“JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT” (2014) Review

,JACK-RYAN

“JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT” (2014) Review

There have been four previous movies that featured the literary character, Jack Ryan. But those four movies were adaptations of novels written by the late Tom Clancy. Paramount Pictures released a fifth movie featuring the character called “JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT”. Unlike the previous four movies, this fifth one is not based upon a Clancy novel.

Directed by Kenneth Branaugh and written by Adam Cozad and David Koepp, “JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT” is presented as a reboot that chronicles Jack Ryan’s early years as a C.I.A. analyst. I realize that the 2002 movie, “THE SUM OF ALL FEARS” also featured Jack’s early years as an analyst. But Jack was already established with the C.I.A. in that film. “JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT” also chronicled Jack’s years as a graduate student in Britain, his time as a U.S. Marine in Afghanistan and how he ended up being recruited into the C.I.A. The movie also revealed how he had recovered from a deadly helicopter crash and met his future wife, Dr. Cathy Muller. But more importantly, the movie’s basic plot is about Jack uncovered a Russian plot to crash the U.S. economy with a terrorist attack and send the country into another Great Depression.

Once the circumstances leading to Jack’s recruitment into the C.I.A. was conveyed, Cozad and Koepp’s screenplay began with Jack working undercover as a compliance officer at a Wall Street stock brokerage, looking for suspect financial transactions that indicated terrorist activity. After the Russian Federation loses a key vote before the United Nations, Jack discovers that trillions of dollars held by Russian organizations have disappeared. A large number of those funds are controlled by a veteran of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Viktor Cherevin. The latter and a group of Russian politicans are seeking revenge against the Americans for the latter’s intervention in that particular invasion. Since Jack’s Wall Street employer does business with Cherevin and Jack discovers that certain accounts are inaccessible to him as auditor, he has a reason to visit Moscow and investigate. Unfortunately for Jack, he narrowly survives an assassination attempt upon his arrival in Moscow . . . and is forced to send out an S.O.S. to the C.I.A. for help. Even worse, his fiancée Cathy suspects him of having an affair and flies to Moscow to confront him. In the end, Jack and his C.I.A. recruiter William Harper not only have to find a way to stop Cherevin, but also keep Cathy out of danger.

Russians and terrorist attacks. Hmmmm . . . I have noticed that the use of Russian politics as a bogeyman has been very popular in Hollywood political thrillers lately. Is this due to the unpopularity of that country’s current leader, Vladimir Putin? I wonder. Am I putting down the plot for “JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT”? As I just hinted, I did not find the use of post-Soviet Russians as villains original. And the villains’ goal to destroy the U.S. economy did not seem original, as well. I have four more complaints about the movie. One, I never saw the necessity of including Jack’s years before the C.I.A. – as a graduate student in Britain and his time in the U.S. Marines. In fact, it was not really necessary for screenwriters to designate the William Harper character as Jack’s recruiter, since he was more important in Jack’s efforts to prevent Cherevin’s plot to destroy the U.S. economy. I must admit that I was somewhat disappointed by Cozad and Koepp’s use of the Cathy Muller character as a damsel-in-distress – especially in the movie’s second half. And speaking of the second half, once Jack and Harper fly back to the U.S. to prevent the attack, the plot seemed to rush forward with the speed of a runaway train. As for the movie’s title – I found it cumbersome and amateurish. Enough said.

Despite its flaws, I still enjoyed “JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT”. Despite a plot that lacked originality, I must admit that I found it entertaining. Three-fourths of the plot regarding the terrorist attack struck me as well-paced. And I must admit that possessed a great deal of suspense – especially in the sequence that featured Jack’s attempt to download Cherevin’s files in the middle of a dinner party between him, Cherevin and Cathy in Moscow. The movie also had its share of first-rate action sequences. I was especially impressed by the assassination attempt on Jack inside his Moscow hotel room, Jack and Harper’s attempt to rescue the kidnapped Cathy from Cherevin during a car chase, and the final action scene in which Jack tries to prevent Cherevin’s son from blowing up Wall Street. I thought Kenneth Braunagh handled those scenes very well. I was also impressed by his direction of two particular dramatic scenes – Cathy’s confrontation with Jack and Harper inside the younger man’s hotel room; along with Jack and Cathy’s tense dinner with Cherevin at a Moscow restaurant. The movie also benefited from Haris Zambarloukos’ sleek and colorful photography – especially the Moscow sequences, Martin Walsh’s editing in the Moscow hotel fight scene, the Cherevin dinner sequence and the final action sequence in Manhattan.

“JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT” featured some pretty solid performances. Both Chris Pine and Keira Knightley were excellent as the younger Jack Ryan and Cathy Muller. And the two performers rose above the occasion to really shine in the scene that featured their characters’ Moscow confrontation about their relationship. Colm Feore and David Paymer gave brief, yet entertaining performances in the movie. It seemed a pity that they did not have more scenes. Alec Utgoff was properly villainous in a subtle way as the terrorist Aleksandr Borovsky. But I feel that the movie’s two best performances came from Kevin Costner and director Kenneth Branaugh, who portrayed Jack’s mentor William Harper and the main villain Viktor Cherevin. In a way, it almost seemed a pity that Costner was not the main hero of this story. He was excellent as the cool and resourceful Harper. More importantly, he reminded me – and a relative of mine – that he was charismatic as ever and had not lost his screen presence. Branaugh had the more difficult task of serving as the movie’s director, which he performed with great style; and portraying the movie’s leading villain. And he did a superb job of conveying Cherevin’s frightening personality without being over-the-top about it.

Considering that “JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT” was released in January, I was not expecting it to be some top-notch action thriller that usually rakes in a lot of money during the summer movie season. And the movie pretty much lived up to my expectations. I could never regard “JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT” as one of the better action movies I have seen. And I certainly do not regard it as highly as I do the other four movies in the Jack Ryan movie franchise. But as I had earlier pointed out, Kenneth Branaugh still managed to direct the movie with a good deal of style and energy. The plot may not have been that original, but it still proved to be entertaining. And the first-rate performances from a cast led by Chris Pine did a lot to make this movie somewhat worthy to me.

“SOURCE CODE” (2011) Review

“SOURCE CODE” (2011) Review

It is a miracle that I ever got the chance to see the new techno-thriller, “SOURCE CODE”. It is a miracle . . . at least to me, because I never saw a movie trailer or read an article about it before the eve of its release. I would have ignored it completely if I had not noticed several billboards advertising the movie throughout the city. And since the movie featured actors I happened to admire, I decided to go see it. 

Directed by Duncan Jones and written by Ben Ripley, “SOURCE CODE” is about a decorated army helicopter pilot named Colter Stevens, who finds himself on a mission to locate the maker of a bomb that exploded and destroyed a train headed into downtown Chicago. Stevens is isolated inside a chamber, where he communicates with Air Force Captain Colleen Goodwin. She explains to Stevens via a computer screen that he is inside the Source Code, a program that allows him to take over someone’s body in his or her last eight minutes of life. He learns from the program’s creator, Dr. Rutledge that the Source Code is not a simulation, but a visit into the past in the form of an alternative reality. Stevens cannot truly alter the past to save any of the passengers, but that he must gather intelligence that can be used to alter the future and prevent a future attack. In short, Steven’s mission is to locate the bomb on the train, discover who had built it and report back to Goodwin and Dr. Rutledge before the bomber can detonate a second larger bomb, a dirty nuclear device in Chicago.

While watching the movie’s first half hour, I had assumed that the psychic essence of the Colter Stevens’ character was being sent back into the past to change the timeline and prevent the destruction of the train. I thought that this was some kind of cinematic version of the old UPN television series, “SEVEN DAYS” (1998-2001). But Stevens eventually discovered how he got the assignment to identify the bomber. Confused and frustrated, he used the cell phone of a train passenger and discovered that he had supposedly died in the Afghanistan war two months earlier and that his severely injured body was appropriated by the Air Force and used by Dr. Rutledge to enter the Source Code. When that plot twist was revealed, I realized that “SOURCE CODE” might have more in common with both the U.K. and U.S. versions of“LIFE ON MARS”.

“SOURCE CODE” was not a hit. Although the movie earned three times the amount of its budget, it really did not earn that much at the box office, despite favorable reviews from critics. Pity. Because I believe that it was a well made film. I also have to give kudos to Don Burgess for his supervision of the movie’s visual effects, including his photography of Montreal and Chicago. I was especially impressed at how he and his crew handled a particular scene in which the Stevens character exchanged romantic glances with one of the train’s passengers, a woman named Christina Warren, while the train was being incinerated by the terrorist’s bomb.

Director Duncan Jones did justice to Ben Ripley’s first-rate script with excellent pacing and action sequences. And using the superb cast led by Jake Gyllenhaal, he handled the dramatic scenes very well. Jones managed to do a great job in balancing both the dramatic and actions sequences. But what really made “SOURCE CODE” very appealing to me was Ben Ripley’s screenplay. I cannot help but admire how he paced each big revelation in the movie’s story without rushing or bringing it to a slow crawl. And as I had watched the movie reached its finale, it occurred to me that “SOURCE CODE”ended on a note that I believe that the U.S. version of “LIFE ON MARS” should have. I found the whole experience very satisfying.

Earlier, I had commented on the superb acting in the “SOURCE CODE”. And I still maintain that belief. Although the movie featured solid acting by the supporting cast, it was the four main leads that shined . . . at least in my opinion. Jake Gyllenhaal did a marvelous job in his portrayal of Coulter Stevens, the military helicopter pilot that found himself a part of a government program that he never signed for. Gyllenhaal perfectly conveyed his character’s initial confusion, growing awareness of the Source Code program, his growing affection toward the Christina Warren character. And the actor managed to pull all of these acting chops and remain a very effective action hero. Both Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright as Colleen Goodwin and Dr. Rutledge respectively, took me by surprise. Literally. Farmiga’s Captain Goodwin started out as a cool professional that utilized a brusque manner to ensure the completion of Stevens’ mission. But the actress did an excellent job in conveying her character’s growing attachment and compassion toward the doomed helicopter pilot. Wright’s Dr. Rutledge followed a reverse path. When his character was first introduced, I was left with the impression of a slightly nervous and shy man who was determined to save Chicago. But as the movie progressed, Wright slowly, but effectively pulled back the layers of his character to reveal a man, whose obsession with his creation had eroded a great deal of humanity from his personality. Behind the shy and nervous man was a ruthless being that lacked any compassion whatsoever. Watching Wright perform, it occurred to me that he has become a true chameleon, capable of getting under the skin of any character. Michelle Monaghan’s portrayal of the passenger Christina Warren seemed to lack the complexity of the other three major characters. But I must admit that she did a great job in portraying her character as a warm and vibrant personality. One could not label her character as a “damsel-in-distress”. After all, her character had died before the movie’s first reel. But it finally occurred to me that instead of the damsel, Monaghan’s Christina Warren served as Coulter Steven’s emotional center.

Did “SOURCE CODE” have any flaws? Well . . . I realize that I had commented on the supporting cast’s “solid” action. And I stand by my word. However, not all of them were perfect. There were a few characters among the train’s passengers that struck me as a tad over-the-top. If the movie had any other flaws, I did not notice. I was too busy being intrigued and entertained by Ben Ripley’s first-rate story, Duncan Jones’ direction and the superb acting by the movie’s four leads. It is a pity that the movie failed to become a major hit, despite earning a profit. I still believe that it had deserved to become one.

“FLASHMAN” (1969) Book Review

“FLASHMAN” (1969) Book Review

Forty-one years ago, an old literary character was re-introduced to many readers, thanks to a former Scottish journalist named George MacDonald Fraser. The author took a character from a famous Victorian novel and created a series of novels that placed said character in a series of historical events throughout the middle and second half of the 19th century.

The 1857 novel, ”TOM BROWN’S SCHOOLDAYS”, told the story of a young English boy named Tom Brown and his experiences at the famous school, Rugby, during the 1830s. One of Tom’s travails focused on his abuse at the hands of an older student – a bully – named Flashman. However, Flashman got drunk at a local tavern and in the following morning was expelled by Rugby’s famous headmaster, Dr. Thomas Arnold. Fraser took the Flashman character, gave him a first name – Harry – and continued his story following the expulsion from Rugby in the 1969 novel, ”FLASHMAN”.

The beginning of the novel saw the seventeen year-old Harry Flashman trying to find a new profession following his expulsion from Rugby. Due to his father’s wealth and his maternal Uncle Bindley Paget’s social connections, Flashman found a position as a junior officer in one of Britain’s most elite Army regiments, the 11th Hussars aka the Cherrypickers. And thanks to his talent for toadying and projecting a sense of style (inherited from his aristocratic late mother), Flashman managed to win the support and favor of the regimental commander, the haughty James Thomas Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan. Unfortunately, Flashman’s ideal life as a leisurely Army officer came to an end. His involvement with the French mistress of a fellow officer kicked off a series of events that led to Flashman being swept into the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842). One of those events included seducing one Elspeth Morrison, the sixteen year-old daughter of a wealthy Scottish merchant. After being forced to marry her by her relations, Flashman was kicked out of the 11th Hussars and sent to India by Lord Cardigan, who regarded the marriage as a step down the social ladder for the usually favored young Army officer.

It was in Afghanistan that Flashman earned the nickname, “Bloody Lance” by taking credit for his servant’s killing of four Afghan attackers. There, he also met one Ilderim Khan, the son of a pro-British Afghan nobleman and became the latter’s lifelong friend and blood brother. This friendship would end up saving Flashman’s life during the Sepoy Rebellion in”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. Flashman also managed to earn two deadly enemies – an Afghan warlord named Gul Shah and his mistress (later wife), a dancer named Narreeman. The source of the pair’s enmity toward Flashman originated with his rape of Narreeman.

More importantly, ”FLASHMAN” allowed readers to view many important events of the First Anglo-Afghan War. Not only did Flashman meet many historical figues such as Lord Cardigan, Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, the Duke of Wellington, but also Alexander Burnes, Akbar Khan, William Macnaghten, Thomas Arnold, and the incompetent commander of the British Army in Afghanistan, General William Elphinstone.

I must admit that my opinion of the novel has changed a great deal over the years. Originally, I held a low opinion of”FLASHMAN” for years, comparing it to the more epic-like sagas such as ”FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” (1973),”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” (1975)”FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” (1982) and ”FLASHMAN AND THE DRAGON” (1985). I still regard these four novels in a higher regard than ”FLASHMAN”. But I must admit that perhaps I had been a little unfair in my regard for the 1969 novel. It is actually a solid adventure story filled with historical interest, witty humor, sharp action and excellent pacing. Some fans of The Flashman Papers have expressed disgust or disenchantment with the Harry Flashman character portrayed in this novel. I suspect that a great deal of these negative opinions may have stemmed from Flashman’s rape of Narreeman. And I understand. However, many of these fans also complained about the young British officer’s crass style and manner – especially toward his father’s mistress, Judy. One has to remember that Harry Flashman aged from 17 to 20 years old in this story. He did convey some semblance of the style, common sense and instinct that would fool many people and serve him for years. But as an adolescent on the threshold of twenty, he had yet to learn some of the hard facts of life. As for his rough treatment and negative opinion of Judy, I suspect that his ego suffered a massive blow, when she rejected him, following a one-time bout under the sheets. A blow that he obviously had failed to recover from after six decades, while ”writing” his memoirs.

”FLASHMAN” also had its share of interesting fictional characters. I have already mentioned the villainous Gul Shah and his mistress (later wife) Narreeman. I have also mentioned the young Afghan who became a close friend of Flashy’s, Ilderim Khan. But he had an even larger role in ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. And as I had mentioned, Elspeth also appeared in the novel. However, her presence in the novel would not be truly felt, until the last chapter that featured Harry’s homecoming. Fraser barely explored her personality in the novel, but he did allow a peek into her promiscuous and self-absorbed nature in that last chapter. One particular character, Sergeant Hudson, proved to be a reliable source of defense for Flashman during the retreat from Kabul. During this event, Flashman experienced one of the most bizarre moments of his life, while being rejected by the young wife of an Army officer named Mrs. Betty Parker, whom he was trying to seduce:

“‘What the devil’ says I. ‘What’s the matter?’

‘Oh, you brute!’ she hissed – for she had the sense to keep her voice down – ‘you filthy, beastly brute! Get out of my tent at once! At once, d’you her?’

I could make nothing of this, and said so. ‘What have I done? I was only being friendly. What are you acting so damned missish for?’

‘Oh base!’ says she. ‘You . . . you . . .’

‘Oh, come now,’ says I. ‘You’re in very high ropes, to be sure. You weren’t so proper when I squeezed you the other night.’

‘Squeezed me?’ says she, as though I had uttered some unmentionable word.

‘Aye, squeezed. Like this.’ And I reached over and, with a quick fumble in the dark, caught one of her breasts. To my amazement, she didn’t seem to mind.

‘Oh, that!’ she says. ‘What an evil creature you are! You know that is nothing; all gentlemen do that, in affection. But you, you monstrous beast, presume on my friendship to try to . . . Oh, oh, I could die of shame!’

If I had not heard her I shouldn’t have believed it. God knows I have learned enough since of the inadequacies of education given to young Englishwomen, but this was incredible.”

This last encounter with Mrs. Betty Parker struck me as a hilarious metaphor for the blindingly naïve morality that had began to encroach early Victorian society.

”FLASHMAN” also provided some interesting historical vignettes from the First Anglo-Afghan War. And young Flashman managed to witness or participate in a good number of them. The novel allowed him to be the sole surviving British witness to the murder of political officer, Sir Alexander Burnes and his younger brother, Charles. He also witnessed the murder of another political officer named Sir William Macnaghten, along with Last Stand at Gandamak and the Siege of Jalalabad. But Fraser’s pièce de résistance in ”FLASHMAN” proved to be the disasterous Kabul retreat in which the British contingent under General Elphinstone were forced to march from Afghanistan to India in cold weather and dire circumstances:

“From other accounts of that frightful march that I have read – mostly Mackenzie’s and Lawrence’s and Lady Sale’s – I can fit a few of my recollections into their chronicle, but in the main it is just a terrible, bloody nightmare even now, more than sixty years after. Ice and blood and groans and death and despair, and the shrieks of dying men and women and the howling of the Ghazis and Gilzais. They rushed and struck, and rushed and struck again, mostly at the camp-followers, until it seemed there was a slashed brown body every yard of the way. The only place of safety was in the heart of Shelton’s main body, where the sepoys still kept some sort of order; I suggested to Elphy when we set off that I and my lancers should ride guard on the womenfolk, and he agreed at once. It was a wise move on my part, for the attacks on the flanks were now so frequent that the work we had been doing yesterday was become fatally dangerous. Mackenzie’s jezzailchis were cut to ribbons stemming the sorties.”

Reading the above passage made me wonder about the wisdom of the current Western presence in Afghanistan. And there is nothing like a British military disaster to bring out the best of Fraser’s writing skulls. It proved to be the first of such passages in novels like ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” and ”FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS”.

In the end, Fraser did a solid job in initiating what would proved to be The Flashman Papers in his first novel,”FLASHMAN”. Granted, the novel’s first part set in England struck me as slightly rushed. And the Harry Flashman character seemed a bit crude in compare to his characterizations in the novels that followed. Like many other readers, I found his rape of the Narreeman character hard to stomach. But Fraser did an excellent job in re-creating early Victorian Britain, British India, Afghanistan and the First Anglo-Afghan War. In short, ”FLASHMAN” turned out to be a solid start to an excellent series of historical novels.

“THE A-TEAM” (2010) Review

“THE A-TEAM” (2010) Review

I might as well lay my cards on the table. Ever since I saw my first episode, I have always been a major fan of the 1983-1987 television series, ”THE A-TEAM”. So, when I had seen the trailer for the movie adaptation of the series, I naturally reacted with pure dismay. 

For me, the movie, ”THE A-TEAM”, represented another endless attempt by Hollywood to create box office gold from an old television series. Mind you, not all of Hollywood’s efforts have been in vain. But judging from what I had seen in the movie trailer, I simply could not see myself enjoying the 2010 movie.

Unlike the television series, ”THE A-TEAM” is more or less an origin tale about how four U.S. Army Special Forces combatants became soldiers of fortune after being convicted for a crime they did not commit. The movie’s first twenty minutes revealed how Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith first created his team during an assignment to lure a reengage Mexican Army officer-turned-drug lord onto U.S. soil or airspace for prosecution. Already working with him is Lieutenant Templeton “Faceman” Peck, who is a prisoner at the general’s ranch. Along the way, Hannibal recruits a recently disgraced ex-Ranger named Bosco “B.A.” Baracus and a mentally volatile Army pilot named Captain H.M. “Howling Mad” Murdock to assist him in his assignment and thus, a new Army intelligence unit is born.

The story jumped eight years later where the A-Team find themselves looking forward to being deployed out of Iraq with the rest of the American military personnel. However, a C.I.A. agent named Lynch recruits Hannibal and the Team into retrieving U.S. Treasury plates and manufactured currency from Iraqi insurgents. U.S. Army Captain Charissa Sosa, a former lover of Face’s; and Hannibal’s commanding officer, General Morrison, warns the Team to stay away from the plates and Baghdad. But the Team goes ahead with the “Black Ops” mission and successfully retrieves the plates and the money. Upon their return to base, the shipping container carrying the money and General Morrison’s vehicle are destroyed. And the leader of a private security team named Brock Pike steals the plates. With General Morrison dead, there is no one to inform Army authorities that they had been authorized to act. The Team is sentenced to ten years in prison.

Try as I may, I cannot recall one specific episode of the television series. I can remember certain moments and many interactions between the B.A. and Murdock characters; but I cannot recall a specific episode. This should not be that surprising to me. The writing for the television series had never been that impressive. The main characters and the action, after all, drew me to the series; not the writing. I do believe that screenwriters Joe Carnahan (who also directed), Brian Bloom and Skip Woods created a slightly better story than anything the series had ever been able to produce. But I would not exactly call the screenplay unique or mind blowing.

The gist of the story mainly focused upon the Team’s efforts to find Pike and the Treasury plates in order to clear their names. Mind you, I found the circumstances leading up to the Team’s arrest rather confusing. After all, they did return to base after completing their mission, instead of disappearing from Iraq. With Pike gone with the plates, why prosecute the Team for the crime? And what crime was they accused of committing? The theft of the missing plates? Or killing Morrison? Once the movie shifted toward their escape from prison and efforts to find the plates and Pike, it shifted back upon solid ground. The movie also featured some pretty fantastic stunts that would have made the television series proud. But the pièce de résistance centered upon a sequence in which the Team finally get their hands on the plates from a high-rise bank in Germany. The movie also featured a hilarious moment in which Face discovered that he had given both B.A. and Murdock the wrong passports at a German airport. The finale at the Port of Los Angeles strongly reminded me of the finale featured in the recent movie, ”THE LOSERS”. I wonder who came up with the idea first.

As I had earlier stated, there were two aspects of the television series that made it memorable for me – the action sequences and the characters. This new movie certainly DID NOT disappoint that regard. Liam Neeson, last seen in the 2009 action movie, ”TAKEN”, assumed George Peppard’s role of Hannibal Smith. And he did a fine job. Mind you, his Hannibal did not seem to have much of a sense of humor – especially where Face was concerned. But he obviously drew his experience from previous action films to project the aura of a strong and wily leader. I only have two complaints about Neeson’s performance – his American accent seemed shaky and he should stay away from cigars. Bradley Cooper gave a verbose performance as the Team’s smooth-talking ladies’ man, Face. Like Dirk Benedict before him, he was attractive and witty. Yet, the screenwriters took his character one step further by allowing his Face to show his potential as a schemer on the same level as Hannibal.

My dismay at the trailer for ”THE A-TEAM” extended to the idea of Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson portraying the memorable B.A. Baracus. He seemed a far cry from Mr. T’s performance in the television series. Thankfully, my fears came to nothing. Although Jackson’s performance was not an exact replica of Mr. T’s, he made a great B.A. and he put his own twist to the character with the help of director Joe Carnahan and the three screenwriters. Actually, his B.A. seemed to have a little more depth and for some reason, I cannot see Mr. T pulling this off. No none was more surprised than me to discover that the same Sharlto Copely who portrayed “Howling Mad” Murdock is the same actor who portrayed the lead in last year’s ”DISTRICT 9”. I knew the guy was not a Southerner. His accent seemed a bit heavy a times. But I had no idea that “crazy” Murdock was portrayed by the South African actor. But I must admit that he was hilarious in the role. Hell, he was just as funny as Dwight Schultz. His interactions with both Cooper and especially Jackson were spot on.

Fortunately for ”THE A-TEAM”, its supporting cast was just as strong. Jessica Biel gave a strong performance as the righteous and determined Captain Charissa Sosa, who is assigned to hunt down both the Team and the Treasury plates. One particular scene also proved that she had great chemistry with Cooper. Gerald McRaney gave a solid cameo performance as Hannibal’s friend and commanding officer, General Morrison. Brian Bloom (one of the screenwriters) was suitably conniving and intimidating as the Black Forest private mercenary. However, there were moments when his performance came off as a bit over-the-top. But the man who really surprised me was Patrick Wilson. Aside from his performance as the uptight William Travis in 2004’s ”THE ALAMO”, he never struck me as an interesting actor. Until I saw him in ”THE A-TEAM”. He was hilarious and despicable as the smug and self-absorbed C.I.A. agent, Lynch. Not only was his performance a revelation, his Lynch seemed to be the most interesting role he has ever portrayed.

If anyone is expecting ”THE A-TEAM” to be a mind-blowing experience, he or she will be disappointed. Superficially, the movie struck me as a typical action movie. I must admit that it does contain some pretty interesting action sequences. If there is one true virtue that the movie possesses, it is its cast. They were superb – especially the main four actors who portray the soldiers of fortune, the A-Team. Between Carnahan’s direction of the action sequences and the performances of Neeson, Cooper, Jackson and Copley; they made this cinematic version of ”THE A-TEAM” to be one of the most fun movies I have experienced last summer.

“NATIONAL TREASURE 2: THE BOOK OF SECRETS” (2007) and “CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR” (2007) Reviews

“NATIONAL TREASURE 2: THE BOOK OF SECRETS” (2007) and “CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR” (2007)  Reviews

Three years ago, two movies were released in the theaters . . . two movies that could not be anymore different than if they had tried. I am speaking of “NATIONAL TREASURE 2: THE BOOK OF SECRETS” and “CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR”. The first movie, starring Nicholas Cage and Jon Voight, is a sequel to the 2004 Disney film, “NATIONAL TREASURE”. The other is a comedy-drama about a Texas congressman from the 1980s who found himself involved in Afghanistan’s attempts to free itself from a Soviet invasion.

“National Treasure 2: The Book of Secrets”

This sequel to the 2004 movie – “National Treasure” – opens with the Gates family – Benjamin and Patrick (Nicholas Cage and Jon Voight) – learning from a black market dealer named Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) that their Civil War ancestor Thomas Gates (Joel Gretsch) may have been the mastermind behind Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Wilkinson’s so-called proof came from assassin John Wilkes Booth’s diary. To prove their ancestor’s innocence and family honor, Ben and Patrick recruit the aid of family friend Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), Ben’s estranged girlfriend Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), Patrick’s ex-wife Emily Appleton (Helen Mirren), FBI Agent Sadusky (Harvey Keitel) and even the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood) to help them find the treasure of gold that would vindicate Thomas Gates and the family’s name.

In a nutshell, this sequel turned out to be just as fun and exciting as the first movie. Ben Gates and company follow clues that lead them from Paris to London to Washington D.C. and finally Mount Rushmore in the Dakota Black Hills. The cast were their usual competent selves and Ed Harris turned out to be just as effective as a villain as Sean Bean had been in the first film. My favorite sequences included Ben, Abigail and Riley’s attempt to gain access to one of the rooms at Buckingham Palace, Ben and Abigail’s minor adventures at the White House and Ben’s kidnapping of the President at Mount Vernon.

I did have a few problems with the movie. My biggest gripe turned out to be the treasure itself. I realize that the Templar treasure found in the first film could not be topped. But I must admit that the City of Gold found beneath Mount Rushmore had failed to impress me at all. And why end the movie at Mount Rushmore? Granted there was a war between American settlers and the Dakota Sioux in 1862, but what did that have to do with the Civil War? I would have been happier if the movie’s setting had remained on the East Coast.

Aside from these minor gripes, “National Treasure 2: The Book of Secrets” turned out to be as entertaining as the first film. I would highly recommend it.

“Charlie Wilson’s War”

This historical drama told the story of recently departed Texas congressman Charles Wilson (Tom Hanks)’s efforts to get the United States to aid the Mujahideen (Afghanistan freedom fighters) in their fight against the military invaders from the Soviet Union during the 1980s. Urged on by his staunchly anti-Communist friend and romantic interest, Texas heiress Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), Wilson became deeply involved to help the Afghans throw the Soviets out of their country without the world knowing about U.S. involvement. The film not only revealed Wilson’s growing disdain for the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, it also gave moviegoers a look into his gregarious social life of women and partying.

Judging from the movie’s Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nomination, one could see that “Charlie Wilson’s War”has become a front-runner for Academy Award nominations. Does it deserve the acclamation? I do not know. Granted, Mike Nichols did a competent job in allowing moviegoers a peek into Washington and international politics, and C.I.A. policies. Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman (as C.I.A. operative Gust Avrakotos) were excellent. But if I must be honest, the movie did not give me a charge. I liked it. I really found it entertaining. But I did not love it. When leaving the theater, I had this feeling that something was missing. It could have been the unsatisfying ending, which I found to be rushed. Or perhaps I thought the story could have required a little more depth.

I cannot say that “Charlie Wilson’s War” was great. But I did find it entertaining. And if you are intrigued by a look into American politics during the 1980s, I would highly recommend it.

“GREEN ZONE” (2010) Review

“GREEN ZONE” (2010) Review

Over three years ago, journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran wrote a book about the early days after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the occupation and governance particularly of Baghdad and the search for weapons of mass destruction. Director Paul Greengrass and actor Matt Damon took ”Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone” and turned it into a political thriller about the clashing ideals of U.S. personnel on how to handle the occupation of Iraq. 

The story began with U.S. Army Warrant Officer Roy Miller’s search of a third location for weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) allegedly created by Saddam Hussein’s government. Upon arriving at this third location, Miller discovered no signs of mass destruction weapons being manufactured or stored . . . just as he had discovered at the two previous locations. During a debriefing at the American “Green Zone” (the location of the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad), Miller announced his discoveries or lack of them and openly questioned the intelligence reports regarding the weapons. His comments earned the attention of the CIA’s Baghdad bureau chief, Martin Brown and Clark Poundstone, a Pentagon Special Intelligence official. The two men have different agendas regarding the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Brown wanted to utilize Saddam Hussein’s Army generals to help the U.S. keep the peace and prevent the country from succumbing to civil war. Poundstone, on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with the generals. Instead, he wanted them dead and to install a pro-American puppet named Ahmed Zubadi as Iraq’s new leader. When an Iraqui man named ‘Freddy’ informed Miller of the location of the Iraqi generals, the warrant officer not only found himself caught between Brown and Poundstone’s agendas, but those of other characters – including his own.

”GREEN ZONE” is not the best political thriller I have ever seen. But I must admit that it is a pretty damn good movie. What made this particular movie interesting is that nearly all of the major characters have their own agendas. Some managed to achieve their agendas. Some did not. And at least one managed to achieve his agenda, only to lose in the end. ”GREEN ZONE” turned out to be one of the most ambiguous stories I have seen in recent years. Ambiguous on a level that would surprise many. And I suspect that many moviegoers would have preferred if the supporting characters’ moral compass – especially those of the Iraqi characters – had been a little less murky. But Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland decided not to take that route. And I am glad. The supporting characters’ ambiguity not only forced the lead character, Roy Miller, to become a wiser man; but made the story more interesting to me.

In another review of ”GREEN ZONE”, I read a complaint that none of the main characters really developed. I would disagree . . . from a certain point of view. What happened to most of the main characters was that most found themselves forced to face the realities of their situations. They spent so much of their time pursuing a particular agenda, until they realized that what they had wanted or were fighting for was nothing more than an illusion. Not only did Miller come to this realization, but also the movie’s main antagonist, Clark Poundstone.

”GREEN ZONE” marked Matt Damon’s third collaboration with director Paul Greengrass. If anyone had expected U.S. Warrant Officer Roy Miller to be another Jason Bourne, they would end up disappointed. Damon’s Roy Miller was not some superspy trying to come to terms with his violent past. Miller was a well-trained and competent Army warrant officer (ranked below a commissioned officer and above a high ranking non-commissioned officer) who had naively believed the Bush Administration’s propaganda about Iraq’s mass destruction weapons program. Damon did a top-notch job in conveying Miller’s slow realization that not only had he been naïve regarding his country’s decision to invade Iraq, but also about Iraq’s political situation. By the movie’s end, his Miller was still a very competent Army warrant officer. But the character also became a wiser and slightly embittered man. As a side note, the Miller character was based upon Warrant Officer Richard (Monty) Gonzales, whose Mobile Exploitation Team was charged with finding the WMDs during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Greg Kinnear was excellent as usual in his portrayal of the Pentagon Special Intelligence official, Clark Poundstone. His Poundstone seemed to have an air of a typical politician – charming, manipulative and very arrogant. Yet, these very traits blinded Poundstone from the true state of Iraqi politics. And Kinnear ably conveyed the official’s shock upon realizing that he had been very naïve. Brendan Gleeson’s character, CIA bureau chief Martin Brown, seemed like a different kettle of fish. Although both men were manipulative, Brown seemed more appraised of Iraq’s political situation and a lot more honest with Miller – a situation that would lead him to make the warrant officer an ally. And Gleeson did an excellent job in conveying Brown’s failure to consider the lengths Poundstone would go to achieve his goal.

The rest of the supporting cast also provided first-rate support – aside from one. Khalid Abdalla gave an emotional performance as ‘Freddy’, an Iraqi man who revealed the presence of Saddam’s generals and became Miller’s interpreter. His own personal agenda would prove to be the story’s wild card. Amy Ryan gave a complex performance as Lawrie Dayne, the journalist who realized that Poundstone had used her as a propaganda machine for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Her character was based upon former New York Times reporter, Judith Miller. Ambiguity seemed to be the name of the game in Yigal Naor’s performance as the ruthless General Al-Rawi, the Iraqi general who eventually discovered that Poundstone had lied to him about utilizing the Iraqi Army to help the U.S. keep the peace. The one performance that struck a negative note to me belonged to Jason Isaacs, who portrayed Major Briggs, an unscrupulous Delta Force officer, who portrayed Poundstone’s personal thug. I am not accusing Isaacs of a bad performance. I have to lay the blame upon Brian Helgeland, who wrote the character as one-dimensional. I doubt that any actor as talented as Isaacs could have done anything with the role except portray him as written – a murderous, yet competent thug.

Production designer Dominic Watkins did a solid job in recapturing the chaos of those early months of the American presence in Iraq. The contrast between war-torn Baghdad and the resort-like atmosphere of ‘the Green Zone’ struck me as amazing. Do not ask me about John Powell’s score for the movie, because I found it unmemorable. However, I cannot say the same about Barry Ackroyd’s photography. For me, it brought back bad memories of the shaky cam style featured in previous Greengrass/Damon movies like ”THE BOURNE SUPREMACY” and ”THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM”. This particular cinematography style struck me as even more confusing in ”GREEN ZONE” This was especially apparent in the movie’s final action sequence. Just imagine the shaky cam photography and editing from the last two BOURNE films in a sequence shot at night and you might see how confused and dizzy I had felt from the experience.

As I had stated earlier, I would never call ”GREEN ZONE” one of the best political thrillers or war movies I have seen. The movie possessed certain elements I did not care for – the cinematography, Christopher Rouse’s editing and the portrayal of Jason Isaacs’ character. But the movie did have an interesting and complex story. The rest of the cast gave first-rate performances, given the ambiguous roles written for them. In the end, both Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon did themselves proud.

“THE MEN WHO STARED AT GOATS” (2009) Review

Below is my review of “THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS”, a new comedy-drama directed by Grant Heslov that stars George Clooney and Ewan McGregor:

”THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS” (2009) Review

Grant Heslov directed this comedic adaptation of Jon Ronson’s book about the U.S. Army’s exploration of New Age concepts and the potential military applications of the paranormal. The movie starred George Clooney as one of the participants in this program and Ewan McGregor, who portrayed a journalist who stumbles across the story, while reporting on businesses with military contracts in Iraq. One of the surprising aspects of this movie is that its story is based upon fact. According to author Jon Ronson, there was actually a similar unit actually existed within the U.S. Army. The names were changed . . . and probably some of the facts, but the Army did explore New Age concepts and military applications of the paranormal.

The movie followed McGregor’s character, a journalist with the Ann Arbor Daily Telegram named Bob Wilton who stumbles onto the story of a lifetime when he meets a Special Forces operator named Lyn Cassady (Clooney) after flying to Kuwait out of anger, due to a recent divorce with his wife. During a trip across the Iraqi countryside, Cassady revealed his participation in an Army unit that trained to develop a range of par psychological skills by using New Age concepts. The unit ended up being named the New Earth Army. While the pair endured a journey that included encounters with a gang of Iraqi criminals, their fellow kidnap victim (Waleed Zuaiter), the head of a private security firm named Todd Nixon (Robert Patrick) and two rival groups of American contractors who engage in a gunfight against each other in Ramadi.

During Wilton and Cassady’s journey, the latter revealed the story behind the creation of the New Earth Army and its founder, a Vietnam War veteran named Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) who travelled across America in the 1970s for six years to explore a range of New Age movements (including the Human potential movement) after getting shot during the Vietnam War. Django used these experiences to create the New Earth Army. Django’s recruits ended up being nicknamed ”Jedi Warriors”. By the 1980s, two of Django’s best recruits were Lyn Cassady and Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), who developed a lifelong rivalry because of their opposing views of how to implement the First Earth philosophy. Lyn wanted to emphasize the positive side of the teachings, whereas Larry was more interested in the dark side of the philosophy. Wilton and Cassady’s journey ended when they located a military base in the middle of the desert. They discovered that Larry Hooper has become the founder and head of PSIC, a private research firm engaged in psychological and psychic experiments on a herd of goats and some captured locals. A dismayed Cassady also learned that a now decrepit Django has become an employee of PSIC.

I must admit that I was not in a big hurry to see ”THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS”. In fact, I never had any intention of seeing it in the first place. The only reason I went to see the movie in the first place was that I was desperate for something to watch. The movie season for the past two months has seemed pretty deplorable to me. Aside from ”THE INFORMANT’, I have not been able to stumble across a movie that I would find appealing. And what about ”THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS”? Did I find it appealing? Honestly? It is not the best movie I have seen this year. But I must admit that thanks to Grant Heslov’s direction and Peter Straughan’s screenplay, I found the movie rather humorous in an off-kilter manner. Some of the most humorous scenes featured:

*Wilton and Cassady’s flight from a group of Iraqi criminals

*The ”Battle of Ramadi” between two American private security armies

*Bill Django’s six year exploration of New Age movements

*The results of Wilton and Django’s spiking of the Army base food with LSD.

At first, the movie’s approach to New Age religion and movements seemed inconsistent. The first half of the film did not seem to treat it as a joke. However, once Wilton and Cassady reached the base housing the PSIC, Straughan’s script treated the subject with a lot more respect. It took me a while to realize that the story was told from Bob Wilton’s point-of-view. It only seemed natural that he would first view the New Earth Army and New Age beliefs as a joke. But after time spent with Cassady and later Django at the PSIC base, Wilton naturally developed a newfound respect for both topics. The movie also provided a slightly pointed attack upon the U.S. military presence in Iraq. Normally, I would have cringed at such protesting in a comedy. Fortunately, Heslov used humor – and very sharp humor at that – to mock American presence in the Middle Eastern country.

I think that Lyn Cassady might turn out to be one of my favorite roles portrayed by George Clooney. One, he gave a hilarious performance. And two, he also did a marvelous job in infusing Cassady’s role with a mixture of super-military machismo and wide-eyed innocence. And despite his questionable American accent, I was very impressed by Ewan McGregor’s poignant performance as the lovelorn Michigan journalist (his wife left him for his editor), who travels to Iraq to prove his bravery to his former wife . . . only to discover something more unique. Another joyous addition to the cast turned out to be Jeff Bridges, who gave a wonderfully off-kilter performance as Cassady’s mentor and founder of the New Earth Army, Bill Django. And Larry Hooper, the one man allegedly responsible for bringing down Django’s New Earth Army, turned out to be another one of Kevin Spacey’s delicious villainous roles.

If ”THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS” ever turn out to be a hit film, I would be very surprise. There is a good chance that many moviegoers might find the film’s use of topics such as the Army’s exploration of New Age movements and the paranormal to mock American military presence in Iraq a bit hard to take. And there is the possibility that filmgoers might find Straughan’s script used constant flashbacks to tell the story of the New Earth Army during Cassady and Wilton’s journey throughout Iraq rather confusing. Personally, I rather liked the movie. I doubt that it will ever be a big favorite of mine, but I still found it entertaining and interesting.

“G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA” (2009) Review

Below is my review of the new action film based upon the “G.I. Joe” toy franchise: 

 

”G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA” (2009) Review

For the third time in my life, I saw a movie that was based upon a popular toy franchise. The latest movie with this particular premise turned out to be ”G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA”. And if I must be honest, I ended up seeing the movie under confusing circumstances.

I never had any intentions of seeing ”G.I. JOE”. Let me make this perfectly clear. After the mindless action of the two”TRANSFORMERS” movies, I had vowed never to watch another action movie based upon a popular toy. In fact, I had intended to see the new comedy, ”JULIE AND JULIA”. My family and I ended up watching ”G.I. JOE”, because I thought a relative of mine wanted to see it. As it turned out, my relative thought ”I” wanted to see the movie. Which goes to show how dangerous the lack of communications can be. We ended up watching a movie that neither of us had intended to see.

Stephen Sommers, the creator of the recent ”MUMMY” franchise and director of the first two movies, directed this tale about the G.I. Joe Team, a covert unit of international special forces commandos, under the command of a U.S. Army general named Hawk (Dennis Quaid). Original, huh? Following an attempt by terrorists to steal nanotechnology-based warheads, two regular Army commandos – Conrad “Duke” Hauser and Wallace “Ripcord” Weems (Channing Tatums and Marlon Wayans) – join the “Joes” in an effort to prevent the warheads from falling into the hands of terrorists. During Duke and Ripcord’s training at the G.I. Joe’s command center in North Africa, two terrorists named the Baroneess (Sienna Miller) and Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-hun) attack the base and in the process manage to wound General Hawk and steal the warheads. The Team eventually learn that the warheads’ creator – James McCullen (Christopher Eccleston), owner of an arms manufacturing company called MARS – was responsible for the attack and wanted the warheads back for his own nefarious means.

What can I say about ”G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA”? It was simply your typical summer action blockbuster based upon a popular franchise. And like many of these action films, it was filled with the usual explosions, violence, silly one-liners and special effects. Nothing special. Nothing original. It also featured an underwater battle between the “G.I. Joe” Team and McCullen’s troops. I read somewhere that Sommers wanted to pay homage to the 1965 James Bond movie, ”THUNDERBALL”. Well, he certainly succeeded as far as I am concerned. Sommer’s underwater battle in”G.I. JOE” seemed just as boring as the one featured in ”THUNDERBALL”.

Surprisingly, ”G.I. JOE” turned out to be better than I had expected. In fact, the movie possessed enough attributes for me to enjoy it. You heard right. I actually managed to enjoy ”G.I. JOE”. Despite the usual action nonsense, the movie turned out to rather enjoyable. More importantly, screenwriters Stuart Beattie, David Elliot and Paul Lovett included several twists in both the plot and some of the characterizations that took me by surprise. And ”G.I. JOE”does not strike me as the type of movie that could generate that kind of surprise. Another aspect of the movie that allowed it rise above the likes of the ”TRANSFORMER” movies, was its exploration of background stories of characters like Duke, the Baroness, McCullen, the Baroness’ brother Rex Lewis (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the two former rivals, Storm Shadow and one of the “Joes”, Snake Eyes (Ray Parks). The movie also featured a surprisingly effective action sequence set in Paris – a sequence that ended with some noteworthy special effects produced under the supervision of Christian Roberton and shot wonderfully by cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen.

Another aspect of ”G.I. JOE” that impressed me was its cast. Aside from one particular actor, the actors and actresses struck me as surprisingly impressive. Channing Tatum led the cast as Duke, the Army Special Forces officer who decides to join the “G.I. Joe Team” in order to continue his assignment regarding the nanoprobe warheads. Duke is also haunted by a past tragedy that involved his former girlfriend, Ana Lewis aka the Baroness and her brother, Rex. Tatum has been making a name for himself as a up and coming actor for the past three years. I have to be honest. He does not exactly appeal to me as a screen presence. But I must admit that he is a solid actor and did a very competent job with his role. Portraying Duke’s best friend is comic actor, writer and producer Marlon Wayans. He portrayed Ripcord, another Special Forces soldier who decides to follow Duke in joining the “Joes”. Ripcord also harbors a desire to be acknowledged as a top military pilot and he falls in love with another member of the “G.I. Joe Team”. As expected, Wayans provided a great deal of laughter in a role that could easily be labeled as comic relief. Only in this movie, Ripcord has a well written romance and managed to save two major capital cities in the movie’s finale. Wayans not only handled the comedy with great ease, he also did a solid job in his romantic and action scenes.

The supporting cast was filled with first-rate actors and actresses that provided solid performances. I especially enjoyed Sienna Miller as Duke’s conflicted ex-girlfriend, Ana Lewis. Family tragedy led her to join McCullen’s villainous team and change her name to the Baroness. It seemed quite obvious that Miller was enjoying herself in the role. And Rachel Nichols gave an interesting performance as the brainy and uptight Scarlett, who learns not to open up her heart to Ripcord’s humor and warmth. Also, she and Wayans provided great screen chemistry. And it was great seeing Adewale Akinuoye-Agbale again, after three years. I have not seen him since early Season 3 of ”LOST”. In this movie, he was his usual commanding self as Hershel “Heavy Duty” Dalton, the team’s ordinance expert who acted as field commander of the “Joes”. I also enjoyed Said Taghmaoni as Abel “Breaker” Shaz, the Moroccan hacker and communications expert that harbored a fondness for bubble gum. I especially enjoyed his performance in a scene that featured his character’s dismay at being banned from French soil, following the Eiffel Tower debacle. I have to give kudos to Lee Byung-hun for giving a convincingly complex performance as the villainous Storm Shadow. Christopher Eccleston was pretty solid as the main villain, James McCullen. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt was a hoot as Ana’s slightly neurotic brother, Rex Lewis.

There was one performance that failed to impress me. And it belonged to Dennis Quaid as General Hawk, leader of the “G.I. Joe Team”. Now, I have been a fan of Quaid for years. Out of all the performances in the movie, his was the only one that turned me off. How can I put this? Quaid’s General Hawk sounded and behaved like an authority figure – whether it be a police officer, politician or military officer – from a 1950s or 60s “B” movie. You know – he spouted the usual flag-waving crap in a very exaggerated manner that came off as stiff. I only thank God that it was a small role.

Before I saw ”G.I. JOE”, I had suspected that it would become another ”TRANSFORMERS” or ”TRANSFORMERS 2”. Unlike the two Michael Bay movies, I did not have to turn off my brain to enjoy the film. And that surprised me, despite the movie’s flaws. Also, Stephen Sommers did a pretty good job in directing both the cast and crew to create a surprisingly entertaining movie. He also had the good luck to work from a solid script that provided a few good twists and surprises. ”G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA” is not a cinematic masterpiece or exercise in intellectual introspection. If you want a movie that you might be able to enjoy with kids . . . or even a few friends, then I would recommend it.

“THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS” (1987) Review


“THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS” (1987) Review

Twenty-four years have passed since EON Productions first released its 15th entry in the Bond franchise – THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS, starring Welsh-actor Timothy Dalton I first saw THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS on the night of July 31, 1987 – the date of its original U.S. release. My family and I saw it at the Grauman Chinese Theater in Hollywood. The theater was so packed that we ended up seated near the screen. I had a headache by the time the movie ended. Yet, watching “THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS” that night was one of the most enjoyable movie going experiences of my life.

I have to say that EON Productions has been lucky in its choice of the six actors who managed to bring their own sense of style to the role of James Bond . . . and I mean all of them. And all were smart enough to portray Bond in a way that suited them, instead of adhering to what the public or the producers wanted them to play Bond.

The movie’s title comes from the 1966 short story, ”The Living Daylights” in which Bond is assigned to assassinate a KGB sniper out to kill a MI-6 agent trying to escape from the Soviet Bloc in Berlin. The movie’s director, John Glen, along with screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson, took aspects of that short story and used it to initiate the screen plot. ”THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS” starts with a military exercise on Gilbratar in which three 00 agents – including Bond – test the British base by infiltrating it. One of the agents is killed by a KGB agent, who leaves a clue behind with the following words, ”Smiert Spionam”. The phrase, which means ”Death to Spies”, is repeated by Soviet general Georgi Koskov (portrayed by Jeroen Krabbe), after Bond helps him defect from Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. The defection sequence turns out to be a slight remake of the Fleming short story. But whereas the female sniper turns out to be a genuine killer in Fleming’s version; in the movie, she turns out to be Czech celloist, Kara Milovy (portrayed by Maryam D’Abo), who pretends to be a sniper in order to convince MI-6 that Koskov’s defection is genuine. The movie later reveals that Koskov also had Kara impersonate a sniper in order to set her up to be killed by MI-6, namely Bond. And why? It turns out that Koskov is a renegade who has allied himself with an arms dealer named Brad Whittaker (Joe Don Baker) who have been using KBG funds to profit from drug dealing, instead of purchasing arms for the Soviet Army. When another general, Leonid Puskin (John Rhys-Davies) becomes suspicious, Koskov and Whittaker frame the general for the murder of 002 on Gilbratar so that MI-6 will terminate him. Thanks to Bond’s suspicions and his alliance with Kara, the CIA and Afghan freedom fighters named the Mujahedeen, he prevents Koskov and Whittaker’s plans from coming to fruition.

First of all, THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS is not a perfect movie. It has its flaws. The movie’s main flaw came in the form of the new Aston Martin Volante used by Bond during his escape from the Soviet authorities in Czechoslovakia to Austria. The car was equipped with weaponry such as to use during The Living Daylights mission, the car was equipped with all the essential weaponry that includes rocket launchers and lasers mounted in the hubcaps. Now if this had been”GOLDFINGER””THE SPY WHO LOVED ME” or ”TOMORROW NEVER DIES” this would not seem out of place. But a gadget laden Aston Martin does seem out of place in a taunt thriller like THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS and Dalton’s Bond does not seem like the type of guy who would feel comfortable driving such a vehicle.

The Aston Martin sequence emphasized another problem with THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS – namely the humor that accompanied this scene. Some critics had complained of Timothy Dalton’s lack of humor during his tenure as Bond. Actually, one could plainly see that Dalton did have a sense of humor – but one that seemed subtle, dry and slightly dark. It was not the type of humor that drew belly laughs like Roger Moore’s. Most of the movie managed to display Dalton’s type of humor very well. Except during the Aston Martin sequence that featured Bond and Kara’s escape from the Soviet authorities and troops. During this sequence, the producers obviously had not only decided to burden Dalton’s Bond with a gadget-filled car, but also jokes that seemed to fit Roger Moore’s style of humor. I hate to say this but Dalton simply lacked Moore’s talent for broad humor. And it showed during this sequence.

Another problem with the movie turned out to be the character of Brad Whittaker, an American arms dealer. Granted, Joe Don Baker turns in a very competent performance. But his character contributes very little to the story. True, his business as an arms dealer serves as a catalyst to the story, but as a Bond villain he comes off as somewhat weak. Quite simply, he hardly does anything. The movie’s entire plot – using MI-6 to kill off the suspicious Pushkin in order to continue misuse of KGB funds – turned out to be Koskov’s brain child. It was Koskov who plotted to get rid of Pushkin. It was Koskov who plotted to get rid of Kara. It was Koskov who had plotted to frame Bond for Pushkin’s murder. And I suspect that it was Koskov who had originally created the scheme to misuse KGB funds for drug dealing in the first place. Frankly, I think that Whittaker should have met the same fate as Hai Fat from ”THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN”. He was that irrelevant. Only in his final scene with Dalton does Baker’s Whittaker seem impressive. Instead of arranging some ridiculous death that would give 007 an opportunity to escape, Whittaker did not hesitate to kill Bond in the most brutal manner possible.

With a weak villain such as Whittaker, one would expect THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS to fall apart. But it did not, thanks to the movie’s other main villain – Soviet General Georgi Koskov. Many Bond fans tend to dismiss Koskov as another weak villain. I disagree. Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbe did a fantastic job in creating a character that seemed extroverted, charming and very likeable on the surface . . . and intelligent, devious, ruthless and cold-blooded underneath. This subtle duality in his personality comes to the fore in his relationship with Kara Milovy. He obviously had some kind of affection toward the blond cellist . . . enough to purchase a famous Stradivarius cello for her. Yet, when his deception threatens to be exposed, he cold-bloodedly arranged for her to be mistaken as a KGB assassin by Bond, so that the latter would kill her. After all, Kara knew about his relationship with Whittaker. If I had to be honest, I would prefer to be face-to-face wtih an obvious villain like Auric Goldfinger than to be unexpectedly stabbed in the back by the likes of Georgi Koskov.

Not only did Jeroen Krabbe contributed to the quality of THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS, but so did the rest of the cast, including the London-born actress of Dutch-Georgian ancestry – Maryam D’Abo. Her Kara Milovy, the effervescent Czech cellist, seemed like a sister in spirit to the Bond leading lady of FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE . . . only with a little more backbone. D’Abo infuses Kara with a fresh naivety and passion that has not been since Daniela Bianchi in FRWL. Even better, she and Dalton managed to create a magnetic, yet natural screen chemistry. But D’Abo has never been that popular with Bond fans. Apparently, she seemed too ladylike and not sexy enough for them. Another Bond fan had complained that once Bond learned all he could about Koskov from Kara in Vienna and she set him up to be captured by Koskov in Tangiers, her character became irrelevant to the story. This could be true. But if Kara became irrelevant after Tangiers, what were the writers supposed to do with her? Leave her there? I doubt that Koskov would allow a living Kara loose on the world to expose him. No wonder he had brought her along to Afghanistan. But even there, Kara proved to be more than “comic relief” as someone had put it. Thanks to her, Kamal Khan and his Mujahedeen fighters attacked the Soviet airbase and distracted the military personnel long enough to save Bond and give him the opportunity to steal the plane loaded with Whittaker and Koskov’s opium. Kara Milovy may not be the most popular of Bond leading ladies, but thanks to D’Abo’s performance, she is certainly one of my favorites.

I must admit that I found myself rather impressed by the rest of THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS cast. Robert Brown proved to be a more interesting “M” than he did in either OCTOPUSSY and A VIEW TO A KILL. His stuffy head of MI-6 proved to be an excellent contrast to Dalton’s Bond, with whom he constantly butt heads with. Although Robert Shaw had set the standards for the blond, muscle-bound henchman/killer in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, many have failed to be as memorable as him. As far as I am concerned, only one has come close . . . namely Andreas Wisniewski as Necros, Whittaker and Koskov’s hired killer. Like Shaw before him, Wisniewski had very little dialogue – in fact, probably less than the British actor. But he managed to project menace, intelligence and style without coming off as some muscle-bound clone like the Hans character in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE and the Stamper character in TOMORROW NEVER DIES. Also included in the cast was legendary character actor, John Rhys-Davies, portraying Soviet General Leonid Pushkin, the very character whose suspicions of the Whittaker-Koskov partnership helped set the plot in motion. Unlike many of his other well-known roles, Rhys-Davies portrayed a more restrained character, yet managing to project his usual strong presence. He and Dalton played off each other very well in the famous Tangier hotel room scene, in which Pushkin nearly became one of Bond’s victims. And of course, there is Art Malik from THE JEWEL IN THE CROWNfame. In TLD, he played Kamran Shah, leader of a local Mujardeen unit. In a way, Malik’s character reminds me of Georgi Koskov – a strong and intelligent man who uses a benign persona to hide his true self. And Malik portrayed Shah with a giddy mixture of authority, charm, and mischievous wit.

That said, I want to say a few things about Timothy Dalton. Even though I was a major fan of Roger Moore, I realized by the mid-80s that it was time for him to retire from the role. With great fondness, I said adieu and breathlessly anticipated Timothy Dalton’s debut inTHE LIVING DAYLIGHTS. When THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS first came out, the media pointed out that Dalton had read all of Fleming’s novels, along with a biography of the author to get a vibe on the James Bond character. It is possible that many fans and critics, used to Roger Moore’s more humorous portrayal, found it difficult to accept Dalton’s grittier Bond. Personally, I feel all of that research had paid off. Dalton’s Bond was a tense and serious man with occasional flashes of grittiness, dark humor and a human heart – very much the personification of Fleming’s literary portrayal. Judging from the success of previous Bond actors, perhaps it was not necessary for Dalton to portray the role in such a serious manner. But hey! It worked for him. Many fans may not have appreciated his efforts twenty years ago, but now they do.

In the past seventeen-and-a-half years since LICENSE TO KILL‘s release, I have come to appreciate Dalton’s contribution to the Bond franchise even more. Whoever said that he was the right Bond at the wrong time was probably right. The man was ahead of his time . . . not just for the Bond franchise, but for many espionage films. People have also stated that Dalton had made a great impact on the franchise. Again, I believe that Dalton not only influenced Daniel Craig’s debut as Bond in the early 21st century, but many other espionage characters. Pierce Brosnan was not above utilizing Dalton’s darker take on Bond, every now and then. I also suspect that Dalton might be partially responsible for the influx of edgy, angst-filled spy or action/adventure characters that have emerged over the years. Characters portrayed by the likes of Matt Damon, Matthew McFaydden, Kiefer Sutherland, Harrison Ford and possibly even Richard Chamberlain and Robert DeNiro. Even the Tangier hotel scene between Dalton and D’Abo in THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS seemed to have been copied in many action movies in the years that followed – including one between Dalton and Carey Lowell in LICENSE TO KILLand Harrison Ford and Allison Doody in INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE. But no one did it better than Dalton and D’Abo, as far as I’m concerned.

Screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson, created a taunt thriller, reminiscent of past Bond movies like FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE and FOR YOUR EYES ONLY. Instead of the usual super villain bent upon controlling a major world market or the world itself, or the super terrorist groups up to its elbows in gadgets, Maibaum and Wilson took Fleming’s short story and created a tale of emotions, greed and betrayal. What I especially like about THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS is that it featured a series of excellent scenes and moments:

-the entire defection sequence starting from Kara’s appearance in the window and ending with Koskov’s departure from Austria

-Koskov’s exuberant greeting of Bond

-Necros’ attack on the MI-6 safe house

-Bond and Kara’s first meeting

-Bond and Kara’s arrival in Vienna

-Bond and Pushkin’s confrontation in Tangiers

-the fake assassination of Pushkin

-Bond and Kara’s confrontation in Tangiers

-Bond and Kara’s escape from the Soviet military jail in Afghanistan

-Kamran Shah’s revelation of true nature

-the Mujardeen’s attack on the Soviet air base

-Bond and Kara’s arrival in Pakistan

-Bond and Whittaker’s confrontation in Tangiers

Thanks to the above scenes and the script, the story came close to feeling like a real spy thriller, instead of a quasi-fantasy/action-adventure flick. As I had stated before, the movie’s only misstep seemed to be the use of the gadget-laden Aston-Martin and the insertion of dialogue not suited for Dalton’s acting style in the Czechoslovakia-to-Austria chase sequence. In fact, the sequence’s style seemed out of place for such a taunt thriller like THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS. Despite that particular sequence, the cast and the story, combined with John Glen’s competent direction and Alec Mills’ cinematography made THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS one of the finest – in my opinion – Bond movies in the franchise.

Returning back to that night in Hollywood, I recalled that the audience went wild over THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS. They especially seemed to take pleasure in the scene in which Bond and Kara managed to escape across the border into Austria. I had enjoyed “THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS” so much that I saw it at least six or seven more times in the theaters before it was released on video. And for me that is a personal record – especially in regard to the James Bond film. Happy birthday, THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS!

Memorable Lines

[after escaping out of a small jail cell]
Kara: You were fantastic. We’re free.
Bond: Kara, we’re inside a Russian airbase in the middle of Afghanistan.

“That’s too bad, Bond. You could’ve been a live rich man, instead of a poor dead one.” – Brad Whittaker

[James Bond and Kara Milovy snow-slide through customs in a cello case]
Bond: [yelling] We have nothing to declare.
Kara: [yelling] Except this cello.
[the word ‘cello’ echoes through the valley a few times]

[On Whitaker being crushed under a statue of the Duke of Wellington]
Bond: He met his Waterloo.

Koskov: I’m sorry, James. For you I have great affection, but we have an old saying: duty has no sweethearts.
Bond: We have an old saying too, Georgi. And you’re full of it.

Kara: What happened?
Bond: He got the boot.

[Bond is pointing a gun at him]
Pushkin: You are professional. You do not kill without reason.
Bond: Two of our men are dead. Koskov named you.
Pushkin: It is a question of trust. Who do you believe? Koskov, or me?
Bond: If I trusted Koskov we wouldn’t be talking. As long as you’re alive, we’ll never know what he’s up to.
Pushkin: [Slowly] Then I must die.

[after demonstrating a boom-box rocket launcher]
Q: [to Bond] Something we’re making for the Americans. It’s called a “Ghetto Blaster”.

[struggling with Kara’s cello]
Bond: Why didn’t you learn the violin?

[Bond and Saunders are discussing the change of plans on Koskov’s defection]
Koskov: James. James Bond!
Bond: [hugging Koskov] Later, General! [to Saunders] Lose them. I’ll pick you up at the border, twenty-three hundred hours. Be there.
Saunders: Where are you taking him? How will you get him out?
Bond: Sorry, old man, section 26, paragraph 5. Need-to-know. Sure you understand.

[Saunders has just been assassnated]
Kara: Did you hear?
Bond: Hear from Georgi?
Bond: Yes, I *got* the message.

Pushkin: Put him on the next plane to Moscow…
Koskov: Oh, thank you General, thank you so much…
Pushkin: …in the diplomatic bag.

[after removing his disguise] “Thank you both for your help. My name is Kamran Shah. Please forgive the theatricals, it’s a hangover from my Oxford days.” – Kamran Shah

[after destroying his car] “Glad I insisted you brought that cello.” – Bond

Bond: Just taking the Aston out for a spin, Q.
Q: Be careful, 007! It’s just had a new coat of paint!

“BODY OF LIES” (2008) Review

”BODY OF LIES” (2008) Review

Based upon David Ignatius’ 2007 novel, ”BODY OF LIES” tells the story of a CIA operative assigned to track down a Middle Eastern terrorist responsible for a series of bombings in Europe. Directed by Ridley Scott, the movie stars Leonard DiCaprio and Russell Crowe. When I first saw the trailer for ”BODY OF LIES”, I thought it would be about a CIA operative in the Middle East that ends up clashing with his handler over an assignment. As it turned out, the trailer ended up being misleading. In the end, I had no choice but to sit back and see what the movie’s plot would lead me. Despite Warner Brothers’ very misleading trailer. 

Leonard DiCaprio portrayed a CIA operative named Roger Ferris. He is assigned by his handler, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) to track down a terrorist by the name of Al Salim. Upon following up a lead, Ferris’ asset (who he has become good friends with) is killed in a car blast in a car chase and he is sent to Jordan. There, Ferris makes contact with Hani Salaam (Mark Strong), head of the Jordanian General Intelligence Department, or GID. Salaam tells Ferris to never lie to him. Hoffman finds an Al Salim safe house in Jordan and tells Ferris to conduct a surveillance operation on it. Meanwhile, Hoffman organizes another operative to conduct an operation without Ferris’ consent. The other agent screws the operation up and blows his cover after saying something compromising to a terrorist from the safe house. The terrorist takes off running, intent on relaying information that the safe house is being watched. Ferris chases him down and kills him by stabbing him, getting bitten by dogs in the process. Hani covers up the killing by passing it off as a robbery and Ferris accuses Hoffman of running “side operations”, telling Hoffman to lay off. Meanwhile, Ferris meets a nurse named Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani), who treats his wound. He eventually falls in love with her – an act that proves to have consequences later in the movie.

As I had stated earlier, ”BODY OF LIES” proved not to be about a clash between Ferris and Hoffman over a case. It proved to be about the deceptions perpetrated by those in the intelligence community, dedicated to the ”war on terrorism”. Unfortunately, the deceptions used by Hoffman upon both Ferris and Salaam ended up affecting the careful alliance established between the latter two. Even Ferris got into the game when he failed to inform Salaam about the con job he and Hoffman had created to flush out Al Salim. In the end, both Americans end up getting the surprises of their lives.

Despite my initial misgivings that I had been deceived by the movie’s trailer,”BODY OF LIES” turned out to be an intriguing and entertaining movie. Although the story’s three main characters – Ferris, Hoffman and Salaam – are supposed to be allies in the fight against terrorism and in the hunt for Al Salim, they spend more time in conflict against each other than against the story’s main antagonist. This especially seemed to be the case of Hoffman, who comes across as a manipulative and controlling man who keeps his secrets a little too close to his chest – to the detriment of Ferris. Screenwriters William Monahan (Oscar winner for ”THE DEPARTED”) and Ignatius, who also wrote the novel, created a pretty solid screenplay. However, I would not say there was anything exceptional about it – except for the finale. Perhaps the story’s lack of anything sensational had led to the movie’s failure at the box office. Or perhaps Warner Brothers’ misleading trailer was the real culprit.

Leonardo DiCaprio once again proved why he has become one of the most talented actors of his generation. His Roger Ferris is a fierce, intelligent man with a sardonic streak a mile wide. He also has a talent for diplomacy, which is apparent in his dealings with Salaam and the Jordan Intelligence Department. Like Ferris, Russell Crowe’s Ed Hoffman is a fierce and dedicated opponent of terrorism. Unfortunately, he lacks Ferris’ talent for diplomacy and has a tendency to allow his arrogance to get the best of him. But I must admit that Hoffman is a fascinating character and one can thank Crowe’s superb acting and William Monahan’s writing for this. Crowe manages to hide Hoffman’s aggression, cold-bloodedness and arrogance behind a”good ‘old boy” façade that project a cheerful persona with a penchant for calling Ferris ”buddy”. Some of the movie’s more interesting scenes featured Hoffman giving Ferris cold-blooded instructions or advice on how to deal with the hunt for Al Salim, while interacting lovingly with his family. It was like watching compartimenlization at its most extreme.

The supporting cast included British actor Mark Strong as Hanni Salaam as the head of Jordan Intelligence. First impressed by Strong’s villainous turn in last year’s”STARDUST”, my admiration for Strong increased by his portrayal of the intelligent and strong-willed Salaam, who refuses to be intimidated by Hoffman and the CIA’s firepower in his demand for respect by his Western allies. Iranian-born actress Golshifteh Farahani gave a solid performance as Aisha, the no-nonsense and witty nurse with whom Ferris falls in love.

”BODY OF LIES” is not as exceptional as one might expect it to be, considering the two leads, the director and the screenwriters. It is an entertaining, solid thriller filled with interesting and ambiguous characters. Through characters like Salaam and Aisha, the movie manages to avoid the usual clichés about Middle Eastern characters. The best thing I can say about it – aside from the excellent acting – is the plot twist that surprised me in the end. It may not be Oscar material, but it is certainly not crap.