Action Adventure movies

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.


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.


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.


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.)


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.


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.


OPERATION EICHMANN. Allied Artists, 1961. Werner Klemperer, Ruta Lee, Donald Buka, Barbara Turner, John Banner. Director: R. G. Springsteen

   Arrogance. That was Eichmann’s defining trait. At least that is how it was presented in Operation Eichmann, a 1961 release from Allied Artists. Directed by R. G. Springsteen, best known for his extensive work with B-Westerns, the film is a deeply flawed, but nevertheless historically interesting feature about the rise and fall of SS officer Adolf Eichmann, the man considered instrumental to the logistics of the concentration camp system set up by the Nazis in Poland and Germany.

   German-American actor Werner Klemperer, whose father was Jewish, portrays Eichmann as an arrogant, obsessive, and paranoid man who is absolutely devoted to the Nazi cause. Although Klemperer may be best known to American audiences for his portrayal of Colonel Klink on Hogan’s Heroes, his performance in this downbeat, grim feature demonstrates that he was an immensely talented actor also capable of handling serious dramatic roles.

   The film traces Eichmann from the height of his political power during the Nazi regime to his life on the run in Madrid, Kuwait, and Argentina. All the while, seeing himself as the natural heir to Hitler, Eichmann was also interested in wealth and women. As depicted in the film, it was Eichmann’s haughtiness and paranoia that did him in and allowed for Israeli intelligence agents to eventually capture him in Argentina and bring him back to Jerusalem for trial.

   The main problem with the film, aside from the fact that it looks and feels more like a TV show than a feature film, is that we never really get to know the film’s nominal hero: an Israeli intelligence agent who was a child in Auschwitz and remembers Eichmann’s brutality from his childhood. David (Donald Buka) is a cipher, a character that the audience never gets to really know. This is a real shame, for there could have been a much more gripping film here about a young boy who grows up seeking vengeance on Eichmann.

   Instead, Operation Eichmann presents David as a staunch moralist, more concerned about trying Eichmann than in killing him. Klemperer was also a far more compelling screen presence than Buka, allowing his fictionalized Eichmann to completely overshadow the unfortunately empty character of David. And without a compelling hero to root for, one is left with remembering Klemperer’s Eichmann more than anything else. Which is not necessarily terrible, given Klemperer’s stand out performance. But it didn’t do much to make me believe this movie is worth a second viewing.


WATUSI. MGM, 1959. George Montgomery, Taina Elg, David Farrar, Rex Ingram, Dan Seymour. Screenwriter: James Clavell, based on the novel King Solomon’s Mines, by H. Rider Haggard. Director: Kurt Neumann.

   Twelve year old me would have absolutely loved Watusi, an MGM production with a script by James Clavell. The sense of adventure in an exotic locale, the footage of African wildlife, and the quest for treasure — all would have appealed to my sensibilities and childhood sense of wonder.

   But I’m not twelve years old anymore and I can see just how flawed a movie Watusi really is. In many ways, it’s just talky and boring. And a lot of that great footage that I just alluded to is stock footage, some from MGM’s King Solomon’s Mines (1950). The constant switch back and forth between the film proper and stock footage is distracting and does little to give the viewer confidence that MGM had much faith in the project.

   That said, I do like George Montgomery, although I know him mainly from his presence in Westerns. Here he portrays Harry Quatermain, Allan Quartermain’s son from Canada.

   He’s come to Africa to continue his father’s project to find and to acquire the diamonds ensconced in King Solomon’s Mines. Along the way, he must face down a hostile tribe, fight off wild animals, and overcome malaria.

   Quatermain also must come to terms with his own personal demons, including a deep-seated hatred for Germans, whom he collectively blames for his sister’s death during World War I. As luck – and the script – would have it, he ends up saving the daughter of a German missionary from a violent warlord. She, along with his father’s friend Englishman Rick Cobb (David Farrar) becomes his travel companion on the proverbial road to King Solomon’s Mines.

   But Rick’s got a secret. He was born in Germany and is ethnically German. It’s only at the end of the movie that the “message” of the whole film is delivered: prejudice against any ethnic group is wrong. It’s all very trite and forced.

   Honestly, that’s about it. The plot doesn’t have much in the way of thrills, and the characters don’t have all that much depth. Kurt Neumann, who also collaborated with screenwriter James Clavell on The Fly (1958), provides competent direction. But it’s not enough to make this action-adventure film anything more than a minor curiosity. A great soundtrack would have helped immensely. For an adventure film, Watusi is notably lacking fanfare. Still, I would have loved it when I was twelve.

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