Out in Theaters: SABOTAGE

Directed by David Ayer
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mireille Enos, Sam Worthington, Olivia Williams, Joe Manganiello, Josh Holloway, Terrence Howard, Harold Perrineau
Action, Crime, Drama
109 Mins
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Arnold Schwarzenegger hasn’t been in something as good as Sabotage for more than twenty years. In fact, this may be the best performance we’ve ever seen from the California-governing, “It feels like I’m cumin” body-building, Austrian-American action actor guru. Ever since his tenure as the Governator, Arnie’s been busy punting around DOA ideas that rely on his faded muscular glory. He’s more comfortable dog piling onto projects with old buddies rounding out their sixties (who look equally shabby firing large caliber rounds in the revealing light of slow motion.) All the black gear in the world can’t disguise the onslaught of nature’s clock.

Now attached to the Terminator reboot, a third Expendables movie and a preposterous follow up to Twins called Triplets (in which Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito realize they have a third sibling in the form of Eddie Murphyseriously), Arnie’s star hasn’t fallen so much as hitched itself to the good will of his former A-list image. In so much as Schwarzenegger has become a hackneyed impression of himself, director David Ayer‘s willingness to work him into a straight-faced leading role is the first feat of bravery to run from Sabotage‘s gates. Arnie may get one masturbatory scene of pumping absurd amounts of iron but his role is never one of sinewy commando. Instead, he’s left to do the heavy lifting character-wise. It’s a novel idea: Arnie the actor. As the film races on, Ayer takes an increasingly sigh-inducing action behemoth and directs him back to relevance.

That feat is achieved with a pinch of reinvention and a chill gust of sobriety. Arnie’s dropped the shtick, lost the catch phrases and not relied solely on people’s collective memory of some impossibly jacked action hero. He does though, like the rest of his crew, go by a smarmy nickname: Breacher. He’s a rough and gruff veteran who chews on his cigars as much as the scenery, haunted by a gruesome snuff video that opens the film. In the grainy lo-fi of a dusty den, we watch Breacher watch a woman plead for her life, clawing in terror, calling out the name of her would-be savior. Her fear is absolute. The knife goes in clean, comes out stained.   

There’s no context for what we just saw, just the arcane knowledge that it’s supremely fucked up. ‘8 Months Later’ flashes on the screen and we pick up in the midst of a DEA raid on a Cartel drug mansion. Surrounded by a motley crew of B-list gold including, but not limited to, Sam Worthington, Joe Manganiello, Josh Holloway, Terrence Howard and a scene stealing Mireille Enos (each with their own goofy, 80s homaging handle) Schwarzenegger is the cadence-garbling brains behind their lock-and-load-’em brawn. Charging through the confines of what resembles Tony Montana’s compound, Breacher and Co. off baddies without batting an eye. An army of squibs erase the need for cheap looking, post-production digital blood painting. Ayer’s use of practical effects are a sigh of relief for any adrenaline junkie tired of violence as a CGI exercise.

Ayer instead directs the chaos like a boxer, tucking into the action and ducking out into fisheye landscape pans. He compliments bloody close-ups with composition shots that keep the frenetic setting, with its many window dressings, established and consistent. With action shots this clean, you’d think he’s filming on a Swiffer. And never one to downplay the gruesomeness nature of violence, Ayer hangs viscus like a horror show. His revenge train is a trail of sanguine, a bouquet of grisly moxie. At the expense of satisfying character development, Sabotage is Ayer’s gift to the action nut, wrapped in a steamy shawl of intestines, large and small.

Playing with so much camp, the proceedings can become bumbling and even dumb at times, but that comes with the territory. Sabotage is an homage to the action delights of the past; campy, twisty, and at times noodle-brained but always enjoyable and usually about one step ahead of the audience. In the battle of tipping the hat to classic action movies, Ayer proves he knows what he’s doing best. In a John Breacher vs Jack Reacher showdown, the later doesn’t stand a chance. The only real unforgivable aspect is they never fit the Beastie Boys anthem in there somewhere.


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Out in Theaters: NEED FOR SPEED

“Need for Speed”
Directed by Scott Waugh
Starring Aaron Paul, Imogen Poots, Dominic Cooper, Rami Malek, Harrison Gilbertson, Ramon Rodriquez, Michael Keaton
Action, Crime, Drama
121 Mins

Need For Speed
is the kind of movie that the descriptor “high octane” was conceived for. It’s dumb but technically competent enough to pander to the NASCAR hillbilly types and Formula One engine snobs at once. But with neck-breaking car stunts and tightrope tension, it’ll keep your posterior numb and your adrenaline glands humming. Promising that if you get up for a bathroom break, you’re sure to miss something, Need for Speed rockets forth at breakneck speeds, blasting past the roadblocks of story beats and into head-on collisions with nonsense. In the very least, Scott Waugh has seemed to eek past the first set of crash dummy drafts as the undeniably cinematic experience he presents seems more finely tuned than one might first expect. It’s no Chauser but, at the very least, it won’t require you to strap in for a crash course on idiocracy.  

Setting the events to a ticking clock is a bit of a stroke of genius on screenwriter George Gatin‘s behalf as this provides the perfect framework for a movie about fast cars driving fast that has little to offer outside of the temptation of increasingly sleeker, and more European, cars set against an Imogen Poots stripping down layers by the ten minute marker. It’s seduction 101 and it works wonders.

As a movie based on a video game, Speed hits all the marks of mainstream adaptation one would expect, complete with shameless product placement and leggy blondes to ogle at. But beneath the veneer of corporate construction, this is a movie that reaches slightly above the plastic wrappings of strict VG adaptations. There’s obvious fun taking place beyond the lens and, thankfully, it’s the kind of fun we can actually revel in.

Michael Keaton, for one, is having the time of his life and his hammy performance as the illusive Monarch is representative of Need for Speed at large. As he goofs into the mic, accessorized with gaudy, almost Elvis-esque, shades and a flashy wardrobe, he’s the ridiculous meta commentary this kind of movie needs. He’s the outlet for the film’s sarcastic self-mockery and only with his kind of wink-wink-nudge-nudge attitude is Need for Speed able to get away with all its gravity-defying shenanigans.

Piping hot off the untouchable success of Breaking Bad, Aaron Paul is given a chance to reinvent his image in this more mainstream, but still mostly antihero, personality. Moving away from his persona of forlorn but corruptible Jesse Pinkman and into a guy that we can feasibly buy as a studio action figure, Paul, like Jesse in his fleeting moments, has started down a long and windy road. Even though he’s been (mostly) shaved clean and (as far as we know) isn’t at any point addicted to meth, he shares the chiseled brand of intensity – raging yet dopey – that we’ve come to know spending time with Jesse. For his part though, Paul’s still immensely watchable. We see the gears work as Paul faces the canals of yet another moral trauma; the ticktock of a man on the edge of his rope. No one does wounded like Paul. He’s got haunted down pat.

But regardless of how many times Paul and Waugn try to push the idea that Need for Speed is nothing like Fast and the Furious, don’t believe a word of it. What we’ve got here is very much in the same wheelhouse and a good hair below in quality. Beyond the cars, crimes and carnage, the biggest similarity is the ensemble-driven cast. Speed, whether intentionally or not, seeks to recreate a familiar team of interracial, eclectic banditos. We’ve got the wisecracking black man, the reliable Latino, the standard cut white dude and a vaguely Middle Eastern mechanical genius. It is a surprise however that Scott Mescudi (or Kid Cudi as he’s known in hip hop circles) stands out most amongst a dudery that includes Dominic Cooper, Rami Malek, Harrison Gilbertson and Ramon Rodriquez. I guess there’s something behind the unadulterated charisma of rappers that translates well into onscreen supporting characters. Who knew?


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Out in Theaters: ESCAPE PLAN

“Escape Plan”
Directed by Mikael Håfström
Starring Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Caviezel, Faran Tahir, Amy Ryan, Sam Neill, Vincent D’Onofrio and 50 Cent.
Action, Mystery, Thriller
116 Mins

There’s a lot to be said for how entertaining a shoot-em up picture can be if handled with tact and the right people. Escape Plan dispenses with tact and focuses entirely on the “right” people, serving as a vehicle for the film’s stars to get into fights and be brooding, tough-guy stereotypes over a page-one rewrite of Escape from Alcatraz. Crass in all the wrong places, Escape Plan is a superficial viewing experience that takes the prison break formula to its extreme, both in plot elements and in believability. Where it should soar in scope, it exploits its star power, avoiding “setting the scene” or providing any action sequences that are even on par with the films that Escape Plan tries to emulate.

The film stars Sylvester Stallone as a prison break-out expert who literally wrote the book on reinforcing prisons alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger as his later accomplice, Jim Caviezel as their diabolical warden, and Vincent D’Onofrio as Stallone’s business partner. D’Onofrio and fellow cast members Faran Tahir, Amy Ryan, Sam Neill, and 50 Cent barely get a couple one-liners each on screen in a film focused entirely on Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s conflict with Caviezel, which isn’t terribly surprising. It’s obvious this is a B-movie, one that seems to exist entirely so that Schwarzenegger and Stallone can remind fans that they’re tough action heroes, even though both are in their sixties. The casting is rife with stereotypical roles that are never fleshed out, and even for a pulp film the portrayals are pretty shallow.

Stallone, we’re told, has made a living for the better part of the last decade breaking out of prisons and writing about prison security as part of his partnership with D’Onofrio at the security firm they jointly own. When a job comes Stallone’s way from the CIA to break out of a private prison where the “worst of the worse” are held, Stallone signs up after about a minute’s hesitation, only to discover that he’s been set up. He meets Schwarzenegger in this supposedly state-of-the-art successor to the black box prisons America utilizes and the rest of the movie is them using ingenuity, their muscles, and all the guns they can find to get out of the place alive. No elaborate stage-setting here, just Schwarzenegger and Stallone as they face the worst excesses of American imperialism. Their back stories and even names pale in importance in comparison to their stoicism and prison beat down skills.

The film deals with a number of surprisingly dark topics – private prisons, prison brutality, lack of transparency and accountability, American imperial overreach – with cavalier and fascicle levity, the themes serving as shallow reasons for the two aging stars to get themselves into a hard spot they have to punch and shoot their way out of. The formula of a prison break has been given much higher stakes here than in many previous iterations – Stallone is an expert on prison breakouts and the prison he’s at is the best private prison for the worst (read: mass-murdering, insane, anti-American) prisoners. While this would tow the line for a lot of B-movie criteria if it were more tongue-in-cheek or even slightly more visually descriptive, instead we’re left with a simple treatment of extraordinary problems without the assurance of a campy joke or at least some amusing action thrills.

The problem that this film has as its core is that it pretends to take itself seriously and then fails to deliver on its gravitas. Instead of embracing it’s camp and going over the top, the fight scenes and prison breakouts are remarkably commonplace to the genre and feel muted. The strongman act that both Stallone and Schwarzenegger have made wonderful and storied careers out of needs to be balanced by overwhelming action – typically violent – that these silent-types end up employing in the pursuit of their goal. Escape Plan falls short in this regard, making you wait instead for the one shot that reminds you of Rambo or whatever film you’d rather be seeing these stars in. There are a lot of problematic depictions of Islamic inmates and of gender dynamics that are a little too phobic and regressive for discerning tastes, and if they’d only made the action more intense and the setting a little better, it might have started to compensate for these foul-breathed shortcomings.

The prison, pitched as an ultra hi-tech Panopticon, is aesthetically unimpressive. With block names like Babylon and an aspiration to present the best prison ever built, you’d think they’d have spent a little more effort on the spectacle. Instead, you get Plexiglas boxes on stilts and prison guards who, despite their black face masks, look more like mall cops then deadly security contractors. The visuals and set pieces don’t have the kind of hellish quality you’d expect from a place where the most dangerous international figures are housed. Even the other inmates barely looked like they belonged in Oz, much less in the Alcatraz of the War on Terror era. The styling of the place wouldn’t cut in in the 80’s films that Escape Plan wants to be like, and that apparently no effort was made to bridge that gap is disappointing.

Even when those moments come up, the moments that the film was made for – Schwarzenegger machine-guns a bunch of goons, the villains gets their comeuppances, and Stallone delivers the beat down of the movie to the head guard – aren’t as satisfying when taking the movie in as a whole.  The explosions aren’t as big as they should be, the final lines aren’t catchy enough, and the fighting scenes are so poorly executed that you never really feel like the heroes are in any danger. Sure, they may have had torture to put up with, but they were never so broken down that they didn’t have the upper hand against their over-maniacal and wonderfully incompetent jailers. That the film shortchanges audiences in those smaller, establishing scenes lessens the glory of the moments that were the most visceral, leaving all but the most ardent Stallone/Schwarzenegger devotees feeling stiffed.

You want to like a film like Escape Plan if you’re into low-budget action films, but they didn’t put in enough effort to sell the premise and they didn’t make the action scenes extravagant enough to compensate for that lack of scene-setting. It lacks enough camp to B-movie homage and is not bold or funny enough, unintentional or otherwise, to be a regular B-movie. This is the kind of film that would go straight to DVD if it had other stars then the ones it has, making the many missed opportunities for action or spectacle hurt even more. If you have to see everything that Schwarzenegger or Stallone has been in, you’ll see this anyways. If not, do yourself a favor and rent Predator or First Blood instead.


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