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Attrition
(2018)

Above Average Seagal Thriller
Surprisingly, the latest Steven Seagal actioneer "Attrition" qualifies as a notch above the last 36 movies he has starred in since "Half-Past Dead" (2002). Basically, a standard-issue abduction tale, with a dash of fantasy, "Attribution" benefits from Steven Seagal's better than average but formulaic screenplay, and "Borderland" French director Mathieu Weschler's polished helming. Weschler's touch permeates this standard-issue crime melodrama and elevates it to the level of an arthouse film. He imparts a sense of fluid spontaneity rarely seen in Seagal's quickly made, cookie cutter sagas. Jordan Dieselberg's editing, Vincent Vieillard-Baron's cinematography, and Can Aydin's stunt work--involving at least 33 Asian stunt men--are all impeccably brought together as a unified whole. You don't witness this level of craftsmanship in your run of the mill Seagal shoot'em up. Predictably, Seagal casts himself as another indestructible, but conscious-stricken government Black Ops agent who hangs up his guns. Axe pledges to atone for the lifetime of death and destruction that he has inflicted on others over the years. Genuinely contrite, Axe (Steven Seagal of "Under Siege") channels his energies and expertise as a doctor to serve a poor, remote, jungle community.

Mind you, with its human trafficking plot and marital arts showdowns, you've seen variations of "Attrition" in countless Asian thrillers. Seagal plays the tall, dark, bearded Axe as a sympathetic fellow, a rarity in his gritty, homicidal thrillers. The scene where he persuades a hopeless father to refrain from committing suicide so his son will not face an orphan's future is openly sentimental. Furthermore, "Attrition" boasts two other scenes where different characters break down and weep in sympathy bestowed upon them. Reportedly, Seagal wrote a scene about Chinese girls mud wrestling, but Weschler convinced him to remove this objectionable scene because it would have been incompatible with the serious tone of the film. The genius of Weschler's direction is that he doesn't wear out either his welcome or Seagal's with this nimble, atmospheric, 85-minute, R-rated actioneer. Naturally, the despicable villains are no match for our invincible heroes, and the final assault on Qmom's lair is staged with both flair and efficiency. Nothing about Weschler's Nobody gives a bad performance, and the sprawling Thai scenery is breathtaking. Apparently, according to production notes, Seagal shed 25 pounds for the role, not that you can see it for the black, loose-flowing apparel worn. None of this, of course, will matter to most Segalites, but they are rewarded amply with a firefight at the outset and even more during the third act.

Our conscientious hero and his black ops team mount a rescue operation during the murky pre-credit sequence of "Attrition," with Axe providing some insightful, voice-over narration that reflects his philosophy. "The weight of war is a heavy burden to bear. Some say it's a necessity, a stage on which good can triumph over evil. But sometimes, the cost is too great to justify the means. For all the lines that have been crossed in the name of justice, taking a life for a life will only perpetuate the cycle. The war must be fought from within. It would take a lifetime to make amends for the terrible things I've done." As Axe and his heavily armed team blast their way into an abandoned factory, they slaughter the opposition. Their triumph over evil is short-lived. Axe discovers that the object of their mission, a beautiful young girl, has bled out from a chest wound. Three years later, our hero settles in the Far East, follows the teachings of Buddha, and uses his own medical skills to alleviate the suffering among the destitute in the jungles of Thailand. Axe is a compassionate person who accepts everybody at his non-profit clinic.

Inevitably, Axe's nirvana is shattered after the fiendish villain, Qmom (Kang Yu of "Kung Fu Jungle"), dispatches his gimlet-eyed henchmen to kidnap a twenty-year-old girl, Tara (newcomer Ting Sue), who refuses to accept Qmom's hospitality. An open-air market scene with hundreds of sheets draped across rope-hung corridors of makeshift clothesline scaffolding demonstrates Weschler's flair. Qmom's men pursue Tara through this colorful maze. Nevertheless, the best efforts of our damsel-in-distress to elude the villains proves futile. The bad guys catch her and drag her back to Qmom. This tense scene bristles with kinetic energy and dazzling flashes of color. The freshly dyed, rectangular sheets hanging up on display break up the monotony of the humdrum settings. Later, the brokenhearted father appeals to Axe for help. He explains that his oldest daughter was born with a gift to heal. Apparently, Qmom has kidnapped Tara because he believes that she can heal him. This beastly opium dealer lives in luxury in a nightclub/fortress since he doesn't feel safe enough to venture out of it. He learns about Tara from a street gambler who owes him a bundle. The only derivative scene that stands in out "Attrition" is Qmom's entrance. Our villain is shown sparring vigorously with a bloody punching bag. The bag splits open after he concludes his workout, and out a dead man's arm dangles. Presumably, the James Bond extravaganza "Die Another Day" (2002), where the North Korean villain beat an adversary to death who was sewn up in a punching bag, may have inspired Weschler.

Since thirty-eight minutes has elapsed in "Attrition," you know that Axe cannot refuse the father. Indeed, our hero has been awakened from his sleep by a winged angel who converses with him on more than one occasion about the forthcoming confrontation. Reluctantly, Axe reassembles his elite team of troubleshooters, with a flavorful homage to Sylvester Stallone's "Expendables" franchise as the heroes gather. They set out to rescue Tara. Unlike the opening scene with its ill-fated hostage, Axe resolves to see that the same outcome doesn't occur twice. Hardcore Steven Seagal fans won't be disappointed with "Attrition." The finale at Qmom's stronghold has everybody either tackling or killing bad guys. Watching Seagal give the arrogant opium dealer his just comeuppance is swell stuff.

Vault
(2019)

The Fault with Vault
"Almost Mercy" writer & director Tom DeNucci and co-scenarist B. Dalton bite off more than they can chew in "Vault," an ambitious but humdrum portrayal of a momentous robbery that also heralded the decline of La Cosa Nostra in America. Basically, "Vault" depicts a little known but spectacular $34 million robbery committed by two small-time hoods who never learned that crime doesn't pay. The infamous robbery took place on the morning of August 14, 1975, at the Hudson Fur Storage at 101 Cranston Street in Providence's West Side in Rhode Island. Not only did they pull off this once-in-a-lifetime robbery without casualties, but they also got clean away with more loot than you can ever imagine. Afterward, however, they discover that claiming their share of the loot would be an involved and drawn-out proposition. Up-and-coming thespians Theo Rossi and Clive Standen, who headline this low-budget crime saga, orchestrate the operation in this cliché riddled heist caper. Several familiar crime genre stalwarts, Chazz Palminteri, Don Johnson, William Forsythe, Burt Young, Andrew Divoff, and Victor Pastore, provide sturdy support in peripheral roles in this 99-minute, R-rated potboiler. DeNucci and company score brownie points galore for restoring the year 1975 with nothing egregious to burst the nostalgic bubble. Unfortunately, DeNucci isn't as gifted a maestro as Martin Scorsese, especially since his historic Mafia heist in "Goodfellas" (1990), co-starring Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta, shares certain similarities with "Vault." Despite its' commendable production values, "Vault" generates little excitement, resorts to hackneyed movie formulas, and ultimately tempts you to fast-forward the action to fadeout. Indeed, crime doesn't pay in "Vault," but the authorities have never able to prove in court without a shadow of a doubt who ordered the robbery. DeNucci and Dalton have their own take on the mystery man. The action boils down to criminals versus criminals. In fact, the police are seen only occasionally! At the same time, DeNucci chronicles the friendship between the two protagonists, Deuce (Theo Rossi of "Cloverfield") and Chucky (Clive Standen of "Patient Zero"), who met when they were fifteen. DeNucci delivers few surprises along the way, and the action is wholly derivative. The supreme irony of "Vault" is the Mafia may have been the culprits who made off with the $34 million. Crime buffs may tolerate it once but watching it more than once might be sleep inducing.

Tom DeNucci covers a lot of ground with little flair in this half-baked but historically exciting yarn. During the opening 30 minutes, DeNucci and Dalton introduce Deuce and Chucky, and their first scene together is reminiscent of a Tarantino conversation from one of his early films. Poised to rob a pawnshop, Deuce refuses to wear a mask. Futilely, Chucky argues with him about wearing a mask. Everybody will only remember the muzzle of his revolver, Deuce rants, rather than his facial features. Eventually, Chucky relents and then sheds his own mask. The two gunmen enter the store and brandish their weapons. All but one of the employees, Karyn (Samira Wiley of "Rob the Mob"), refuses to cooperate with Deuce's revolver staring her in the face. Deuce marvels at Karyn's defiance and finds himself attracted to this fearless African American dame. Oddly enough, despite her initial hostility, Karyn reciprocates Deuce's interest. Later, she accompanies Deuce home and samples his mother's cooking. Meanwhile, Deuce and Chucky get too big for their britches and try to rob two banks in the same day. Indeed, they might have gotten away with it, had Deuce not enlisted his younger brother, Tommy (Michael Zuccola of "Erebus"), as their getaway driver. As he listens to the police-band radio, Tommy loses his nerve and splits seconds before Deuce and Chucky dive into the backseat. The police surprise the pair, and they land in prison. A shady Frenchman, Gerry Quimette (Don Johnson of "Miami Vice") recruits them as bodyguards to protect him from the Mafia. Since he is French, Gerry cannot become a Made-Man, and Mafia chieftain Raymond Patriarca (Chazz Palminteri of "The Usual Suspects") isn't happy with Gerry's blasphemous request. Nevertheless, Raymond and Gerry have a complicated history of collaboration, and Gerry knows more about Mafia business than any non-Italian could and still rise for breakfast each day. After our protagonists are released from prison, Gerry contacts them about a heist at the Hudson Fur Company. He promises them each a $70-thousand payday. Initially, Deuce is leery about it, but Chucky persuades him to change his mind. They hire five accomplices to help them clean out about 146 safety deposit boxes in a huge commercial vault at a private warehouse. Nobody has ever dared to rob Hudson Furs, probably because everybody knew it was a Mafia safehouse.

DeNucci directs "Vault" as if it were a documentary. First, neither Deuce nor Chucky engage our sympathy. Low-life thieves that these characters are, the enigmatic actors portraying them struggle to give them any redeeming qualities. Little about Deuce and Chucky is likeable. Second, by the time these two give up the ghost, you'll find nothing amusing about their naïveté. Morally, DeNucci glorifies neither the crime nor the criminals. DeNucci stages the heist, but he doesn't generate a palatable sense of either dread or suspense. The actual robbery is more monotonous than nerve-racking. Our protagonists aren't even in the vault while their accomplices drill industriously into one safe deposit box after another, piling up heaps of currency on the floor. Meantime, Deuce and Chucky keep several Hudson Fur Storage employees at gunpoint. Indeed, "Vault" musters a surprise or two, and one is the reversal ending that surprises both of them. DeNucci helms the first two-thirds of "Vault" with efficiency rather than finesse, while the final third, where Deuce and Karyn reunite, spirals into boredom. At this point, you'd think these guys would have realized they would get their share of the lead instead of the loot. Despite the unique significance of its historical background, "Vault" qualifies as routine at best and uninspiring at worst.

Laredo: A Taste of Money
(1966)
Episode 30, Season 1

Doggone it, Reese!!!
Charlie Ruggles of "Bringing Up Baby" plays an amiable old codger in the first season "Laredo" episode "A Taste of Money" who likes to invent things and has an affinity for all things mechanical. As Major John Cane, the elderly Ruggles is not only a mite absent-minded, but he also is an unwitting kleptomaniac. For example, when Reese and he conclude a conversation and get up to leave, the Major will appropriate Reese's Stetson without the least qualm and wear it out the door. This habitual characteristic comes in handy later in this lightweight farce directed by veteran helmer William Witney of "40 Guns to Apache Pass" and concisely penned by "Shaft" scenarist John D.F. Black.

The opening moments find us in Laredo as a crowd of ill-tempered bank depositors are complaining vociferously about being unable to draw out their money because the door to the vault is mysterious stuck, and the cashier cannot open it. The Major and Reese show up, and the Major-operating like a skilled surgeon-taps the vault door with a metal bar and then strikes a tuning fork. He repeats this procedure and the door opens to the amazement of the crowd of spectators. Among the on-lookers seekers are Ezekiel Fry (Noah Beery, Jr. of "Red River") and Sebastian 'Sab' Melendez (Robert Yuro of "The Hell with Heroes"), two outlaws who have a soft spot for banks. Fry gets the idea that the Major could aid and abet them in their robberies. Initially, Sebastian objects, but Fry wins him over. They send in one of their gang, Fred Partens (Jim Goodwin of "Ice Station Zebra"), to persuade the Major to ride with him to Porfiero, Texas, to open another jammed safe. Hoodwinked by Partens, the Major accompanies him and opens the bank. Fry and company make out like bandits, and the Major realizes that he has been taken for a ride. He refuses adamantly not to help Fry, until Fry engineers the kidnapping of Reese. The three Rangers, Reese (Neville Brand of "Stalag 17"), Chad Cooper (Peter Brown of "The Wedding Planner"), and Joe Riley (William Smith of "Platoon Leader"), ride into Porfirio, and nobody comes out to greet them except for a lonesome dog.

Fry warns the uncooperative Major that he plans to take Reese hostage and use the Texas Ranger as a bargaining chip to convince the Major to do their bidding. Reese leaves Joe and Chad, and Fry and his men assault Reese and take him back to their hideout in an abandoned livery stable. Reluctantly, after watching them use Reese as a punching bag, the Major relents and agrees to help Fry. Since their next hold-up is rather complicated, the Major has assigned each outlaw with a specific task. They stage a rehearsal of the bank robbery, so that everything will go smoothly. Meanwhile, Joe and Chad are following the dog that they have provided with Reese's scent. The robbery that the Fry gang is rehearsing appears elaborate, with most of them using block & tackle to move about over a two-story building. While the outlaws are going through the scenario that the Major has designed for them when the rob the Porfirio bank, he releases Reese, and the finale begins. No sooner does this happen than Joe and Chad enter the livery stable after a lengthy search and the dog's unerring nose finds Reese.

This "Laredo" episode is hilarious. The Major walks off with everybody's headgear. Don't miss this wonderful show.

Abduction
(2019)

Mediocre Crime and Time Travel Tale
Hollywood makes three kinds of sci-fi flicks. First, epics that occur in space. Second, stories that transpire on Earth. Third, yarns that utilize both settings. "Abduction" qualifies as the second. The premise of "Assassination Games" director Ernie Barbarash's "Abduction," a tolerably cheesy sci-fi saga mashed up with a crime thriller, is utterly preposterous. The elaborate but convoluted premise virtually defies synopsis. Imagine the kind of movie those schlockmeisters at Asylum Studios would crank out about 'aliens trafficking in humans,' and you'll see why "Abduction" earns points for its goofy SyFy Channel charm. Aliens from another dimension can "bend space time," but they're are running out of that commodity. When they entered our world, they disrupted our three-dimensions and wound up marooned here ever since. Apparently, these aliens-called 'Visitors'--had established contact earlier with the ancient Chinese back in the Stone Age. While time ticks away at their expense, the Visitors have embarked on a hunt for humans with either "specific genetic codes" or exceptional 'chi.' The pseudoscience of Feng shui plays a critical part in the flawed navigational system of the Visitor's starship. These singular humans can produce enough chi to propel the Visitors through the three-dimensional matter in the Earth's gravitational pull. None of these humans, however, will survive the journey. Basically, all you need to know is that the Visitors have abducted Scott Adkins' daughter and nothing is going to stop our hero from getting her back alive. Clearly, Barbarash and "Operation Rogue" writer Michael MacLean have appropriated "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and combined it with "Taken."

These sinister aliens, sauntering around in dark robes with hoods covering their cadaverous faces, are fairly straightforward. Not only do they speak in predictably ominous tones, but they also can emit a light from the palms of their hands. Near the end of this nimble 97-minute nonsense, the Visitors unveil themselves in their native form as towering, green, crystalline, warriors. Omniscient and infallible as these Visitors appear, they make a supreme error when they abduct British SWAT team leader Andrew Quinn (Scott Adkins of "Avengement") and his adolescent daughter Lucy simultaneously. As one of two protagonists in this buddy picture, Quinn searches desperately for his missing daughter. She is one of many Earthlings shanghaied by these space invaders to salvage their malfunctioning navigation system. In a parallel plot, a deadly assassin who has never missed a single shot in his entire life, Connor (Andy On of "Zombie Fight Club"), promises his wife he will quit killing people for an Asian crime syndicate. Connor yearns to turn over a new leaf. Unexpectedly, the Visitors clad like monks in robes materialize mysteriously in his apartment and abduct his wife. Inevitably, Quinn and Connor collide with each other when they tangle with these formidable aliens. Connor tries to shoot them, but they dissolve his bullets into dust!

"Abduction" unfolds in a gloomy warehouse where a huge, sweaty thug trundles unconscious humans around in a wheelbarrow. Quinn finds himself among other less fortunate humans who the aliens have seized as slave labor. These woebegone souls have a spider-like apparatus attached to the nape of their necks with a glowing jade emerald at the center. The atmosphere is ominous as Quinn fights one of the monks and takes a blow to the chest that literally knocks him backwards some twenty feet or more through a solid brick wall of a towering temple to plunge into a watery abyss. Miraculously, Quinn survives the fall! After he climbs out of the water, Quinn discovers he is in Vietnam at the Victory Fountain Park in Ho Chi Minh City. Wandering the city without a clue, he lives like a vagrant until the police arrest him and turn him over to hospital authorities for observation. Quinn suffers from the effects of time travel. Not only does he stutter unless slapped, but he also has become an amnesiac. Eventually, he tells his tale of woe to a Vietnamese doctor, psychiatrist Dr. Anna Pham (Truong Ngoc Anh of "Truy Sat"), about aliens abducting his daughter on Sunday, 7 January 1985. Imagine our hero's shock and stupefaction when Dr. Pham informs him the year is 2018. Quinn is appalled at this revelation, but he convinces Dr. Pham that he is no lunatic. When they consult with her elderly mentor, Dr. Dao (Aki Aleong of "Pound of Flesh"), the latter explains how the aliens use Feng shui as a navigational tool which will enable them to leave the earth.

Presumably, Quinn and his daughter were caught in the same net. He managed to escape and tracked her down. The aliens thwarted his initial rescue attempt. Although Quinn was one of many humans the Visitors grabbed, he lacked the "specific genetic codes," so they relegated him to drone ranks with the emerald apparatus. Principally, "Abduction" harkens back to the post-apocalyptic, sci-fi television show "Falling Skies" (2011 to 2015) on TNT, where enemy aliens captured humans and controlled them with a similar spinal contraption. Barbarash has done his share of action movies with Jean-Claude Van Damme, so he is no stranger to martial arts actioneers. As outlandish as the sci-fi plot is, "Abduction" musters occasional footholds of gravity with Barbarash's acrobatic staging of various fight scenes. He focuses on the collective plight of Scott Adkins and Andy On. Their shenanigans with martial arts and silenced pistols proves far more cinematic than these monolithic, CGI-forged, extra-terrestrials. As villains, the Visitors are comparably lukewarm. Early action depicting Connor's clash with a trigger-happy gang of Russians boasts ramped up levels of violence comparable to Keanu Reeves' "John Wick" shoot'em ups. Adkins is comparable to Roddy Piper in John Carpenter's "They Live" (1988), while On is the equivalent of Chow Yun Fat in John Woo's "The Killer" (1989). "Abduction" qualifies as the kind of picture best watched with lots of beer and pizza, but it has none of the electrifying intensity of "Avengement," another recent Scott Adkins outing.

Avengement
(2019)

Scott Adkins Masterpiece!!!
Scott Adkins has been making too many forgettable but entertaining actioneers that utilize his athletic skills, but he finally has struck jackpot with this poor man's version of "Bronson." Adkins is the whole show, but everybody else contributes in spades to the knuckle-grinding chaos as we watch our hero go through an arc as the naive younger brother of a ruthless criminal who has been blackmailing 147 families over the years. Caine has a falling out with brother Lincoln when he refuses to throw a fight because he is too idealistic for his own good. This picture epitomizes the axiom that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Caine struggles to get back into his big brother's good graces because he thinks that he has found a gym that could make him a fortune. However, before his greedy, vicious brother will part with the loot to pay for it, breaking as he points out a long-standing rule not to loan money to his relatives, if baby brother will take a bag away from a woman. The job is described rudely as a piece of piss, and Caine sets out to square himself with his brother. Unfortunately, he doesn't know what he is letting himself in for when he steals the package back from the woman. This fortysomething woman pursues Caine and is hit by a car. The authorities arrest him at the scene of her death, but baby brother refuses to inform on his brother to the cops. He lands in the worst prison in England that is referred to 'the meatgrinder' and spends every waking moment battling all the other inmates who come at him with homemade knives. This isn't one of those glamorous bare knuckled, MMA movies where the hero emerges unscathed from this daily constant bouts. Scott Adkins undergoes a rapid transition and comes to realize that he has screwed himself trying to straighten out his problems with his brother and his associates it. Every fight in stir brings additional sentences, and then the straw that breaks the camel's back occurs. Caine's long suffer mother dies of cancer. By far, "Avengement" not only lives up to its name, but also it provides Adkins with this first top-of-the-line movies. The close-quarters combat scenes are impeccable, and the stunt work is incredible. Told largely in flashback, "Avengement" is fast-paces at 88 nimble minutes and never wears out its welcome.

Nazi Overlord
(2018)

Son of a Swastika!!!
Abysmal best describes "Nazi Overlord," another of the Asylum's dreadful knockoff movies that desperately lacks humor. This 91-minute, straight-to-video release amounts to a particularly pale imitation of J.J. Abrams' "Overlord," with Jovan Adepo and Wyatt Russell. Naturally, the two pictures share obvious similarities. Each occurs during the historic D-Day landings at Normandy, France, in 1944. Technically, you can classify this World War II movie a secret mission deep in enemy country. Here, an Army Unit is ordered to Romania to bring back a rogue Allied female scientist who has been collaborating with the Nazis. You can also classify "Nazi Overlord" as bare-bones, low-budget, and it looks as if "Fortune Cookie" director Rob Pallatina lensed this movie with a camcorder. An animated graphic displays the fast progress of our heroes make across Europe to their destination. This was transitional device is acceptable because some American, World War II movies used similar transitions. The next time we see them, they are cruising around in a half-track, personnel carrier. This is a far cry from where things started. For a couple of minutes at the beginning, "Nazi Overlord" shows American G.I.s tangling face-to-face with German soldiers on the beach. Undoubtedly, this ranks as the strongest scene in this woebegone World War II travesty. Soldiers start out wielding rifles and pistols, but wind up killing each other with their bare hands, down and dirty, with savage rage. Sadly, for a moment, this knock-off captured the pugnacity of war.

Captain Rodgers (Andrew Liberty of "Sex Tax: Based on a True Story") survives the brutality on the beach, and General Forrester (Tom Sizemore of "Saving Private Ryan") assigns him to lead his unit, with some deserters to locate and bring back the scientist, Dr. Eris (Dominique Swain of "Face/Off"). Incidentally, Swain bares her booty in one scene and her breasts in another. Although she shows up only in the last third, her crazy scientist character breathes a modicum of fresh air into this stale saga. Rodgers confides in Forrester that he feels the least qualified to lead the mission. Nevertheless, the Colonel sends him ahead. After all, the best heroes are always the reluctant ones.

The clueless people that produced "Nazi Overlord" must have never seen an episode of television's "Combat." The American soldiers here stand in the open and make easy targets for Nazi snipers. The M1 rifles look bigger than some of the Americans. There is no sense of camaraderie among these fellows. Few of the characters on both sides make a lasting impression. Fortunately, whoever supplied the firearms knew the range of guns well. Nobody carried anything that wasn't period correct. However, the captain and the lieutenant run around with officer's insignia emblazoned on the front of their helmets. Officers never displayed rank insignia for fear that snipers might exploit this advantage. The dastardly Dr. Eris is working on a Biblical plague and uses locusts to spread it. Unlike "Overlord," none of the German soldiers turn into psychotic zombies. Dr. Eris gets the drop on Captain Rodgers, and they have to witness the atrocities that she performs on her human Guinea pigs. Neither knee-slapping nor disgusting, these scenes simply look idiotic with the victims spurting blood, eventually exploding, with locust swarming around them.

Monotonous from fade-in to fade out, "Nazi Overlord" earns a star for not making the egregrious error of showing an integrated, black & white Army Unit as in "Overlord." Tom Sizemore takes top billing, but he isn't around long. You see him at the outset when he recruits Captain Rodgers and then at the end when he escorts our hero to meet the President. The idea of creating a plague using locust struck me as trivial. The experiments were mediocre and the blood effects were bland. Beware of "Nazi Overlord."

Valentine
(2017)

Marital Arts Epic
Co-directors Ubay Fox & Agus Pestol have done an admirable job of imitating Disney/Marvel superhero escapades with their Indonesian costume crimefighter actioneer "Valentine," about a chick whose audition for a reality superhero television show is going out and thwarting crime. Laughable though it looks with goofy dubbing, this brisk, 97-minute thriller contains stinger scenes during the end credits. Estelle Linden stars as Sri the eponymous heroine who dresses like the female counterpart to Lee Falk's "The Phantom" in her egg-plant purple outfit. The low-budget nonsense turns out to be a lot of fun. A waitress signs up to play the lead in a superhero movie. An American, Bono (Matthew Settle of "U-571"), hires her, and she dresses up like a royal nun. No, she doesn't tote a pistol. Instead, she relies on the martial art known as Silat. She has been practicing it all her life with his brother, Umbra (Ahmad Affandy of "Sundul Gan: The Story of Kaskus"), and her father. Meanwhile, a Darth Vader sounding villain who calls himself Shadow (Yes, he's dressed from head to toe in black like a S.W.A.T. sniper.) starts a war with the police of Batavia City. It seems that Umbra's father, a high-ranking official in the Batavia Police Department, committed suicide, and neither Sri nor Umbra have fond memories of him. The father raised them to be workers, and Sri turns down a chance to attend college to work. Shadow makes a terrific villain, and he thinks very highly of himself. Flanking him on each side are three martial arts babes who look like clowns. The cinematography is as good as is the close-quarters combat sequences. Although it promises to be light-hearted, fast-paced, and derivative, "Valentine" springs a couple of serious surprises on both its characters as well as the audience. You don't have to wait until February to enjoy "Valentine" with its acrobatic counterpart.

The Professor
(2018)

Melancholy at best, boring at worst . . .
Johnny Depp is cast as a strait-laced English academic at a prestigious New England liberal arts college in director Wayne Roberts' wannabe tragicomedy "The Professor" who discovers he has terminal lung cancer. He is warned he has a year, perhaps a-year-and-a-half, if he commences appropriate medical treatment. If he waives treatment, however, he may last six months. Alas, Professor Richard Brown has never smoked cigarettes, and one of his closest friends finds it ironic that lung cancer will claim his life. Initially, he tries to break the news to his wife Veronica (Rosemarie DeWitt of "La La Land") as well as his teenage daughter Olivia (Odessa Young of "Assassination Nation") over dinner. Instead, Richard finds them obsessed with their own alarming revelations. Veronica reveals she has been cheating on Richard with his snobbish boss, Henry Wright (Ron Livingston of "Office Space"), the chancellor of the university, who happens to be married, too. Meantime, Richard's daughter admits she is gay. At this point, their dinner table conversation spirals. Veronica shows little empathy for her daughter's admission, and the two excuse themselves without waiting for Richard's bombshell. Eventually, he will tell them. These two scenes are about as spontaneous as "The Professor" gets for a movie which advertised as a whimsical comedy about cancer. Anybody who has either survived cancer (in whatever form) or has supported a loved one through the ordeal may find this woebegone misfire appalling. Basically, "The Professor" is neither clever enough to be genuinely funny nor impertinent enough to be darkly satirical. Roberts comes up nothing new about life with cancer except his own pathetic lack of imagination. Whatever attracted Depp to this shallow soap opera, originally entitled "Richard Says Goodbye," must have been discarded on the editing room floor.

Cancer charts a different course for Richard Brown than he would have taken. We learn the same time Richard does that malignant tumors in his upper back account for the pain he has suffered for quite some time. Indeed, nothing about his condition has changed. Mind you, Doctor Barron (Michael Kopsa of "Countdown") spells out the awful truth. The cancer has now spread to Richard's spine and adrenals. Inevitably, Richard will die, and nothing can save him from this dreadful fate. Nevertheless, Brown keeps his troubles to himself, so he can teach for another quarter and then obtain a sabbatical. Eventually, he confides in his oldest friend, Peter (Danny Huston of "X-Men Origins: Wolverine"), who breaks down in grief-stricken anguish at the news. The odd thing about "The Professor" is the supporting cast is more captivating than its simple-minded protagonist. Richard demands a sabbatical. Peter doesn't think he can grant the request.

Meantime, the quarter semester commences. Suddenly, Richard has a momentary, last-minute meltdown in the university millpond with a distraught duck. Afterward, he shows up in class for what constitutes one of the film's better scenes. College professors know what the first day is like. Most have an inkling about how everything will play out. Richard takes one look at his packed class and shocks them. Separating the wheat from the chaff, he offers anybody who wants to skip class for the entire quarter a grade of C. Eventually, Richard whittles the student population down to the size of a cozy graduate seminar. No longer does Richard want to contend with students whose classroom attendance is spotty. He runs off three kinds of students: those in sweat pants, those who've never read a book, and those who're business majors. Finally, the remainder must arrive punctually and read Herman Melville's classic "Moby Dick." The diverse supporting cast comes to the fore, and each forges believable student characters for themselves.

"The Professor" breaks down into various teaching scenes. Richard indulges in liquor by convening class in a bar. He counsels his student to never squander one second of life, but to plunge into it for the sake of adventure. During the class in the bar, Richard escorts a bar maid into the men's room where they enjoy standing room only sex. Presumably, Richard and Veronica's marriage withered after Olivia's birth, and husband and wife drifted apart. Later, in clear sight of everybody at the university, including Chancellor Henry Wright, Richard shares a joint with a male student who earlier had given him a bag of pot brownies in exchange for oral sex. Remember, it's an R-rated movie with no frontal nudity. Richard defies the rules for the sake of it, and his status as a tenured professor shields him from any repercussions. Henry tries to take Richard down a couple of notches, but our hero outsmarts him. Since he is carousing with Richard's wife, Henry realizes that discretion is the better part of his valor. This showdown between Richard and Henry marks Depp's most heroic moment as he gains the upper hand.

Sadly, Depp generates little charisma as he struggles to maintain a straight face and welcomes cancer as an excuse to create his own bucket list. He proclaims himself a libertine open to any new experience. Afterward, apart from a night in the hospital and some recurring bouts of illness, Richard remains immaculate. When he hurts, he clutches his sides and collapses on the floor. Never in "The Professor" does our protagonist soil his apparel during a seizure. Never does he let his fashionably combed hair to dishevel. Richard's friends treat these moments as life threatening and rush to him. Essentially, our hero changes little over the course of the film's 90-minute running time. He treats Olivia with positive fatherly love and counsels Veronica to keep her sexual escapades discreet. At one point, encouraged to attend a therapeutic self-help group, Richard retreats in contemptuous defiance to a bar drown his distress. Don't worry about the ending. Nothing traumatic occurs. Our hero cruises serenely into the dark night without a regret. Melancholy at best, dreary at worst, "The Professor" thumbs its nose up at cancer as if it were a trifle.

Escape Plan: The Extractors
(2019)

Another Superficial Escape Plan
Sylvester Stallone movies can be fun. In Swedish director Mikael Håfström's "Escape Plan" (2013), Arnold Schwarzenegger co-starred with Stallone, and these two legends collaborated to break out of an impregnable black site prison. The last-minute revelation about the prison's mysterious whereabouts capped this imaginative cat & mouse suspense saga. Stallone and Schwarzenegger contended with the smart but ruthless Warden Hobbes (Jim Caviezel of CBS-TV's "Person of Interest"), who kept close tabs on their shenanigans. The $55 million "Escape Plan" coughed up $25 million domestically but generated $112-million overseas! Reportedly, the lucrative Chinese box office prompted Summit Entertainment to slap together back-to-back sequels. Stallone reprises his role as Ray Breslin. A former criminal prosecutor turned prison security expert, Breslin is a past master at escaping from the most foolproof prisons. His Houdini-like talent for breaking out of the tightest prison intimidates wardens.

In director Steven C. Miller's "Escape Plan 2: Hades" (2018), Breslin landed in a totally automated black site prison where a robotic physician attended to the inmates' health. In "15 Minutes" director John Herzfeld's "Escape Plan 3: Extractors," Breslin breaks into the prison! Basically, WCW wrestler Dave Bautista has replaced Schwarzenegger as Stallone's ace-in-the-hole. Bautista's character strikes from without to within, while Stallone works in reverse. Bautista's heavily armed goon appears with miraculous punctuality to link up with Stallone. Aside from Stallone, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson's bespectacled computer nerd Hush is the only other original cast member, but his presence is peripheral. Jamie King is back from "Escape Plan 2: Hades" as Stallone's love interest, but their relationship is ill-fated. Victory walks arm-in-arm with sacrifice.

Although he has top billing, Stallone doesn't dominate the histronics as much as his Chinese co-stars. Mind you, he spends more time on screen here than in "Escape Plan 2: Hades." Two factors distinguish "Escape Plan" from its quickie sequels. First, both sequels clock in considerably shorter than the two-hour "Escape Plan." "Escape Plan 2" ran 94 minutes, while "Escape Plan 3: Extractors" saves time at 88 minutes. Indeed, the end credits take up ten minutes, with the conflict depicted in 78 minutes. Interestingly, "Road House 2: Last Call" scenarist Miles Chapman emphasizes "Extractors'" ties to the original. Not only did he pen "Escape Plan," but he also wrote both sequels. Primarily, Chapman splits the episodic action up between Ray and Trent as well as the two Chinese bodyguards who are captivated by Daya. If you've seen "Escape Plan," you may remember Ray Breslin's unscrupulous partner, Lester Clark (Vincent D'Onofrio of "Full Metal Jacket"), who supervised the logistics of putting Breslin into prisons with a fake identity. In "Escape Plan," Clark double-crossed Breslin, but his treachery cost him his life. He dies screaming in a cargo ship plying an anonymous sea. As it turns out, the "Extractors" villain is Lester's obnoxious son, Lester Clark, Jr. (Devon Sawa of "Final Destination"), and he wants payback! This is reminiscent of "Die Hard" and "Die Hard with A Vengeance" where the brother of the original villain challenges the heroes.

The daughter of a billionaire Chinese business mogul, Daya Zhang (Melise of "The Shannara Chronicles"), wants to invest in the post-industrial town of Mansfield, Ohio. She argues their corporation-- Zhang Innovations--can revive the local economy. Moreover, Daya assures her father, Wu Zhang (Russell Wong of "New Jack City"), that the investment will improve the company's worldwide brand image. No sooner have city officials vowed to accommodate Daya than a team of mysterious gunmen disguised as an airport ground crew kidnap Daya. Despite the best laid plans of Daya's alert bodyguard, Bao Yung (Harry Shum, Jr. of "Crazy Rich Asians"), he finds himself outnumbered and outgunned. The villains knock Bao senseless, and Lester Clark, Jr., plants a flash drive on him with Ray Breslin's name. Naturally, Wu Zhang is furious about his daughter's abduction. Meantime, a stranger, Shen Lo (Jin Zhang of "Pacific Rim: Uprising"), provokes a brawl in Breslin's office. He wields a rolled-up umbrella as a weapon and floors Breslin's bodyguards. No sooner has Shen eliminated all resistance than Breslin gets the drop on him. Shen Lo hands Ray a disk with data about Daya's whereabouts. At this point, we learn Wu Zhang's company built the prison in "Escape Plan," and the Saudis commission a similar facility in the desert. According to Shen Lo, Wu has reaped billions from incarcerating and torturing innocent people by the thousands. Shen probes Ray about Lester senior's connection to Wu Zhang. Shen vows to topple Zhang. Moreover, Shen was once Daya's bodyguard, but his romantic sentiments prompted Wu to fire him. Sadly, Herzfeld and Chapman never elaborates about this subplot in an actioneer where public displays of affection are minimal.

Shen and Bao tag along with Ray to rescue Daya. Meantime, Ray contacts Trent DeRosa (Dave Bautista of "Spectre"), and he identifies the prison where Lester's son has Daya as 'the Devil's Station' in Latvia. Ray and his girlfriend Abigail (Jamie King of "Escape Plan 2: Hades") are poised to leave when Junior's men surprise Ray and snatch Abigail out from under Ray's nose. Meantime, Shen isn't the only one who wants to destroy Wu Zhang. Junior demands $700 million from the Hong Kong patriarch. In the complex Miles Chapman & John Herzfeld screenplay, Lester has grabbed Abigail to give Ray another reason to come to him. Our heroes enter the dilapidated prison without fanfare via the sewer. Ray carves up one of Lester's roughneck henchmen with a bloody knife. Fireworks erupt as Shen and Bao trip the alarms in the 'Devil's Station.' Lester's trigger-happy henchmen capture Shen and Bao, but they don't remain long in captivity. Meantime, Trent ambles nonchalantly into the rugged prison with a fearsome shotgun and blasts away at the unsuspecting felons.

Director John Herzfeld stages some agile hand-to-hand combat scenes that compensate for the expository boilerplate scenes. Altogether, "Escape Plan 3: Extractors" generates more intrigue than "Escape Plan 2: Hades," but neither overshadows the original "Escape Plan."

Crawl
(2019)

Gators Galore!!!
Hollywood has been making movies about ravenous alligators as far back as "Sparrows" (1926) when Mary Pickford guided a group of innocent, young orphans through a gator infested swamp. Twenty years ago, "Lake Placid" (1998) and its three sequels featured a large alligator with a voracious appetite. The first "Lake Placid" remains the best, so avoid the rest. Last year, Dwayne Johnson tangled with a supersized alligator in "Rampage." The Asylum has churned out its share of home video schlock about alligators, specifically "Mega Python vs. Gatoroid" (2011), as well as the gator's distantly related cousin the crocodile. Numerically, sharks reign as Hollywood's alpha predator in more than 50 movies than either alligators or crocodiles. The latest gator epic is "Piranha 3D" director Alexandre Aja's "Crawl," a weather-beaten disaster saga co-starring Barry Pepper and Kaya Scodelario as father and daughter trapped in the basement of a southwest Florida house during a Category 5 hurricane. Reportedly, an incident involving an actual gator attack on humans during Hurricane Florence inspired this film.

"Crawl" reminded me of "The Shallows" because it takes place in one location. Meantime, this atmospheric, white-knuckled, nail-biting yarn will keep you just as alert, poised on the edge of your seat, as you wait for the next gator strike. Aja & "Dark Feed" scenarists Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen have done an exemplary job of establishing the characters, the setting, and the conflict. Ignoring evacuation warnings, a daughter risks her life to save her father from dying in an isolated community that has been evacuated under the worst possible weather conditions. No sooner have the filmmakers confined father and daughter to a hopeless position than two, hideous, heavily scaled, twenty-foot-long carnivores scour the basement for them while more circle outside it. Most of the action occurs beneath the house as the flood waters rise ominously, and our hero and heroine bide their time patiently before they try to break out.

Naturally, horror movies exaggerate evil because you're supposed to be frightened. Aja and his CGI wizards have forged some flawless gators that look remarkably believable. These gators are as ferocious as the gator in the crime thriller "Eraser" (1996) that a Witness Protection Specialist (Arnold Schwarzenegger) encountered. These reptiles act like black mambas. They see you. They devour you. At the very least, they snack on you, and the scary thing is how often father and daughter keep getting bitten but never shirk from their filial duty to fend for each other. Of course, real-life gators would be inclined to vamoose, but these melodramatic gators display no fear and hunt in groups. An overhead drone shot of a first responder in the water with gators approaching from all directions depicts their teamwork. The gators appear every bit as vicious as they sound when they crunch on the bones of their victims.

Lately, life hasn't been a picnic for Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario of "The Maze Runner"), and her performance on the swim team at the University of Florida at Gainesville hasn't been what she expected. Haley's older sister Beth (Morfydd Clark of "Love & Friendship") rings her up because she hasn't been able to reach their father. Haley tries to contact him, but she fares no better. Finally, she ignores the stern warnings of the authorities, and she strikes out on her own. She finds her father at their childhood house which evokes memories of happier days with her mother and sister. Dave Keller (Barry Pepper of "Saving Private Ryan") was repairing the house when an alligator blundered into the basement and took a bite out of his shoulder. Dave has taken refuge behind a series of pipes that the gator can neither squeeze through nor destroy with its jaws. Imagine Haley's shock when she is confronted by one of these huge critters after she trotted down the stairs into the basement. Miraculously, she evades the big lizard, but loses her cell phone, and must risk her neck to retrieve it.

Aja and his writers knew that cornering our hero and heroine under such circumstances generates spine-tingling suspense, but to concentrate strictly on them as they await their fate would exhaust our patience. When disasters strike, looters take advantage of the predicament, and "Crawl" has a family of brothers and sister looting a convenience store. They arrived by boat, and they are the only living beings that a desperate Haley sees as she struggles to come up with a plan-B. Little do these looters know what awaits them as several gators cruise in for a killing. The looters confiscate a money machine, but they never get to see the rewards of their crime. When these gators attack, they are fearless, and they swim in groups to maximize their attacks on humans. Naturally, the looters and later the authorities have no clue what lurks beneath the trembling flood waters, and they pay a tragic price for their ignorance. The threat of death lurks constantly around Haley and Dave, and matters worsen throughout its scanty 87 minutes. Aja wrings considerable suspense out of Haley's desperate bursts of swimming to dodge the gators. Dave warns her not to swim out through a pipeline beneath the house because the gators entered the basement through it. Nevertheless, Haley finds no alternatives as the waters rise and swims cautiously along it until she glimpses a huge gator cruising past the opening. Like all stomach-churning chillers, "Crawl" knows when to spring unexpected jump scares on audiences. One of the scariest is a tree which bursts through a kitchen window with such spontaneity that it catches you off-guard. The cat and mouse game between Haley and the increasing number of gators heightens the horror and tension. At one point, she has her hand trapped in a gator's mouth and must free herself without losing her fingers.

An ideal outing for either a rainy day or night, "Crawl" delivers thrills and chills galore with creatures that will make your skin crawl.

Daughter of the Wolf
(2019)

Gina Carano Kicks Butt Again!!!
Imagine "The Grey" (2011) crossed with "Furie"(2019), and you've got the basics of Gina Carano's latest straight-to-video actioneer "Daughter of the Wolf" (**1/2 OUT OF ****), an above-average, winter-time ransom thriller set in the icy, snow-swept north about a mom who risks her life to rescue her son from trigger-happy captors. Once an MMA cage fighter, Carano made her memorable debut as a dame who delivers herself from distress in Steven Soderbergh's slam-bang saga "Haywire" (2011) where she killed a succession of tough guys, among them Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas, and Ewan McGregor. Indeed, those dudes never knew they had it coming! Afterward, Carano landed prominent supporting roles in both "Fast & Furious 6" (2013) and "Deadpool" (2016). Between them, she played the lead in John Stockwell's "In the Blood" (2014) as well as Peter Howitt's bleak, post-apocalyptic western "Scorched Earth" (2018). Carano brings charisma and muscularity to her butt-kicking heroines, and she is nobody to be casually dismissed, as "Haywire" and "Scorched Earth" illustrate. Although she may not qualify as appropriate role model material for young women, Carano plays empowered broads who refuse to stay down after they've been knocked down.

In "Daughter of the Wolf," Carano is cast as a military veteran who survived two tours of duty in the Middle East, saw her husband blown to bits in an IED explosion, and now faces a rocky road back home with her estranged teenage son who wants nothing to do with her. Cue the kidnappers who conveniently abduct him for a high-dollar ransom demand. Carano goes into action with the same determination and 'special skills' that Liam Neeson mustered in "Taken" (2008). She doesn't cry over spilled milk.

"Daughter of the Wolf" deals with revenge as much as abduction. The head of the despicable gang that snatches her son is an infuriated old coot, Father (acclaimed Oscar-winning actor Richard Dreyfus of "The Goodbye Girl"), who abhorred our heroine's father and demands his pound of flesh from the daughter. Happily, "Saw V" director David Hackl doesn't make her mission to recover her son a stroll in the park. Obstacles in every shape and size keep getting in her path, whether it be either a lake covered with thin ice or a ravenous pack of wicked looking wolves that appear be able to distinguish between the virtuous and the villainous. Father shoots one wolf, and it look like the entire pack stalks him. Hackl never lets the action bog down in complications, apart from some mandatory exposition, and the sprawling, snowbound scenery adds to the enormity of the obstacle course that our heroine must cope with to save her son.

Hackl and scenarist Nika Agiashvili don't beat about the bush bringing "Daughter of the Wolf" up to speed. As the action unfolds, Clair Hamilton (Gina Carano of "Kickboxer: Vengeance") has just packed up a bag of loot to pay the low lives who abducted her son Charlie (Anton Gillis-Adelman of "Birthmarked") but have other plans for him which they haven't shared with our heroine. Things haven't been good for Claire. Not only did her husband die in the Middle East in combat, but she has also lost her father. Clair has alienated Charlie because she preferred combat to raising him. Consequently, when she arrives home for the funeral, her son gives her a chilly reception. As it turns out, the people who took Charlie have no intention of holding up their end of the bargain to exchange him for the ransom money. Oddly enough, neither Hackl nor Agiashvili ever reveal the monetary amount that the villains sought. Nevertheless, Clair is prepared to pay them.

At the rendezvous, Father's three sons hold her at gunpoint while they count the cash, and then they start shooting at her on the spot. Big mistake! She blasts one of them with a double-barreled shotgun, while the other two pile into their large SUV and careen off down slippery roads. Desperately, Clair pursues them, swerving recklessly along the road, sideswiping and swapping shots with them. She smashes into them and shoots the driver in the head. The two trucks skate uncontrollably on ice. Clair's massive vehicle flips upside-down in a spectacular crash and skids to a halt. The surviving kidnapper, Larsen (Brendan Fehr of "Final Destination"), inexplicably jogs off into the snow with the money. Clair manages to wound him in the thigh, and she catches up with him on a snow-covered lake. During their wrestling match, Clair shattered the thin ice, and Larsen saves her from drowning. She chases him down, and he reveals that he didn't know his brothers had planned to shoot her. They call a truce, and Larsen agrees to lead her to a shut-down ski lodge where Father is holding Charlie hostage.

During the action, wolves of every color and description emerge from the woods to menace heroes and villains alike. Father kills one of the wolves that fed on one of his sons, and the wolves mark him for dead-like in "They Grey," while they leave Clair alone to track down Father and his brood. Eventually, Clair finds the cabin, holds Larsen at gunpoint, with an empty pistol, and fools Father. Unfortunately, our heroine doesn't get far because one of Father's women rams her on a ski bike and sends her plunging into a huge lake beneath a waterfall. Gradually, Clair whittles the opposition down with help from the wolves. These wolves seem to know that she represents the good, while everybody else constitutes meat that they can munch.

Hackl and Agiashvili provide enough thrills and chills as well as a reversal or two to keep you interested. Our heroine refuses to back down, something her father instilled in her as well as Charlie. Richard Dreyfus has a field day as the dastardly, egotistical patriarch, and "Black Panther's" Sydelle Noel gives our heroine some competition. Clocking in at an agile 88-minutes, "Daughter of the Wolf" qualifies as an exciting but familiar R-rated, feminist action thriller.

Dead Trigger
(2017)

A Zombie, B-Movie With A Surprise or Two!!!
Somethings in life are inevitable. Death, taxes, and . . . Dolph Lundgren movies. All you need know about Dolph's latest movie is it stars Dolph. If that isn't enough, you don't know the world of fantasy you're entering. You must be a fan of Dolph to watch Dolph's movies, much less enjoy them for their miscellaneous qualities. The best Dolph movies usually star somebody other than Dolph, such as either "Hail, Caesar!" or "Aquaman," where he isn't as prominently featured. The standard-issue Dolph movies either topline Dolph or pair him with a prestigious co-star. Usually, Dolph doesn't deviate from the Dolph formula. He doesn't give a performance, as much as impersonate himself. Happily, Dolph is pretty good at playing Dolph. Like Steven Seagal used to be pretty good at playing Steven Seagal, before he packed on the pounds. Or the legendary Chuck Norris before he retired. A hero of few words, six-foot-four Dolph looms above everybody in "Dead Trigger," but a few things about this Dolph movie sets it apart from the typical Dolph derring-do. First, Dolph has dyed his blonde thatch black again, perhaps as a homage to his title role in the 1989 movie "The Punisher." Second, this Dolph movie contains an unusual twist during its final quarter hour that may catch you off-guard.

Although writers Mike Cuff and Scott Windhauser are listed as the co-directors of "Dead Trigger," they didn't work side-by-side. Cuff exited the film in a clash over creative differences, and Windhauser of "The Hurricane Heist" not only rewrote the script, but he also took over the helm. This derivative Dolph thriller evokes memories of the original "Resident Evil" (2002), except Dolph plays Dolph instead of Milla Jovovich. "Resident Evil" was a video game adaptation like "Dead Trigger." For the record, Madfinger Games created "Dead Trigger," a first-person, single-player, zombie-apocalyptic, survival shooter game for iOS and Android back in June of 2012. Since then Madfinger has followed it up with a sequel cleverly entitled "Dead Trigger 2." As Dolph movies go, "Dead Trigger" is above-average pabulum. Like Dolph movies, zombie movies are an acquired taste. You know nobody is going to clench Oscars, much less land nominations. You know the zombies will swarm in hordes. Despite their lurching gaits, these undead demons attack in groups. Occasionally, they sneak up and surprise their gullible prey.

First-time scribes Heinz Treschnitzer and Cuff penned this boilerplate chiller. Four years after a zombie apocalypse devastated Terminal City in 2021 with a virus of unknown origins, the military has established a training program to combat the undead. They recruit video gamers who are crack shots. Naturally, these millennials must complete a rigorous boot camp. Some die when they tangle with captured, live zombies under simulated conditions. One recruit accidentally blows off his head with a shotgun when a pugnacious zombie frightens him. Led by zombie killing champion Captain Walker (Dolph Lundgren of "Creed 2"), this well-armed unit of young men and women, armed to the teeth with weapons galore, are flown into Terminal City by choppers. Walker must bring back a scientist, Tara Conlan (Autumn Reeser of "Valley of Bones"), trapped in a laboratory besieged by zombies. Furthermore, Conlan is the last scientist alive, and she has isolated a DNA sequence which will enable the villainous corporation to develop a cure. What our heroes don't know is the evil corporation has planted a minion among them, Lieutenant Martinov (Oleg Taktarov of "Den of Thieves"), to bring the formula back over their dead bodies. One by one, Walker's men and women are whittled down by ravenous zombies who have a habit of materializing where they are least expected. As one medic explains, once bitten, you are doomed. The only way to survive is to amputate the chomped appendage, or you're kaput.

The best thing about "Dead Trigger" is its unforeseen use of deadpan humor. The boot camp is especially amusing when zombies catch one guy off-guard, and Walker saves his life by promptly amputating his arm. Appropriately, "Dead Trigger" adheres strictly to the traditional zombie formula but brings nothing new to the table. For example, the zombies lurch about drunkenly when they walk, so an alert man on crutches could outdistance them. Meantime, the filmmakers appropriate clichés from Hollywood war films. For example, one of our heroines finds herself surrounded by predatory zombies. She's doomed, and she realizes it. Instead of gushing tears, she pulls the pin on a hand grenade and obliterates the group of zombies gnawing on her neck. In other words, "Dead Trigger" makes the grade as a flesh-eating zombie epic.

Mind you, "Dead Trigger" is no "World War Z." The latter coined $540 million here and abroad on a $190 million budget. However, "World War Z" didn't have Dolph. Furthermore, the violent action scenes differ because our heroes don't rely exclusively on bullets to blast zombies. Nevertheless, Walker and his unit obliterate more than enough zombie heads, but not as many as Brad Pitt did. "Dead Trigger" allows its versatile combatants to not only riddle heads with lead, but also slash and gnash them with blades. The eleventh-hour twist in "Dead Trigger" is going to take some by surprise some while aggravate others. Initially, it may even appear as if the filmmakers abandoned the narrative and left Dolph somewhere out there to die. Dolph goes back to save a group of refuges, but his best efforts prove suicidal. Earlier, during the rescue mission, we learn Walker had been bitten, but he carries a temporary antidote which keeps him alive. Walker's conscientious medic reminds him the antidotes provide only short-term relief. "Dead Trigger" qualifies as a different kind of Dolph movie because he isn't invincible. Indeed, this vulnerable shift in character and the zombie conspiracy plot heightens what would otherwise constitute a routine, standard-issue Dolph epic. Ultimately, despite its modest amount of blood & gore, "Dead Trigger" should gratify Dolph's fanbase as dependable derring-do that tweaks the formula without undue damage.

Hai Phuong
(2019)

A Good Actioneer About Human Traffickers
The runaway success of "Taken" (2008) transformed actor Liam Neeson into an action hero in his late 50s and pumped refreshing vitality into thrillers about human trafficking. The latest entry in this superabundant genre is Vietnamese writer & director Le-Van Kiet's fast-paced, slam-bang, abduction saga "Furie", toplining "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" actress Veronica Ngo. As Hai Phuong, Ngo is cast as the unwed mom of an illegitimate daughter, Mai (Cat Vy of "Song Lang"), who gets snatched by kidnappers after a quarrel with another woman erupts over the theft of a purse in an open-air market. Naturally, Hai has her share of enemies in the fishing village where she serves as a ruthless debt collector. Hai has been raising Mai on a ramshackle riverboat for about ten years. During that decade, both Hai and Mai have had to contend with malicious gossip as well as other indignities about the conspicuous absence of a man in their house. Interestingly, our heroine once cracked heads as a tough-as-nails bouncer at a sleazy Saigon strip-club. "House in the Alley" director Le-Van Kiet provides no details about Mai's life-altering conversion from maneater to mommy, and the identity of the father never enters the plot. At the same time, young Mai abhors her mom because Hai puts her life at risk daily as a debt collector. Hai approaches her work with the same conviction as a Nazi storm trooper, and she doesn't waste sympathy on any of the deadbeats from whom she collects. Like the best outlandish but exciting thrillers, "Furie" delivers suspenseful, nail-biting sequences as well as giddy, adrenaline-laced, martial arts combat scenes. Unlike Jennifer Garner in "Peppermint," Veronica Ngo's vulnerable heroine never resorts to firearms. Instead, Hai confronts her adversaries head-on and relies on her wits and a Vietnamese form of martial arts named Vovinam. In Vovinam, combatants may fight either with or without weapons. Many of her adversaries arm themselves with a variety of wicked, cutting-edge weapons that they wield with malice aforethought. Like any mom, our tough-minded heroine only wants the best for her daughter. She wants Mai to remain in school despite the daily gauntlet of insults and bullying that her daughter faces. After school one afternoon, Hai catches several girls and a boy verbally abusing Mai and physically assaulting her. Naturally, mom sends her daughters' tormentors packing. Nevertheless, Mai hates school and harbors no ambitions about finishing it. She prefers mending fishing nets for a kind neighbor and buying cages to catch fish which will not only feed them, but also will provide them with a greater source of income. Mai worries about Hai, and often the two cower in a corner behind locked doors when angry relatives of people that Hai has collected money from threatens them with physical violence. Mind you, Hai can handle herself, but she hasn't been raising her daughter to be a fighter. Clearly, mother and daughter are at odds with each other. This tension explodes in the marketplace when another woman accuses Mai of stealing her husband's purse. Surrounded and overwhelmed by these accusations, Hai demands an answer from Mai. Did she steal the purse? Defiantly, Mai shouts she didn't. What really hurts Mai is that her mother seems to be siding with her accusers. When the irate women insist Mai empty her pockets so they can verify if she has stolen anything else, the little girl flees in a rage. Taking refuge on the banks of the nearby river, Mai finds momentary tranquility until two thugs surprise and kidnap her. As she is leaving the market, Hai spots these dastards dragging her screaming daughter against her will to their outboard motorboat. When Hai tries to intervene, one of the kidnappers' accomplices attacks her in the open market. Neither he nor his partner are prepared for the devastating fight that she puts up to elude them.

During the next twenty minutes, Hai takes whatever transportation that she can to pursue the thugs who are speeding down the river. Each time she gets within reach of these evasive ruffians, something or somebody presents a hurdle. Ironically, she learns they are taking Mai to Saigon, the same city she left when she decided to relocate in the country to raise her daughter. The marketplace fisticuffs and motorcycle chases are a prelude for what ensues. In Saigon, Hai contacts the municipal police, but they are slow to react, and she doesn't have the time to sit around and patiently wait on them. Using the subterfuge of a headache to ask a deskbound cop for some aspirin, our resourceful heroine searches a detective's message board and studies mug shots of suspected human traffickers. She has no trouble thrashing information from uncooperative criminals until she comes face-to-face with Thanh Soi (Hoa Tran) who beats the rice cakes out of her. Indeed, Hai can handle three men swinging either hatchets or hammers at her, but she is no match initially for Thanh Soi. While she lies dazed on the floor of Soi's warehouse, Hai memorizes the number of the train scheduled to transport scores of captured kids. She is horrified when she learns these criminals aren't sending these kids into slavery, but rather into surgical suites where the villains will harvest their body parts! Eventually, a sympathetic detective, Luong (Phan Thanh Nhiên), comes to her aid and mobilizes the entire police force to descend onto the train.

The strong emotional bond between Hai and her daughter and the dire straits that both must navigate to save each other is the core of "Furie." One criminal warns Luong that nobody in their right mind should dare come between a tigress and her cubs, and this summarizes Hai's willpower to rescue her daughter. Director Le-Van Kiet and his stunt choreographer Kefi Abrik, who staged the white-knuckled action sequences in "Jason Bourne," have surpassed themselves with acrobatic, high-octane fisticuffs that will have you shadow boxing as hero and heroine battle tangle with too many foes.

T-34
(2018)

Tanks Vs. Tanks
Watching Russian writer & director Aleksey Sidorov's preposterous but entertaining World War II tank thriller "T-34" reminded me of vintage American wartime propaganda films, such as "Desperate Journey" (1942) with Errol Flynn and "Sahara" (1943) with Humphrey Bogart. Instead, the Soviets are the woebegone heroes, while the Nazis are the haughty villains. Uncle Sam isn't pointing his finger at anybody. Remember, American and Soviet troops didn't shake hands at the Elbe River until late in 1945. "T-34" takes place early in the war, and then Sidorov leaps forward to 1944, so it isn't surprising that there aren't any guys from Brooklyn in olive drab. The icy, snow-swept Eastern Front serves as the macabre setting, and the Nazis display insufferable arrogance. The Soviets struggle desperately against the superior might of the Third Reich. Naturally, Sidorov takes liberties with realism and authenticity to generate thrills, chills, and surprises. Stereotypical characters and standard-issue complications fraught with clichés comprise the plot. Nevertheless, the claustrophobic camaraderie of the tank crew and the taut, suspense situations during the tank clashes will align your sympathies with the Soviets. After all, Stalin was our ally. The CGI tank battles and the depiction cannon shells in flight with lookalike "Matrix" 'bullet-time' projections enhances the suspense. Tank movies are comparable to submarine movies because you've got men struggling to survive under cramped conditions. Sidorov takes great advantage of the confined spaces with his wide-angled lens so we appreciate what these men must endure. When a shell penetrates the turret, everybody suffers, and the best they can do is squirm in agony.

The premise of "T-34" is simple in a childishly outlandish B-movie way. Hitler's evil horde gives a captured Soviet tank crew a chance to die like soldiers rather than wither away from malnutrition in a concentration camp. Basically, rookie German tank commanders need their combat skills sharpened under simulated battle conditions. The impertinent scar-faced villain, Captain Klaus Jäger (Vinzenz Kiefer of "Jason Bourne") has salvaged a T-34 tank from the battlefield and challenges Lieutenant Nikolay Ivushkin (Alexander Petrov of "Attraction") and his Soviet crew to stay alive as long as possible in a lethal game of cat and mouse. The inexperienced German tankers will learn to think like the Soviets, and this advantage will yield them a strategic edge on the battlefield. Inevitably, Captain Jäger's best laid plans are fatally flawed, but he is too nearsighted to see the flaws. Initially, in 1941, Ivushkin arrived at the front fresh out of tank school and eager to fight the Huns despite their overwhelming superiority. Ivushkin and Jäger swapped cannon shells during their first bout of combat in the bombed out remains of a Soviet village. The two cagey commanders move their crates as if they were chess pieces, and Ivushkin has a flawless sense of timing when it comes to predicting when the next shell will strike. Since their first encounter, however, things have gone awry for Ivushkin while Jäger has enjoyed one success after another. The only drawback has been the scar that he acquired in combat versus Ivushkin. Like any sensible Prussian, Jäger wears his battle scar with honor. Ivushkin accepts Jäger's challenge, and his men and he overhaul the T-34. Jäger leaves them to their project, which includes exhuming the stinking corpses of the original crew from the tank before they can refurnish it. During this primary inspection of the T-34, Ivushkin discovers six live shells, four armor-piercing and two fragmentation rounds hidden in the vehicle. Some may argue that Jäger should have had his own men clean up the tank before presenting it to Ivushkin and his men. The stench of the decaying Soviet corpses in the tank and the disgusting business of removing them is clearly something that the smarmy Jäger would leave to Ivushkin and his men. Many film critics have singled-out this flaw as the irreparable weakness in "T-34," but Sidorov is making a movie instead of a documentary, so it stands up to scrutiny. Indeed, this is the last thing on Jäger's insidious mind and the thought of asking his own men to pull out the remains of rotting Russians would be inconceivable. Anyway, Jäger has sewn land mines to prevent the Soviets from escaping from the perimeter of the battlefield just beyond the prison walls.



The personal battle between Jäger and Ivushkin as well as the intrepid bravery of the Soviet tank crew under fire fuels the dramatic momentum of "T-34" and makes it compelling to see how the Soviet tankers will triumph over the Germans. Indeed, "T-34" has a happy ending, and you'll be cheering for our Soviet allies to turn the turrets on their smug German captors. Ostensibly, home video release, Sidorov has managed to do something that you don't often see in a tank movie. Look at the recent Battle of the Bulge movie "Wunderland" (2018), and you'll see a film lacking in virtually everything, including wintertime snowflakes and tanks. Sidorov and his CGI specialists deliver exactly what this tank duel movie requires tanks! Lots of tanks. Furthermore, Sidorov has been a good job of giving each of the characters a modicum of depth so you sympathize for their plight. The moment when Ivushkin and his men retaliate with their own firepower is as incredible for them as it is us. Predictably, when it appears as if our heroes are going to rampage off into the woods to freedom and vanish forever, they come face-to-face with Jäger and his own tank crew waiting for them in a standoff at a bridge. The Old West showdown that ensues between these two titans in this picturesque setting is not only satisfying, but it also confers a sense of closure for both Soviet and German tank commander alike. Urging American audiences to watch what clearly constitutes an example of Soviet propaganda is probably going to not set right with most people. Nevertheless, with its chess board suspense, "T-34" amounts to a blast from fade-in to fadeout.

Saat po long: Taam long
(2017)

Incredible Fights
When you peruse the synopsis of "Paradox," your eyes may roll as the first thought to enter your mind is: not another human trafficking movie?! Wrong all of the way around! Nothing is routine about this dark-themed, high-octane, adrenalin-laced action thriller. "IP Man" trilogy director Wilson Yip's "Paradox," a polished police procedural, charts the efforts of tenacious Hong Kong Detective Lee Chung-Chi (Louis Koo of "League of Gods") after he arrives in Bangkok, Thailand, to search for his missing 16-year-old daughter Lee Wing-chi (Hanna Chan of "G Saat") who had gone to Pattaya, Thailand, to visit her friend Jenny. After Lee has been missing without a trace for several days, Jenny (newcomer Iris Lam) contacts Lee and lets him know about Lee's absence. Indeed, backstory chronicles the separation of headstrong father and rebellious daughter. As we later learn, Lee lost his wife during a traffic collision while his daughter was riding in the same vehicle. More recently, father and daughter had clashed when she told him about her pregnancy and then introduced her boyfriend as the father to her dad. In no time flat, the detective has the boyfriend/father arrested. Furious about this whirlwind turn of events, Lee Wing-chi flees to Thailand to distance herself from her dad.

Meantime, on the eve of his bid to announce his run for re-election, the Mayor Aziz of Bangkok suffers a heart attack and requires a new one. Although the plot is not as spontaneous as "Furie" (2019), with which critics have recently compared it, Yip has more on his mind with multiple plots that intersect by the third act. Thailand martial arts sensation Tony Jaa has a supporting role as the friend of lead cop on the investigation, Inspector Chui Kit. Predictably, the first half-hour of this 97-minute actioneer with lots of martial arts mayhem sets up the complications surrounding the daughter's disappearance and then Lee Chung-Chi turns the city upside down as he plunges into the depths of the underworld with Inspector Kit shadowing him, until his own pregnant wife starts to bleed, fears that she may lose her baby, and goes to the hospital. Detective Lee Chung-Chi is indefatigable in his efforts to locate his daughter. Inspector Kit finds himself knee-deep in corruption, too. Legendary martial arts choreographer Sammo Hung staged the incredible action scenes. He mixes up mix of authentic Muay Thai talents, spectacular acrobatics, and razor-sharp meat cleaver and machete brawls that will keep you'll be flinching. These invigorating fights make John Wick look like a pussy. Writers Nick Cheuk ("Zombiology: Enjoy Yourself Tonight") and Lai-Yin Leung ("Kill Zone 2", "Ip Man 3") do an excellent job of setting the plot up and paying it off. Nevertheless, the final quarter hour teems with so many tragic revelations that you won't believe what you're seeing. You've got to see this one!

Shaft
(2019)

Shaft is Back!!!
Back in 1970, Oscar-winning "French Connection" scriptwriter Ernst Tidyman wrote the novel "Shaft" which served as the basis for the vintage Richard Roundtree gumshoe thriller "Shaft" (1971). Incredibly, Hollywood thought about making Tidyman's black detective white! Happily, reason prevailed, and the film joined the avalanche of Blaxploitation movies that Hollywood unveiled to attract languishing African American audiences. "Shaft" became a hit. Produced for $500 thousand, "Shaft" grossed $13 million for the prestigious but financially ailing MGM studio, best known during its glory days for "Gone with the Wind" (1939). Basically, "Shaft" constituted "The Maltese Falcon" (1941) for African Americans. Director Gordon Parks' film spawned two surefire sequels: Parks' own "Shaft's Big Score" (1972) and John Guillermin's "Shaft in Africa" (1973). A short-lived but sanitary CBS-TV series ensued. "Shaft" behaved like "Mannix," so the show would be palatable for prime-time family audiences. Actually, by the time "Shaft in Africa" arrived, Tidyman had sold his interest in Shaft.

Fast-forwarding to 2000, Paramount revived the character, with the late John Singleton, acclaimed for "Boyz in the Hood," at the helm. Richard Roundtree appeared in a cameo, while his abrasive nephew, NYPD Detective John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson of "Pulp Fiction"), took top billing. Tolerable at best, "Shaft" didn't coin enough cash for a sequel. Now, 19 years later, Shaft has risen from the ashes, with Jackson reprising the hard-boiled title character; Roundtree landing a larger supporting role, and Jessie T. Usher showing up as John Shaft, Jr. Indeed, he is the son of Jackson's Shaft. Ironically, he abhors guns and rides a desk as an FBI data analyst! At first, I thought I was watching the venerable James Stewart western "Destry Rides Again" (1939), where the son of a sharpshooting sheriff forsook firearms!

"Shaft" (*** OUT OF ****) isn't as inspired as the original "Shaft." Nevertheless, the new "Shaft" surpasses the previous "Shaft." The surprise is not only Jessie T. Usher of "Independence Day: Resurgence" as the son of Jackson's Shaft, but also the amusing gender relief humor that keeps "Shaft" breezy and light-hearted. Samuel L. Jackson's Shaft has more in common with "Dirty Harry" with his brazen disregard for human rights. If you're a bad guy, Shaft is liable to shoot you on sight rather than deck you with his fists. He careens around the Big Apple (actually Atlanta) in a Super Sport Coupe without a driver's license, and he crosses streets without checking for on-coming traffic. Ain't life grand in the movies! Pull that stunt in real life, and you'll wind up in a wheelchair. Evidently, Shaft learned that bad habit from his Uncle Shaft. Junior has the same problem, but he shares little in common his streetwise father. Twenty-five years ago, Shaft and Maya Babanikos (Regina Hall of "Law Abiding Citizen") weren't prepared to be parents when they had Shaft Junior. Maya refused to raise her son in New York City, because everywhere Shaft went, bullets swarmed like hornets around him.

Now, Junior has returned to New York City as a rookie FBI Data Analyst, and suffers under a callous white superior, Special Agent Vietti (Titus Welliver of Netflix's "Bosch"), who treats him with little respect. One of Junior's closest friends, Gulf War veteran Karim Hassan (Avan Jogia of "The Outcasts"), who saved Junior from high school bullies, dies mysteriously from an overdose. The problem is Karim had been clean, and Junior--ignoring his FBI job-decides to launch his own investigation. After he pokes his nose in too deep and gets punched out, Junior wises up and solicits Shaft's help. Junior shames Shaft for not stepping up to be man enough to act like a responsible father. The truth is Shaft supported Maya's decision to clear out of New York City, while he quit the NYPD and pursued the truly wicked villain, narcotics kingpin Pierro 'Gordito' Carrera (Isaach De Bankolé of "Casino Royale"), with whom he had a perpetual feud. No sooner has Junior starting snooping around with Shaft than Special Agent Vietti conveniently reprimands him and places him on administrative leave. Mind you, a lot happens in "Shaft" courtesy of "Girls Trip" writer Kenya Barris and "Family Guy" staff writer Alex Barnow. Most of it amounts to the standard-issue stuff of detective yarns. Everybody who wields a submachine gun cannot hit their targets no matter what the proximity. Not surprisingly, henchmen have always been notoriously poor shots owing to Hollywood's inviolable First Commandment: you cannot kill the heroes!

Director Tim Story is no stranger to the genre because he helmed the two "Ride Along" action comedies with Kevin Hart. "Shaft" runs nine minutes shy of two hours, and Story does his best to make the hopelessly complicated plot palatable. "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" lenser Larry Blanford provides "Shaft" with a larger-than-life appearance with his picturesque widescreen compositions. Composer Christopher Lennertz appropriates selections from Isaac Hayes' Oscar-winning soundtrack from the original "Shaft to link it with this "Shaft." Although neither Barris nor Barnow are savvy enough in the ways of mystery thrillers, they salvage "Shaft" with our bantering heroes and their buddy picture shenanigans. Shaft and Junior are constantly swapping barbs. Eventually, they come to respect each other's abilities and lighten up. Mind you, when Junior finally acquires a pistol, he reveals his impressive marksmanship expertise.

The best thing about the new "Shaft" is its allusions to the original "Shaft." Indeed, Richard Roundtree is back on board in a more substantial role, and he doesn't sit this one out on the sidelines. Sure, he resembles a silver fox with his white beard and bald head, but he shows up in the fourth quarter to save the day. By this time, the reptilian 'Gordito' has abducted the film's damsel-in-distress, Sasha Arias (Alexandra Shipp of "Dark Phoenix"), and has her held hostage in his skyscraper penthouse, similar to the original "Shaft." Samuel L. Jackson looks like he had more fun playing "Shaft" this time, and it ends with all three Shafts crossing the street and ignoring traffic!

Rocketman
(2019)

His Song!!!
Taron Egerton delivers an electrifying performance as Elton John in "Eddie the Eagle" director Dexter Fletcher's "Rocketman," a 'warts and all' musical biography about the British singer, songwriter, pianist, and composer who has sold reportedly as many as 250 to 300 million records since his debut on the charts in 1970 with "Your Song." Mind you, Elton's debut studio album hit the racks in 1969, but it wasn't released in the U.S. until 1975. Occasionally inspired, often conventionally straightforward, but hopelessly costumed, this cinematic greatest hits revue epitomizes the proverb 'money cannot buy happiness.' This hoary cliché finds refreshing relevance with the eponymous musician's own confession early on in writer Lee Hall's screenplay. Elton boasts that he has done everything, but he has never experienced true love. Now, if you're wondering what he felt about this off-delayed, somewhat contrived jukebox musical fantasy, it should come as no surprise that the five-time Grammy winning piano prodigy adores it. Indeed, Elton produced this two-hour plus extravaganza, with his husband, Canadian filmmaker David Furnish.

Elton's biopic qualifies as an important first in movie history for its depiction of gay male sex. Essentially, however, most of these flagrant affections amount to little more than kissing and groping. Sadly, despite the musician's participation behind the camera, "Rocketman" has yet to achieve the lunar trajectory of Queen's comparatively prudish PG-13 release "Bohemian Rhapsody" (2018), with its phenomenal $900 million plus box office haul. Reportedly, audiences criticized "Bohemian Rhapsody" for sterilizing Freddy Mercury's love life. After watching this rise and fall and then phoenix-like rebirth of the British superstar's life, it seems miraculous that Elton has emerged from the pandemonium of his life and appears now to be at peace at age 72. Elton's second autobiography due out in print October 15th will undoubtedly prove more illuminating.

Watching "Rocketman" is like watching Elton's greatest hits. The first time we see the superstar, he storms into a twelve-step AA meeting, presumably fresh from a concert, decked out as he is like the supernatural monster "Hellboy" from the Dark Horse Comics. Detaching the horns from his headpiece, Elton collapses into a chair and regales them with his woes. "Rocketman" chronicles Elton's rollercoaster life, including his bouts with his eating disorders, shopping sprees, and alcohol-fueled orgies energized with prescription meds as well as illegal substances. At one point, as he is topping the charts, Elton realizes he must hush up his secret life as a homosexual. When he outs himself on a pay phone to his serenely aloof mother, Shelia (Bryce Dallas Howard of "Jurassic World"), she smirks: "Oh, for God's sake, I knew that. I've known for years." Like Queen's front man Freddie Mercury, Elton survives a harrowing same sex encounter with a villainous manager, John Reid (Richard Madden of Disney's live-action "Cinderella"), who warns Elton--whether the latter lives or dies-that he will still reap his 20 percent of the profits. Perhaps a message lurks within for prospective rockers about confusing love with sex. Incidentally, a different actor played the same promoter in "Bohemian Rhapsody."

Naturally, "Rocketman" eavesdrops on Elton's early years in flashback when he was shy Reginald Kenneth Dwight and discovered an affinity for the piano at age four. By age eleven, he had landed a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music. Clearly, Elton suffered at the whims of his parents who withheld their love and affection. No, they didn't abuse him physically, but the emotional toll was just as devastating to the youngster. The first genuine friendship that he forged turned out to be with his long-time musical collaborator but heterosexual male, Bernie Taupin ( Jamie Bell of "Defiance"), who penned some of Elton's best lyrics. Apart from a brief hiatus between 1977 to 1979, Elton and Taupin spent more than 30 years together writing songs. Elton boasts that they had only one argument during all those years!

Unlike most celebrities who shun the spotlight when it threatens to become too revealing, Elton John told director Dexter Fletcher that he wanted to see as much 'honesty' as possible about his trials and tribulations. At no time did the rock star admonish Fletcher and Hall about unsavory episodes in his life. Predictably, the sexual improprieties have been held to a minimum, but Elton's faithful heterosexual fans have probably resigned themselves to this revelation in a career that has been splashed across the tabloids for almost fifty years. The inevitable turning point in any rock star's life occurs when suicide rears its ugly head in their thoughts. One of "Rocketman's" insightful scenes takes place during such an instance. During a pool-party orgy with scores of oblivious spectators carrying on without a clue, a bleakly depressed Elton plunges headlong into the surreal blue depths and sinks like a rock. At the bottom of his pool, he finds young Reginald Kenneth Dwight playing his tiny piano. Mind-blowing accurately describes this unforgettable scene.

"Rocketman" doesn't cover the entirety of Elton's life. Ostensibly, the last of his greatest hits "I'm Still Standing" marks not only the conclusion of the film but also the end of a life over 'troubled waters' as he comes to grips with his homosexuality, terminates his heterosexual marriage after two years, and emerges from rehab with a new lease on life. Of course, purists will argue that Fletcher and company have tampered with the chronology of Elton's life. Of course, they have! Nevertheless, they have tried to make his life as sensational as it is tall-all, while eliminating other events which did not contribute to the film. Taron Egerton's vocal performance as well as his bizarre wardrobe changes closely imitate Elton. Altogether, "Rocketman" qualifies as a blast!

Run for the High Country
(2018)

A Lame, Ultra-Low Budget Western
An old-time Hollywood producer once quantified the difference between big budget and low budget westerns. The number of horses drawing a stagecoach is always a dead giveaway. Big budget westerns boast six-horse teams, while low-budget sagebrushers make do with four-horse teams. Most television westerns prefer four-horse teams. A two-horse team hauls the stagecoach around in "Run for the High Country," an uninspired, saddle-sore saga about a veteran lawman on the trail of several murderous desperadoes. Presumably, this ultra-low budget western could only afford a two-horse team. B-movie actor Paul Winter not only wrote and directed this revisionist oater, but he also played the lead and edited it, too. Furthermore, in true auteur fashion, Winter co-produced it with Patty Daniels-Winters, and they haven't pinched pennies on most of their production values. The sets, wardrobe, vehicles, and the spectacular Arizona scenery are all exemplary. You won't see any of those idiotic rodeo Stetsons which are so jarring. Moreover, the firearms are entirely appropriate to the period. Everybody wields either .45 caliber Colt revolvers or .30-30 Winchester repeaters. Unfortunately, that two-horse stagecoach is the only big flaw. At the risk of belaboring the point, it just doesn't look right to have two horses pulling a stagecoach. Imagine what the silhouette on Wells Fargo Banks would look like if only two horses were dragging around that coach, and you'll appreciate my argument. If this were the only problem in "Run for the High Country," you could probably ignore it, but alas it isn't.

Colorado-based U.S. Marshal John Towne (Paul Winters of "Get Shorty") is forged from the same crucible as Marshal Matt Dillon in the long-running "Gunsmoke" television series. He is riding to Arizona to see a woman, when Chacon (Art Montano) and his quartet of outlaws ambush him after they have robbed a stagecoach and killed everybody on it. Billy O'Toole (Devin Flaherty) grazes Towne with a head shot. Rather than finishing off the wounded lawman, the outlaws amuse themselves. They disarm him, shackle his hands behind his back, while leaving him in the saddle with a noose stretched tight around his throat. Miraculously, Towne's horse doesn't spook. Nevertheless, this doesn't keep our hero from sweating out the rest of the day, the entire night, and part of the following day waiting for the inevitable. Eventually, a young Navajo boy, Binschii (Aden Yazzie), who has suffered his own share of hardships, comes across the lawman and cuts the rope. The youngster has been on the lam since Chacon murdered his father and grandfather in cold blood. Indeed, prejudice against Indians runs high in this oater, and Towne emerges as the only white who makes allowances for them. Ultimately, the marshal and the boy become close friends, and Towne grows fiercely protective of the pint-sized Navajo boy.

Ironically, Towne's gratitude toward Binschii for saving his life later puts him in jeopardy. After Towne escorts his young savior into a saloon for lunch, he finds himself at odds with the bigoted owner refuses to serve them. Naturally, Towne doesn't budge, and the local constabulary jails him before they realize who they have incarcerated. Towne entrusts the Navajo boy's welfare temporarily to a trading post owner and then rides out after Chacon. Meantime, Chaco and his gang have arranged to sell rifles to renegade Indians in exchange for gold. Towne stumbles onto Billy alone and questions him about Chacon's whereabouts. The weather-beaten marshal drowns the desperado without remorse in a stream because Billy raped and killed an innocent woman on the stagecoach that Chacon and his gang robbed. Indeed, Chacon has everybody on the stagecoach killed so that no witnesses can identify them. Theoretically, Towne believes all men are either good or evil with no shades of gray. Furthermore, he believes evil men can be thwarted, but that it can never be totally eliminated. Predictably, all the white settlers abhor the little Native American. Towne reacts with rage and incredulity at their attitude toward the helpless Navajo. Later, he administers the equivalent of a coup de grace to the villainous town sheriff after the latter assembles a posse to kill not only him but also the Navajo.

Although the production values lend this thrifty western an aura of authenticity, the performances and the widescreen cinematography can only be described as shoddy. First-time actors and actresses embarrass themselves. They utter their contrived lines of dialogue without any ring of conviction, and they sound like they are reading their dialogue from cue cards hidden off camera. Winter relies on voice-over narration so we can gain some insight into the various characters. Sadly, everybody mumbles to themselves, and it is difficult to keep them separate from the others. The U.S. Marshal shares his insights as well as those of the child. Mind you, "Run for the High Country" contains some interesting dialogue, but the delivery of those lines is undercut by the wooden acting. Winter is really no more confident in front of the camera than the rest of his cast. He looks far too old to be playing a rough and tough lawman. Worse, despite having helmed six low-budget films, such as "The Freeway Maniac" (1989) and "Cowboy Zombies" (2016), he has no idea how to develop atmosphere or generate suspense. The cinematography and the editing are each inferior, too. The gunfights are choreographed with neither flair nor fluidity. The finale where our lone hero confronts several horsemen charging with guns blazing lacks excitement. The best thing to do with "Run for the High Country" (obviously an homage on the title of Sam Peckinpah's classic western "Ride the High Country") is run from it.

The Filthy Thirteen
(2019)

A Tedious Exercise in Fatigue Duty
When the American Film Institute compiled its list of the "100 most thrilling American movies," they ranked the unforgettable World War II combat extravaganza "The Dirty Dozen" (1967) as their sixty-fifth entry. This outlandish opus concerned twelve condemned U.S. Army soldiers scheduled to hang for their crimes in England. Headquarters sanctions an unorthodox mission that takes advantage of their status. They are offered a pardon if they follow orders and survive. This violent blockbuster spawned three made-for-television sequels as well as a short-lived FOX-TV series. Unfortunately, none recaptured the grit, grime, and glory of the original. Author E.M. Nathanson, whose 1965 bestseller "The Dirty Dozen" sold more than two million copies, drew inspiration from the legend of the 'Filthy Thirteen.' These guys served in the 1st Demolition Section of the Regimental Headquarters Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. They weren't convicts given one last chance to redeem themselves in combat. Neither were they rapists, murderers, and/or psychos. The 'Filthy Thirteen' were pugnacious G.I.s who drank to excess, started fights with little provocation, and sweated out punishment in the stockade. Parachuted into France on the eve of the 6th of June 1944, Normandy Invasion, these troublemakers were ordered to destroy the bridges over the Douve River. Suicidal would best describe the cost of this audacious mission. Although almost half wound up with toe tags, as casualties, or captured, the "Filthy Thirteen" accomplished their mission. "Werewolves of the Third Reich" writer & director Andrew Jones pays tribute to these soldiers in "D-Day Assassins," but his 19th feature amounts to a lackluster, low-budget, travesty of World War II movies. You know a movie is in trouble when the filmmakers tarry about twenty minutes before they approach the premise. After an atmospheric montage of World War II news reels edited together for dramatic impact, Jones and his wife Sharron dwell on a dysfunctional family drama about a recent high school graduate, Chris Summerbee (Aaron Jeffcoate of "Five Pillars"), who shows little incentive to jump-start his future. Predictably, his obnoxious father Richard (Erick Hayden of "Spectre") struggles to convince his son to enlist in the U.S. Army. Later, Chris encounters one of the "Filthy Thirteen" when two muggers attack the retiree. Naturally, this combat savvy veteran, Hawkeye (Ryan Michaels of "Alcatraz"), dispatches them without breaking a sweat. When Chris asks Hawkeye to regale him with stories about his military exploits, the oldster agrees as long Chris will cut his grass.

Basically, this chronicle of battlefield valor crosscuts contemporary scenes from the 1990s with wartime flashbacks. Some 23-minutes later, we get our first glimpse of the "Filthy Thirteen" decked out in Native American war paint, sauntering carelessly through an open field with weapons that no American soldier would have ever carried into combat. Imagine a paratrooper wandering around France with a .30-30 Winchester repeater instead of a .45 caliber Thompson submachine gun! No sooner has a desperate French couple on the lam approached them than these clowns come under withering fire from a sharp-shooting Gestapo sniper perched in a tree. Clearly, director Andrew Jones has no clue about strategy behind enemy lines, neither the need for constant vigilance nor the need to blend into their surroundings. Instead, he shows his cast trudging casually through a field without a clue that an enemy marksman is taking aim at them. Clearly, the actors have no idea what important lessons basic training would have taught them about such a predicament. A black-uniformed Gestapo sniper picks off seven of the thirteen as if he were shooting fish in a barrel. Just as the sniper is poised to shoot the wife of the fatally wounded Frenchman, one of the surviving G.I.s puts a bullet between his eyes.

Later, these morons surround a French house. Two stand exposed out in the open, begging to be riddled with bullets, while the others cautiously enter the premises. They persuade a French family to feed them while they question them about Nazi activity. As it turns out, one lone German officer is hidden under the floor, and a firefight ensues. During this scene, the surviving "Filthy Thirteen" behave like obnoxious oafs. The final combat scene occurs in a military hospital. Several Gestapo officers storm the premises, but they find they're no match for the three remaining members of the "Filthy Thirteen." Our heroes wield their fists and wits against these pistol-packing dastards in stark hand-to-hand, close-quarters combat.

Chris learns Hawkeye received the Congressional Medal of Honor during his service in France. Actually, the youth has probably made Hawkeye's last years more meaningful because not only did he listen to the veteran's stories, but they also became friends. Hawkeye assures Chris, "No one ever lay on their death bed wishing they'd spent more time on the battlefield." Later, Chris informs his father he won't enlist because he has fallen in love with a girl. In a poignant moment, his father Richard confesses that he didn't enter the army because his wife Karen was pregnant with him.

"D-Day Assassins" never shows anybody getting assassinated. Director Andrew Jones stretches his million-dollar budget to its breaking point without ever scratching the surface of the history of the "Filthy Thirteen." The relationship between Chris and the combat veteran borrows marginally from the Clint Eastwood tragedy "Gran Torino." Mind you, nothing in "D-Day Assassins" is remotely comparable to "The Dirty Dozen." The worst episode of "The Dirty Dozen" FOX-TV series is a hundred times more polished than this flashback-prone potboiler that squanders time on obligatory boilerplate exposition alternating with its few scenes of suspenseful combat. Jones must have enjoyed Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" (2009) since he duplicates his version of domicile scene where a Nazis is concealed beneath the floorboards. Meanwhile, World War II armchair generals will feel cheated by this half-baked actioneer that boasts anything either suspenseful or spectacular about men and arms comparable to "The Dirty Dozen." Ultimately, "D-Day Assassins" qualifies as a tedious exercise in fatigue duty.

The Kid
(2019)

An Above-Average Western about Billy the Kid
Infamous outlaws and noble lawmen are standard-issue characters in westerns. "Don't Go in the Woods" director Vincent D'Onofrio's "The Kid" is an above average, but derivative account of the relationship between Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett and notorious fugitive William H. Bonney, alias 'Billy the Kid.' Ironically, after you've seen about a half-hour of this evocative, R-rated, 100-minute horse opera, you will realize Billy the Kid isn't the title character. Instead, the eponymous personage is 14-year-old Rio Cutler (first-time actor Jake Schur) who has suffered many of the same obstacles that doomed William Bonney to an early grave. D'Onofrio and "Glass Castle" scenarist Andrew Lanham must admire Sam Peckinpah's classic film "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid" (1973) because their tale covers roughly the same period of Billy's life. Unfortunately, "The Kid" doesn't reveal anything we didn't already know about Bonney. Nevertheless, this coming-of-age, law & order oater depicts a juvenile growing up to learn the difference between right and wrong.

"The Kid" unfolds with our 14-year old protagonist trying to save his mother from his abusive father, Bill Cutler (Tait Fletcher of "Jonathan Hex"), who beats her to death. Rio brandishes a six-gun and blasts his heartless dad into the next world. Rio and his older sister, Sara (Leila George of "Mortal Engines"), head for Santa Fe where they've been told their mother had a trustworthy friend. Bill's angry, despicable brother, Grant Cutler (Chris Pratt of "Passengers"), pursues them with his own posse. Grant is hellbent to exact vengeance for his brother's murder. As it turns out, Rio and Sara have a rendezvous with fate. By chance, they run into Billy the Kid (Dane DeHaan of "Chronicle") and his gang at a dilapidated line shack. Writer & director Sam Peckinpah had a comparable scene in "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid," when Billy and his gang awakened to find themselves cornered in a similar shack. Eventually, Pat Garrett (Ethan Hawke of "Training Day") and his trigger-happy deputies flush the Kid and his gang out, after they shoot the line shack to smithereens.

During their brief time together, Billy and Rio discover that they share much in common. Indeed, Rio reminds Billy of his own wayward youth and descent into violence. Reluctantly, Billy and the other three gunmen with him surrender. While Garrett and his deputies are cuffing Billy, they discover Rio and Sara. The two children wind up riding to Santa Fe in the same wagon with Billy. Along the way, Billy assures Rio that he will help him out. Eventually, our impressionable protagonist realizes that Billy is not a man of his word. Garrett leaves one of Billy's gang to swing from the gallows in Santa Fe, while Rio and Sara search for a trusted friend of their mother who will help them. No sooner have they found this friend than our hero and heroine find themselves at the mercy of Uncle Grant.

Grant Cutler abducts Sara and vows to kill her if Rio interferes with his plans. Worse, he tells Rio that he plans to put Sara to work as a prostitute. Off gallops Cutler in a swirl of dust with Sara. Desperately, Rio steals a horse and rides to Billy. By the time Rio reaches Lincoln, New Mexico, Billy has been shackled to the floor in a second-story jail cell to await his day on the gallows. It seems that Garrett must ride out and finish collecting taxes, so he leaves two deputies to watch Billy. "The Kid" re-enacts the most celebrated scene from Billy the Kid westerns, including the Marlon Brando classic "One-Eyed Jacks" (1961), when he engineers his jailbreak.

Billy assaults Deputy James Bell (newcomer Joseph Santos) on the stairs after he had complained about needing to use the outhouse. Meanwhile, Bell's relief, Deputy Bob Olinger (Adam Baldwin of "Full Metal Jacket"), has ushered the other prisoners across the street for lunch. Billy disarms Bell, shoots him in the back, and scrambles upstairs to unlock his leg irons. Seizing a double-barrel shotgun, Billy blows the top of Olinger's head off in a splatter of brains as the deputy tries to thwart Billy's escape. Once he has attained his freedom, Billy welshes on his promise to Rio and skedaddles out of Lincoln. Later, Rio makes a clean breast of his crimes to Sheriff Garrett, and the sympathetic lawman accompanies the youth to rescue his ill-treated sister from the scurrilous Cutler.

Despite its predictable plot, "The Kid" boasts many virtues. The setting is none other than scenic New Mexico where "Project Almanac" lenser Matthew J. Lloyd photographed this sagebrusher in lush widescreen compositions. D'Onofrio likes to let the camera linger in long shots on those sprawling, wide-open spaces. Basically, "The Kid" resembles a western from the 1950s. The firearms are genuine, and an adequate number of gunfights enliven the action. The top-notch cast, featuring Ethan Hawke, Dane DeHaan, and Chris Pratt, delivers impeccable performances. You've never seen Chris Pratt as he is here. He isn't cast as the leading man, and his unsavory character has nothing in common with either his "Guardian of the Galaxy" or his "Jurassic World" heroes. Specifically, he plays a repugnant villain!

"The Kid" may qualify as one of the few Billy the Kid westerns that presents the legendary outlaw in an unsavory light. Chris Pratt claims top honors as the thoroughly pugnacious Grant Cutler. Ethan Hawke makes a strong impression as the gruff but compassionate Pat Garrett. Dan DeHaan attires himself in an effort to duplicate a vintage 1880s' tintype of William Bonney, and he portrays Billy as an arrogant psychopath. "The Kid" represents Vincent D'Onofrio second directorial effort, but nothing about either this western or D'Onofrio's flair for orchestrating exciting gunfights is sophomoric. Lanham contributes some memorable, philosophical lines of dialogue about survival on the frontier. If you haven't enjoyed a worthwhile western in ages, "The Kid" is a surefire bet.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters
(2019)

Clash of the Kings
"Trick 'r Treat" director Michael Dougherty's "Godzilla, The King of the Monsters" qualifies as the rare sequel that surpasses its impressive predecessor, "Rogue One" director Garth Edwards' above-average, larger-than-life "Godzilla" (2014), with Bryan Cranston, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Elizabeth Olsen. Edwards' "Godzilla" rebooted the American "Godzilla" franchise after "Stargate" director Roland Emmerich gave us his own entertaining epic "Godzilla" (1998), starring Matthew Broderick. While Emmerich's "Godzilla" was goofy fun, it spawned no sequels. In contrast, Edwards' stomping, chomping reboot laid the groundwork for Dougherty's slam-bang, high-octane follow-up. Not only is "Godzilla, King of the Monsters" bigger and better, adding the wicked three-headed, space dragon King Ghidorah, along with Mothra and Rodan, but its human characters also are far more relevant than those in its forerunner. For a change, the scientists, their families, and their subordinates play a stronger, integral role in the storyline.



Comparably, Dougherty's "Godzilla" is reminiscent of the Toho Studios' 1968 vintage "Destroy All Monsters," which featured Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, Gorosaurus, Minya, and King Ghidorah. Interestingly enough, the villains in "Destroy All Monsters" were the Kilaaks, an alien race languishing on an asteroid planet orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. The Kilaaks gained control of these monsters and freed them from the confines of an island prison. Asserting control over their minds, the Kilaaks harnessed them as weapons of mass destruction to wipe out mankind. The fiendish Kilaaks teleported Godzilla and the other monsters from one metropolis to another to decimate the Earth. Similarly, in "Godzilla, King of the Monsters," an army of murderous ecoterrorists release King Ghidorah from Antarctica and Rodan from a volcano to rout Godzilla and Mothra, so other chimerical behemoths like them, called the Titans, can restore the Earth's ecological prosperity. These ecoterrorists behave like Thanos in the "Avengers" movies. Despite the global apocalypse liable to ensue if they succeed, the Earth will undergo a makeover, and life will be far better for the survivors. These ecoterrorists insist that out of this tragic wholesale devastation, the Earth will flourish and return to an Eden-like paradise.



Paleobiologist Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga of "The Conjuring") and her ex-husband Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler of "Zero Dark Thirty") have created an apparatus called the Orca that transmits frequencies which can influence the behavior of the Titans. This couple emerged from the catastrophe of San Francisco, but they lost their adolescent son, Andrew. Their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown of Netflix's "Stranger Things") survived the ordeal and lives with Emma in a remote outpost in China established by Monarch, a billion-dollar governmental agency that monitors the Titans. As the film unfolds, Emma and Madison are about to see the birth of a larva, Mothra, when Alan Jonah (Charles Dance of "Alien³") and his eco-terrorists storm the premises. Mothra escapes before Jonah and his henchmen stop it. Nevertheless, they take Emma and Madison hostage along with the Orca. Monarch scientists Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe of "The Last Samurai") and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins of "The Shape of Water") recruit Mark Russell to help them find his ex-wife and daughter. At this point, Mark urges Monarch to destroy Godzilla and all the Titans. Eventually, he realizes Godzilla isn't the problem, but perhaps represents the solution to their nightmare.



Later, Mark is shocked to learn Emma has been conspiring with Jonah, and she believes the only salvation for life on Earth lies with the Titans. She helps Jonah release not only King Ghidorah, but also Rodan. Initially, King Ghidorah defeats Godzilla after an oxygen-destroying bomb is detonated during an Armageddon of a fracas. Godzilla takes refuge in a cavern to recuperate while Ghidorah dominates the planet. Dr. Serizawa replenishes the radiation the ailing Godzilla needs so it can confront King Ghidorah in a showdown. Madison steals the Orca from Emma and flees to her hometown, Boston, Massachusetts, where she broadcasts the Orca signals, and Godzilla rallies for the ultimate mêlée with King Ghidorah.



Writer & director Michael Dougherty and "Krampus" scenarist Zach Shields, adapting a story each co-wrote with Max Borenstein of "Kong: Skull Island," have conjured up a stupendous saga. Incredibly, these filmmakers have created a no-holds-barred magnum opus that alternates between spectacular bouts with legendary Japanese leviathans as well as two ideological factions of scientists intent on saving the world by virtually annihilating it. The collateral damage that the Titans inflict dwarfs anything in all of Marvel's "Avengers" movies. Amazingly, no characters get short-changed in this boisterous, PG-13 rated, 132-minute, extravaganza that keeps drumming up surprises atop surprises. At least three uppermost human characters sacrifice their lives to save Godzilla from his aggressive new adversary. Everything in "Godzilla, King of the Monsters" is enormous in both scale and scope. Monarch, the crypto-zoological coalition, has established outposts around the globe that serve as shelters for the Titans. The scientists clash with Congress over their mandate. These politicians demand to know if Monarch is trying to domesticate Godzilla as man's pet. Dr. Serizawa scorns this peculiar notion and explains mankind is really Godzilla's pet.



Unlike the inferior special effects in the Japanese "Godzilla" movies, Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures spent between $175 to $200 million reportedly to make the giant monster fights appear as lifelike as possible. Godzilla devours one of King Ghidorah's three heads, but the evil space dragon-a legendary hydra itself- grows another head. The producers have gone to melodramatic extremes to stage these monumental battles, and fans of the Japanese originals will appreciate Daugherty for making Godzilla sound like his venerable Toho Studios self. "Black Sails" composer Bear McCreary contributes a thoroughly atmospheric score that features traditional musical cues from original "Godzilla" composer Akira Ifukube. Actor Bradley Whitford blurts out several memorable one-liners about Godzilla, and sagacious Charles Dance makes an insidiously evil foe. "Godzilla, King of the Monsters" qualifies as an unforgettable experience. Furthermore, audiences should not evacuate the premises immediately, but wait until after the end credits. One brief but final scene ties up an important plot thread.

Brightburn
(2019)

Villain Burning Brightly in This Super Villain Adventure!!!
Mash up "Superman" with "The Omen," and you've got the elements of "Hive" director David Yarovesky's "Brightburn," co-starring Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, and newcomer Jackson Dunn. No, this isn't your ordinary, standard-issue, run-of-the-mill, superhero 'origins' saga, since our hero amounts to an anti-hero. Nevertheless, "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island" scenarists Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn have patently recycled the basics of "Superman," but they have turned everything upside down for something radically different. Meantime, despite its grim finality, Yarovesky has presented this bizarre material with style, irony, and gore. If you've ever rooted for evil supervillains to triumph when you knew they never could, "Brightburn" is a breath of fresh air! Clocking in at a meager 91-minutes, this atmospheric but larger-than-life yarn generates enough atmospheric dystopia and ambiguity to keep you captivated. In a typical Hollywood release, the villains are doomed always to destruction. Such is not the case with "Brightburn." Mind you, "Brightburn" is no "Avengers: Infinity Wars." Indeed, "Brightburn" is neither a Disney/Marvel release nor a Warner Bros./DC Comics release. Interestingly enough, James Gunn-who helmed the two "Guardians of the Galaxy" extravaganzas-served as producer, while Brian and Mark are two of his three younger brothers. Altogether, "Brightburn" clashes with the cultural imperative that all superheroes must defend the rights of the weak and the innocent. By the time you finish watching this R-rated movie, you may wonder if it isn't a fluke of nature. Do the filmmakers plan to pursue a franchise? And if so, who will they conjure up to pit against their youthful villain? Some hints about the future can be found at the end of "Brightburn" as an unhinged YouTube conspiracy theorist (Michael Rooker) rants about government efforts to cover up the appearance of two enigmatic superheroes, vaguely similar to DC's Aquaman and Wonder Woman! Believe me, you've never seen anything like "Brightburn." This low-budget, $6 million adventure has already coined twice its budget!

Kyle (David Denman of "Logan Lucky") and Tori Breyer (Elizabeth Banks of "The Hunger Games") are a married couple who desperately want a child, but they have had no luck. One evening when they are trying again to impregnate Tori, they hear a loud smashing racket, and something in the woods surrounding their farm bursts into flames. The next thing we know the Breyers are shooting home videos of an adorable infant that survived the crash of an unidentified flying object. After adequate voice narration about their new addition, "Brightburn" makes a giant decade-long leap, and their adopted son Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn of "Avengers: Endgame") finds himself in junior high school and on the verge of puberty. Brandon is kind of a know-it-all nerd who alienates himself quickly from his classmates when he provides ad infinitum answers to his science teacher's questions. Initially, one of his other classmates, Caitlyn (Emmie Hunt of "Forever My Girl"), tells him smart guys finish first. Things between these two youngsters, however, don't go as planned. Brandon lives with Kyle and Tori on a farm. In fact, they live in Kansas, but we never see them actually farming. Kyle raises chickens, and he owns a vast amount of acreage. They have a sprawling barn with two silos, but we never see them herding livestock. Meantime, Kyle and Tori have made the barn off-limits to Brandon because he could hurt himself playing in there. Secretly, they have stashed the weird spacecraft that brought him to Earth in a cellar in the barn. Tori loves Brandon with all her heart and soul, while Kyle is struggling still with fatherhood. At one point, to alleviate Brandon's own sense of horror about life on Earth, he feeds him candy, and it calms Brandon down. Until he has trouble cranking up a lawn mower, Brandon has lived a relatively normal, down-to-Earth life. When the lawn mower doesn't crank, he experiences an unusual fit of rage and hurls the machine like a javelin into the sky. The mower flies about a half-mile before it plunges into a field. Brandon rushes out to inspect it. Ironically, the mower lands upside down, so its single blade is seen whirling in a visible blur. Strangely enough, Brandon thrusts his bare hand into it, and the blade abruptly stops turning with a screech. The youth examines his hand and cannot believe the blade didn't rip a hole in it. Thereafter, things take a turn for the worse not only for Brandon, but also for the unsuspecting residents of the sleepy town of Brightburn.

Brandon begins to behave rebelliously, especially after he is dazed during a game concocted by his P.E. coach. This game has children standing in a small circle, while one remains at the center of it. The point of the exercise is to forge trust. Everybody pushes the classmate in the center back and forth, and the child learns to trust his school mates, because nobody is going to break the circle. Ironically, Caitlyn breaks the circle, and Brandon falls and bumps his head. The coach (Terence Rosemore of "Triple 9") threatens to flunk Caitlyn if she doesn't give Brandon a hand up. Although he doesn't appear injured, Brandon grasps Caitlyn's hand, twists, and then breaks it. Naturally, Kyle and Tori are shocked, while Caitlyn's mom, Erica (Becky Wahlstrom of "Lucky 13"), insists that Sheriff Deever (Gregory Alan Williams of "Hidden Figures") clap him into cuffs. Later, after the school counselor, Merilee McNichol (Meredith Hagner of "Hits"), discovers that Brandon feels no remorse for his rough treatment of Caitlyn, she starts to worry.

Literally, all Hell breaks loose, and Brandon shows us he can fly, emit sizzling beams from his eyeballs, and is impervious to a .30.06 rifle bullet when it is fired at close range at his head. "Brightburn" is devoid of any shred of sentimentality. The protagonist is evil from the get-go, and he doesn't let anybody off easily when they oppose his wishes. Somewhere in another superhero universe, "Superman" should be worried.

John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
(2019)

Wicked John At Work!!!
Least we appear animals, much ado is made about rules in the slam-bang threequel "John Wick Chapter 3 - Parabellum," with Keanu Reeves reprising his role as the fearless gunman whose rampage arose after a gangster shot his puppy to death. This bullet-riddled, melodramatic trilogy about a vengeful retired hitman wronged by his former accomplices seems like the last place where anybody would abide by rules. The international underworld depicted in this second globe-trotting entry maintains an inflexible code of rules. For example, a prestigious Continental Hotel operates in virtually every country and serves as much as a safehouse for criminals as a mode of accommodation. Comparably, these Continentals resemble foreign embassies because each provides safe refuge for criminals. Specifically, Continental Hotels forbid gunplay on the premises between members of any crime families. Violating the sanctity of a Continental Hotel means immediate excommunication. Excommunication means you die. If you missed the first two "John Wick" shoot'em ups, you would be surprised by the magnitude of this criminal code. Director Chad Stahelski, who helmed the original "John Wick" as well as the sequel "John Wick: Chapter 2," spends more time on this code and its consequences. Marginally longer than the previous entries, the third outing makes room for an adjudicator. This imperious personage scrutinizes the facts, judges everybody implicated, and arbitrates an outcome. Nevertheless, despite these loquacious interludes, "John Wick 3" still delivers high-octane, adrenalin-laced action scenes with pugnacious adversaries. Halle Berry joins Keanu Reeves as a gun-toting dame with two vicious, crotch-munching canines. Fans of the earlier epics should be gratified considering the astronomical high body count, the acrobatic close-quarters combat choreography, and our charismatic hero's resilience. Of course, little of this aggressive, over-the-top actioneer qualifies as remotely plausible, but it makes for cathartic, larger-than-life entertainment!

"John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum" opens during the final moments of "John Wick: Chapter 2." Our drenched but well-dressed hero and his faithful dog jog through the rainswept streets of Manhattan. Even the homeless know about John Wick's predicament. Pausing for a breather in an alley, Wick spots a homeless man (Jason Mantzoukas of "Neighbors") who taps his wristwatch and says: "Tick Tock!" Suspense rears its ugly head early as we are reminded repeatedly about the few remaining minutes until 6 PM when Wick's excommunication commences. Meantime, every greedy soul is drooling over the prospect of the $14 million 'open contract' payday on Wick's scalp. Our hero looks worried, too. Wick packs his dog off to the Continental via taxi, while he hoofs it to the New York Public Library. No, Keanu isn't on screen for every minute of this threequel's 130-minute running time. Those bespectacled, tattooed secretaries at the High Table Headquarters who type documents and slap ink stamps on them provide updates. The Underworld constitutes big business, with its own peculiar laws and its own watch-dog agencies. The high-brow Adjudicator (newcomer Asia Kate Dillon) marches into the fray. She takes names and levies penalties. John Wick isn't the only one with something to dread in this installment. The Adjudicator reprimands both Winston (Ian McShane of "Deadwood") and Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne of "The Matrix") for giving aid and comfort to John Wick. Remember, King gave John seven bullets and a pistol, while Winston gave him an hour to flee before loosening an army of executioners. The Adjudicator conscripts a nimble-fingered, sushi-chef/contract killer, Zero (world renowned Martial Artist Mark Dacascos of "Cradle 2 the Grave") to dispense punishment. Everything starts out without a hint about the rollercoaster ride ahead for audiences and some of the surprising narrative twists.

Not everybody is content to accommodate the deadline. No sooner has our hero arrived at the New York Public Library than a familiar adversary confronts him. This is the first glimpse of what lies ahead. A contract killer has staked out the stacks, and he dwarfs John Wick in both size and stature. Our hero disposes of this dastard with a thick book. Although he is still fond of the double-tap head shot, Wick doesn't always have pistol at hand to vanquish his enemies. His clash with a gang of chop-socky Asians turns into a blizzard of flying knives. Later, Wick proves he is every bit as dangerous with a hatchet. At one point, he hurls a hatchet halfway across a room, and the somersaulting blade sinks into an enemy's skull. Wick can sling knives with the best of them, too. Our hero shuns automobiles in favor of a horse. Some lighter moments occurs when Wick slaps a horse on the rump, and the animal whips a hind leg back like a catapult to deck an unsuspecting gunman. Wicks contends with several Asians on motorcycles bristling with traditional samurai Shinogi-Zukuri katanas. All these close-quarters combat scenes are staged with as little CGI as possible. The physical violence seems almost kinetic at times. Wick slams into his enemies, toppling them, and wrestling their weapons away from them. As impeccable as always, Wick emerges from each fracas without any damage to his suit.

Director Chad Stahelski and scenarists Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, and Marc Abrams plunge even deeper into John Wick's shadowy origins. Wick appeals for help from an old friend, a ballet director (Anjelica Huston of "The Addams Family"), who knew him before he emigrated to America. Wicks' roots can be traced back to Eastern Europe. Happily, our hero crosses the Atlantic Ocean without incident and reaches the shores of Casablanca. Wick calls on Sofia (Halle Berry of "Die Another Day"), to honor a marker owed him, but she isn't happy to see him again. Nevertheless, she ushers him into the presence of a prominent member of the High Table to atone for his sins. Although she isn't in "John Wick 3" more than a quarter hour, Sofia and her two canine ice almost as many adversaries as our hero, and she makes an unforgettable impression. "John Wick 3" orchestrates even more outlandish escapades than its exhilarating predecessors.

Never Grow Old
(2019)

John Cusack Surpasses Himself As The Villain in "Never Grow Old"
Irish writer & director Ivan Kavanagh's town-tamer western "Never Grow Old" contains the elements of classic oaters, among them "Canyon Passage," "Shane," "The Searchers," "A Fistful of Dollars," "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," "Pale Rider," "Silverado," and "Unforgiven." Kavanagh's sixth feature retools traditional western tropes for maximum dramatic impact. Trendy during the 1930s, Hollywood cranked out hundreds of white-hat versus black-hat, morality lessons, with clean-cut cowboys, mustached bad guys, soiled dove saloon girls, and straight-shooting heroes. The Western matured in the 1950s, and heroes and villains became more complicated. Gregory Peck worried about what his reputation had done to him in "The Gunfighter" (1950). The Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s and 1970s escalated body counts and launched Clint Eastwood. In the cynically titled "Never Get Old," the wide-open spaces are obscure. The sun rarely shines. Life amounts to a hopeless struggle against overwhelming odds from sunrise to sunset.

Kavanagh doesn't paint the Old West in warm, romantic colors as an Eden in the wilderness. This stark, gruesome, Gothic-oriented epic takes place in the Great Northwest, where the Alan Ladd classic "Shane" (1953) was lensed. The story occurs not long after The Mexican War (1846-1848), but before the American Civil War (1861-1865). The U.S. Cavalry has dispersed all Native Americans. A fire & brimstone clergyman, Preacher Pike (Danny Webb of "Crow") banishes liquor, gambling, and prostitution from the town of Garlow. Peace settles for a season as Pike dictates municipal policy with the Christian Temperance Union. The town's revenue streams dry out, and the economy withers. Three depraved ruffians ride into Garlow searching for a treacherous cohort. They wrestle control of the town from the histrionic Pike. The preacher condemns them with hellfire for serving liquor, shipping in prostitutes, and resuming gambling. Afterward, mud, blood, and beer mingle in the streets, and the body count rises with frequent regularity. In this R-rated shoot'em up, nobody is immune to murder. The townspeople are craven. The victims are innocent lambs. The villains are ferocious wolves. Only bad things happen. As with all westerns, "Never Grow Old" relies on a venerable formula from start to finish to generate suspense about the outcome. Kavanagh's grim, unsavory depiction of the Old West resembles "Bone Tomahawk" with its cathartic violence. Nobody suffers enough, and the villains are just as liable to fateful intervention. Kavanagh gives us a glimpse of the frontier that is believable. You can starve to death here. Mountains may not sprawl in every shot, but the sheer sense of isolation is devastating.

Cast as Irishman Patrick Tate, Emile Hirsch doesn't qualify as your quintessential, towering, ten-gallon, hero. Neither cowboy nor farmer, Patrick serves as the town's carpenter and undertaker. Most of the time, we see him hammering together coffins and burying the dead. Wed to a French wife, Patrick is a former Catholic who has converted his family to a mainstream denomination owing to harsh religious intolerance. Basically, Patrick occupies the fringe where the discriminating WASP majority keeps him at arms-length. Not only does his Irish heritage make him an outsider, but also it doesn't endear him to these inflexible, holier-than-thou, hypocrites. Although Patrick attends Preacher Pike's church, he remembers better days fondly when sin brought in more bucks. The waning economy prompts him to persuade his wife, Audrey (Déborah François of "Unmade Beds"), that perhaps they should leave. Originally, they had planned to settle in California, but found themselves sidetracked in Garlow. Audrey refuses to uproot their family. She treasures the tranquility. Moreover, she is pregnant.

One dark, stormy evening, a trio of the Devil's spawn enters Garlow and plunges the town into chaos. Surprisingly enough, romantic comedy heartthrob John Cusack surpasses himself as a homicidal hellion with a tour-de-force performance. Memorably despicable in every respect, Christopher Dutch Albert (John Cusack of "Grosse Pointe Blank") looms as a loquacious, larger-than-life adversary. He maintains a menacing, low-key delivery throughout "Never Grow Old," and his dialogue sounds like Elmore Leonard penned it. Dutch goads people. He manipulates Patrick with his charismatic personality and encourages him to act against his own best interests. After he learns Patrick is the town undertaker, Dutch sets out to establish a stronger alliance. Patrick accommodates Dutch, because it is the lesser of two evils.

Patrick makes a convincing but sympathetic hero. He dodges confrontation. Ironically, when commerce picks up, Patrick finds himself in a rewarding position. As the villains pander to the townspeople, more of them die in gunfights, and Patrick is paid more to plant more. Several times, we watch Patrick dig up the strongbox where he stashes his wealth. Patrick probably never heard of Faust, but he has forged a Faustian deal with Dutch. Audrey shames Patrick for his new-found prosperity. He tries to distance himself from Dutch. Dutch badgers Patrick about being his friend. Indeed, Dutch praises Patrick's honesty and wonders idly if they can be friends. Were this not enough, Patrick worries about Audrey's safety. Dutch's right-hand thug, a vulgar cretin named Dumb-Dumb (Sam Louwyck of "The Bouncer"), lusts after Audrey after he meets her in the General Store. Dumb-Dumb is a repellent specimen of humanity. According to Dutch, Comanches cut out Dumb-Dumb's tongue. Now, the cretin totes the severed piece around as a souvenir of his encounter. Dumb-Dumb amuses himself by sticking the fragment into his lips and wiggling it at people. Patrick hates Dumb-Dumb, and he knows Audrey is scared to death of him. One day, while Patrick is away from home, Dumb-Dumb sneaks onto the premises to pay Audrey a surprise visit. The suspense grows unbearable, but the outcome will startle you.

"Never Grow Old" ranks as a minor western masterpiece. John Cusack makes a terrific villain. Lensed on location in Ireland, this European western oozes with atmosphere. Writer & director Ivan Kavanagh has fashioned a worthwhile western. The haunting imagery of insane Preacher Pike on his knees in front of Dutch's saloon wreathed with flames against the night sky makes an incredibly apocalyptic impression!

The Black Windmill
(1974)

A Disappointing Kidnap Thriller
"Dirty Harry" director Don Siegel's first European thriller "The Black Windmill" qualifies as an above-average kidnap yarn, with Michael Caine toplining the cast as an MI6 Agent whose single-minded efforts to rescue his son places suspicion on him. Nevertheless, this adaptation of Clive Eglerton's "Seven Days to a Killing" suffers from mundanity. Despite Siegel's astute staging of various scenes, everything in "Crossplot" scenarist Leigh Vance's screenplay unfolds with neither urgency nor spontaneity. Essentially, this looks like every other cinematic kidnapping caper, except the father is later implicated by the kidnappers. Tensions rise between Tarrant and his immediate superior, Cedric Harper (a mustached Donald Pleasance of "Halloween"), to the extent that Harper suspects Tarrant may have planned the abduction himself. After all, Harper knows Tarrant has separated from his wife ex-wife Alex (Janet Suzman of "Nicholas and Alexandra") as their divorce is pending. Furthermore, Harper observes to Tarrant that the latter doesn't show any palatable sense of loss by the snatching of his son. Tarrant regards Harper with incredulity and points out that he has been trained not to display emotions. This doesn't stop Harper from putting Scotland Yard Chief Superintend Wray (Joss Ackland of "Lethal Weapon 2") on Tarrant's trail. A sinister Irishman named McKee (John Vernon of "Charley Varrick"), working with a shady lady, Ceil Burrows (Delphine Seyrig of "Last Year at Marienbad"), set the ransom at $500,000 in uncut diamonds. When they contact Tarrant, they refer to themselves simply as Drabble, and ask that Harper be available when they call again. As it turns out, McKee knows that Harper heads MI6's "The Department of Subversive Warfare." Harper amassed this amount to fund mercenary activities. Later, we learn one of Harper's own superiors at MI6, Sir Julyan (Joseph O'Conor), needed more money desperately to accommodate his beauty young wife, Lady Melissa Julyan (Catherine Schell of "On Her Majesty's Secret Service") and her lavish lifestyle. When Tarrant learns Harper isn't going to let him use the diamonds to gain the release of his son, our hero takes them behind their back, and travels to Paris to negotiate.

Meantime, "Windmill" takes place in a more realistic setting for MI6 than shares more in common with John le Carré's espionage epics than Ian Fleming's Bonds. For example, all the secretaries are older ladies, and there is a conspicuous lack of technology. The buildings housing the organization look old, without an immaculate cleanness. One scene shows Major John Tarrant (Michael Caine of "The Ipcress File") being shown how to handle an explosive suitcase. This scene looks straight out of a 007 opus with Q demonstrating to Bond his latest technological development. The difference is this device looks something you'd pick up at a second-hand shop.

Contrived as it is, "The Black Windmill" goes through all the motions, but none of its set-pieces are extraordinary. The chief blame must lay at the feet of Leigh Vance. The kidnapping conspiracy is muddled, and we can never figure out how it came about. None of the action scenes are very exciting. Don Siegel rarely made misfires like "The Black Windmill."

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