Tonight, I'm going to take a new approach and give a couple of short reviews to two films I highly recommend. One is still playing at the theaters, and has been the biggest surprise so far in 2009. The other is a gem of a little film for HBO, but at the same time stacks up well against any movie talked about last Sunday during the Oscars.
I never really pictured Liam Neeson as an action hero. Sure, he did play Qui-Gon Jin in "Star Wars: Episode I", but even then, one would look at him more as the sage teacher, and not the swashbuckling hero. Therefore, I was a little leery when going to a film that promises a lot of action with the guy that was Oskar Schindler.
The movie promises lots of action, and that is exactly what you get. There is no High Message here. No philosophizing, no great debates. To paraphrase Dennis Green; "they were, who we THOUGHT they were!" And it is a very simple concept, completely summed up in any commercial that you saw regarding this film.
Bryan Mills is an ex-CIA operative. His teenage daughter has went off for a getaway vacation in Paris with her best friend. While there, they are targeted by criminals in the sex trade business and are kidnapped. However, Bryan's daughter Kim has managed to call him while the abduction was going on. Bryan is able to talk briefly to one of the kidnappers, volunteering information about himself as a man with "peculiar talents", and tells the kidnapper that if his daughter is not released, he will hunt them down and kill them all. "Good luck", is the chilling reply.
And then Bryan goes out to accomplish EXACTLY what he said he would do.
That's all there is to this film. It appeals to the basic emotions of any father. There is no political ramifications behind this, just one very pissed off dad with the skills, wherewithal, and desire to inflict a lot of damage on a lot of people in a lot of really cool/gross ways.
It is "The Bourne Retirement", to put it bluntly. The same type of person, just older, and without that memory loss problem. The same camera work, the same action sequences, the same chase scenes.
So why has this movie been so successful? Because it gives us what we wanted to see, at a breathtaking pace, allowing us to enjoy torture and murder without any of the guilt. Face it...what man amongst us wouldn't be willing to do any of these things if his child was in danger?
The choice of Neeson brings a much needed gravity to the role, elevating it far above standard action/adventure fare. Usually in these types of movies, they grind to a ridiculous halt when Jean-Claude Van Damme or Vin Diesel has to actually talk and display a few emotions. When Neeson is in these scenes, he truly fleshes out the role. We see him as a devoted father driven by guilt over missing much of his daughter's life growing up...but not consumed by that guilt. His interactions with his ex-wife and her husband (well played by Famke Janssen and Xander Berkeley) ring true, both in the tension that still exists between them, and the common love all three have for Kim (Maggie Grace).
But it is the action sequences that make this movie, and they are very well made...even if they are often so over-the-top that they make the outer space battle in "Moonraker" look realistic. It makes no difference, however, since by the time they get to some of those scenes, you really don't care about the realism, you just want to see Liam kick some more Albanian ass, trashing half of Paris while doing so (an extra benefit for all you French haters).
After six weeks of serious, somber films, this is a well needed change of pace. It may not be Art, but it sure is Entertainment.
My Rating: Frank Ryan (3 footballs).
Just this week, the White House announced that they would be reviewing the policy of the Bush Administration to deny any coverage of the coffins or funerals of Americans killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
HBO has, in its own way, beaten them to the punch in the making of an extraordinary little (78 minute) movie called "Taking Chance". It does not have much of a plot, and the title character is never really seen; but it is one of the most emotional films I have ever watched, and the best made-for-cable movie that has ever been made. It is even more poignant because it is a true story.
I have discussed at length previously the problems that have been encountered by every film made about the War on Terror...no matter which "side" is presented, it has been rebuffed by the public.
"Taking Chance" rises above this, as it is not political in any sense of the word. It focuses 100% on the brave men and women who have given their lives for their country, and there isn't anyone who should disagree with the sentiment that these heroes deserve all of the respect and admiration we can give them
Kevin Bacon stars as Marine Lt. Col. Mike Strobl, a veteran of Desert Storm, who now works in the Pentagon as an analyst, safe from the dangers of the wars, able to return home each night to his wife and young children.
One night, when going through the casualty reports, he sees the name of a 19 year old PFC named Chance Phelps, who was from Strobl's hometown in Colorado. Touched, he volunteers to serve as escort for taking the body from the Dover Air Force base back to his home (which is actually in Wyoming).
This is a duty that normally is not filled by an officer, but it was something Strobl felt compelled to do. And during his real life journey, he encountered many people along the way, and was touched to the core by what he saw from most. A ticket agent who brushes back tears as she upgrades him to First Class. Groundskeepers who stop their work and cover their hearts as the hearse rolls past. An impromptu funeral procession that is formed as truckers and drivers notice the hearse with a flag draped coffin inside it. Time and time again in this movie, you will be reaching for something to wipe your eyes; in sadness of lives ended much too soon, and in heart swelling pride over the kindness that can be shown.
The movie is almost a documentary of the care and respect given to a fallen soldier, Marine, sailor, or airman, from the honor guard loading the coffin into a plane in Germany, to the mortuary attendants who lovingly and carefully scrub clean the body, and any artifacts to be sent back to the family.
I was woefully ignorant of the fact that military protocol calls for an escort to remain with the body every step of the way, and to perform honors each time the casket is moved from one location to another. As the story unfolds, you can see how important that tradition is, and also feel gratitude for the military in showing this ultimate level of respect.
Kevin Bacon brings a perfect combination of military correctness and human compassion to his role as Strobl. He is the epitome of the phrase "an Officer and a Gentleman". Bacon is one of these rare actors who has emerged as a bigger "star", and a better actor, as he has aged. Now 50, he seems ready to assume the type of stoic fortitude roles once played by Clint Eastwood. As I mentioned earlier with Liam Neeson in "Taken", this is the type of role that I couldn't see being played by any other actor.
There are numerous small roles in this film that were also well done, people who are just on for a couple of minutes as they cross paths with Strobl and Chance, pay their respect, and move on. Gordon Clapp as the Northwest Airlines pilot who makes it a point to learn the name of any KIA he flies home. Enver Gjokaj as Chance's best friend, who was with him when he died, and is now fighting survivor's guilt. Tom Aldredge as a grizzled Korean War VFW member who chastises Strobl for feeling guilty for not being there ("you are his witness! Without witnesses, their lives were for nothing"). Tom Wopat and Anne Dowd as Chance's parents. At every turn, new people appear to share their sadness, their appreciation, and their respect.
This was the first time as a director for Ross Kanz, who served as producer for "Lost In Translation". He learned well from that gem of a movie, especially in the category of "less is more". He never feels the need to go into a lot of dialog when all that is needed is a view of Bacon's clenched jaw and watery eyes.
I normally don't tear up at movies, no matter how sad. I did so many times during this film. Both times that I saw it on the first night it was released.
It will keep playing on HBO. Check your schedule. It is a very important film, and one I'd recommend for every American of every political persuasion to watch...mostly to remember how great Americans truly can be.
My Rating: Bernie Kosar (4 footballs)
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