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The Courier
(2020)

Behind the Cuban Missile Crisis
Sometimes, the most extraordinary people are the most ordinary. For example, take real-life English businessman Greville Wynne. British Intelligence approached this civilian with an audacious proposition to act as a courier between MI6 and one of their greatest undercover assets, a high-ranking GRU Colonel in Soviet Intelligence who had access to confidential material. "Hallowed Crown" BBC mini-series director Dominic Cooke and "The Hitman's Bodyguard" scenarist Tom O'Connor have chronicled Wynne's brief career in "The Courier" as a go-between behind the Iron Curtain. Mind you, Greville looked nothing like James Bond. Heavily mustached and hopelessly out of shape, Wynne imbibed more alcohol than necessary. Furthermore, he looked so nondescript you could pass him on the street and never give him a second glance. When MI6 recruits him, they are searching for an inconspicuous salesman who won't attract attention. Initially, such an offer captivates Greville, but he thinks twice before he accepts it. One of the reasons that changed his mind is the prospect that the Soviets might rain down their nuclear arsenal on England, and everybody from Greville's wife to his son Andrew would die without enough body parts to justify a coffin. The threat of a nuclear holocaust dangled like the Sword of Damocles over not only his homeland but also his family. As it turns out, Greville played a key role in the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis that pitted the two superpowers-the United States and the Soviet Union-in what could have been a nuclear Armageddon. If you saw Roger Donaldson's "Thirteen Days" (2000) with Kevin Costner, this superb saga chronicled the political showdown between U. S. President John F. Kennedy and feisty Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in October of 1962.

Although it eschews martinis shaken but not stirred and gravity-defying martial-arts acrobatics, "The Courier" is still a nerve-racking ordeal from start to finish, and the filmmakers don't tamper with the historical details as they might have. This PG-13 thriller never runs out of suspense during its gripping 112-minute runtime. The performances and attention to atmosphere make it a splendid addition to other realistic British espionage epics in the mold of John Le Carre's bestsellers that became notable movies like "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" (1965) and "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" (2011). Benedict Cumberbatch, star of the BBC-TV's "Sherlock" and "Dr. Strange" in the Marvel/Disney franchise, toplines as the gregarious Greville, and the role allows Cumberbatch to alter his appearance, so he looks like nobody special. Of course, Wynne has considerable trepidation about his new venture. He fears he may be caught, imprisoned, and perhaps even face a firing squad. Repeatedly, spymaster Dickie Franks (Angus Wright of "Cutthroat Island") and CIA liaison Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan of "Beautiful Creatures") assure him he'll never arouse Soviet suspicions.

Eventually, when he meets his Soviet contact, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze of "Hostages"), the Russian allays Greville's anxieties about capture. Oleg points out to Greville that he isn't technically a spy since he won't know the secrets he is smuggling from East to West. Nevertheless, Greville doesn't share Oleg's confidence. He is dismayed when he cannot discuss his extracurricular activities with his wife, Sheila (Jessie Buckley of "Beast"), and this exacerbates their domestic discord. Apparently, Greville committed a marital indiscretion in the past and neither Sheila nor he have resolved the problem. Suffice to say, Sheila suspects Greville is cheating on her again, but this time in faraway Moscow.

Oleg coaches Greville about the propriety of their relationship in public. He warns the British salesman that Soviet Intelligence will keep him under constant surveillance. Furthermore, the KGB will search his hotel rooms, while bellhops and custodians will keep track of his activities. Greville is told everybody in the Soviet Union serves as the KGB's eyes and ears. He must never say anything in public because the KGB has lip-readers, and he should always take his cues from Oleg. They attend Soviet cultural events, like the ballet, and Oleg introduces him to his wife and daughter. However, Greville cannot join them at supper because the Soviets prohibit foreigners from dining in the homes of their subjects. However, Greville accommodates Oleg when he appears as a part of the Soviet trade delegation in London. He invites Oleg to dine with his family. Eventually, an inquisitive KGB Inspector, Gribanov (Kirill Pirogov of "Dark Planet"), visits Oleg at his office and questions him at length about Greville. Oleg assures Gribanov that Greville is obsessed primarily with economics rather than political ideology. Gribanov admits that he has perused all of Oleg's reports about the Briton.

The turning point comes when MI6 wants to pull Greville from the field. By this time, Greville has grown accustomed to the KGB's scrutiny. Someday, he knows Oleg plans to defect with his family and relocate to Montana. Suddenly, MI6 and the CIA show a complete lack of remorse about Oleg's fate. Of course, Greville could have walked away from the intrigue and its dangers, but his camaraderie with Oleg prompts him to return to Moscow. Greville tells them Oleg would never abandon him in the field, and he refuses to abandon Oleg. This represents a palatable change in Greville's attitude, compared to when he feared getting arrested. "The Courier" is a personal story based on actual events. Nothing genuinely alarming occurs in the plot until the final half hour. "The Courier" is largely a character driven drama. No innocent bystanders clutter up the predicaments, but the KGB looms as an inexorable adversary. Ultimately, "The Courier" achieves significance because it covers the earliest stages of the impending Cuban Missile Crisis. Signs that Khrushchev sought to place missiles in Cuba to counter U. S. missiles in Turkey came from Oleg's messages Greville sneaked back to MI6. Their combined undercover work gave the CIA enough of a heads up to prepare for this contingency. They changed history, and therein lays their importance. Indeed, you'll get carried away by "The Courier" and its inspirational history.

Trigger Point
(2021)

"Trigger Point" Delivers Thrills and Chills
The success of "The Bourne Identity" epics with Matt Damon, the "Taken" thrillers with Liam Neeson, and the "John Wick" bullet ballets with Keanu Reeves has 'inspired' Hollywood to spawn hundreds of knockoffs. Veteran television director Brad Turner's nimble, no-nonsense, neo-noir shoot'em up "Trigger Point," a synthesis of these box office hits, qualifies as one of the better clones. Clocking in at a rapid fire 83 minutes, "Trigger Point" has no superfluous dialogue, scenes, and characters. Turner and "Warriors of Virtue" writer Michael Vickerman have appropriated all the usual cliches, characters, and quandaries and repackaged them with sufficient flair. Movies that stay one-step ahead of you at every turn focus your attention, and "Trigger Point" keeps its flashbacks to a minimal. Our disgraced government spook, Nicolas Shaw (Barry Pepper of "Saving Private Ryan") has gone to ground. Like Bourne, Shaw suffers from amnesia. Shaw's amnesia is partial rather than complete. He was captured and grilled about the identities of several fellow 'Agency' operatives. Presumably, 'the Agency' is the CIA. Anyway, Shaw babbled names, and an anonymous assassin shot these agents dead on the spot. Although they couldn't break our hero with torture, interrogators loosened his tongue with sodium thiopental. Now, Shaw has been branded a traitor. Some want him on a slab, while others want what he knows about a ghost codenamed Quentin, a boogeyman at the center of the conspiracy in "Trigger Point." Incidentally, the title "Trigger Point" seems apt. Shaw struggles with psychological stress, and his memory loss exacerbates it, particularly about Quentin. Like ex-CIA agent Bryan Mills in the "Taken" movies, Shaw is the best. When it comes to accuracy, Shaw's aim rivals John Wick's with an automatic. Later, Shaw improvises a weapon out of plumbing pieces like TV's "MacGyver" might!

"Trigger Point" grabs your attention from the get-go. Four people are gunned down in rapid succession in different public places: a parking garage, a park bench, in a building, and on a dark street corner. Eventually, we learn eight people rather than four died. Each took a slug or two without warning. One pleaded to know who blew his cover. A diabolical dame decked out in black from her Stetson cowboy hat to her shiny boots whacked them without a qualm. Director Brad Turner doesn't dwell on their demises. This snappy gunplay propels "Trigger Point" off to a smoking start. Gunfire constitutes most of the violence. People get perforated, occasionally with a blood spurt. About a year later, the scene shifts to a rural country setting. Nicolas Shaw lives in a farmhouse that amounts to his own Fortress of Solitude. Rambo would crave Shaw's surveillance cams and his concealed armaments closet. At one point, Shaw launches a drone to scrutinize his surroundings. In a nearby small town, Shaw adopts an alias. Everybody knows him as 'Louis.' The café waitress knows what he prefers. Louis treats everybody like a friend, especially a solicitous older lady who runs a quaint bookstore. Anybody would kill to live in this amiable hamlet. The sheriff spends more time fishing than writing tickets. Imagine Louis' chagrin when he learns somebody, Dwight Logan (Carlo Rota of "The Boondock Saints"), has been circulating his photo around town and making inquiries.

Of course, Louis takes Logan hostage and smokes out his higher-up. As it turns out, Logan's boss, Elias Kane (Colm Feore of "Face/Off"), was also his own superior. Kane whittled down places Louis might have gone into hiding. Shrewdly, Kane dispatched Logan to lure Louis out into the open. Kane and Louis sit down at an empty restaurant. Kane assures Louis he is sympathetic. "Most of your friends want you dead more than your enemies." Kane informs Louis that his daughter, Monica Kane (Eve Harlow of "Juno"), has gone missing after she went after Quentin. "She's hell-bent on finding out who's behind these assassinations." Monica was involved romantically with one of the eight dead agents. She found a lead on who set up both Louis and her father. Kane reminds Louis he is the only person who knows Quentin's real identity. Meantime, Monica suspects the data is stored on a digital file. Eventually, Louis and Kane discover Monica is being held hostage at a sprawling greenhouse called "the Orchard." Louis rescues her after he wipes out more than 17 sentries. Abruptly, treacherous Monica tries to double-cross him, but he outsmarts her. She catches a slug in her side from the sentries during their departure. Removing the bullet, Louis patches Monica up. Out of ammo with more sentries in hot pursuit, Louis creates a single-shot weapon from a section of a kitchen sink pipe, kills one sentry, and scrounges the dead man's machine gun in an example of battlefield salvage and dispatches the other two without breaking a sweat! This scene boasts the biggest body count and puts Louis into the same league with John Wick for most kills.

Typically, Barry Pepper plays secondary characters, so it's a change to see him cast as the protagonist. After all the trouble he must contend with, Louis trusts nobody and takes nothing for granted. Moreover, he shoots first and asks questions later. Interestingly, Turner and Vickerman take time out to make Louis/Nicolas appear sympathetic in spite of his bloodletting spree. Trapping a mommy cat on his property, Louis hands her over to a veterinarian who is surprised he didn't poison the feline. Furthermore, not only is Louis glacial under gunfire, but he also makes every shot count. Sinister looking Colm Feore, with his skull-faced Toulouse-Lautrec profile, makes an unusual ally for Pepper. Meantime, since the late 1980s, the prolific Turner has perfected his craft helming over a 100 television series episodes, ranging from "Airwolf" to Kiefer Sutherland's "24" to "The Transporter," The Shannara Chronicles, and the new "Hawaii 5-0." Critical reaction to "Trigger Point" hasn't been congenial, but this breathlessly paced, surefire shoot'em up neither wears out its welcome nor lets our hero off the hook for a single second!

You Belong to Me
(2021)

Inspired by Sting's Police Hit Single???
English actor Sam Claflin of "The Hunger Games" chews the scenery as a charming psycho in "Terminal" director Vaughn Stein's "Every Breath You Take," a clever but ultimately contrived psychological potboiler. Oscar winning actor Casey Affleck of "Manchester by the Sea" stars as Philip Clark, a psychiatrist distressed about the suicide of a patient and her brother who sets out to destroy not only Philip's family but also his career. Superficially, Stein and freshman writer David Murray may have drawn on Sting's classic "Police" single about his mental breakdown after his first marriage collapsed. According to the Internet Movie Database, "Every Breath You Take" was penned originally for Harrison Ford and Zac Efron, but the production floundered in cinematic limbo for nine years starting in 2012. Moreover, its original title "You Belong to Me" differed from "Every Breath You Take." Whether the filmmakers took their cues from Sting's song is debatable, though the song's haunting lyrics epitomize the stalking villain. If you approach "Every Breath You Take" with low expectations, you might wind up in its web of intrigue and deception. The gifted cast deserves far better than they get from this R-rated, 106-minute melodrama that controls 'everything we see.' If you scrutinize it, chances are you may spot the fly in the ointment. Otherwise, the twists and turns in this above average epic may make you cringe if you missed the incriminating clue after it was laid before your eyes with conspicuous simplicity. Indeed, the filmmakers divert your attention enough until you realize the villain's mind games lack the sophistication of Stein and Murray. Happily, the filmmakers resist the urge to indulge themselves in gratuitous pyrotechnics, and they maintain a modicum of credibility with their admirable restraint.

"Every Breath You Take" opens with the bearded and bespectacled Dr. Philip Clark at a conference touting his latest success with a patient who had lost all hope of recovery from her anxieties. At the time, it didn't bother Clark that he had crossed a clear ethical boundary during his sessions with Daphne (Emily Alyn Lind of "Doctor Sleep") to gain her confidence and wean her off three psychotropic medications. Presumably, real-life psychiatrists would roll their eyes at Clark's questionable behavior. Nevertheless, after sharing his own personal tragedies with her, Clark managed to turn Daphne around, and she regained control over her life. No sooner has Dr. Clark celebrated his success than he learns to his horror Daphne has committed suicide. She killed herself after she learned a friend had been killed in a hit & run accident. Nobody could be more devastated by Daphne's suicide than Clark, except perhaps Daphne's prodigal brother James Flagg (Sam Claflin) from England. Flagg's opportune arrival seems entirely too convenient to overlook without suspicion. He shows up after the rain as the authorities have bagged Daphne's body. Dr. Clark intervenes to console Flagg. Later, Flagg appears at Clark's palatial residence to offer his gratitude for everything that Philip did for Daphne. He meets Philip's wife Grace (Michelle Monaghan of "The Craft: Legacy"), and their woebegone daughter Lucy (India Eisley of "Kite"), and Grace invites Flagg to dine with them. The subtlety with which Stein and Murray embark on their narrative leads you to believe "Every Breath You Take" will amount to something more compelling than an episodic Lifetime Channel domestic tragedy.

Meantime, the cracks appear gradually as Flagg ingratiates himself with the family. Before Flagg's arrival, our hero and heroine had been dealing with Lucy's expulsion from a private school. Caught snorting cocaine in the school's science lab, Lucy was kicked out. Now, she struggles to begin her life anew under the imperious eyes of her parents and suffers the fate of a social pariah owing to her narcotic notoriety. She starts sneaking off with James, and they become involved in a romantic relationship because he represents an escape from her oppressive parents. Simultaneously, the Dean of the University Psychology Department, Dr. Vanessa Fanning (Veronica Ferres of "Crisis"), receives anonymous letters which not only impugn Clark's reputation but also demand his resignation. Naturally, Clark is suspicious about the unnamed letter writer as well as Dr. Fanning's frigid impersonality. Fanning squirms uncomfortably during this encounter because Philip and Grace are long-time family friends. Nevertheless, Fanning is required to follow protocol when allegations of misconduct arise. Meanwhile, not only is James having an illicit relationship with Clark's daughter, but he has also lured Grace into his amorous arms. Since Grace sells real estate, Flagg engages her services to sell Daphne's house. Juggling both Grace and Lucy, with neither the wiser, Flagg closes in on Philip with a vengeance. Moreover, he has needled certain details out of both Grace and Lucy that enables him to play them against each other.

Little more than half way through "Every Breath You Take," you can see James Flagg is similar to the psychotic maniacs Robert De Niro played in movies like "Taxi Driver" (1976) and "The Fan" (1996). At the same time, Philip grows increasingly suspicious about Flagg, and he searches for an obscure novel that Flagg had written in England. When Philip cannot locate Flagg's novel, he asks Dr. Fanning's husband Stuart (Vincent Gale of "Firewall") to find it. Meantime, James Flagg has Grace and Lucy both eating out of his insidious hands. Philip confronts the dire possibility of being disgraced and sacked. As the evidence piles up, our protagonist loses credibility in Dr. Fanning's eyes, while he watches in futility as his family crumbles. Mind you, Stein and Murray shove all of these shenanigans down our collective throats with ease, and James Flagg emerges as a mendacious predator who exploits Grace and Lucy without a qualm.

Altogether, "Every Breath You Take" stumbles ineptly during its final quarter hour after revelations about Flagg's identity surface. Revelations which nobody could have imagined except the filmmakers. Nevertheless, Claflin's audacious performance and his shrewd manipulation of Philip's family makes this film tolerably amusing nonsense from fade-in until fadeout.

Gun Fever
(1958)

Interesting Low-Budget Oater with a Bang!
"Gun Fever" reminded me of what might qualify as a pre-Spaghetti style western. The villainous Trench reminded me of Italian actor Livio Lorenzon, and Trench had all the earmarks of a laughing Spaghetti western outlaw. Larry Storch of "F-Troop" fame made a fantastically nasty Mexican. I've never seen him like this. One of John Lupton better roles as a conflicted son suffering from lung illness. His tragic character called to mind Doc Holiday. I cannot figure out if he lived because everybody was smiling at each other at the end. Mark Stevens got his money out of the wind machine. That was the windiest (not in dialogue) western I've ever seen. It made the campfire scenes different because you know that they were probably on a sound stage. Most of this revenge-themed looked like it was lensed outside a studio with few interiors. Trench had an interesting way of wearing his six-shooters on the front of his thighs. All told, "Gun Fever" ranks as an above-average, serious as all get out, black & white western. Any time a son sets out to kill his no-account father, that's heavyweight material. The wild kid who served as Trench's sentry atop the mountain looked like a Spaghetti western hero. The only scene I didn't like was the Indian wife going to skinny dip in the river or lake. I liked the laconic dialogue. This western knew when to leave something hanging. If it were a Spaghetti western, Trench would have assembled an army and his stronghold would be the final arena for half of the stunt men in Spain and Italy. I have several Mark Stevens' movies, but this is my first with him behind as well as in front of the camera.

The Virtuoso
(2021)

Deadlier Than The Male
When was the last time something didn't work out the way you planned it? The lead character in writer & director Nick Stagliano's polished but predictable crime thriller "The Virtuoso" is a lone assassin whose conscience haunts him. Sadly, things don't augur well for our anonymous anti-hero who abhors making a mess of anything. Not only does his conscience bug him, but it also lands him in the crosshairs of rival assassins. Anson Mount of AMC's western cable series "Hell on Wheels" (2011-2016) delivers a stoic performance as the addled assassin. You know a movie is in trouble when its protagonist is too sympathetic for his own good. Moreover, everybody comes gunning for him. Listed in the credits simply as 'The Virtuoso," our generic anti-hero knows enough about his risky business to survive despite several close calls. Anybody who has seen the vintage Charles Bronson movie "The Mechanic" (1968) is acquainted with all the usual storytelling tropes. Our central character tangles with three other lethal killers just as disciplined and dangerous. Clocking in at a palatable 110 minutes, this methodical, R-rated, anatomy of an assassin generates enough intrigue to keep your mind off the time. After all, Mr. Virtuoso knew what he was getting himself into when he became an assassin for hire. Two-time Oscar-winning Best Actor Anthony Hopkins plods into and out of this potboiler, but his presence is no less hypnotic in spite of its brevity. Hopkins delivers an unforgettable monologue that could have been in a serious film about Vietnam like Oliver Stone's "Platoon" (1986). Veteran actors such as David Morse, Eddie Marsan, and Abbie Cornish surround Mount and Hopkins, and nobody gives a bad performance.

"The Virtuoso" shows early potential. We witness our lone assassin make two incredible shots. He kills an unsavory ruffian in bed with a prostitute. She escapes with his blood on her, but not before she loots his pockets. Stagliano and scenarist James C. Wolf often let this enigmatic killer share his innermost thoughts with a play-by-play commentary about the perils of his profession. Stagliano uses this voice-over narration because Mr. Virtuoso isn't given to loquacity. Our nameless protagonist lives alone, like Charles Bronson in "The Mechanic" (1972) and stays 'off the grid' like Tom Cruise in "Jack Reacher" (2012) and "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back" (2016). Secluding himself from society, he has no friends and resides in the woods. He gives food for a white dog that visits him at his cabin. The only person he trusts is his late father's friend who served alongside him in Vietnam. Although he performs his first assigned hit without a flaw, owing to good intel and precise planning, our assassin's luck changes. Tasked with an impossible timetable, Virtuoso has a 48-hour window of opportunity to liquidate an unscrupulous company executive. At the last minute, his best-laid plans go awry when innocent bystanders blunder into his killing zone. He shoots at the executive as the guy is speeding toward him along a city street in a red Mercedes. Virtuoso calculated his bullet would make the Mercedes swerve left rather than right. Instead of crashing headlong into a building, the executive slams into a curbside motorhome and dies in a blazing inferno. Meantime, the son watches in paralyzed horror as flames envelop his mom. The image of a woman wreathed in fire sears itself into Virtuoso's conscience.

Later, at the cemetery, where his father is buried, Virtuoso is surprised when the Mentor (Anthony Hopkins of "Silence of the Lambs") appears without warning. Since he hasn't answered his cell phone, Virtuoso suspects the Mentor is annoyed with him. Initially, the Mentor reminds him that collateral damage is a constant liability. He recounts a memory when Virtuoso's father and he piled out of a chopper in Vietnam and participated in a massacre of innocent men, women, and children. They acted like good soldiers and followed orders without question. When a movie cannot depict obscene violence, the filmmakers resort to disturbing dialogue. You feel chills as the Mentor describes the moral quandary he found himself in with orders to murder unarmed civilians. Now, he dreads the prospect that his best friend's son may have lost his nerve. The Mentor arranges a new assignment for him in upstate New York. A mysterious antagonist nicknamed "White River" is his target. Virtuoso cruises a local restaurant for leads before he checks into the town's only motel. He narrows his enigmatic quarry down to four suspects: an amorous waitress (Abbie Cornish of "Geostorm"), a gruff Deputy Sheriff (David Morse of "The Rock"), a local yokel, 'Handsome' Johnnie (Richard Brake of "3 from Hell"), and a hard-bitten Loner (Eddie Marsan of "Wrath of Man"), with a gun bulging in a shoulder holster under his jacket.

Those who crave neo-noir crime thrillers will eventually smell a rat in this ruckus. Virtuoso whittles down a list of suspects. He kills one guy, staging his death like a burglary gone bad, and slips a Mickey Finn into another's liquor when the fellow isn't looking. The message is clear. Trust nobody. Indeed, the moment you relax your vigilance, some savvy adversary will terminate you with extreme prejudice. The last-minute revelation about Virtuoso's target is a humdinger. Nevertheless, everything Virtuoso has been babbling about in his interior monologues suggests he may not be as sharp a shooter as we have been led to believe. Everybody is expendable in "The Virtuoso," so this amoral melodrama may frustrate spectators who want a winner to emerge triumphant at fadeout. Eventually, the suspense that gradually intensifies near the end suddenly flatlines, and the big surprise leaves a bitter taste. "The Virtuoso" boasts top-notch production values and looks better than the average, run-of-the-mill, indie film. Clearly, Hopkins is the best thing about it, but he isn't around long enough, while Stagliano does stage some suspenseful shootouts. Alas, you may feel like you've wasted your time with "The Virtuoso" because things don't work out for him.

Wrath of Man
(2021)

Top-Notch Action Remake of the French Original
British writer & director Guy Ritchie ranks as one of the undisputed masters of crime movies, and "Wrath of Man" lives up to his reputation both for its violent R-rated bloodbaths and its stoic action star Jason Statham. Statham reminds me of tough guy superstar Charles Bronson with his Neanderthal looks and his ripped physique. This gritty armored car robbery & revenge caper marks the fourth time Ritchie and Statham have collaborated since "Revolver" (2005), "Snatch" (2000), and "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" (1998). Unlike Martin Scorsese, our own Oscar-winning cinematic godfather of crime, who specializes in mob movies, Ritchie displays greater range and versatility. Along with his contemporary brass knuckled thrillers, like "RocknRolla" (2008) with Gerard Butler and the Matthew McConaughey marihuana melodrama "The Gentlemen" (2018), Ritchie has no problem rotating between the past, with his two Robert Downey, Jr., "Sherlock Holmes" whodunits, and the present, with his big-screen adaptation of "The Man from U. N. C. L. E." (2015). Not only does "Wrath of Man" differ because it is set on our side of the Atlantic, but it also abstains from comic antics. Composer Christopher Benstead punctuates the bullet-blasting skirmishes with an ominous orchestral score. Meantime, Statham is never less than serious, and Ritchie's nimble direction covers the basics and integrates flashbacks into the narrative. He surrounds Statham with a seasoned ensemble cast featuring Holt McCallany, Josh Hartnett, Jeffrey Donovan, and Scott Eastwood. Incidentally, "Wrath of Man" is a remake of the 2004 French thriller "Le Convoyeur," aka "Cash Truck." "Cash Truck" relied more on subtlety rather than slaughter.

You can feel the firm hand of writer & director Guy Ritchie controlling every scene and performance. A slam-bang opening gambit lays the groundwork for everything which ensues. Ritchie orchestrates the complex action with a spontaneity the feels like a tire-iron across your knuckles. Rather than indulging in his penchant for visual flair, Ritchie endows the film with a flat, industrial factuality reminiscent of Jack Webb's black & white "Dragnet" (1954), except Ritchie lenses his pyrotechnics in color. As the film unfolds, Ritchie treats the audience as stowaways in an armored car, so we're eavesdropping on the guards as they amass their monetary cargo and chat about coffee. No sooner have they headed out on their next pick-up than the driver jams on his brakes. A safety worker wearing a white hard hat and lime vest flags the armored truck to a halt as a cement mixing truck whips across the street in front of it, blocking all passage. Swiftly, the guards alert their dispatcher that they are under attack. A blow torch blazes through one wall of the armored truck and cuts a hole in it. Stripping away the seared metal, the bandits seize money satchels by the dozen and order the driver and guard at gunpoint to exit the vehicle. Moments later utter chaos shatters tranquility. Confined as we are in the truck peering out through the front windshield, we cannot catch a glimpse of any gunplay. Nevertheless, the crash of gunfire is unmistakable. Later, we learn the guards were gunned down on the spot along with an innocent bystander who was forced to lie prone on the pavement.

After this tragic opening scene, "Wrath of Man" gives us our first glimpse of Patrick Hill (Jason Statham), a quiet, solemn fellow who minds his own business. Hill saunters off the street into Fortico, a Los Angeles' armored car company, where he lands a security guard job. Hill's trainer warns him that recruits must score at least 70 percent in every category from driving to shooting. Otherwise, he must start anew again. Later, the movie flashbacks to 'five months previously,' which dominates the middle section of the action, before Ritchie resumes in the present.

Patrick Hill listens to his supervisor, Terry (Eddie Marsan of "Atomic Blonde"), as he sits across the desk from him. He maintains a blank expression. He resembles the thinker Rodan, except he doesn't prop his chin on his fist. Nothing phases Patrick. For all we know, ice water streams through his veins rather than warm blood. Later, during one of his first armored car pick-ups, Hill surprises his incredulous colleagues, Bullet (Holt McCallany of "Fight Club") and their driver Dave (Josh Hartnett of "Black Hawk Down") with his sharpshooting skills. Patrick foils a robbery alone as if he were Dirty Harry and kills all six assailants with flawlessly aimed head shots. Predictably, the Fortico owner and Hill's fellow security guards applaud Patrick when he returns from the field. Nevertheless, Hill doesn't let this praise interfere with his single-minded objective. He has embarked on a bloody crusade, and he is obsessed with achieving his objective no matter what the cost. Basically, Patrick wants to find closure in the face of a heartbreaking tragedy. Divulging further details about the complex plot and the repercussions that occur would spoil the big surprise.

Not surprisingly, comparisons are inevitable between "Wrath of Man" and director Christian Gudegast's "Den of Thieves" (2018), toplining Gerard Butler and co-starring Pablo Schreiber. Actually, the two movies share a lot in common, though "Wrath of Man" surpasses "Den of Thieves" only by a couple of hair-triggers. If you haven't seen "Den of Thieves," you've missed a treat. Butler is convincing as a loose cannon L. A. County Sheriff's Department Detective who hounds an elite crew of armored car outlaws. Like the guys in "Den of Thieves," the armored car outlaws plan their hold-ups with the surgical exactitude. They have surveilled everything of interest before they launch strike. In "Wrath of Man," the villains are brothers in their arms who served together in the same Army unit in Afghanistan. Some are just hopelessly bored with their uneventful lives, while others see crime as an avenue to lessen boredom. The ultimate surprise lurks within Patrick's inscrutable character, and it is Patrick's backstory as an 'apparent' hero that may catch audiences' off guard.

Deadlier Than the Male
(1967)

Drummond Is Back!
This polished but predictable Ralph Thomas film lives up to its title as two gorgeous bombshell babes, Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina, go about their business as assassins who seduce and kill with abandon in this elegant update of British author H. C. McNeile's Bulldog Drummond character in a James Bond knock off. Apart from those sexy sirens, "Deadlier Than the Male" owes more to Ian Fleming than McNeile in this globetrotting nonsense that never wears out its welcome. Everything depends on Sylva Koscina's character who suffers from an acute case of kleptomania. Scenarist Jimmy Sangster--better known for his Hammer horror forays--and co-scribes David D. Osborn and his wife Liz Charles-Williams have fashioned a literate, often murderous adventure involving our insurance investigator hero. Richard Johnson is perfectly cast as the urbane Richard 'Bulldog' Drummond who is as eloquent at chess as it is with martial arts. There is an interesting parking garage showdown with the combatants using wits, fists, and whatever is laying around to abet them. Too bad Johnson didn't take the Bond producers up on their offer to play 007 because he is suave enough as well as edgy enough to bring it off. The scene when he disarms a ticking time bomb while unraveling the knots that his nephew is done up in by one of the lethal maidens is exquisite. The scenery--not including the ladies--is exotic. "Deadier Than the Male" delivers!

Army of the Dead
(2021)

Viva Zombies!
Writer & director Zack Snyder is no stranger to zombie sagas. He made his cinematic directorial debut in 2004 with his inspired remake of George A. Romero's 1978 classic "Dawn of the Dead," starring Ving Rhames, Sarah Polley, and Jake Weber. Afterward, he staged his suspenseful Spartan saga "300" (2006) with Gerard Butler, and then his magnum opus "Watchmen" (2009), with Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Malin Akerman, and Patrick Wilson. Snyder followed up this seminal classic with his bizarre, animated adventure "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole" (2010), not exactly kid stuff, before he ventured farther out on a limb with a sinister shoot'em up "Sucker Punch" (2011), featuring Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, and Vanessa Hudgens. Of course, Snyder reinvented the immortal DC Comics' characters Superman and Batman in "Man of Steel" (2013), toplining Henry Cavill as the eponymous hero, and then in his notorious "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" (2016), launching Ben Affleck as the Caped Crusader, with Henry Cavill reprising his Superman role. After private tragedies forced him to withdraw from "Justice League" (2017), Marvel guru Joss Whedon finished it. Later this summer after its debut on HBO/MAX, "Zack Snyder's extended cut of Justice League" (2021) will appear on home video. Seventy-one percent of Rotten Tomatoes critics have given it positive reviews, while ninety-four percent of audiences have loved it.

Coming full circle, Snyder has returned to his roots with Netflix's "Army of the Dead," starring David Bautista. Formulaic from start to finish, this two-hour & twenty-minute zombie melodrama/ heist film is sure to assuage the cravings of bloodthirsty zombie fans. Basically, "Army of the Dead" is zombie porn about the undead munch-athon. Not surprisingly, bare-breasted zombie strippers feast on an ill-fated tourist, but thereafter Snyder doesn't keeps everybody covered up. Tough guy David Bautista assembles a team of reckless souls and plunges them into the no-man's land of Las Vegas after it has become a hot zone to retrieve $200 million from a casino bank vault. "Army of the Dead" gets off to a sturdy start as Snyder and scribes Shay Hatten and Jay Harold explain why ghouls galore overrun Sin City. Like toxic disposal movies where a barrel of chemical waste tumbles off a truck, sinks into a river, and spreads its contaminants both up and down stream, "Army" opens with a heavily armed military convoy escorting a 'top-secret' cargo. Ecstatic newlyweds having sex in their front seat crash into the flatbed military cargo truck. The impact knocks a huge locker onto the highway. Told too late to destroy it, the soldiers watch a muscular zombie smash his way out of said locker. Although they empty their automatic weapons into this resilient zombie, the fiend survives and rips them apart. Conveniently, the town nearest the outbreak is Las Vegas!

Not only does the alpha zombie who broke out without a scratch forge his own army from scratch, but he also leads his undead minions into an unsuspecting Vegas for the ultimate flesh & blood buffet. The opening twenty minutes quickly establishes the premise of zombified Vegas. Miraculously, the military stacks up a towering barrier of shipping containers around Las Vegas to thwart a zombie exodus. Medical authorities pitch a camp for suspected infected and armed sentries eyeball them. Meantime, the owner of casino, Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada of "Mr. Holmes"), refuses to let that big boodle of $200 million in loot languish. However, he doesn't have the luxury of forever, our President has ordered an imminent low-yield aerial nuke attack on Sin City. Mind you, Tanaka's insurance company has paid off his monetary losses already, since the loot is forever forfeit, because an army of zombies sits on it like a medieval dragoon. Nevertheless, greedy as only a genuine villain is, Tanaka doesn't want to lose that fortune. He approaches a short-order cook, Scott Ward (David Bautista of "Spectre"), awarded the Medal of Freedom during the zombie invasion when he rescued the Secretary of Defense, about bringing back those bucks. He offers Scott and company a $50 million payday to fetch him his oodles. Initially skeptical about such an outlandish proposal, Scott decides to take Tanaka's deal.

Scott wrangles a maven motley crew. A mechanic named Maria Cruz (Ana De La Reguera of "Nacho Libre"); a chainsaw-toting troubleshooter Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick of "Kick Ass"); a hotshot chopper pilot Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro of "Instant Family"); a crack shot Mikey Guzman (Raúl Castillo of "Unsane"), with his own YouTube channel for his zombie kills; and a goofball German safecracker Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer of "Valkyrie"), who sings like a bimbo soprano with he is scared. They descend into Sin City with a blonde coyote, Chambers (stunt woman Samantha Win), to conduct them through a virulent gauntlet. Chambers warns them that not all of the zombies are so-called 'shamblers,' and some have a modicum of intelligence. Wait, smart zombies? Indeed, the leader of these mindless maniacs is Zeus (Richard Cetrone of "Underworld"), and he is a genuine oddball. Wearing a tattered cape and a bulletproof face mask which shields the upper part of his face, Zeus rides a horse like Alexander the Great and shares his dominion with a queen, a Medusa-look alike. Snyder and company treat Zeus and his dreadful queen as a rom-com couple. Actually, "Warm Bodies" (2013) beat Rich to the punch with its romantic couple subplot. Of course, nothing goes according to plan for either Scott or Tanaka after they roll into Vegas.

Snyder dreamed up his outlandish but entertaining "Army of the Dead" premise while he was helming "Dawn of the Dead," and he has been biding his time since then to direct it. Mind you, this isn't the first zombie apocalypse to devastate Sin City. "Highlander" director Russell Mulcahy's "Resident Evil: Extinction"(2007) claims that distinction. Nevertheless, the zombie queen's severed head that lives is unforgettable! Altogether, the discouraging ending to "Army of the Dead" exacts a terrible toll on what should have amounted to mindless mayhem.

Those Who Wish Me Dead
(2021)

A Fair to Middling Angeline Jolie thriller
Good movies surprise you early and often because you're not prepared for their revelations. In a run-of-the-mill movie, you can guess what's going to happen before it occurs. Superficial films spend more time bluffing audiences than fulfilling their lame threats. "Wind River" director Tyler Sheridan's fair to middling Angeline Jolie thriller "Those Who Wish Me Dead" qualifies as a contrived, profane, R-rated actioneer. Sheridan and his scribes conjure up some clever ideas, but never enough to offset their predictable plotting. Furthermore, filmmakers who resort to events too horrible to imagine take unfair advantage of their audiences. When was the last time you saw an innocent child in a movie get shot to ribbons? Theatrical films can bluff you into believing the villains will shoot the kid, unless the urchin dies off screen. Nevertheless, audiences don't look at a movie the same after a child has been murdered. Straight-to-video releases garner more leeway in their depiction of these taboos. Moreover, when have you seen a thug threaten a pregnant woman with a red-hot poker fresh from a blazing fireplace? Nobody is going to blind an expectant mom. Instead, filmmakers hope you'll either shut your eyes or look away. "Those Who Wish Me Dead" relies on these cynical storytelling tactics. Sheridan and company confront audiences with several repugnant predicaments. Occasionally, to maintain a palatable threat level, the filmmakers sacrifice peripheral characters. When an amenable motorist stops to offer an injured assassin help, the guy guns her down and then carjacks her vehicle!

Angelina Jolie is cast as Hannah, a veteran Montana forest service firefighter & smoke jumper. She has a team like those that Josh Brolin led in "Only the Brave" (2017) who battle forest fires with guts and shovels. She is the token female, but her brawny colleagues treat her with respect and dignity. She has proven herself as one who can supervise a crew under the worse circumstances. Infallible, however, she is not. The accidental deaths of three teenagers in a fickle forest fire haunts her. The winds fueling the inferno abruptly shifted directions on her crew. Suffice to say, Hannah lost a man, and then spotted three teenagers fleeing from the blaze. She compounded her mistake when her own fear paralyzed her. She couldn't bring herself to plunge into certain death to rescue the boys. Teens stumbling through burning woods on the spur of the moment stretches credibility. None of her crew agreed with the findings of a Forest Service inquiry. As punishment, Hannah is relieved of duty and reassigned temporarily to sit in a fire tower for the summer.

Nevertheless, Hannah holds herself personally responsible for their demise, and the horrific memory eats away at her soul. She does everything she can to bolster her courage. She defies common sense and takes all kinds of risks. When we first see her, she buckles herself into a parachute harness and rides in the bed of a careening pick-up truck swerving along a forest road. As the truck gathers speed, she pulls her ripcord, and the chute catapults her backwards out of the vehicle into the sky. Although she lands safely in the woods, her ex-boyfriend, Deputy Sheriff Ethan Sawyer (Jon Bernthal of "Baby Driver"), claps her in cuffs and takes her home. Ethan doesn't charge Hannah with any crime, but he reprimands her for her foolish behavior.

Meantime, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, two ruthless assassins, Jack (Aiden Gillen of "Bohemian Rhapsody") and Patrick (Nicholas Hoult of "X-Men: Apocalypse"), posing as a fire department inspector and a gas lineman, show up at the house of the local District Attorney and warn his wife about a potential gas leak. She lets them inside. Afterward, when they leave the residence, Jack spots a speck of blood on Patrick's shirt and suggests he change it. Moments later, while they are walking away, the house disintegrates in a sudden explosion that kills everybody inside and destroys any evidence of mischief. They set off for Jacksonville, Florida, to kill their second suspect. Jack criticizes their shortsighted superiors who should have assigned another team to take care of the Jacksonville target.

About six hours away in Jacksonville, a bespectacled forensic accountant, Owen (Jake Weber of "Midway"), is their next target. He is about to drive his son, Conner (Finn Little of "Storm Boy"), to school. Owen's wife died from cancer, so he is a single dad. Owen catches a breaking news segment about a mysterious, Fort Lauderdale, gas explosion. Paranoia gnaws away at him, and Owen piles a reluctant Conner into their VW sedan and races off for Montana. He plans to hole up with his deputy sheriff brother-in-law Ethan Sawyer and Ethan's African American wife Allison (Medina Senghore of "Clonehunter"). The cunning assassins ambush Owen near the Sawyer's house and turn the VW into a colander. Mortally wounded, Owen crashes through a guard rail and the VW plunges down a steep incline. The assassins pour another fusillade of gunfire into the vehicle. Afterward, they masquerade as FBI agents. To keep the local authorities occupied, Jack ignites a forest fire with three flares heaved into a wooded area near a rest stop.

Writer & director Tyler Sheridan and scenarist Michael Koryta, who adapted his own novel, along with "Blood Diamond" scribe Charles Leavitt, never specify the heinous crimes of those who hired Jack and Patrick. We're told this prominent investigation could topple several VIPs. Tyler Perry has a cameo as a corrupt government official who relays orders to these ruffians. Although the hitmen are reptilian, they're also slipshod. Meanwhile, not only must Hannah help Connor elude these dastards, but she also must conquer her own fears about her ability to keep Connor alive. They must dodge wicked bolts of lightning as well as evade the inferno. Our heroine Hannah earns her stripes all over again with a variety of cuts, bruises, and burns throughout this mayhem. Altogether, "Those Who Wish Me Dead" amounts to half-baked B-movie riddled with hackneyed cliches.

Gangsters, Guns & Zombies
(2012)

Better Than You'd Expect
Okay, first off, "Gangsters, Guns, & Zombies" isn't as fantastic as Edgar Wright's "Shaun of the Dead" (2004), but few horror comedies can top that Simon Peg masterpiece. The first half-hour of this epic is pretty tiresome because our quartet of hoodlums are packed into an SUV with one of their minions flat on his back in the rear of the vehicle with a nasty looking belly wound. My first thought was it's a homage to "Reservoir Dogs," because the poor guy's a bloody mess. Eventually, the hoodlums stop and provide him with a shallow grave. No matter where this foursome go, they are either followed by ravenous, bloodthirsty zombies or run into these undead fiends. The road trip comes to a halt when the gangster exhaust their supply of gas and find themselves out in the country. They are at a house with a windmill and when they try to steal a small sedan, they are confronted by a shotgun wielding grandmother with no qualms about blowing them to smithereens. Interestingly enough, her granddaughter packs a pistol, too. Eventually, they reach a truce and hole up in the house. No sooner do they take refuge in the house than the zombie congregate around him and lay siege to it. Writer & director Matt Mitchell stages a few interesting scenes and the upbeat, happy ending is nice. The token African American gangster of the crew hooks up with the grandmother's white daughter, and they steal a boat and ply their way off the island. As the movie ends, we see them cruising away, and then we see zombies swimming after them. A nice, tongue-in cheek touch. Half-baked rot that gets by on bites & pieces--zombie bites that is--with a modicum of just enough humor to make it worth watching up until fadeout. British zombie movies--at least for this Southern Yank--are fun because the cast utters everything with those harmonious British accent and the profanity is fun.

Pursued
(1947)

A First of Its Kind Western
Raoul Walsh has generally been credited by most scholars as having directed the first film noir western with "Pursued," starring Robert Mitchum, Judith Anderson, Teresa Wright, Dean Jagger, and Alan Hale. This black & white oater is as solidly well made as any of Walsh's westerns and the desert scenery is spectacular. Oscar-nominated scenarist Niven Busch penned this usual western that takes place well after the frontier had been officially closed. Mrs. Callum (Judith Anderson) takes in Jeb Rand when he is young after his parents were mysteriously killed. The memory of their deaths has never abated for the you. Later, after he has grown up and lives with Mrs. Callum and her daughter Thor (Teresa Wright) and her envious son Adam (John Rodney of "Key Largo"), Jeb has disturbing memories of shiny spurs that he cannot account for. When the Spanish American War erupt, Jeb loses a coin toss with Thor flipping the cartwheel, against the prospect of Adam enlisting. No, Jeb loses the coin flip, enlists, and wins the Medal of Honor for heroism under fire in Cuba.

Russkiy Reyd
(2020)

The Russians Are Clashing, The Russians Are Clashing!!!
Armchair action movie aficionados with an appetite for adrenaline-driven violence should crave freshman director Denis Kryuchkov's above average but predictable thriller "Russian Raid," about an avenging ex-Spetsnaz soldier gone rogue. Our rugged, resourceful hero conducts the hostile takeover of a Soviet-era missile factory which had been converted into a vodka brewery. Initially, everything works out splendidly for our heroes in this gritty, bullet-riddled actioneer. Happily, they carry out their objective in no time and disarm all the security guards without loss of life. They discover much to their chagrin; however, they have blundered into something far more byzantine than they had imagined. Kryuchkov and writers Robert Orr of "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans" and Olga Loyanich, use a cavernous, multi-storied factory as a gladiatorial arena for this high body count grudge match. Many characters amount to colorful stereotypes, and the maniacal villain gets everything he deserves before fadeout. Some may criticize these knuckle-slamming shenanigans as sloppy and second-rate, but Kryuchkov stages some thumping close-quarter combat sequences. These impromptu brawls seem even more vicious and realistic because both adversaries appear to be improvising blows. Anybody who likes to shadow box with cinematic bouts will work up a sweat watching these Russian MMA fighters batter each other with feet, fists, guns, knives, swords, and automatic weapons. The final showdown between our sympathetic hero and his vile nemesis may leave you as emotionally and physically drained, too.

Initially, "Russian Raid" starts out like a Tom Berenger "Sniper" movie. Our camo-clad protagonist Nikita (Ivan Kotik of "Outcast"), lies belly down, blending into the foliage. Cradling an exotic sniper's rifle, he peers into its scope at a rendezvous between their new leader, the Ghost Commander (burly Alexandr Krasovskiy), and several uniformed black soldiers brandishing automatic weapons. Nikita recognizes the Ghost Commander as none other than the homicidal dastard who took him hostage as a child and then shot his father in cold blood! Meantime, Nikita's spotter (Dmitry Krivochurov) is alarmed at the sight of his comrade's finger taking up the slack on the trigger. Afraid Nikita might try to shoot the Ghost Commander, the spotter jogs Nikita's aim. When the bullet emerges from the rifle barrel, director Denis Kryuchkov zooms in on this deadly flying projectile that resembles a humongous missile in close-up, and we watch as it streaks toward the Ghost Commander. Miraculously, since the spotter jarred Nikita's aim, the slug barely grazes his target. Nevertheless, pandemonium erupts, and the encounter flares up into an incendiary firefight. Nikita dispatches several enemy soldiers with spectacular shots as he racks up one kill after another without a trace of emotion. Nikita's own people punish his treachery. They lob mortar shells in a walking barrage at Nikita and his spotter, and our heroes take evasive action. Sadly, shrapnel kills the spotter, while Nikita goes into hiding as a fugitive. Eventually, an arrogant Russian businessman, Reshala (Ilya Antonenko), recruits Nikita to pacify all security personnel at the factory without firing a shot. Reshala plans to broker a deal with the stockholders, but Kryuchkov and his scribes never adequately explain the details about this hostile takeover.

Basically, the best action thrillers put their heroes through the wringer. Now, better than average though it is, "Russian Raid" isn't the cream of the crop, because it relies heavily on formula. Instead of hiring experts for Nikita, Reshala has recruited a motley crew of obnoxious young street hooligans who dress in a variety of jogging outfits. These ruffians behave like amateurs and regard Nikita's orders with nothing but contempt. Although he saves them from themselves, Nikita finds himself pitted against elements of the Russian mafia once they have neutralized all of the factory guards. One factory supervisor arms himself with a wicked samurai sword and leads his brawny stockholders with medieval weapons in an effort to repulse Nikita and his rabble. Predictably, Nikita quashes this rebellion in no time. Meantime, a tall, willowy blond in a vanilla white jacket and pants suit, Eva (Soniya Ozerova), has been snooping around the factory. Once a policewoman, she has uncovered hidden crates of contraband assault rifles. Kryuchkov and his writers never satisfactorily account for her presence. She isn't a factory employee, and Reshala didn't hire her. Eventually, the track suit hooligans' leader (Vladimir Mineev) takes her hostage, but Nikita releases her from their custody. Weary of Nikita's orders, the hooligans gang up on him. Nevertheless, the indestructible Nikita recovers when the chief stockholder disperses the hooligans with his pump action shotgun. Up until this latest fracas, Reshala had managed to contain this battle. Nobody had fired shots in reprisal. However, informants have leaked word of the incident to the reluctant authorities who had cooperated with Reshala by not launching a counterattack. No sooner have these uniformed officers shown up at the factory than a goon squad of Russian mafia headed by the Ghost Commander cruise up. These dastards come armed for an Armageddon.

Although he attempts to top Welsh director Gareth Evans' "The Raid" (2011) and "The Raid 2" (2014), two legendary Indonesian martial arts exercises in murder and mayhem, Kryuchkov lacks Evans' nimble spontaneity and plethora of violence. Nevertheless, "Russian Raid" bristles with enough kinetic energy to maintain your attention during its' unrated 103-minutes. Nobody gives a bad performance, and some stunts defy gravity. Alexandr Krasovskiy epitomizes pugnacity as the chief villain. When he isn't using his impressive MMA skills, Nikita plays commando with the henchmen in an explosive shootout in the factory. He is a carbon copy of John Wick in his ability to improvise in any predicament. Before he took this task, Nikita convinced one of his closest friends to board his pet turtle. The most annoying thing about "Russian Raid" is its subtitles. Everybody converses in Russian with only English subtitles, and the subtitles can be a challenging distraction. My advice is forego the subtitles. "Russian Raid" qualifies as a volatile exercise in anarchy, and the action is far more engrossing than the dialogue.

Voyagers
(2021)

Teens in Space!!!
Apart from its intriguing premise, the hopelessly predictable, live-action, sci-fi saga "Voyagers" (*1/2 OUT OF ****) has little else to distinguish it. First, climate change has ravaged the planet, and the Earth is deteriorating at an alarming rate. Man is running out of time as well as resources! Second, the nearest planet fit for human habitation requires an 86-year voyage! Incredibly, serious minds decide to launch children into space and educate them so they can maintain their spacecraft during this voyage of a lifetime. Later, when they have matured enough, they will reproduce and then train their offspring! Presumably, these first-generation space travelers will apprise the second generation, their sons and daughters, about the dire necessity for colonizing the new planet. Undoubtedly, teens will applaud the confidence mankind has entrusted them with for such a critical mission. Nevertheless, just as parents dread the thought of teens sneaking out for a spin in the family sedan, space agency administrators are just as paranoid about their decision to let everything ride on these teenagers. Ultimately, a space program veteran volunteers to chaperone the thirty young adults dispatched for the stars. Inevitably, you can imagine the deceptive measures which man has taken to keep those young minds focused on the mission. Not only does "Voyagers" writer & director Neil Burger know something about YA movies, but he also helmed "Divergent" (2014) and was executive producer on both sequels "Insurgent" (2015) and "Allegiant" (2016), a futuristic film franchise based on Veronica Roth's bestselling novels.

"Voyagers" is set in 2063. Since the trip is an estimated 86-year journey, scientists have assembled a crew from scratch. Thirty test-tube babies--the bioengineered seed of MIT scientists and Nobel laureates--have been incubated in a remote laboratory under close medical scrutiny. These infants are confined for the duration of their stay. They never see either the sun or the moon. They aren't taken for rides in strollers to experience the seasons. Psychologists fear any exposure to either the world or humanity could jeopardize the mission. Similarly, they are concerned about the mission commander, Richard (Colin Farrell of "Miami Vice"), the accomplished scientist who mentored these gifted youngsters. He is as close as they will ever come to having a parent. He says he can wave goodbye to Earth with few regrets. Indeed, Richard realizes he is taking a one-way trip, but the prospect doesn't frighten him. Nevertheless, he finds himself at a disadvantage when his young cadets bug him with nuisance questions about the mission. When they turn twenty, they approach him with pesky inquiries that make Richard furrow his brow in dread. Literally, these cadets fit British philosopher John Locke's essay about humans at birth being blank slates called tabula rasa. They know nothing more than what their particular culture has programmed into them.

Meantime, inquisitive Chris (Tye Sheridan of "Ready Player One") and his best buddy Zac (Fionn Whitehead of "Dunkirk") discover that their popular beverage, nicknamed "The Blue," which everybody guzzles like tap water, is laced with mysterious chemicals. Indeed, Mission Control has them on a regimen of anti-depressants to minimize any personality disorders. Chris and Zac boycott 'the Blue,' and they experience a radical change. They compete with greater vigor when wrestling since they can muster more strength and tenacity. Eventually, the other cadets follow their example. Before long, Richard finds himself at odds with Chris over this thorny issue. When the ship's communications system breaks down, Richard orders Chris to assist him with a spacewalk to repair the damage. Initially, Zac was assigned to help him, but Richard punishes Zac for groping their medical officer, Sela (Lily-Rose Depp of "Tusk"), without her consent. Afterward, Richard promises Chris to contact Mission Control about the chemicals in their water supply. Unfortunately, Richard dies from an apparent heart attack. Although the cadets elected Chris as their new leader, they shirk their duties. The friendly rivalry between Chris and Zac reaches a breaking point, and they become bitter enemies. Pandemonium ensues, and the crew turn against each other. Despite Chris's reminder that survival is their first priority, Zac foments an uprising, and his faction raids the weapons arsenal.

Sadly, like a pupil plagiarizing a book report on English author William Golding's Nobel Prize-winning novel "Lord of the Flies," Burger has simply swapped out the island setting of Golding's classic with a spaceship. Sadly, studio executives who never read Golding's book but were eager to corner the market signed onto Burger's premise. Presumably, Burger didn't cite Golding because "Voyagers" added women to the narrative and outer space served as the setting. Mind you, "Voyagers" does a competent job of setting up the situation and getting through the sticky preliminaries. "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" production designer Scott Chambliss and Burger have created a sleek, sterile, state-of-the-art spacecraft, but neither the vessel's name nor numerical designation is ever revealed. White is the dominant color. Considering the width of its cramped corridors, the spacecraft seems rather claustrophobic. Lugging oversized space equipment along those passageways would pose a challenge. Two people cannot walk side by side without brushing shoulders. The cadets wind up pushing a plethora of buttons on sophisticated consoles and ogle monitors galore, so "Voyagers" never lets you forget it is tech savvy.

"Voyagers" might have fared better as a goofy sex comedy. Imagine something like "Porky's" (1981) mashed up with "Spaceballs" (1987)! Up to a point, "Voyagers" floats several provocative ideas. Alas, the filmmakers don't follow through with anything genuinely original. Not only can you guess the identity of their new leader after Richard's demise, but also the inevitable 'happily ever after' outcome occurs once Zac's rebellion is quashed. After order has been restored but before the end credits roll, you won't be surprised at who is elected to replace Chris. Comparably, "Voyagers" isn't as entertaining as either "Passengers" (2016) or "Breach" (2020), no great shakes themselves, when it comes to depicting mankind's efforts to migrate elsewhere in the universe.

From the Depths
(2020)

Sharks in the Mind
A different kind of killer shark movie, "From the Depths" stars Angelica Briones as Liz, the survivor of a shark attack that killed her sister Payton and her boyfriend Seth. A twentysomething brunette cannot conquer her psychological fears about not only the experience of swimming with a predatory sharks in the sea but also about the reanimated corpses of her sister and boyfriend. Sleep deprived since the incident, Liz tuns to a psychologist to deal with her anxiety, but she doesn't have much luck until she has a relationship with a gorgeous African-American lesbian who persuades Liz to smoke pot and has sex with her. Writer & director Jose Montesinos has a good idea, but his amateurish cast, especially the impressionable Angelica Briones, who is the epitome of the girl next door, lacks the dramatic chops to carry the film. Recurring shots of her in steaming ocean water with a fin circling her get old fast. The memory of the ravenous shark plunders her brain. If that isn't enough the wannabe sharker brings back the corpses of both Payton and Seth, done up with Gothic make-up to look like the zombies, to haunt her. Not a complete loss of a movie, but the bad acting undercuts the sincere efforts of everybody involved. I got the impression at the end that Liz had been dead the entire time. The ending is really the only thing surprising about this saga. If you don't like lesbians, you should swim clear of this 85-minute epic.

SAS: Red Notice
(2021)

Psychopaths To The Rescue
Imagine being a hostage aboard a hijacked train waylaid beneath the English Channel in an undersea railway tunnel while terrorists and the authorities haggle about your fate. This spectacular situation spawns suspense galore in director Magnus Martens' "SAS: Red Notice," a contemporary, white-knuckled thriller laden with intrigue, murder, and mayhem. Making matters worse, our red-blooded hero is riding on that train with his girlfriend when it is halted. He resigns himself to setting aside his marriage proposal plans until he can sort out the villains. As Tom Buckingham, Sam Heughan-known best as Jamie Fraser in the "Outlander" cable-TV series and Mila Kunis' co-star in "The Spy Who Dumped Me"(2018)--delivers a performance which qualifies him to play the next James Bond. The tall, square-jawed, gimlet-eyed Scotsman is the spitting image of Roger Moore. FYI, Moore was the second official cinematic 007. Although loosely based on former Special Air Service veteran Andy McNab's bestseller, the outcome resembles "Die Hard" on a train. Heughan's quick-witted hero meets his match in a bitter terrorist as psychotic has he is. Grace Lewis (Ruby Rose of "Vanquish") threatens to give the Prime Minister more than he bargained for since he ordered her father's demise. William Lewis (Tom Wilkinson of "The Patriot") had been doing the dirty work for the British since they cannot afford the scandals. William weaned Grace on weapons, and she grew up with an itchy trigger finger. Between Heughan's gallantry and Rose's villainy stands Andy Serkis. As the military advisor to the Prime Minister and Lewis, George Clements (Andy Serkis of "Black Panther") takes your mind off everybody else with his spontaneous scene-stealing shenanigans.

"SAS: Red Notice" takes place in the Republic of Georgia. The Black Sea laps the Republic's western shores; Russia sprawls to the north, Armenia and Turkey to the south, and Azerbaijan to the east. William Lewis runs his own private paramilitary outfit called the Black Swans. They go where the British cannot fly the Union Jack. A high-profile British company is constructing a gas pipeline through Georgia, and the Black Swans are troubleshooters who resolve stoppages. As the movie opens, George Clements authorizes him to bribe the stubborn villagers who refuse to make way for the pipeline. William's son Oliver (Owain Yeoman of "American Sniper") hasn't lived up to his promise. Instead, Oliver struts around too much with a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth trying to look tough. William plans to turn command of the Black Swan over to his sadistic daughter Grace who is singularly without a trace of that emotion. As they approach the disputed section of pipeline, William lectures Grace about psychopaths.

"Less than one percent of the population is psychopathic. Psychopaths often inherit the trait and are incapable of love. They manage their relationships with clinical precision, succeeding in all walks of life. Psychopaths that can learn to love are even more rare." Basically, William has described Tom Buckingham to a tee without realizing it. Further, Tom will achieve everything which William attributes to psychopaths. As it turns out, this combat-tested, stealth-oriented, SAS counterterrorist has been dating his polar opposite. Dr Sophie Hart (Hannah John-Kamen of "Tomb Raider") questions her own sanity because she knows their relationship will never evolve. She doesn't like what Tom does and she never fails to admonish about this lifestyle. Nevertheless, Tom resolves to slip a ring on the fourth finger of Sophie's left hand.

Meantime, Grace leads a squad of heavily armed men and women under a conspicuous white flag. No sooner has she entered the village than she spots snipers. A firefight ensues. Grace feels a bullet nibble at her neck, while some of her troops become casualties. William races to his daughter's side. He looks at her in the eye. She explains the villagers didn't want money. "They wanted a fight," William nods grimly, then prompts her to action. "Make a decision." While machine guns chatter around them, Grace looks into her dad's eyes. She recites The Black Swan's credo, "Kill the men and the boys and leave the women to spread the fear." The Black Swans wipe out the male population. They drive the women and children from the village, and then reduce it to ashes with their flamethrowers. Neither Grace nor her father had counted on a lone villager equipped with a cell phone who records a video of their atrocity. Naturally, the video goes viral, with William, Grace, and Oliver caught on camera red-handed slaughtering villagers without mercy.

Tom has bought airline tickets to Paris for Sophie and himself. He cruises on his motorcycle to St. Thomas' Hospital in London where he surprises her during her Pediatric ward rounds. Sophie looks forward to the prospect of a Parisian holiday, but she doesn't appreciate Tom's interference with her work schedule. Without her permission, he went behind her back and persuaded another physician to take over Sophie's patients so they could revel in a romantic tryst in the City of Light. Unfortunately, the Special Air Service summon Tom for an impromptu raid on the Lewis residence at Hampstead Heath in northern London. During this foray, Grace eludes the SAS, but George Clements guns down William in cold blood without giving him a chance to defend himself. This spurs Grace to hijack the train in the English Channel Tunnel.

An exciting, suspenseful, rapid-fire shoot'em up, "SAS: Red Notice" has no end of complications thwarting both the heroes and villains. When they miss their Paris flight, Tom obtains tickets on the train. He sneaks off the train and harasses Grace until the SAS arrive to negotiate. Meantime, Sophie tends to the injured and wounded. Grace suspects Sophie and Tom are collaborating, but she cannot prove it. Inevitably, treacherous saboteurs create more trouble, but singling them out isn't easy. Altogether, this explosive, high-octane, R-rated melodrama lets one of the villains escape capture, something that only a sequel could mop up. "SAS: Red Notice" should gratify action movie enthusiasts.

Silk Road
(2021)

The Cyber Crime of the Century!!!
Writer & director Tiller Russell's absorbing cybercrime thriller about dealing drugs on the Dark Web, "Silk Road" is just as exciting as it is insightful. Russell adapted David Kushner's 2014 Rolling Stone magazine article, "Dead End on Silk Road: Internet Crime Kingpin Ross Ulbricht's Big Fall," as the basis for his depiction of this audacious crime of the century. Half of the time is spent on a 26-year- old Libertarian, Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson of "Love, Simon"), and his deluded dream of changing the world with a website where drugs can be bought and sold incognito. Historically, these events occurred between 2011 and 2015. If you don't know much about the Internet, you'll learn a lot from this marvelous R-rated, 102-minute melodrama that surprisingly shuns formulaic violence. You won't see any careening car chases, noisy gunfights, or dazzling displays of martial arts. A do-it-yourself kind of guy, Ross Ulbricht failed in his early attempts as an entrepreneur until he dreamed up his visionary scheme to forge 'an Amazon for drugs.' Literally, you'll get a primer on the Dark Web, Bitcoin, and the Tor browser. Mind you, the real-life Ross is serving life without parole for his Silk Road shenanigans.

Happily, "Silk Road" winks at its own factual infidelity: "This story is true. Except for what we made up or changed." Several Federal law enforcement agencies liaised to arrest Ulbricht and dismantle his global empire. Russell has depicted Ulbricht accurately enough, but he has tampered considerably with the truth about the two Feds who infiltrated Silk Road. In reality, Russell's fictitious DEA agent Rick Bowden, played by "Lawless" star Jason Clarke as a sympathetic loose cannon cop with an estranged wife and a young, learning-impaired daughter, is nothing like the two rogue agents-a DEA agent and a Secret Service agent-who brought Ross Ulbricht down. In part a standard Hollywood practice, Russell has synthesized these two agents into one for the sake of simplicity. Apart from this character synthesis, "Silk Road" adheres largely to the facts.

"Silk Road" opens at the dramatic moment when the FBI with a SWAT team are poised to arrest Ulbricht. He is taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi at the San Francisco Public Library. Undercover agents are scattered around the reading room as Ulbricht enters, seats himself, and opens his laptop. Team Leader Chris Tarbell (Jimi Simpson of "Unhinged") supervised the Federal multi-agency task force investigating Ulbricht. Tabell watches Ulbricht with breathless anticipation. He needs Ulbricht's laptop for evidence against him. Poised as his agents are to pounce on Ulbricht, Tarbell is surprised when his quarry receives a last-minute phone call. Ulbricht picks up, and "Silk Road" plunges into a lengthy flashback. The movie traces Ulbricht's life back to 2011 before he created his Silk Road website. Ulbricht is looking for the next big thing after his prior entrepreneurial efforts have tanked. Based on his Libertarian ideals, he regards America's war on drugs as a farce. He decides to set up a site on the Dark Web where narcotics can be bought and sold without violating the anonymity of either seller or buyer.

Along about the same time, an old school, tough-as-nails DEA agent Rick Bowden has just been released from rehab. He had been put on suspension for wrecking a car while on cocaine. Miraculously, Bowden's superior was able to pull strings to keep him from being fired for his misconduct. Bowden's penalty is expulsion from the narcotics squad and a transfer to Cybercrimes. Bowden's new boss informs him that all he must do is ride out his nine months, and he can retire with a pension. It doesn't help matters that Bowden isn't computer savvy and has trouble performing the simplest of commands, such as sending an email.

Eventually, through grit and perseverance, Bowden teaches himself how to log on and navigate the Internet. Later, when Bowden asks his former informant, Rayford (Darrell Britt-Gibson of "Keanu"), about people "buying drugs on YouTube," Rayford bursts out laughing at his ignorance. In due course, with Rayford's help, Bowden learns about the notorious Silk Road website. He is amazed to learn how sophisticated and impregnable it is. As it turns out, Bowden discovers he isn't the only cop out to bust Silk Road. Meantime, the other half of "Silk Road" depicts Rick's efforts to mend his troubled marriage and make the dreams of his kindergarten aged daughter come true. Rick's wife wants to enroll their daughter in a special school, but the tuition is astronomical.

Old school cop that he is, Rick refuses to be a team player. Not only does he manage to infiltrate Silk Road, but he compromises one of Ulbricht's administrators, Curtis Clark Green (Paul Walter Hauser of "Richard Jewell") and fakes Green's death so he can impress Ulbricht and become an accomplice. At this point, Ulbricht's life is going into a tailspin. He runs a million-dollar company, but he finds himself being preyed on by his own employees, so he is willing to open the door for fresh blood. Moreover, with his insider information about the investigation, Rick is able to keep Ulbricht one step ahead of Chris Tarbell's FBI squad.

Director Tiller Russell has done a marvelous job of making an incredibly complex criminal case palatable. The actual Silk Road investigation was mind-boggling. You can read about its complicated details at various websites. Basically, "Silk Road" resembles a vintage gangster movie since it chronicles the rise and fall of an illegal empire. As Ross Ulbricht, Nick Robinson is perfectly cast, but his vulnerable performance belies the fact that his real-life counterpart was far less sympathetic. Alexandra Shipp is squandered in a thankless supporting role as Ross' girlfriend Julia. By far, Jason Clarke makes the strongest impression as a lone wolf cop who takes down Ulbricht, despite going rogue himself to provide for his daughter's tuition. "Silk Road" qualifies as an unforgettable exposé not only about the Dark Web but also about a stunning cybercrime caper.

Vanquish
(2021)

A Routine Serving of Bullets and Blood
The best movies regale us with surprises and revelations we never anticipate. The worst duplicate better movies and coast on cliches. Oscar-winning Mississippi actor Morgan Freeman teams up with agile Australian starlet Ruby Rose for "Vanquish," a trigger-happy, bullet-riddled evening of violence along the Gulf Coast. Writer & director George Gallo, who wrote "Midnight Run" (1988) and "Bad Boys"(1995), writes better than he directs. Sadly, "Vanquish" amounts to a predictable crime and corruption thriller. You can guess everything before it happens, especially if you've seen enough crime thrillers. Comparably, "Vanquish" isn't as exciting as the Scott Adkins' epic "Seized" (2020) that covered similar ground.

You know a movie is low budget when it confines its biggest star to a wheelchair. As the primary villain, Freeman doesn't budge from that buggy during this fair to middling, R-rated, 96-minute melodrama. Happily, Gallo lets Freeman coach our capable heroine through dire straits with body cams and comms from the comfort of his palatial estate throughout the harrowing night. Although he rides out this mayhem in a wheelchair, Freeman is no less a commanding presence, and his solemn line deliveries are sterling.

Lately, Ruby Rose has been playing androgynous females with a penchant for bullets and blood. Despite departures like "The Meg," Rose has forged a career as a gal good with a gat. She wielded a sniper's rifle in the Vin Diesel sequel "xXx: Return of Xander Cage" (2017). Later that year, she tangled with Keanu Reeves in "John Wick 2," then hindered homicidal hooligans in "The Doorman," (2020), a gripping "Die Hard" clone, and was ruthless as a terrorist in "SAS: Red Notice" (2021). Mind you, Rose's success as a derring-do dame may pigeonhole her, but the gusto she enlivened her earlier action epics with seems curiously dialed down for "Vanquish."

You learn half of everything in "Vanquish" before the gunfights and what remains after the cordite has cleared. The action and intrigue plunges our indestructible heroine into several bloodbaths. People who crave expository opening credits will savor the film's six-minute prologue which provides Damon Hickey's unusual backstory. Various newspapers rave about the courage of Morgan Freeman's character. Decorated repeatedly for valorous service, Hickey was later cut down in his prime when a felon's bullet landed him in a wheelchair for life.

"Found Footage" scenarist Sam Bartlett and Gallo are cryptic about many matters in "Vanquish." We never learn why Hickey strayed from the straight and narrow and turned to skullduggery. Now, crooked as a bent coat hanger, Hickey is up to his ears in crime and corruption. The local constabulary do his bidding, even when they dislike it.

"Vanquish" unfolds with a quartet of local cops beating a fellow detective to death. This incorruptible cop had planned to blow the whistle on them. The discovery of this treachery couldn't have come at a worse time. Somebody must make the rounds and collect bundles of illicit loot owed Hickey and company. Shrewdly, Hickey orders the corrupt cops to cool it. After all, the authorities may have them under surveillance. Instead, Hickey decides to use his caretaker, Victoria (Ruby Rose), to retrieve those hundreds of thousands of dirty dollars. Hickey assures her that he trusts her more than anybody else.

Now, Victoria would do anything for Hickey. He has been a heaven-sent benefactor to her. Without his help and influence, Victoria would probably be serving time in prison and her young daughter, Lilly (adorable newcomer Juju Journey Brener), would be in a state orphanage. Victoria doesn't look like she could whip a wet noodle. Decked out in a solid black, tailored outfit with a cream-colored biker's jacket, Ruby Rose looks boyish with her crew-cut coiffure. Although she appears both slight and harmless, Victoria was once a notorious drug courier for the Russians in Moscow, and she can shoot and kill without a qualm.

Sadly for Damon, Victoria rejects his gunplay proposition. She is struggling to clean up her act and go straight for the sake of her daughter. Unfortunately, Lilly is afflicted with some horrible unknown disease which neither Bartlett nor Gallo ever identify. Suffice to say, the medical costs would be astronomical, and Victoria cannot afford it. Damon offers to cover the costs, but Victoria refuses his generous proposal.

Ultimately, Damon must kidnap Lilly and hold her hostage before he can convince Victoria to make the five pick-ups. Victoria hates Damon. Since she cannot change his mind, she straddles a sleek motorcycle and careens away on it with two automatic pistols prominently holstered against her kidneys. She wears a body cam on her jacket so Damon can monitor each pick-up. More often than not, Damon serves as an extra pair of eyes and ears as she contends with various gangsters who don't take her seriously.

It doesn't take the repetitive "Vanquish" long to wear out your patience. The abrupt violence that punctuates the first pick-up shows us just how much nonsense our heroine will tolerate. The first encounter ends in gunfire as Victoria shoots three German gangsters in the head collectively and confiscates what they owe Damon. The grieving brother of the dead mobster vows to kill Victoria. Although each rendezvous differs in few respects, the criminals who hand over the loot don't treat Victoria with the respect she deserves as an adversary. Gullibly, she sips a glass of water a thug hands her and nearly passes out. Everybody knows you never take a glass of anything from a villain, no matter how parched your throat. Ruby Rose doesn't display her martial arts expertise. She shoots each adversary once, and blood geysers erupt from their heads.

The only genuine surprise in "Vanquish" comes during its explosive finale. Initially, Gallo's epic opened under the title "The Longest Night," but the producers changed it since it lacked allure. Apart from Freeman and Rose, "Vanquish" features a sturdy cast of largely unknown actors who take their turns getting blown full of holes.

Mom and Dad Save the World
(1992)

Sci-Fi Fun for Everyone!!!
Okay, you tell from the title of a movie what you're about to watch is going to be good, bad, or awful. I saw "Mom and Dad Save the World" when it came out in theaters, bought the DVD, and will probably buy the inevitable Blu-ray. This is lowest common denominator comedy done with goofiness galore and great sound effects. If you liked the Luke Wilson comedy "Idiocracy" where stupid went rampant, you'll love "Mom and Dad." Jeffrey Jones and Teri Carr are perfectly cast as husband and wife, and Jon Lovitz is the chief villain. The comedy is basically along the lines of "Idiocracy." Stupid was never funnier. Chris Matheson's screenplay (that's right Richard's son) and Ed Solomon's story borrows a gimmick from the original Karloff "Mummy" movie. The villain sees the love of his life, or an identical dame, and falls madly in love with her at first site. This infatuation keeps maniacal Emperor Tod Spengo (Jon Lovitz) from obliterating the Earth with his "Super Death Ray Laser." Instead, he uses his magnet gun to draw Marge to Spengo, but in the process also brings her husband Dick Nelson. By the way, you have to wonder how dumb or smart Ed Solomon's story was in comparison with Matheson's script. Solomon wrote the first two "Bill & Ted" movies.

Dead End
(2003)

Title Tells All!!!
A family in route to an in-laws Christmas party never reach it because the bored father left the interstate and took a short cut. Turns out the short cut winds up cutting them all up. Ray Wise and Lynn Shaye are the parents. He is a car sales manager and he has driven this route for 20 years. Now, he decides while everybody else is snoozing to take a different road. Big Mistake. Little by little his family is whittled down, literally into pieces. Oddly enough, they encounter a beautiful woman on the highway who is dressed in white and has a dead baby in her arms. Later, we hear the legend about the dead baby and the so-called 'woman in white.' Initially, the family want to help her but things go terribly wrong. A sinister black car creeps out of the darkness carrying off one family member after another and the survivors are powerless to do anything to save them. The filmmakers never tells us why the family is slain the way that they are. Nor do they tell us why the 'lady in white' is killing them. Sometimes, you think the filmmakers are sticking their collective tongues in their cheeks so they don't have to show bloody body parts. When the family members collect around the bodies, we are never shown the bodies and they reach off camera and pluck articles of identification off them. As I said, the villains lack any threat and we never know exactly what happens to their victims much less their motivation. Detour around this "Dead End!"

Nobody
(2021)

Nobody Does It Better!!!
"Better Call Saul" star Bob Odenkirk plays an unlikely but invincible troubleshooter in director Ilya Naishuller's "Nobody," a white-knuckled, slam-bang, high octane epic about tough guys gone berserk. Mind you, Odenkirk resembles a woebegone sad sack with a five o'clock shadow, but he has skillfully concealed the truth about himself. Primarily, the villains get into trouble when they mistake our hero's casual attitude as an open invitation to attack him. Imagine their shock when he retaliates with the swift savagery of either a John Wick and/or a John Rambo. Literally, our pugnacious protagonist paints the walls, ceilings, and floors with their gore while the filmmakers paint him into challenging corners. If you're having second thoughts about Odenkirk's credentials as a tough guy hero, consider those of Russian-born director Ilya Naishuller as well as scenarist Derek Kolstad. Naishuller helmed "Hardcore Harry" (2015), an adrenalin-laced, free-for-all, first-person shooter saga shot with head-mounted GoPro cameras to heighten its volatile spontaneity. Meantime, Kolstad originated the John Wick character for Keanu Reeves and wrote the first two "John Wick" bloodbaths. Basically, these two know all the genre clichés and conventions and rarely miss a chance to wow us with revelations about their improbable protagonist and his psychotic adversary. Naishuller orchestrates several staccato shootouts, and his choreography of close-quarters combat will dazzle you with its acrobatics. Russian-born actor Aleksei Serebryakov of "The 9th Company" chews the scenery with evil gusto as the chief villain. He never gives our hero a break. Despite being both outnumbered and outgunned, the imperturbable Odenkirk maintains a stiff, upper lip throughout this ferocious, foul-mouthed, R-rated thriller. "Nobody" bristles with enough fireworks for three movies. Nevertheless, our hero suffers his share of dire adversity, too. You may recognize some familiar faces in the cast. Veteran character actors Christopher Lloyd and Michael Ironside co-star with British thespian Colin Salmon, who made three Pierce Brosnan-era James Bond movies, and Wu-Tang Clan leader Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, a.k.a. RZA, is cast as our hero's stepbrother.

Our protagonist, Hutch Mansell (Bob Odenkirk) toils from 9 to 5 am as an auditor for his father-in-law, Eddie Williams (Michael Ironsides of "Starship Troopers"), at a small family-owned factory. Hutch is married to Eddie's daughter, Becca (Connie Nielsen of "Gladiator"), and they live in a comfortable house with their two children, a six-year-old daughter called Abby (newcomer Paisley Cadorath) and a son named Blake (Gage Munroe of "The Shack"), a teenager in high school. Becca has the more visible job of the two. Her photo adorns one wall of the bus station where Hutch hoofs it every morning. Becca drives the kids to school, while Hutch rides the bus. Hutch's life has become a monotonous grind. Jolting montages of his repetitive routines depicts Hutch's numbing workdays. Meantime, Blake tolerates his father, while Abby dotes on her daddy. Meantime, Hutch and Becca's marriage has lost its allure. They share the same bed but for sleeping only. Becca has raised a 'no man's land' barrier between them. They haven't indulged in conjugal bliss for years. Hutch doesn't complain. Becca chides Hutch about being late getting the garbage on time for the Tuesday curb pick-up. When he must write a paper for his history class about a military veteran, Blake approaches Becca's arrogant brother, Charley Williams (Billy MacLellan of "Goalie"), because he served in the field. Comparatively, Hutch served behind the lines as an auditor.

Things change one night when Hutch cannot sleep. Hearing noises in their house, he encounters two intruders, darkly clad in masks and gloves, with the female of the pair armed with a revolver. Surprising the male burglar, Blake tackles him to the floor, while Hutch balks at clobbering the female burglar with a golf club. Brandishing her revolver, she waves it in his face. Later, Hutch claims he only sought to minimize the danger the two intruders posed to his family. One uniformed policeman praises Hutch's prudence, while his partner brags he would have decked her with the golf club. Similarly, Hutch's obnoxious next-door neighbor dreams that somebody would have the audacity to burglarize his house. At work, Charlie ridicules Hutch about losing his nerve, while Eddie consoles his son-in-law and says he did the right thing.

Everything comes to a head when Abby complains about her missing kitty cat bracelet. She says she left it in the large dish of other miscellaneous items that the burglars plundered. Hutch has struggled with guilty feelings for not defending his family during a moment of crisis. Now, he stalks off to find the burglars. He caught a glimpse of a tattoo on the woman's wrist. Hutch masquerades as an FBI agent and tours all the tattoo parlors around town. Eventually, he finds the man & wife burglar, recovers his wristwatch but not Abby's kitty cat bracelet. Frustrated by this turn of events, he catches a ride home on the Metro bus. Along the way, a quartet of rowdy toughs crash their vehicle and board the bus. When they bother a lone female passenger, Hutch's rage erupts, and he clashes with them in a knockdown, drag-out slugfest. He walks away with a stab wound, while the foursome land in the hospital.

One of the four turns out to be the brother of Russian mobster Yulian Kuznetsov (Aleksey Serebryakov), and he is lucky to be alive, but his doctor says he won't walk again. Although he didn't have much use for his brother, Yulian feels the tug of family ties. He discovers Hutch's identity and dispatches hit teams to wipe out Hutch and his family. Clocking in at 96 breathless minutes, "Nobody" piles on the action like an avalanche while Naishuller sets up Kolstad's plot in the first twenty minutes and aligns audience sympathy with Hutch. Several claustrophobic shootouts are staged with aplomb, while Odenkirk performs most of his own stunts. The brawls are executed with finesse and humor. Yulian's explosive death scene is unforgettable. Ultimately, "John Wick" cannot hold a candle to "Nobody."

Godzilla vs. Kong
(2021)

A Godzilla and Kong Rematch
Anybody who enjoys "Godzilla" movies should crave director Adam Wingard's "Godzilla vs. Kong," a bizarre, sci-fi, fantasy that pits the eponymous Titans against each other for their second historic cinematic showdown. Initially, in 1962, these adversaries clashed in Japanese director Ishirô Honda's "King Kong Vs. Godzilla" but neither opponent could claim victory. Contrived as Wingard's "Godzilla" entry is in the Warner Brothers/Legendary Pictures' Monsterverse franchise, "G vs. K" doesn't end in a stalemate! Remember, death isn't perpetual in sci-fi as Hollywood has shown us. Writers Eric Pearson of "Thor: Ragnarok" and Max Borenstein of "Godzilla" (2014) have whipped up a super-sized smackdown with several surprises based on a story by Terry Rossio of "Godzilla" (1998) and Michael Dougherty & Zach Shields of "Godzilla, King of the Monsters" (2019). Of course, the ideal spectator will eagerly embrace this nonsense with nothing short of enthusiasm, no matter how staggering its outlandish shenanigans are. Moreover, the global arena for this PG-13 epic gives these opponents more than enough elbow room. Wingard and his scribes spout Hollow Earth theory when the two Titans aren't clashing in gladiatorial creature feature violence. Seven minutes shy of two hours, this "Godzilla" installment introduces another fabled monster from the Japanese Toho franchise as well as a newbie from the Warner Brothers/Legendary Monsterverse. Unlike the WB's first "Godzilla" (2014) where shadows shrouded the king-sized kaiju during his nocturnal depredations, "G vs. K" has the terrible twosome tangling in broad daylight for maximum impact. The roving sea battle and the horrendous battle royal in downtown Hong Kong are splendidly orchestrated without any inclement weather obscuring the view.

"Godzilla vs. Kong" unfolds on Skull Island where the huge ape resides in idyllic splendor, perhaps a little too idyllic. Uprooting a tree, Kong strips away its branches and then hurls it like a javelin into the sky. Surprise of surprises, this crudely fashioned lance impales itself improbably in the heavens to reveal the presence of an immense bio-dome. The lance shattered some of the panels, like a brick smashing a plate-glass window. Kong has been confined within this colossal enclosure for his own safety. He is in the same predicament Jim Carrey faced in "The Truman Show" (1998). Basically, Monarch has designed the bio-dome to protect him from his sworn enemy Godzilla. Updating the Kong legend, the writers reveal Kong and Godzilla have been foes since the dawn of history. Allusions to their rivalry appear in many sacred ancient texts of dead civilizations. An anthropologist, Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall of "The Town"), has spent ten years on Skull Island studying Kong. A deaf, indigenous, young native girl, Jia (newcomer Kaylee Hottle), rescued by Kong after a cataclysmic storm wiped out all the natives, lives with Andrews now. Jia uses sign language to communicate with Kong, but she hasn't told Andrews that they understand each other.

Meantime, sinister Apex Cybernetics Corp. Founder & CEO Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir of "Lowriders") approaches a disgraced geologist, Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård of "Straw Dogs"), who has published a book about Hollow Earth Theory. Simmons recruits Lind to comb those subterranean realms for an energy source which mankind can use to thwart Godzilla's future depredations. What better guide than King Kong to escort Lind and company through those provinces? Kong trusts only Jia, and Jia assures Kong that his ancestors hailed from Hollow Earth. The opening to the fabled land lies via an icy portal in Antarctica. Meantime, Godzilla wreaks havoc when the kaiju raids an Apex lab at its Pensacola, Florida, facility in an apparently unprovoked attack. Discretion prevents me from revealing the real reason behind Godzilla's attack because it would ruin a major revelation. In another subplot, conspiracy theory podcaster Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry of "White Boy Rick"), who works for Apex, has been biding his time before he blows the whistle on Simmons. Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown of "Godzilla, King of the Monsters") and her geeky computer bud Josh (Julian Dennsion of "Deadpool 2") join Bernie. Our heroes are horrified when they discover Apex has been incubating those hideous Skull Island Skullcrawlers at its Pensacola plant. No, Godzilla didn't raid the facility simply to annihilate the Skullcrawlers.

The voyage to Antarctica finds a restless Kong shackled to the deck of a ship and later hoisted aloft by helicopters. Initially, an armada of U. S. Navy warships provide an escort for Kong. Since he is no longer entombed on Skull Island, Kong finds himself at the mercy of Godzilla. Those wicked dorsal fins ripple the surface of the ocean as Godzilla ploughs a path through the phalanx of ships, sinking some along the way on a collision course for Kong. Indeed, it looks like curtains for Kong. Happily, somebody removes Kong's giant shackles, and the two gargantuans generate a typhoon of terror. This briny blue brawl constitutes little more than a warm-up act, but Godzilla fans will shadow box with each blow they swap. One classic moment has Kong clobbering Godzilla with a spectacular right cross.

If you're counting the films in the WB/Legendary Pictures' Monsterverse, "Godzilla vs. Kong" qualifies as the fourth. The Monsterverse doesn't observe chronological order. Garth Edwards' "Godzilla" (2014) emerged first and tagged the monsters as Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms, a.k.a. MUTOs or Titans. "Kong: Skull Island" (2017), the "Godzilla" sequel/prequel spanning World War II to 1973, bowed second. In "Kong: Skull Island," President Truman created the ultra-secret government agency Monarch to maintain tabs on the MUTOs. Basically, Monarch runs through the franchise like a thread. "Godzilla, King of the Monsters" (2019) picked up after "Godzilla," and "Godzilla vs. Kong" follows in the aftermath. Mankind's obligatory meddling with nature triggers far-reaching complications. Essentially, the Monarch vs. Apex rivalry separates good humans from evil. The preposterous hocus-pocus that drives this titular showdown takes its cues from the "Alien" film franchise with its paranoid corporation. Altogether, "Godzilla vs. Kong" surpasses itself when our monstrous rivals put up their dukes and knock each other for loops.

Greenland
(2020)

A CREDIBLE DISASTER MOVIE
A nine-mile-wide comet threatens to destroy the Earth in director Ric Roman Waugh's "Greenland," an explosive mainstream disaster epic, with Gerard Butler, Morena Baccarin, and Scott Glenn. Mind you, Hollywood has served up similar fare with "Meteor" (1979) starring Sean Connery and then with "Armageddon" (1998) and later in "Deep Impact" (1998). The major difference between "Greenland" and these films is mankind has no defense this time around against this cataclysm. Moreover, Waugh's film focuses on the tragic human toll rather than gee-whiz CGI visual effects. Named after the country where mankind stands its last chance for survival in a complex of underground bunkers, "Greenland" seems far more realistic for its duck and cover tactics. Indeed, the apocalyptic menace of this comet is its ability to wipe out half of Europe, virtually all of Florida, and bury anybody in its path. Perhaps even scarier is the premise that the U. S. Government plans to save only a chosen few who can help rebuild the country in the likelihood of such a catastrophe. Imagine the utter surprise of our protagonist, skyscraper construction engineer John Garrity (Gerard Butler of "300") when he gets an Amber-like Presidential Alert on his iPhone. The recorded message notifies him that his wife Allison (Morena Baccarin of "Deadpool"), himself, and their son Nathan (newcomer Roger Dale Floy), have been scheduled for evacuation to a remote location. Waugh and scenarist Chris Sparling, who wrote the claustrophobic Ryan Reynolds thriller "Buried" (2010), have crafted a suspenseful, PG-13 rated, disaster saga which exposes the flaws in mankind's best laid plans to salvage civilization.

John Garrity is shopping at the local supermarket when he receives his Presidential Alert. When the message is broadcast over their home television set, his estranged wife Allison is blow-drying her hair and doesn't hear it. John and Allison are mending a broken marriage. Later, when they host a neighborhood watch party with their closest friends, the Presidential Alert notice for them is rebroadcast. Predictably, the neighbors are baffled about why only the Garrity's got the message. The Garrity's are told to bring one bag and report to the nearest U. S. Air Force Base for immediate relocation. Of course, we the audience have been warned ahead of time via radio & television news broadcasts about the impending arrival of a colossal comet-nicknamed after "2001" sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke-with the chances it will decimate mankind. Visually, this ominous comet is shown from space entering Earth's atmosphere and then depicted primarily in televised news reports about devastated metropolitan areas, with cities and suburbs wiped out. Rioting and looting have broken out where law and order has broken down. Pandemonium surrounds Warner Robbins AFB in Georgia where the Garrity's are scheduled to embark on their flight. Crowds besiege the gates as families are cleared to enter the base for departure. No sooner have the Garrity's arrived and received their ID bracelets than Allison cannot find Nathan's insulin kit. As it turns out, Nathan lost it when he took a towel out of his travel bag during their road trip. Desperately, John rushes back to retrieve it from their abandoned vehicle, but their plans are doomed before they realize it.

Allison learns the awful truth about Presidential Alert recipients. Homeland Security selected them based on their 'essential job' status and pristine health. Sadly, the government recognizes its own error in time to send Allison and Nathan back off the base. Tragically, the Garrity's find themselves hopelessly separated. Ignorant about this revelation, John returns with the insulin kit, but he cannot find Allison. As mounting numbers of people jostle the air base gates, the situation waxes even more chaotic. Since she cannot contact John on her iPhone, Allison decides to take Nathan and hitchhike to her father's ranch in Lexington, Tennessee. At the same time, John is ordered to board a cargo jet or be left behind. When he learns about the perfect health criterion for all Presidential Alert recipients, John demands to be let off the plane. Eventually, the enormous crowd at the gates overwhelms the MPs and stampede onto the base. Mass hysteria ensues. Military police exchange fire with some armed intruders. The gunfire sparks aviation fuel, and a fireball explosion obliterates one giant cargo jet. Separated from John as she is, Allison relies mistakenly on the charity of a husband and wife she met while looting a pharmacy for Nathan's insulin needs. The couple turn on Allison at the sight of her bracelet, and kidnap Nathan. Meanwhile John finds Allison's posted note on their SUV and sets out for his father-in-law's ranch. Ralph Vento (Scott Glenn of "Training Day") isn't happy to see John without Allison and Nathan in tow.

Unlike "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact," "Greenland" doesn't seem half as outlandish or melodramatic. Waugh and Sparling adopt a more populist approach with their disaster picture. The news media provide all the facts we need to know about Clarke. John Garrity is just as puzzled as his neighbors were when Homeland Security notified him out of the blue about his status. Later, when things go haywire, survival becomes a 'live and let die' scenario. Given bracelets to identify themselves, John and Allison learn these are double-edged swords. People are desperate enough to kill to get them, thinking they can impersonate their owners without arousing suspicion. At one point, John climbs aboard a private truck with other less fortunate souls bound for Canada. One homicidal ruffian spots John's bracelet and tries to separate it from him with a claw hammer. Eventually, Allison and Nathan catch up with John. The suspense mounts as erratic flaming fragments of Clarke's comet descend, like Mount Vesuvius belching incendiary fireballs on Pompeii in 79 AD. Nobody is safe. Since they cannot fly to Greenland aboard military transports, John must improvise and find a civilian plane that can transport his family. "Greenland" qualifies as an above-average, sometimes terrifying vision of an eventuality which nobody wants to imagine.

The Sound of Philadelphia
(2020)

No Brotherly Love Here
Crime movies don't come any gloomier than Parisian writer & director Jérémie Guez's "Brothers By Blood," a stark melodrama about hard-luck, blue-collar, pugnacious Irish hoods who clash with their Italian rivals over union turf in post-industrial Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The protagonist's working-class Irish hoodlum father Charly Flood (Ryan Phillippe of "The Lincoln Lawyer") tells his 12-year-old son Peter (newcomer Nicholas Crovetti) how Irish and Italian crooks differ. "There's no excuse for hurting yourself on purpose. The Italians know that. Irish don't. It's why they run things and why we don't." Before the smoke finally clears in this grim gangland thriller, our strong but silent hero, Peter (Matthias Schoenaerts of "The Mustang"), will understand Charly's insightful comments. As grownups now, Michael Flood (Joel Kinnaman of "RoboCop") and Peter have inherited their family business. Although they are cousins, they are also polar opposites. The contemplative Peter trains as a boxer at a local gym when he isn't wrestling with his own demons. Meanwhile, Michael obsesses over his status as a minor crime czar with union ties. Peter bottles up his emotions, and Michael has anger management issues. Throughout this R-rated, 105-minute crime thriller, these two circle each other warily as they hold their own against the Italians. Gradually, Peter's patience unravels as Michael's egotism swells out of control. Guez adapted former Philadelphia Daily News columnist Pete Dexter's novel "Brotherly Love" (1991), but he took some liberties with his adaptation. Dexter may be best known for his novel "Paris Trout" (1988) which received the National Book Award for Fiction. He also wrote "Deadwood" the western novel which inspired the foul-mouthed HBO series.

"Brothers By Blood" depicts the decline of a blue-collar Irish crime family. Interspersing flashbacks from Peter's youth, Guez shows how Michael and he have struggled to hold the encroaching Italians in check. Life has been no bowl of cherries for Peter. The most shocking scene is the accidental death of Peter's kid sister. They are leaving their apartment to play outside. Scrambling ahead of Peter out the door into the street, she never saw what struck her. Peter's face as he witnesses this tragedy is frozen in a mask of horror. Later, he saw his grieving father slam his own head in rage and frustration against their refrigerator and put a dent in it. Peter grows up without a mom because she never recovered from her daughter's demise. At one point, when he was a child, Peter ventured out onto the fire escape and leaped off it. Presumably, he must have survived the fall without serious injury. In the opening scene of the film, we see grownup Peter step off the roof of a building, but he lands safely on a pile of rubble. "Brothers By Blood" isn't some trigger-happy "John Wick" shoot'em up, with ad nauseam product placement. You won't have to scribble notes to yourself to keep track of all the narrative twists and turns. Guez keeps things simple but formulaic. Nevertheless, the strong characters are sufficiently compelling as is the stalwart cast that incarnates them. Watching "Brothers By Blood" is like watching a fuse sputter momentarily before it sizzles back to life for a surprise ending. You may want to shoot Michael yourself, and you'll ponder if Peter will make good his promise to split if his cousin doesn't restrain his murderous urges. Guez doesn't have a large cast, and the obligatory romance between Peter and Grace (Maika Monroe of "It Follows"), a gal who tends a neighborhood bar is strictly peripheral. If you're an armchair shrink, Michael will captivate you more than Peter. Guez doesn't trot out any hierarchal crime figures to declare a truce in these vicious street gutter fights. "Brothers By Blood" doesn't have godfathers and clandestine conferences cluttering up things.

"Brothers By Blood" is a hardboiled, no-nonsense thriller. When Guez delivers the ultimate surprise, it should really come as no surprise. Indeed, it should provide relief. Basically, this character study focuses on two cousins on a collision course from the get-go. Parisian though he is, Guez generates loads of foreboding atmosphere, especially in the scenes between Peter and a wise acre Italian mob boss. The weather is overcast usually, and the interior scenes are often dark and edgy. Again, the violence is neither loud nor grandiose in design. We hear about Michael's shooting early on rather than see it. He hobbles on a cane for the rest of the movie. The drive-by shooting scene when Michael pays back the Italians with bullets in broad daylight is appropriately inconspicuous. When the final shootout erupts on the spur of the moment, fewer than five shots ring out.

Joel Kinnaman's volatile performance evokes memories of James Caan's ill-fated Sonny Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" (1972). Kinnaman conducts himself like a tyrannical warlord, grating on everybody's nerves, until either they shoot him, or he kills them. Surprisingly, what Michael never realizes is neither the Philadelphia PD nor the Italians constitute his worst adversaries. No matter how belligerent Kinnaman waxes, Matthias Schoenaerts' smoldering performance as Peter enables him to overshadow his cousin throughout Guez's moody melodrama. Ryan Phillippe appears in an all-too fleeting but memorable cameo as Peter's doomed father. The flashback scenes with these two emphasizes the strong bond of love between a father and son. Guez doesn't make a spectacle out of violence in his thrillers. If you watch this movie twice, you'll notice Guez abhors contrivance, too. Nothing comes off as phony. Previously, Guez penned the underrated Jean-Claude Van Damme thriller "The Bouncer" (2018) and the ex-con drama "A Bluebird in My Heart" (2018), both about hard-luck tough guys who're no strangers to life and death violence. "Brothers By Blood" may not boast enough fire and brimstone if you're searching for a gangland outing riddled with flesh, flash, and fireworks.

Diplomaniacs
(1933)

An Anti-War Comedy
The best of the Wheeler & Woolsey musical comedies is significant because it skewers the naive Kellogg-Briand Pact, an agreement designed to outlaw war signed on August 27, 1928. Our hapless heroes are barbers with a shop on an Indian Reservation when they are sent to Europe as ambassadors to negotiate on behalf of the Oopadoop nation at the Peace conference in Geneva. This comedy is almost as good as the Marx Brothers "Duck Soup." The gags are fast and furious.

Adverse
(2020)

The Virtues of a Tire-Iron as a Lethal Weapon
The virtues of a tire-iron as a lethal weapon are depicted with gusto in writer & director Brian A. Metcalf's "Adverse," a gritty but unforgettable Los Angeles crime thriller, co-starring Mickey Rourke, Lou Diamond Phillips, Sean Austin, and Matt Ryan. Savage as the violence is in this Darwinian underworld melodrama, swarming with the scum of the scum, it is commendably restrained and far more believable for that restraint. Nominally, Thomas Ian Nicholas of "American Pie" stars as a hard luck parolee with anger management issues. He struggles futilely to raise his sixteen-year-old, Hispanic half-sister in the aftermath of their mom's suicide.

Indeed, Ethan has more to contend with than most people. In terms of its seamy realism and its gallery of low-life degenerates, "Adverse" evokes memories of Martin Scorsese's classic "Taxi Driver" (1976), with Robert De Niro. Now, by no means an imposing fellow, Nicholas lacks De Niro's heroic stature. Comparably, Nicholas's Ethan is a pint-sized pug. He wears his dark unruly hair brushed back over his collar. He is at the end of his tether emotionally with its twine unraveling . . . until he picks up a tire-iron. Once he has gotten into the swing of things, Ethan isn't so trifling, and he can bring the Goliaths of the world to their knees. "Taxi Driver" amounted to a far richer film experience with ambiguity and irony. Meanwhile, "Adverse" is a little crooked, like Ethan's tire-iron, and his adversaries await him at every turn. Mickey Rourke is memorable as a notorious loan shark suffering from cancer. Matt Ryan, who starred in the short-lived Marvel television series "Constantine," is toxically obnoxious as Rourke's disgruntled partner. Nobody, however, overshadows Nicholas, and it's a treat to watch this fearless little feist stand up to his enemies and whip the living shenanigans out of them.

The quarrelsome relationship between Ethan and his half-sister fuels this tragic tale of redemption. Mia (newcomer Kelly Arjen) is sweet sixteen and cavorts with the wrong crowd. She'd rather take her boyfriend's abuse and get high than attend school. Ethan hates her cocaine snorting posse. Eventually, he discovers Mia and her decadent lothario, Lars (Jake T. Austin), owe $20 thousand to a junky drug dealer, Dante (Brian A. Metcalf), who cannot keep track of either his drugs or his collections. Meantime, poor Ethan, who keeps Mia and he solvent as a humble Uber-esque rideshare driver, has been suspended because his passengers have complained about his attitude. Everything changes when Ethan picks up Kaden (Mickey Rourke of "The Expendables") after midnight and gets him to his destination using his familiarity with all the short-cuts to get around traffic. Sufficiently impressed with Ethan's expertise as a driver, Kaden offers him a full-time job as his driver. As it turns out, Dante works for Kaden, and Kaden isn't happy with Dante's abysmal bookkeeping skills.

Meanwhile, Ethan convinces his pompous rideshare supervisor Frankie (Sean Austin of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy) to cough up the $10 grand in back pay owed him. Ethan cuts a deal with Dante to clear Mia of her share of Lars' debt. Later, Kaden dispatches two bottom feeding thugs to extract from Dante what he owes Kaden. Furthermore, they insist on getting the names of those delinquent debtors. Initially, Dante refuses to give them Mia's name until they threaten to kill him. Imagine Ethan's shock when a pair of detectives usher him into the city morgue to identify Mia. They tell him that she died from a massive overdose and her arm is swollen purple with needle puncture wounds.

As Kaden's full-time driver now, Ethan soldiers on despite Mia's demise. He wins a sympathetic reprieve from his ill-tempered parole officer, Dr. Cruz (Lou Diamond Phillips of "Young Guns"), who sincerely wants to help him. Meantime, Ethan accompanies one of Kaden's lieutenants, Jake (Matt Ryan), out to collect a tavern owner's long-standing debt after the guy had skipped town. Jake wants to kill the barman, but Ethan brokers a deal between them. No sooner has Jake gotten a pittance out of the cash-strapped entrepreneur than he guns him down without a qualm. Jake reads Ethan the riot act. Debt collection is a kill or be killed racket. He explains that Kaden keeps murderous misfits on his payroll for that reason. Furthermore, he warns Ethan if he doesn't want to catch lead in the head, he had better be just as homicidal.

Eventually, Ethan finds himself chauffeuring two of Kaden's lethal debt collectors, Jan (Andrew Keegan of "April Rain") and Rick (Jason James of "Living Among Us"), around town. These stone-cold killers decide to get chummy with Ethan, and they brag openly about their exploits. Principally, they confess to him without knowing his identity that they killed Mia. Rick reveals they injected her with enough smack to boil her brains. Ethan has had enough of enough and brandishes that tire-iron to wreak vengeance on Kaden and his entire operation from top to bottom without a shred of mercy.

"Adverse" amounts to a poor man's "John Wick" as our genuinely charismatic hero finds himself behind an ominous 8-ball. He wields that tire-iron like a wizard, and nobody escapes his wrath. Mind you, this doesn't mean he has a picnic knocking off Kaden's army of goons. He encounters one Goliath who fends off blows from his tire-iron as if he were beating him repeatedly with a pool noodle. Mickey Rourke looks like an alien from another planet as Kaden, and he sports his own cane, smashing heads among his own crime syndicate when things go sideways. The final confrontation between Ethan and Kaden brings everything full circle. Altogether, Ethan winds up saving one of Mia's friends from death. Director Brian A. Metcalf not only wrote and directed this gripping revenge-themed crime drama, but he also co-stars as Dante, the slimy drug dealer. Watching Ethan crown his adversaries in the R-rated "Adverse" makes for a deliriously liberating experience that clocks in at 94 agile minutes.

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