Tuesday, March 4, 2014
“Resident Evil” director Paul W.S. Anderson must have loved both “Titanic” and “Gladiator” because “Pompeii” (*** OUT OF ****) appropriates the template and tropes from those blockbusters. Nevertheless, “Pompeii” is not primarily a chick flick. “Game of Thrones” actor Kit Harington plays an enslaved warrior who lost his entire family when sadistic Romans slaughtered them in Britain. Harington is cast as the impoverished, but virtuous protagonist, while porcelain-faced Emily Browning plays Cassia, the pampered daughter of an affluent Pompeii entrepreneur. Cassia has had enough of Imperial Roman society and repellent Romans, specifically the wicked Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) who displays no qualms about killing not only the enemy but also his own if the mood strikes him. Aside from an invincible African-American gladiator (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) already imprisoned at Pompeii, Anderson and his three scenarists confine themselves to this handful of characters, with a few loitering on the periphery. Indeed, characterization is kept to a demographic minimum. Not surprisingly, you’ll sympathize with our tragic lovers while you’ll abhor Corvus with a passion and applaud his comeuppance. If you’ve seen either “Titanic” or “Gladiator,” you’ll know what is going to happen to these characters before they do. “Batman Forever” co-scripters Janet Scott Batchler and Lee Batchler plus “Sherlock Holmes” scribe Michael Robert Johnson have recycled all the usual clichés. Anderson doesn’t let anything interfere with the headlong momentum that he generates.
“Pompeii” unfolds in 62 AD in Britannia. A long-haired youngster, Milo (Dylan Schombing), escapes death from the swords of ruthless Roman soldiers. Corvus and his army annihilate Milo’s tribe of Celtic horsemen. The Romans mistake young Milo for one of the dead and add his body to a pile of corpses. This is the familiar scene where the villains think our hero is dead, but really isn’t dead. The last big-screen movie that used this trope was “The Lone Ranger.” Nevertheless, the ‘mistaken for dead’ trope works dependably for “Pompeii.” Eventually, after he proves his mettle on the battlefield as a superb horseman, Milo is enslaved. Years later, a Roman slave trader, Graecus (Joe Pingue) spots Milo, who has since acquired the moniker ‘the Celt’ for his fearless pugnacity. Milo is the equivalent of William Wallace in “Braveheart.” Milo makes mincemeat out of all his adversaries. He winds up in Pompeii where he will clash swords with the undefeated champ, Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje of “Congo”), a bold combatant both agile and confident. Opposites through and through from pigment to pugnacity, these guys will have each other’s back before the fat volcano sings.
Our hero and heroine meet on the road to Pompeii. One of the horses drawing Cassia’s carriage collapses. Milo intervenes despite the protest of his captor. As a member of the aristocracy, Cassia shields Milo from charges of insubordination for putting the horse out of its misery. She was on the way back from Rome where she had spent a year. Apparently, Cassia had a romantic relationship that ended awfully for both parties. Now, it is love at first sight when she sees Milo. The love that Milo feels for her will prompt him later to defy death. Meanwhile, Milo must battle lethal opponents in the arena. Eventually, Atticus and he become allies in the face of surely insurmountable odds. “Pompeii” boasts several exciting combat sequences, and the one in the arena against many Roman soldiers is reminiscent of something from his “Resident Evil” epics. Anderson orchestrates these close quarters combat scenes with agility and style. The actors parry and thrust in ways that bring out the ferocity and eloquence of the sword fights. Naturally, Cassia reacts with horror when Corvus demands she marry him or see her parents ruined. Jared Harris of “Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows” and Carrie Moss of “The Matrix” are relegated to secondary victim roles as Cassia’s father Severus and mother Aurelia. Sadly, Moss models apparel without any gravity-defying martial arts moves.
“Pompeii” is predictable, but exciting nonsense. About an hour into the action, Mount Vesuvius erupts, and comparisons with “Dante’s Peake” are inevitable. An alien attack couldn’t be any more devastating than the multitude of fireballs catapulted from the combustible crucible of Vesuvius. Anderson and his CGI artists have forged a spectacular fireworks show. The scenes of people scrambling chaotically to reach the Bay of Naples and the sanctuary of a ship at sea are exhilarating. As it turns out, even the ships aren’t safe from these fireballs. During the third half-hour, our hero and heroine run desperately for their lives. Atticus is battling his adversaries in an effort to reach Milo, and Corvus is struggling to break through a mob of citizens who have him mired down in the streets. Simultaneously, Vesuvius unleashes one barrage of fireballs after another. Anderson really accelerates the action during the third half-hour.
Surprisingly enough, at least to me, I enjoyed this Tristar Pictures release, but I have a soft spot for gladiator movies. “Pompeii” qualifies as more of an actioneer than a chick flick. Notably, our lovers are young, but they never consummate their soulful relationship which makes their love all the more chaste. The slam-bang ending that audiences may not buy because things end tragically is probably the strongest thing about “Pompeii.” Mind you, Anderson has made a gripping little sword and sandal saga with a love story to sweeten up the shenanigans. The heroes are virtuous; the villains are vicious; and the wrath of Mother Nature is vast in its fury. Mount Vesuvius grumbles ominously in the background until it explodes and earthquakes rock the city. Clocking in at a Spartan 98-minutes,“Pompeii” never wears out its welcome, and its breathtaking CGI reenactment of Mount Vesuvius blowing its stack is lavishly larger-than-life. Naturally, the CGI imagery here surpasses anything three earlier movies, such as the 1913 silent version as well as the 1935 as well as 19959 versions of “The Last Days of Pompeii,” offered.
The “RoboCop” science fiction franchise ran out of steam after its lukewarm third installment in 1993. The landmark futuristic fantasy never regained its footing when leading man Peter Weller departed after “RoboCop 2” (1990). “Person of Interest” villain Robert John Burke donned the armor for the third movie. Afterward, “RoboCop” sought refuge on television. The sharpshooting cyborg cop meted out justice in 23 episodes of a short-lived Canadian television series from 1994 to 1995 with Richard Eden as Officer Alex Murphy. In 2001, our armor-clad hero reappeared in the TV mini-series “RoboCop: Prime Directives” with Page Fletcher as the cybernetic crime-stopper. Twenty-six years after the original “RoboCop,” Sony Pictures and MGM have rebooted the franchise with fair-to-middling results. Brazilian director José Padilha’s “RoboCop” (** OUT OF ****) casts lanky, Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman as the android-hero that Peter Weller incarnated. This sleek, glossy, fleet-footed, $100 million dollar sci-fi crime thriller delivers its share of exciting moments. Nevertheless, Padilha’s polished, but utterly synthetic saga spurns the audacious qualities of its dystopian 1987 predecessor. Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s clever yet cynical “RoboCop” remains a must-see masterpiece and its savage, high octane sequel with Weller is a worthwhile second act.
Indisputably, the new “RoboCop” boasts seamlessly CGI-imagery and a starry cast featuring Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Jay Baruchel, and Jackie Earle Haley. Sadly, despite its cast and CGI, “RoboCop” manages to be only half as memorable as its first-rate forerunner. Furthermore, the remake pales by comparison with “RoboCop 2,” but it definitely tops “RoboCop” 3. Padilha has fashioned an immaculate as well as prudish PG-13 actioneer with considerably less gore than Verhoeven’s R-rated epic. The corporate and criminal villains in the original dwarf their counterparts in the remake. Heroes are measured by the villains they have to defeat. Badder villains make better heroes. The bad guys in the first “RoboCop” constituted a rogue’s gallery of dastards. None of the villains in the remake can touch them. The most innovative idea is equipping our crusader with a Batman like motorcycle rather than cramming him into a claustrophobic police cruiser. Every time Peter Weller sat in a police cruiser, he could only wear the top half of his RoboCop armor. Basically, the suit was far too big for him to sit in the car.
The chief difference between the original and the remake is the transition that Detroit detective Alex Murphy takes to emerge as a cybernetic crime-buster. In the first film, Murphy suffered dreadfully at the hands of sadistic criminal Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) and his howling hooligans. Contemporary audiences might shrink at Murphy’s disturbing demise. Comparatively, things are less odious for Kinnaman. Instead of his appendages blasted into ground beef by laughing low-lifers, Murphy is simply blown up. Our incorruptible protagonist and his African-American partner, Jack Lewis (Michael K. Williams of “Snitch”), had been closing in on notorious arms dealer Antoine Vallon (Patrick Garrow of “Nikita”), but were never able to nail him. Detroit Police Chief Karen Dean (Marianne Jean-Baptiste of “Spy Game”) reprimands Murphy for disobeying her orders about Vallon. Predictably, the headstrong Murphy refuses to cooperate. He suspects corrupt cops are shielding Vallon. One evening after he has tucked his son David (John Paul Ruttan) into bed and is about to sleep with his comely wife Clara (Abbey Cornish of “Sucker Punch”), the alarm in his car erupts for no apparent reason. Unable to remotely disarm the alarm, Murphy is thoroughly surprised when he opens the door, and his car explodes, leaving him on the threshold of death.
Freshman scenarist Joshua Zetumer dispenses with the graphic torture scene that prostrated Murphy in the original. Instead, he makes our hero’s near death experience impersonal. Actually, Zetumer’s method of making Murphy into a casualty so a corporate robotics firm can rebuild him adheres to formula. According to the formula, the police hero doesn’t climb into a booby-trapped car. Instead, somebody close to him dies in the vehicle, and our hero must avenge them. The vintage Glenn Ford movie “The Big Heat” (1953) made best use of this gimmick. Anyway, greedy OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton of “Beetlejuice”) appropriates Murphy’s mutilated remains with Clara’s consent and convinces his top scientist, Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman of “True Romance”), to reassemble him as a half-man, half-machine juggernaut. The main obstacle to Sellars’ dream of mobilizing a corps of cybernetic cops in America has been the Dreyfus Act that prohibits the use of robots as police. America is the only nation that doesn’t use cyborg cops, and conservative television analyst Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson of “Pulp Fiction”) sees this opportunity as a mandate to repeal Dreyfus. Indeed, the Pentagon has relied on Sellers’ robots in troubled third-world countries, but they can only deploy them overseas. Sellars schemes to convert Murphy’s tragedy into a public relations triumph that will not only win over Congressional support, but only make the American market his oyster. Naturally, Seller encounters more than a glitch or two as the harried Dr. Norton struggles to make Murphy’s mangled remains compatible with his shiny robotic hulk.
Several shortcomings undermine the “RoboCop” remake. First, Joel Kinnaman radiates little charisma as the eponymous hero. Second, in the original, Murphy’s partner was a tough gal (Nancy Allen) who kicked butt. Murphy’s sidekick here lacks her tenacity. Third, Padilha stages an adequate number of shoot-outs, but our hero usually swaps lead with robots. Fourth, the combat sequences aren’t orchestrated with half of the flair of Verhoeven’s shoot-outs. Worse than anything else, however, is Padilha’s largely humorless approach. In the original, a television news cast interrupted the plot periodically with some subversive humor that often qualified as downright misanthropic. Scenes with Samuel L. Jackson’s boisterous right-wing pundit ranting at intervals are no substitute for those satiric scenes, and Jackson’s insufferable Novak character delivers more wind than wit. Altogether, this “RoboCop” remake qualifies as tame, lame, with little of the same that set apart the original.
Despite its shoddy CGI shots of a bogus jetliner plunging earthward with two jet fighters flanking it, "Non-Stop" (**1/2 OUT OF ****) qualifies as an extremely preposterous but thoroughly entertaining airborne mystery-thriller. At 61-years of age, rugged Liam Neeson stars as troubled U.S. Air Marshal William Marks. Not only has Marks survived the death of his cancer-ridden, adolescent daughter, but he has also experienced a devastating divorce along with the loss of his 25-year job as a New York City Police Department detective. Meantime, the unshaven Marks has deteriorated into a guilt-ridden, nicotine-addicted, alcoholic plagued by memories of his grim past. At one point during this tense as well as terse PG-13-rated melodrama, our hero exposes his clay feet and describes himself as a deplorable dad. A flawed hero usually wins an audience’s sympathy, and the scruffy Neeson emerges as an affable enough protagonist with a dark mood or two. He winds up tangling with a homicidal hijacker who has skewered his authority in the eyes of his superiors.
Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra of “Orphan” and rookie writers John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach, and Ryan Engle challenge us with a gallery of unusual suspects when they aren’t playing a game of charades with us about the hijacker's identity. Naturally, they dole out red herrings galore to throw us off the scent. Unless you’re blessed as a psychic, you may have a difficult time exposing the perpetrator. Cunningly, for the better part of its white-knuckled 106 minutes, Collet-Serra keeps a variety of paranoid passengers bottled up inside the cramped confines of an airliner and kindles sufficient tension within this combustible setting after our hero discovers a ticking time-bomb on board. Rarely does Collet-Serra and company relieve the tension by cross-cutting to exterior scenes of ground personnel until the end. Indeed, you may find yourself feeling a little claustrophobic before an explosive but formulaic finale. Unfortunately, "Non-Stop" suffers from a dire lack of plausibility, but the filmmakers compensate with a compelling mystery, slickly staged combat action scenes, and a brisk, snappy pace that never lets up. Although neither as gripping as either "Flightplan" nor as serious as 9/11 hijacking epic"United 93," "Non-Stop" generates more than enough suspenseful, edge-0f-the-seat seconds to offset its superficial moments. What it does wrong may be overlooked charitably enough because it is a movie instead of a real-life predicament. Whoever heard of a cop accepting a gun from a man that he doesn’t know and then neglecting to see if the firearm is loaded? The cast is strong and does a good job of diverting us from the identity of the hijacker.
William Marks isn’t having the time of his life as an undercover U.S. Federal Air Marshal when he boards British Aqualantic Flight 10 heading for Heathrow. Initially, he coaxes an anxious little girl aboard the 767 airliner after he recovers the plush toy she left behind. What better way could the filmmakers have aligned our sympathies with the hero than by showing him sticking up for a lonely little girl on her first flight. Ironically, Marks loses it every time the plane that he is guarding takes off. He wraps a ribbon around his hand that once belonged to daughter before she succumbed to cancer. Later, when Flight 10 reaches its half-way point across the Atlantic, suspicious text messages show up on the Marks’ secure phone by means of the aircraft’s WiFi. Grimly, Marks realizes with mounting dread that his wily, anonymous adversary is undoubtedly a passenger aboard Flight 10. Basically, according to these messages, a person will die every 20 minutes until $150 million is wired to a specific bank account. The big surprise is that the dough lands in Marks’ own bank account and his own people on the ground disown him. Eventually, chief pilot Captain David McMillan (Linus Roache of “Batman Begins”) insists that Marks surrender his badge and his automatic pistol. Despite deep misgivings, our unhappy hero complies with the captain’s request, but this doesn’t discourage him from ferreting out the perpetrator with the help of some passengers,primarily frequent-flyer business woman, Jen Summers (Julianne Moore of “Carrie”) who looks pretty suspicious herself; a balded, NYPD cop (Corey Stroll of (“House of Cards”); former U.S. soldier Tom Bowen (Scoot McNairy of “Killing Them Softly”), and a kindly Arab, Dr. Fahim Nasir (Omar Metwally of “Munich”). Along the way, Marks discovers an attaché case packed with cocaine as well as a bomb. By this time, Marks has been thoroughly incriminated as the hijacker thanks to a passenger who has caught some of our hero’s questionable actions on video and has somehow wired them to news agencies. The situation grows even worse when Captain McMillan dies inexplicably from poisoning while he is flying the jetliner. Nobody can enter the flight deck where the pilot and co-pilot stay, and this bit of skullduggery really gives Marks as well as the audience something to think about as the seconds to doom tick inexorably ahead.
“Non-Stop” doesn’t let up until the last minute when all hope seems to be lost not only for the passengers but also our hero. Meantime, little else can be said about this exciting, nerve racking, nail-biter without divulging important plot points. Interestingly enough, Oscar winning “12 Years A Slave” actress Lupita Nyong'o appears in a minor role as one of several flight attendants. Altogether, Liam Neeson fans should be pleased with most of what occurs in “Non-Stop.”