RETRO REVIEW: “Con Air” (1997)

There was a time when Jerry Bruckheimer was to action movies what Jason Blum currently is to horror. Obviously it’s not a true one-for-one comparison as both producers had very different approaches to the kind of movies they made. But their names did become synonymous with specific genres and both had loads of success giving those genres some much needed boosts.

While the 78-year-old Bruckheimer is still steadily producing (he has the highly-anticipated “Top Gun: Maverick” next week), one could argue that his box office blockbuster heyday was in the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s. Included in that ten-year stretch were four films with the delightfully enigmatic Nicolas Cage. One of them was none other than “Con Air”.

I’ve always enjoyed Cage, and while his career is certainly at a much different point today, there has been a surge of love for the actor following his wacky (and not-so-great) recent film “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent”. So what better time to look back at one of Cage’s silliest yet most entertaining action movies, “Con Air”. The film came out in 1997 to fairly positive reviews and it was a box office success. So how does it play 25 years later? Well, pretty good to be honest.

Cage plays Cameron Poe, an honorably discharged Army Ranger returning home to Mobile, Alabama to surprise his pregnant wife Tricia (Monica Porter). The two have a bubbly reunion as Trisha Yearwood’s Oscar-nominated original song “How Do I Live” simmers in the background (such a movie staple of the 80’s and 90’s). But when they’re attacked by three obnoxious drunks, one of the thugs ends up dead and Cameron is sentenced to 10 years in prison for manslaughter. While in the penitentiary, he misses the birth of his daughter Casey (Landry Allbright). But the two frequently exchange letters, anxiously anticipating the day Cameron gets out and can finally see his daughter.

The day finally comes when Cameron is granted parole, and just in time to make it home for Casey’s birthday. But to get back home he has to hitch a ride on plane carrying inmates to a new maximum security prison in Alabama. It’s a prison designed for lifers, “the worst of the worst”. So he’s put onboard a converted Fairchild C-123 (appropriately called The Jailbird) with an “all-star” lineup of the country’s most dangerous felons.

Obviously there are a ton of questions. For example, why was Cameron sent off to a prison so far away for what amounted to self-defense? And was there no other way to get him back to Alabama other than a flight full of the most savage criminals? To be honest, in a movie like this those are details I’m happy to overlook. That’s because director Simon West and screenwriter Scott Rosenberg are clearly having a good time stacking up their wacky scenario. And part of what’s fun of “Con Air” is throwing ourselves into it and watching how it all plays out.

As far as the “Who’s Who” of convicts onboard, John Malkovich plays Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom, the brilliant yet psychotic mastermind of the inevitable takeover of the plane. Some may laugh, but this is one of my favorite Malkovich performances. He’s a great fit – equal part hammy and cold-blooded menace. It’s said Malkovich wasn’t high on the movie, but he makes for a delightfully devious (and at times dryly funny) chief antagonist.

Cyrus is joined by Nathan “Diamond Dog” Jones (Ving Rhames), a black militant domestic terrorist and Cyrus’ right-hand man. There’s William “Billy Bedlam” Bedford (Nick Chinlund), a mass murderer who killed his wife’s entire family; a serial rapist who goes by “Johnny 23” (Danny Trejo); Earl “Swamp Thing” Williams (M.C. Gainey); a wild-eyed convict with piloting experience; and a chatty arsonist/dopehead named “Pinball” (Dave Chappelle). Oh, and then there’s Garland Greene aka “The Marietta Mangler” (Steve Buscemi), a notorious serial killer who creeps out even the most hardened of the cons.

As Cyrus’s plan unfolds in the air, U.S. Marshall Vince Larkin (John Cusack) works on the ground to regain control of the plane. Along the way he constantly butts heads with the insufferable (and annoyingly over-the-top) DEA Agent Malloy (Colm Meaney) who wants to shoot the plane down despite there being innocent people onboard including our protagonist. Cage is a hoot with his hit-and-miss Southern accent and his flowing gif-ready locks. The movie has fun with his unique style of action hero and hearing him utter overtly silly lines like “Put the bunny back in the box” never gets old.

“Con Air” only gets crazier with two particularly memorable set pieces, one at an abandoned airfield and the other on the Las Vegas strip. If you’re looking for realism, you’ll be disappointed. Instead West goes for the gusto with over-the-top action and a hearty wink of the eye. It’s that last part that is so important. “Con Air” never takes itself too seriously. It knows how preposterous it is and doesn’t try to be anything other than wild raucous popcorn entertainment. And sometimes that’s all I’m in the mood for. Sadly, we rarely (if ever) get these kinds of movies these days. But at least we have escapes like “Con Air” for whenever that mood hits.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Contractor” (2022)

Chris Pine gets to flex his action-thriller muscles in “The Contractor”, the new film from Swedish director Tarik Saleh. The movie is Saleh’s English language big screen debut and it sees Pine as an ex-military special forces soldier (aren’t they all in these things) who joins a private contracting outfit with his best buddy played by Ben Foster. But as you can probably guess, the two end up in over the heads in what unfortunately turns out a fairly conventional and predictable story.

Written by J.P. Davis, “The Contractor“ seems to struggle with an identity crisis. The story kicks off with promise and positions itself as a stinging examination of the United States government’s treatment of military veterans. But the further it goes down the genre route the more it loses its relevance. And as an action movie, Saleh never fully gets the film off the ground. So it isn’t as pertinent as it tries to be or as kinetic as it wants to be.

Image Courtesy of Paramount

Pine plays James Harper, a soldier out of Fort Bragg who we first meet as he rehabs from a knee injury. But when steroids used to speed up his recovery show up in his blood work, his unit’s new commanding officer kicks him out, granting James an honorable discharge but stripping him of his pension and healthcare. “They’re cleaning house,” a more sympathetic officer tells James. “You made it easy for them.“

As unpaid bills mount back home, James begins to reconsider his pledge not to take contract work. Desperate for cash and despite the concerns of his wife Brianne (Gillian Jacobs), James lets his buddy and fellow vet Mike (Ben Foster) set up a meeting with Rusty Jennings (Kiefer Sutherland), a private contractor who does jobs globally for the United States government. You know, the covert, ‘no one can know about them’ kind. “We import and export coffee,“ Jennings says in the most unconvincing fashion.

James and Mike are sent to Berlin where they’re tasked with doing a lot more than moving coffee. What starts as surveillance of a big-shot bio-engineer and virologist (Fares Fares) leads to James running for his life. This is where the predictability kicks in. And while the movie tries to throw a couple of twists into the mix, nothing catches us by surprise and the tension never gets above room temperature.

Image Courtesy of Paramount

The movie teases more layers to James such as his desire to escape from the shadow of his hardened military father and (as mentioned above) the failings of the government towards our military vets. Sadly, the film never does much with those angles. And the idea of a husband and father trying to get back to his wife and son should carry a certain emotional connection for the audience. But even that is tepid at best.

“The Contractor” ends up being a movie that can’t quite build the momentum or the emotional stakes that it needs to sell us on its story. The capable cast deliver solid performances, but there’s only so much they can do. Outside of a few early table-setting scenes and one particularly well-shot action sequence, the story mostly sits in neutral. And that’s a shame because there’s a lot of potential here that’s never met. “The Contractor” is out now in select theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Cyrano” (2021)

(CLICK HERE for my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

“Cyrano” is a fabulous new telling of the Edmond Rostand literary classic that’s more directly linked to Erica Schmidt’s 2018 stage musical. Director Joe Wright enlists Schmidt to pen the screenplay and twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner (who some might know from the rock band The National) to handle the songs. What they give us is a remarkably fresh take on this romantic tragedy, anchored by a stunning Peter Dinklage lead performance and full of touching musical numbers.

Dinklage plays the title character Cyrano with a heart-crushing sincerity. Gone is the long nose from the original production. Instead it’s Cyrano’s small stature that leaves him questioning his own worth. Cyrano is hardly a pushover, equally lethal with both lyrics and the sword. He has personality in spades and quite the reputation with his fellow soldiers. But his confidence in himself wanes when it comes to what he loves most in life, a fair maiden named Roxanne (Haley Bennett).

Image Courtesy of United Artists Releasing

Roxanne is a bubbly romantic at her core, looking for someone who truly loves her. But her family wants to marry her off to the wealthy Duke De Guiche (a preening yet slickly sinister Ben Mendelsohn). “Children need love,” her cynical maid brays, “adults need money.” Bennett makes a terrific Roxanne, portraying her as lively and innocent but with just a touch of vanity. Enough to blind her to her childhood friend Cyrano’s poorly veiled love for her.

Instead Roxanne’s eyes lock onto Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a hunky new recruit in the Duke’s regiment. He’s tall, brave and equally infatuated with Roxanne. But he has an Achilles heel. The good-hearted but bumbling Christian couldn’t put together a romantic sentence if his life depended on it. Underneath his boyish good looks is a young man utterly incapable of expressing his feelings, especially to a woman. Enter Cyrano, an effortlessly graceful wordsmith who agrees to secretly pen Christian’s letters to Roxanne. “I can make you eloquent,” Cyrano tells Christian in one of the film’s more heartbreaking lines, “and you can make me handsome.”

So the two enter into the most unusual of partnerships. For Christian it’s an opportunity to use the words of another to woo this enchanting young woman. For Cyrano it’s about making Roxanne happy. But deeper down, the sad truth is he believes this is the closest he’ll ever get to sharing his true feelings with her.

Going back to its earliest days, this story has always been a little preposterous, mainly because the plan hatched by Christian and Cyrano was always doomed to fail. But what makes it palatable is the aching heart of Cyrano. Here, Dinklage conveys that tragic element of the story through his pained eyes but also through his mournful baritone. Whether it’s dialogue or song, Dinklage exquisitely embodies a character both driven and haunted by an unquenchable longing. “My sole purpose in this world is to love Roxanne.”

Image Courtesy of United Artists Releasing

Though made during the COVID-19 era, Wright and his able team of creators show none of the limitations they were forced to work through. Shot entirely in Sicily, the film is a sumptuous collage of location, lighting, costumes and production design. Wright strategically uses what he has to create a film that genuinely looks and feels bigger than it actually is. And when you thread in the Dressner brothers’ earnest melancholy-laced lyrics, you have movie with heart and soul as well as style.

If there’s one nagging issue, it’s that I wasn’t always convinced by the swooning affection between Roxanne and Christian. It sometimes comes across as shallow puppy-love more than a believable romance. But even then it’s Dinklage who gives us something to latch onto. And as the film takes its more somber turn (once Mendelsohn’s vindictive Duke sends both Cyrano and Christian off to war), Dinklage peels back yet another intriguing layer to his character. It’s a beautiful performance. “Cyrano” opens today in theaters.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Clean” (2022)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Adrien Brody plays a garbage man with an ax to grind in director Paul Solet’s dour and abrasive crime drama “Clean”. Co-written and co-produced by Brody, “Clean” has a lot in common with other movies of its kind. You have the quiet and brooding loner with the dark and mysterious past. There’s the longing for and vain attempt at some semblance of a normal life. Then (of course) there’s that one event that provides the catalyst for the movie’s big violent finish.

All of those story beats may ring familiar, but Solet and Brody approach their material in a way that almost gives the illusion of something fresh. It’s found in their strangely slow and pensive pacing. “Clean” takes its time unpacking its main character, giving just as much attention to his psychology as his more “savage” physical abilities. It even begins with grim yet hammy philosophical narration that features lines like “I’m still looking for answers. I just don’t know the questions anymore.“

With his pale complexion, tired eyes, thick black beard and a gravelly snarl, Brody plays a man called Clean. He drives a trash truck route around the outskirts of New York City, collecting old scrap for himself along the way. At home, in a dried-up forgotten part of town, he uses the scrap to fix up old junked appliances which he sells to a local pawn shop owner (RZA) for cash. When he’s not running his truck, he’s repainting abandoned neighborhood houses. It’s a mundane ritual, but it keeps him focused on something other than his dark impulses.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

The one shimmer of light in his otherwise gloomy life is a young girl from his neighborhood named Dianda (Chandler DuPont). Each day Clean fixes her lunch and drops it off before she heads to school. It’s a sense of paternalism that stems from a traumatic bond the two share. Dianda lost both of her parents and now lives with her grandmother. Clean is tortured by a particularly devastating tragedy from his past (as these character types usually are). He lost his daughter, a victim of a lifestyle he brought into their home. Helping Dianda is his self-imposed act of penance.

The film’s big baddie comes in the form of a local drug kingpin named Michael (Glenn Fleshler). He’s your standard issue movie hood – part gangster, part sociopath. He operates out of a local fish market where he runs a tight ship. The one thorn in his side is his apathetic son Mikey (Richie Merritt) who would rather hang out with his friends smoking weed and listening to hip-hop than learning the family business.

Without getting into the details (not that they matter much), Dianda gets sucked in by some local hooligans which quickly turns Clean from good shepherd to avenging angel. It begins a violent chain of events, eventually putting Clean in Michael’s crosshairs. From there it careens towards its inevitable climax – one that’s brutally exhilarating to a point, but with little in terms of originality. Think of it as a dialed-down “John Wick” minus the style. Or maybe “Taxi Driver” but with a grittiness that often feels manufactured rather than inherent to the storytelling.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

The movie is also helped by a really strong Adrien Brody performance. Considering some of his more recent roles, it may be easy for some to forget how good of an actor he really is. To the 48-year-old’s credit, he pours himself into the character, fully committed and fittingly stoic. He brings a hard-edged physicality to the action scenes, but he’s also good in the quieter moments. For example he shares some strong scenes with Mykelti Williamson who plays Clean’s sponsor. Their barbershop therapy sessions are when the film feels its most honest.

Despite Brody’s best efforts, there is still something undeniably derivative about “Clean”. The performances are solid, the setting is authentic, the bursts of gruesome violence are well shot and have a basis in the story. There are even moments of real sincerity and pathos. Yet at its core there’s really nothing here we haven’t seen many times before. It’s a nagging reality that I never could shake and that zaps the movie of its urgency.

It’s unfortunate really because this is clearly a passion project for Brody. But at this point, if you’re going to do ‘the moody guy seeking redemption for his violent past’ story you need to bring something fresh to the story. The film’s early patience teases that. But in the end it’s hard to find anything particularly new or surprising.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “C’mon C’mon” (2021)

The ever enigmatic yet insanely talented Joaquin Phoenix follows up his Oscar-winning turn in “Joker” with a dramatically different performance in a much different movie. “C’mon C’mon”, written and directed by Mike Mills, is a surprisingly sweet and heartfelt drama that may look familiar on the surface, but that avoids many of the snares that often accompany films in this vein.

A warm and gentle Phoenix is once again in nomination worthy form in “C’mon C’mon”. He plays a single middle-aged documentarian named Johnny who travels around the country with his tiny production team interviewing kids about their views of the world and their dreams for the future. He asks these questions to a diverse group of children from a variety of backgrounds. Sometimes the answers he gets denotes hope and optimism. But often the responses are rooted in fear, uncertainty, and skepticism.

Image Courtesy of A24

While working in Detroit he gets a call from his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) in Los Angeles who he hasn’t seen since their mother died a year earlier (Mills comes back to their old baggage at different points in the film, unpacking it delicately and truthfully). Viv tells Johnny her bipolar and estranged husband Paul (Scoot McNairy) is in a bad way in Oakland and needs her help. But she can’t find anyone to watch her eccentric nine-year-old Jesse (Woody Norman).

So Johnny flies out to LA, a little nervous about taking care of an energetic youngster on his own, but its only for a few days. “Are you ready for this?”, Viv asks. It’s a question you could also ask the audience. Because what follows isn’t a sudsy melodrama or a kiddie comedy. Much like the scenes with Johnny interviewing children, this is a movie about listening and connecting. Everything Mills does (the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, the eclectic score) works towards that purpose. He wants his audience to listen and feel as his characters listen and feel.

Image Courtesy of A24

Just as essential as Mills’ honest and heartfelt touch are the three wonderfully nuanced central performances. Phoenix brings a quiet and earnest sincerity to Johnny which really comes out in his scenes with young Norman. The two have a sparkling chemistry which only gets stronger as the story takes them from LA to New York. Norman is terrific in a year full of terrific child performances. Meanwhile Hoffmann doesn’t get as many scenes, but she does a great job visualizing Viv’s buried pain and frustration.

“C’mon C’mon” moves at its own subtle harmonious pace, muting any sense of showiness or sentimentality in order to keep us focused on the relationships at the core of its story. There are some good laughs, some genuine emotions, and a depth to its characters that makes us care about them and their efforts to reconnect. The movie does require patience, because (much like in real world) life often happens at its own pace. We feel that during our time with Johnny, Jesse, and Viv. It’s part of the film’s beauty and charm. “C’mon C’mon” is now showing in select theaters.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Cry Macho” (2021)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.)

One thing about Clint Eastwood, even at 91-years-old the seasoned and often surly actor, director and producer still plays by his own rules. His notorious and staunch independence is what led him to turn down an offer to play James Bond and pass on the lead role in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”.

Yet that same self-reliance also drove many of the choices that led to his screen-legend status. And when it’s all said and done, few will be able to claim a more impressive or prolific career than the man with the steely squint and gravelly snarl.

For over six decades Eastwood has been a poster boy for stoic masculinity in movies. From his iconic Man with No Name role in Sergio Leone’s trio of spaghetti westerns to his gnarly San Francisco police officer “Dirty” Harry Callahan to his crusty intolerant curmudgeon in “Gran Torino”. I mention that because his latest film “Cry Macho” offers Eastwood a chance to look back on a long career often defined by its tough machismo-soaked roles.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

“Cry Macho” won’t go down as one of Eastwood’s best films nor is it the kind of movie that will change any minds about his work. Yet it’s the type of stripped-down and straightforward story that’s perfect for this stage in Clint’s career. It’s an endearing reflection wrapped in an overly simplified story that gets by, not because of the character on the screen, but because of the legend who fills his shoes. Then again, so much of Eastwood is packed into the character that you could call them inseparable.

Set in 1979, Clint plays Mike Milo, a worn-down former rodeo champion working as a horse trainer for a wealthy rancher named Howard Polk (Dwight Yoakam). We first meet the unapologetically gruff Mike as he shuffles in late for work (again) prompting a fed up Howard to fire his crusty ranch hand. But before doing so Howard unloads with an exposition-heavy rebuke that only exists to lay out Mike’s troubled backstory – his crippling rodeo accident, the addiction to pills and booze, the crushing family tragedy.

This hurried and awkward opening continues “one year later” when Howard shows up needing help. He wants Mike to go to Mexico City and bring back his estranged 13-year-old son, Rafo (Eduardo Minett) who lives with his wild and neglectful mother, Leta (Fernanda Urrejola). “You owe me Mike,” he reminds the old cowboy. “Yeah, I owe ya,” Mike replies honoring an old-fashioned code that believes a man’s word means something.

The story then heads south of the border where Mike finds young Rafo at a back-alley cockfight. The two don’t exactly hit it off, but predictably over time a bond develops between the old man, the young boy, and a rooster named Macho. Their road-trip has its hazards – car thieves, the federales, Leta’s goons. At the same time, the absurdity of it all isn’t lost on Eastwood who never misses a chance to squeeze out some pretty good laughs.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Despite all of its neo-western dressing, “Cry Macho” is actually pretty mellow and is much more interested in the two lost wandering souls than its low-key thriller elements. This becomes clearer when the movie takes a sudden detour eventually settling down in a small Mexican village. There Rafo gets his first feel of stability while Mike’s leathery exterior begins to soften thanks to the kindness of a local cantina owner (Natalia Traven). This is where the movie really hits its free and easy stride.

The aggressively simple story has its obvious conveniences and missing details which Eastwood has no interest in exploring. But that’s consistent with Clint’s signature efficiency and clear-minded classicism. It’s the emotional and even spiritual undercurrent that ends up driving the movie. It’s Eastwood’s critical self-analysis and reflection mixed with a healthy dose of irony. It’s the unexpected sweetness, warmth, and compassion.

Ultimately the mileage you get out out of “Cry Macho” may hinge on your connection with its legendary star and director. If you’ve been with him for decades, this film will be a graceful extension of that journey. And while the his latest won’t be for everyone, it reminds me of how glad I am that Clint Eastwood is still making movies.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS