Hamilton, Robert Vaughn, Richard Jaeckel. Based on a story by John Carpenter, also one of the co-screenwriters. Director: Harley Cokliss.

   The “Black Moon” in this movie is a car, and not just any car. It’s an experimental car, one that’s designed to travel at speeds of over 300 miles per hour. Valuable? Yes, no doubt about it. And when it’s stolen, by an organized gang of thieves not knowing exactly what they have, do the owners want it back>? I’m repeating myself. No doubt about it.

   This is not a “car movie,” though, as many many movies in the 80s were. It’s really about Quint, Tommy Lee Jones’ character, a thief himself. He’s stolen a cassette of important evidence that the owners want back, and he’s hidden it for safekeeping in the car that’s been stolen. Now he needs to find the car too.

   And just by the way, I said the gang of thieves did not realize what they had stolen. This is not exactly true. Their leader on the street and a whiz with cars, especially at stealing them, is Linda Hamilton, and even though it thoroughly displeases her boss (Robert Vaughn) upstairs in a tall tower of a building, she wouldn’t mind the idea of being able to drive off with it.

   It was toward the beginning of Jones’ movie-making career when this one was made, still in the stages of making movies for TV and other ones almost no one ever saw, but does he have screen presence?

   The answer, as succinctly as I can made it, is Yes. He fits my mental picture of a tough-as-nails thief-for-hire perfectly. And tough as nails is exactly what he has to be. He takes one of the more brutal beatings in this movie that I can imagine – and is still able to get up the next day to finish the operation that he has in the works to reprieve the car.  (What this is, you see,  is a double heist movie.)

   Most movie such as this I am always content to sit back and enjoy the flow. Linda Hamilton is always a plus, as easy as the eyes as she is, but this is Tommy Lee Jones’ movie all the way. Even after seeing Black Moon, the car, really do its stuff when it needs to.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF

   

GYPSY WILDCAT. Universal Pictures, 1944. Maria Montez, Jon Hall, Peter Coe, Nigel Bruce, Leo Carrillo, Gale Sondergaard, Douglass Dumbrille. Director: Roy William Neill.

   Last month AMC ran a bunch of those “Arabian Nights” Movies, which I blush to admit I watched and enjoyed while other, worthier tapes, languished on my shelves.

   It doesn’t help a bit that these movies were mega-hits in the 40s, catapulted Jon Hall and Maria Montez to dubious stardom, and launched several mostly cheap and inferior imitations. I noted that Cobra Woman was directed by Robert Siodmak, in the bland, expressionless style that would become his trademark in the 60s, after all those wonderfully stylish films nour, and Gypsy Wildcat was done by that James-Whale-of-“B” -Movies — Roy William Neill — with all the panache poured into Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman and the Sherlock Holmes series.

   Of course, in Gypsy Wildcat, the plot kind of got away from the writers: First the Gypsies sing, then they get taken prisoner by Evil Baron Douglass Dumbrille (who at least always managed to have a good time with his villainy) but Jon Hall escapes. Then he joins them and they’re all caught, so they decide to sing. Then Jon Hall escapes again and comes back for Maria Montez and they both escape, but then they get caught. One of the Gypsies escapes, then they all decide to escape, and to cover up the noise of their escape, they sing.

   Having escaped, they prison the Guards, but then Douglass Dumbrille escapes with Maria Montez, so they chase after him, but while they’re gone, the guards escape and start chasing after the gypsies, who catch Doug just as the guards catch them and …

   Well, I guess that’s why they call it Escapist Entertainment. But Damn, that Movie sure moves around a lot!

— Reprinted from Shropshire Sleuth #71, May 1995.

   

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