Action Adventure movies


REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:         


13 HOURS BY AIR. Paramount Pictures, 1937. Fred MacMurray, Joan Bennett, Zasu Pitts, John Howard, Brian Donlevy, Alan Baxter, Fred Keating, Ruth Donnelly, Adrienne Martin, Benny Bartlett. Screenplay Bogart Rogers, based on his story “Wild Wings” with Frank Mitchell Dazey. Directed by Mitchell Leisen.

   A bit different than what you might expect from director Leisen, though he often did films about flying or flyers (Arise My Love).

   This is an early aviation film with the usual Grand Hotel cast, first Captain Jack Gordon (MacMurray) meets Felice Rollins (Joan Bennett) desperate to get a ticket on the flight to San Francisco. Of course he can’t resist helping even when he sees a headline about a woman in a fur coat who held up a jewelry store with two men.

   Add to the passenger list Zasu Pitts as the high-strung nanny to wealthy young Waldemar Pitt III (Benny Bartlett, billed as Binnie Bartlett), a small handful of ill manners and painful tricks, then a mysterious Dr. Evarts (Brian Donlevy), the nosy Mr. Palmer (Alan Baxter), and a foreign fellow threatening Felice (Fred Keating), plus co-pilot John Howard and stewardess Adrienne Martin who just got engaged.

   The usual comedic misdirection abounds, and this one almost falls into the runaway heiress genre of screwball comedy, with Bennett and MacMurray both veterans of such lighter fare, but then the plane is forced down in bad weather in a snowy field, and it turns out there is a killer on board willing to sacrifice everyone so he can escape to Mexico.

   No surprises here. Waldemar proves his worth, MacMurray gets the girl, and the bad guy gets decked while all the romantic entanglements get explained simply as soon as everyone stops playing cute and just talk to each other. Leisen often combined comedy and drama in his films.

   Granted the model work is distractingly crude, though good for the time, but aside from that I’m a sucker for these closed world films whether on a train, a plane, or ship, and this one boasts an unusually good cast and a solid plot that, while slight, gets by on good dialogue and the quality of the players. It plays like one of the better stories of this sort that appeared in the slicks and the pulps of the period, and is a good example of a genre that writers such as Ernest K. Gann and Arthur Hailey would push to the bestseller list and would be adapted into memorable films later.

   Better than average fare in a genre that would become a staple in the decades that followed.


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


ALISTAIR MacLEAN – River of Death. Collins, UK. hardcover, 1981. Doubleday, US, hardcover, 1982. Fawcett Crest, US, paperback, 1983.

RIVER OF DEATH. Cannon Films, 1989. Michael Dudikoff, Robert Vaughn, Donald Pleasence, Herbert Lom, L.Q. Jones. Based on the novel by Alistair MacLean. Director: Steve Carver.

   I imagine a conversation between Alistair Maclean and his editor going something like this: “Imagine a story where you have an adventurer, an Allan Quatermain sort ripped straight from the pages of H. Rider Haggard, who discovers that a Nazi war criminal is not just hiding in South America, but that he’s hiding in a lost city originally founded by a hitherto unknown Indian tribe!” That is, to be sure, an intriguing premise to a story.

   But there are obvious questions raised by the idea. How did the Nazi get there? What is he doing there? Just hiding out or up to something far more nefarious? And who is this adventurer who gets the honor of serving as the tale’s protagonist?

   Sadly, it’s the near complete dearth of character development, to say nothing of the achingly dull plot, which relegates Maclean’s River of Death to a minor work in the author’s far more distinguished canon. Hamilton, the hero of the story, is introduced to the reader almost simultaneously with other characters, all of whom will play far lesser roles in the plot.

   There’s no real moment in the first third of the novel when the reader gets a feel for Hamilton and learns why he might be so motivated to return to the site of this so-called lost city. That, along with the fact that many of the characters seem to speak exactly alike, is unnecessarily confusing and does very little to keep one engrossed, let alone interested, in what’s transpiring.

   And then there are the Nazis. In the novel’s prologue, which is undoubtedly the best part of the work, Maclean is at his best at least as far as this work is concerned. He paints a picture of two Nazi war criminals. It’s the end of the war, when it’s clear to all but the most deluded fanatics that Germany is about to be a defeated power. Two S.S. officers, Van Manteuffel and Spaatz, decide to abscond to South America with treasures they have looted from a Greek monastery.

   But Nazis aren’t the sorts to play fair. It’s no surprise that Von Manteuffel, a poorly developed arch-villain if there ever were one, decides he’d rather have the loot all to himself and have his would-be partner in crime out of the way.

   Fast-forward several decades. Spaatz, who managed to survive Van Manteuffel’s bullet, is now working and living in Brazil under the laughably generic name Smith. He hires Hamilton, the story’s hero-adventurer, to lead him into the Amazonian jungle under the pretense that he’s interested in seeing the lost city for himself. What he’s really after, of course, is revenge. He knows that Van Manteuffel is living a Kurtz-like existence out in the jungle.

   Most of the novel follows Hamilton and Smith, along with a motley crew of thrill seekers, as they traverse rough terrain, fight off Indian tribes, and learn each other’s deepest secrets. The dialogue is forgettable, as are the descriptions of the group’s infighting. Like slogging through the rainforest, it requires patience to get where you’re going.

   And, unfortunately, the payoff isn’t really worth it. Yes, they find Van Manteuffel and the implication of the ending is that the bastard gets his just desserts. Nevertheless, it all left me with a feeling of “so what.” Unlike Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil (reviewed here), which raised all sorts of ethical and political questions, Maclean’s work seems to be content with just following through with a mildly quirky, albeit intriguing, premise.

   The cinematic adaptation of Maclean’s work isn’t much better than the novel itself. What starts off as a sweaty, low-budget adventure film with potential to punch well above its weight, ends up faltering under the weight of so many 1980s action movie clichés. You’ve got some gunfights, some explosions, uncivilized natives, and the cruel and sadistic Nazis.

   Robert Vaughn and Donald Pleasence, who portray the two Nazi war criminals, could have put in solid dramatic performances rather than the cartoonish ones they deliver here. Michael Dudikoff, who plays Hamilton, is stilted from the very beginning. He radiates as much personality as his character in the novel. Which is to say almost none. It’s a shame. When given the opportunity to do so, he was capable of so much more than phoning it in.

   The one exception is L. Q. Jones. A veteran of many Sam Peckinpah productions, Jones is a welcome presence in River of Death. He plays a shifty fixer, the type of guy you might very well meet in a small town Brazilian watering hole a million miles from nowhere. It’s a real good role for him and one that I admit kept me watching the movie longer than I would have otherwise.


SICARIO. Lionsgate, 2015. Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber. Director: Denis Villeneuve.

   When a young female FBI agent (Emily Blunt) is recruited to join an elite task force assigned to bring down a Mexican drug cartel, she agrees readily enough, but when she shows up for work, she finds herself on the outside and along only for the ride.

   And this is the problem. Not only is she totally confused as to what it that’s going on and what it is she should be doing, so is the viewing audience — and so was the scriptwriter. The story makes no sense at all.

   As it turns out, the task force is doing things totally illegally as far as respect of international borders is concerned. The ends justify the means? Well, maybe. The drug cartel and its elusive boss are doing very nasty things, and they deserve to be brought down. But why recruit someone who plays it straight and goes strictly by the book?

   It is also not to say that Emily Blunt is at all convincing as a tough head of a FBI SWAT team. She’s far too slight in size and stature. She’s a little girl playing with the big kids on the block in dress-up clothes. She’s very good at sitting in a car or a bus looking out the window wondering what it is that’s going on, but little else.

   Nor is the ending worth waiting for. It’s very dramatic, I grant you, and we do find out two things: (1) why Benicio Del Toro’s brooding liaison character has been hanging around since the beginning of the operation, and (2) the meaning of the film’s title (which translated means “Hitman,” or so I’m told).

   But when it comes down to it, Emily Blunt’s character is shoved aside for a good portion of the end of the film. While this does allow the real story to be told, it’s very unsatisfying that she’s not there to be part of it. Emily Blunt is the star of the movie, but there’s almost no reason she had to be in it. (Of course, if she isn’t, there’s no conflict of ideas, and it’s an entirely different story than the screenwriter intended to tell.)

   A complicated film, in other words, but one that just didn’t connect with me. The photography is nice, though.


THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD. Lionsgate, 2017. Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Salma Hayek, Élodie Yung. Director: Patrick Hughes.

   For an action comedy, The Hitman’s Bodyguard has a complicated plot, so let’s start with that, using the cast listing above, and in the same order. Ryan Reynolds is the bodyguard, two years earlier at the top of his game, but fallen into disgrace after he allowed one of his clients, a Japanese arms dealer, to be killed.

   Samuel L. Jackson is his client, a notorious hitman who has agreed to testify against Gary Oldman, the brutal dictator of Belarus, at the International Criminal Court, for crimes against humanity. Salma Hayek is Jackson’s wife, currently in prison, but as a bargaining chip, she will be released once Jackson testifies.

   Last but far from least is Élodie Yung, an inexperienced agent for Interpol whose assignment is to make sure Jackson makes it to the trial on time. To this end she hires Reynolds, an ex-lover, as an outside agent in charge of transport. He demurs but he finally agrees when he is promised his reputation will be restores.

   Almost all of the pieces are in place, but of course there are some twists ahead, as well as lots and lots of bullets, explosions and other spectacular firepower. Lots of chases too, on foot, by car, on motorbike, and around and around the canals of Amsterdam. If you like movies with high body counts, this is the film for you. It is also a “buddy” film, with the hitman and his bodyguard always in wickedly sharp banter with each other as they make one hair’s breadth escape after another.

   But at the heart of the film, though, what it really is, is a love story. Two of them, in fact. Jackson is willing to testify and in all likelihood go to prison, but in exchange for his wife Salma Hayek’s release, it is worth it. Theirs is love-hate relationship, but course we know that love will win out.

   As for Ryan Reynolds, he broke up with Élodie Yung when he became convinced that she had something to to with his big failure two years before, but the torch he carries for her is a mile long. Once again, we the viewer, know that all will end well, and indeed it does.

   Don’t watch this movie if either overpowering but well-filmed mayhem or lots (and lots) of swears bother you, but if not, I think you may enjoy this one as much as I did. It did well enough with audiences last year that a sequel is in the works, The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard.


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


THE WHITE TOWER. RKO, 1950. Glenn Ford, Alida Valli, Lloyd Bridges, Claude Rains, Oscar Homolka, Sir Cedric Hardwicke. Screenplay by Paul Jarrico, from the novel by James Ramsay Ullman. Art Direction by Ralph Berger. Directed by Ted Tetzlaff.

   A sparkling gem of a film, easy to watch and dazzling to behold.

   The story is of a disparate group of mountaineers who set out to climb a mountain known as the White Tower, each for his or her own reasons. Jarrico’s screenplay sketches them out capably, and in the hands of top-notch players (check out that cast) they come to life with subtle nuance. I particularly liked the way the characters each reacted differently to Lloyd Bridges as the able and indispensible member of the team who turns out to be an unreconstructed Nazi and a complete jerk besides.

   TOWER wastes a bit too much time getting them all started up the mountain, but the rich Technicolor imagery of the beautiful Alpine countryside — gorgeouser than which there is nothing — makes the time pass pleasantly And once they start the climb…

   Let me digress a bit: Director Ted Tetzlaff knew how to milk a story, as witness THE WINDOW (1949) but he was primarily a cinematographer, with impressive films like NOTORIOUS and THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE to his credit. His cinematographer here was Ray Rennahan, who could look back with pride on DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK, BLOOD AND SAND and DUEL IN THE SUN. And the sets (more on that later) were designed by Ralph Berger, who was responsible for the catchy visual backgrounds of WHITE ZOMBIE, THE LOST CITY, ON DANGEROUS GROUND and the first FLASH GORDON serial.

   Well, when three visual stylists like this get together, you can expect something special and they do not disappoint. The actual climbing is done in long shot by stunt doubles, but the way Tetzlaff and Rennahan capture the action, one never stops to think about that — at least this one didn’t; I was too busy gasping at the sight of them dangling from ledges and clawing at crevices to think about stunt doubles.

   When we see the stars in close-up on the mountain, it’s mostly in studio “exteriors” and it’s here where set-maker Berger really shines. I guess I knew on some level that Glenn Ford and Lloyd Bridges weren’t really hunkering down in a wind-lashed tent or clinging for their lives to fragile toe-holds in the snow, but that never occurred to me as I watched them doing it — the illusion is that good.

   WHITE TOWER ends as it started, with a bit too much Movie after the Story is over, but again there’s plenty of pretty pitchers to look at as you scrape the last husks of popcorn from your bag, and I can’t think of a better way to fill up the time.


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


CRIMSON TIDE. Buena Vista Pictures, 1995. Denzel Washington, Gene Hackman, Matt Craven, George Dzundza, Viggo Mortensen, James Gandolfini, Rocky Carroll. Director: Tony Scott.

   Postmodern inter-textual awareness is the name of the game in Crimson Tide, a Tony Scott-directed war movie set almost exclusively on board an American nuclear submarine. There’s dialogue early on in the film, due largely to uncredited rewrites by Quentin Tarantino, that deliberately makes the viewer sit up, pay attention, and acknowledge that they are watching not only a war movie, but a specific sub-genre within that genre: the submarine film.

   As members of the crew wait upon a bus ready to transport them to the submarine, they engage in casual banter about submarine movies, referencing not only Robert Mitchum and Curt Jurgens in The Enemy Below (1957), but also Cary Grant’s appearance in submarine films and Robert Wise’s Run Silent, Run Deep (1958) starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster.

   The question is, why? Why have characters draw attention to the fact that their mission parallels stories told in cinematic war classics? It’s not typical for an action film to consciously draw that much attention to itself. But in this case, it not only works, but it works extraordinarily well in giving the proceedings a real edge. It serves to tell the viewer that what they’re about to watch doesn’t stand alone, but is part of a larger tradition in American war cinema.

   That’s not say that the movie wouldn’t have worked without this pop culture postmodern awareness. Far from it. Stars Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington are both on the top of their game as officers on board the U.S.S. Alabama. The two men couldn’t be more different. Captain Frank Ramsey (Hackman) is a jaded, solitary man, his only friend in the world his dog. He sees the world as a dark, hostile place and believes it’s the duty of Naval officers to destroy the enemy before the enemy destroys you.

   Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter (Washington) is younger, more cerebral, and a family man who believes that, in the nuclear age, the real enemy is war itself. When the crew is ordered to make preparations for a preemptive nuclear attack on a rogue Russian military base, it’s only a matter of time between the two men’s worldviews come into stark conflict.

   Well-directed and superbly acted, Crimson Tide also benefits immensely from a score by Hans Zimmer. Fans of The Sopranos and NCIS will appreciate seeing James Gandolfini and Rocky Carroll in supporting roles.

   As much as I enjoyed the movie – particularly the manner in which Hackman embodies his character with such gruff, stubborn conviction – I can’t say that it’s a film that necessitates repeated viewings. But for a fun, exciting ride, Crimson Tide delivers all the goods that one would want in an action film that doesn’t remotely insult the viewer’s intelligence.


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


ANGKOR. Mapel Pictures, 1935. Also released as FORRBIDDEN ADVENTURE, FORBIDDEN ADVENTURE IN ANGKOR, THE GORILLA WOMAN and PRIVATE LIFE OF INGAGI (!). With Wilfred Lucas and Fred Humes. Directed, at various times, by L.C. Cook and George Merrick. No writer credited.

   Another oddity, made up of some amazing film shot in 1912, the first motion picture record of the magnificent ruins at Angkor, when it was still a vine-covered ruin, before it became a tourist site — but

   With something added….

   Dwain Esper, the auteur of REEFER MADNESS, somehow got the original footage and hired George Merrick to shoot scenes with actors in false beards to match the original (more or less) and a half-dozen Hollywood hookers to run around topless as “native bearers.” Throw in a guy in a gorilla suit, and you got Cinematic Treasure.

   Like many low-budget cobble-jobs, ANGKOR is held together (sort of) by voice-over narration, here detailing a story about intrepid explorers in search of a cult of ape-worshipers, supposedly for the story behind the fall of the Khmer civilization. Okay.

   So we get the usual jungle-documentary stuff, silent and projected at the wrong speed, while the narrator talks about the harrowing trek, and invites us to watch cute fuzzy animal antics and a few staged scenes of dire peril. My favorite is a guy struggling for his life with a 12’ python (while, presumably, the cameraman looks on with clinical disinterest) until his fellow-bwana shows up, sees his pardner wrapped in the serpent’s coils, and shoots the snake from twenty feet away without injuring the struggling man he’s wrapped around – which if nothing else, shows a confidence in one’s marksmanship amounting to arrogance.

   At various places in the trek we break for scenes of the stand-ins, standing in as is their wont, in front of back-projected footage. Then we get to the native village where the plot thickens a bit. A sinister priest of an ape-worshiping sect (a monkey-monk?) warns the men not to help the white interlopers, and stalks off, leaving our stand-in heroes with the pleasant alternative of hiring the buxom ladies of the tribe as native barers.

   Esper got into trouble with the Breen Office at this point, and hit on the happy (?) solution of superimposing tree branches into the foreground whenever the ladies are on screen. This was passed by the censors, whereupon he showed the original version every chance he got. Stout fellow, that.

   Not content with mere fake-documentary sleaze, Esper then hired a guy in a gorilla suit to strut around trying to pick up jungle babes, who swoon over him – a theme first exploited in the notorious INGAGI (1930) which was still being shown to white-supremacist groups into the 1960s.

   I take a step back here, and muse on the vagaries of cinematic destiny, which transmutes an historic film record into racist titillation. We will remark on the ironies of fate and pass on.

   The result is a unique combination of spectacle and sleaze, a very bad film made remarkable by its own audacity, and while I wouldn’t recommend ANGKOR to anyone of any critical capacity at all, I have to say I enjoyed it more than I should admit.


RICOCHET. HBO/Cinema Plus, 1991. Denzel Washington, John Lithgow, Ice T, Kevin Pollak, Lindsay Wagner. Director: Russell Mulcahy.

   This movie was made, I believe, before Denzel Washington became a well-known box office draw, and the movie did not do very well financially. (For what it’s worth, it came out a few months before Cape Fear, which had a very similar story line.)

   Washington plays Nick Styles, who at the beginning of the movie is a night school law student moonlighting as a beat patrolman. He’s propelled to fame overnight when his capture of a sadistic killer named Earl Talbot Blake (John Lithgow) is caught on video tape by a happenstance onlooker. Seven years later he is happily married, has two children, and careerwise is an Assistant District Attorney. More than that, he is considered by many to be a political star in the making.

   Blake, in the meantime, is seething his life away in prison, plotting his revenge and cracking up visually, minute by minute. Once escaped but assumed to be dead, his goal is not to to kill Styles — too easy! — but to tear his life apart and utterly humiliate him. Using the power of the media, he nearly succeeds, brutally killing Styles’ friends, and in particular using a videotape showing Styles having sex with a prostitute, his mind addled with drugs, and adding faked dialogue.

   When Styles realizes how greatly his family is in danger, enough is enough, the lid really comes off. The final fiery confrontation between the two enemies is shown on live TV, of course, making this film an early example of how the media is increasingly making successes of some people’s lives and breaking others. Or in Styles’ case, first his meteoric rise to fame, then his downfall, before final redemption. Three acts, all caught on tape and live TV as well as newspaper headlines.

   Outwardly, other than that, what this is is an above average action thriller, made better than it really is by a top notch cast, all of whom know exactly what they’re doing. (It was good to see Lindsay Wagner again as Styles’ boss, and the always recognizable John Amos as his father.)


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


MERMAIDS OF TIBURON Pacific Productions, 1962. George Robotham, Diane Webber, Gaby Martone, Timothy Carey, Jose Gonzales-Gonzales, and John Mylong. Written, produced & directed by John Lamb.

   A real oddity, released, re-released and re-edited in sundry permutations (including the title The Aqua Sex) over the years by auteur John Lamb, and a big hit on Army Bases.

   Diver and all-around Deep Sea Honcho Dr. James Samuelson (played by stuntman George Robotham, here under the name George Rowe) is contacted by a mysterious scientist-guy (John Mylong, the scientist-guy in Robot Monster) for help exploring the waters off the island of Tiburon, apparently chock-full of pearls and mysterious sea critters. They arrange to meet in Mexico, but when Rowe gets there Mylong is missing, amid signs of violence in his Hotel Room.

   Enter Timothy Carey as a bad guy in possession of Mylong’s maps and a trunk large enough to hold a body. He charters a boat with skipper Jose Gonzales Gonzales and sets off for Tiburon, right behind our hero.

   At which point the action slows a bit—to put it mildly. Rowe (who also narrates, like Lloyd Bridges in Sea Hunt) gets there first, and after many long, extended, lengthy, leisurely interminable minutes of looking at water, he comes across a race of Mermaids.

   They’re a diverse lot, these Merladies. Some have fish tails, some wear seaweed bikini bottoms, but all are topless and blessed by nature. No wonder this was popular on Army bases.

   What follows is about twenty minutes of unadulterated ogling, dressed up like exploration, as Rowe follows the Merbabes into their briny homeland. I will say right now that the underwater photography is expertly done, with a professionalism you wouldn’t expect in a low-budget picture like this, and the aquatic toplessness is diverting… for a while. But after a near half-hour of nothing but buoyant boobs, I thought I was seeing double.

   Fortunately about this time we get back to the story, and I was never so glad to see Timothy Carey’s ugly mug or hear Jose Gonzales Gonzales sing off-key.

   Carey gets to show off his nasty side here, and he does it quite well, deep-sixing the trunk with Mylong’s body, dynamiting the water with Rose and the Merwomen underneath, and setting off in ruthless search of giant oysters (they look more like bits of décor swiped from a sea food restaurant) and precious pearls.

   So obsessed is he with loot that he spear-guns a Merlady in a fit of pique, leading to an end unique in the annals of movie villainy that I won’t spoil for you. Suffice it to say (as it usually does) that Mermaids of Tiburon may not be much good, but you’re not likely to see anything else like it.

   One additional footnote. Hero George Robotham spent most of his movie career as a stuntman, including stints in the Mole People, Confessions of an Opium Eater and doubling for Kirk Alyn in Atom Man vs Superman. Somehow Mermaids of Tiburon seems to fit right in.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


FLIGHT TO FURY. Filipinas Productions / Lippert Pictures, 1964. Dewey Martin, Fay Spain, Jack Nicholson, Joseph Estrada, Vic Diaz, Jacqueline Hellman. Screenwriters: Monte Hellman, Jack Nicholson, Fred Roos. Director: Monte Hellman.

   Filmed in the Philippines back to back with Back Door to Hell (reviewed here ), Flight to Fury is a low budget crime film that, while nothing spectacular, has some interesting sequences and hints of genius to come. Directed by Monte Hellman, and with a screenplay written by Jack Nicholson, the movie has a fatalistic sensibility from start to finish. This is largely due to some terrific hardboiled dialogue and compelling performances by Nicholson as a cynical diamond thief, and Filipino actor Vic Diaz as a sleazy criminal who likewise has illicit gains on his mind.

   Although it takes a while for the movie’s plot to come into sharp focus, Flight to Fury soon reveals itself to be a caper film. A ragtag group of individuals are enclosed together on a small aircraft. Each seems to be hiding a secret. Or secrets. When the plane goes down in a remote jungle, it becomes clear that the pilot was smuggling diamonds. Four of the survivors, all male apart from one woman who is more than willing to employ her seductive charms to get what she wants, are soon struggling for possession of the diamonds that the now deceased pilot had stashed in his luggage.

   And if you think surviving a crash is bad, just wait until some guerrillas stumble upon the group and take them captive. What happens next is both predictable and rather downbeat, with an obligatory firefight between the group and their captors as well as a final Western-style showdown between two men for control of the diamonds.

   In the end, what makes Flight to Fury worth a look is that it paints a stark picture of a fallen world in which no one wins, everyone loses, and there are no heroes.

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