REVIEW: “Blade Runner 2049”

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Green-lighting “Blade Runner 2049” could be considered one of the gutsiest movie moves in recent years. Ridley Scott’s 1982 original landed with mixed reactions both from critics and moviegoers. It’s unique and unconventional approach to practically everything pushed many viewers away and it failed to bring in the money Warner Brothers was banking on. Yet over time perceptions have changed and the film is widely regarded as a science fiction classic.

Now, 39 year later, along comes “Blade Runner 2049” and you could say it has followed the same path as its predecessor. While critics weren’t as divided, audiences didn’t come out for it and the movie fell well short of what it needed at the box office to break even. Yet just like the ’82 film, it wouldn’t be a stretch to expect a re-evaluation over time and a greater appreciation for what “2049” is doing.

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Talks of a “Blade Runner” sequel had been ongoing for years with names like Christopher Nolan and a returning Ridley Scott attached. Denis Villeneuve eventually signed on to direct and with him came long-time collaborator and top-tier cinematographer Roger Deakins (fourteen Oscar nominations without a win and counting). What quickly became obvious was Villeneuve’s intention to keep certain things very close to the original. The look, the tone, even the deliberate storytelling all hearken back to Scott’s picture.

Ryan Gosling plays K, a Blade Runner for the LAPD. In case you need a refresher, Blade Runners are tasked with hunting down and “retiring” bioengineered humans known as replicants. K’s superior Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) puts him on the trail of a rogue replicant of interest (Dave Bautista) who needs to be put down. In his encounter with his target K discovers evidence of a child born possibly from two replicants. Joshi believes this startling knowledge that replicants can reproduce could start a war so she orders K to hunt down the child and erase any evidence of its existence.

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The devilish Tyrell Corporation from the first film is no more and the even more nefarious Wallace Corporation has risen to take its place. It’s ran by a mannered, milky-eyed Jared Leto who has also learned of the miracle child’s possible existence. And as you can probably guess, he wants it for his own reasons. He sends his personal strong-arm Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to tail Agent K and capture the child for the company.

The writing team of Hampton Francher (co-writer of the original film) and Michael Green (who contributed to four 2017 screenplays) wisely steer clear of altering the “Blade Runner” formula. Much like its predecessor, 2049 is a methodically structured puzzle, solved through slow but persistent drips of revelation. Surrounding that central mystery is a visually jaw-dropping world – a consistent evocation of the original film’s unforgettable aesthetic. Production designer Dennis Gassner deserves a ton of credit for visualizing such a stimulating dystopia, from the exquisitely dank and dreary Los Angeles to the glowing orange hue of the sandy and barren Las Vegas. Then Deakins elegantly shoots the world in a way that amplifies the moody sci-fi/neo-noir vibe and immerses the audience.

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Gosling (known for often acting in a perpetual state of lethargy) is a perfect fit for his role. K is a character hungry to feel and there is a surprising emotional resonance in Gosling’s portrayal. K is a tragic figure, mutually disliked or dismissed by both humans and replicants. He attempts to fill that void with a holographic companion called Joi (Ana de Armas). But ultimately it’s his mission to hunt down the child that puts the pieces together for him. One of those pieces is a returning Harrison Ford who brings an unexpected subtlety and nuance to the now older and wiser Rick Deckard.

“Blade Runner 2049” isn’t the first movie to pose the question ‘What does it mean to be human?’ Ridley Scott has long been fascinated with variations of that question and Villeneuve’s movie is no different. It’s an idea that lies under the surface of “2049” and its entire two hours and forty-five minute runtime. It is a bit long which certainly contributed to the lower box office. And viewers attuned to more action-packed rhythms have undoubtedly had a hard time with the picture. That’s a shame. “2049” has more to say, has more visual ingenuity and takes more risks than the bulk of the genre films we get today.

So for now it appears the gutsy call hasn’t paid off. But I can’t help but believe that over time “2049” will be reassessed by many who dismissed it and I can honestly see it someday being heralded as a new science fiction classic just like its predecessor. Sure, those are bold words but some people were saying the same thing in 1982.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

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Caution, concern, skepticism, uncertainty. These are just a few words to describe my feelings after hearing a new Star Wars movie was on the way. After all, we aren’t talking about making any old thing. J.J. Abrams was taking what is arguably the most popular brand of any entertainment form and bringing it back to the big screen. He was tinkering with a property known for having the most passionate, the most protective, the most dedicated, and the most outspoken fan base. He was tackling a franchise viewed as more than a simple series of movies by millions of people from practically every demographic. Abrams was making a new Star Wars movie. No pressure.

Let’s be honest, when Disney acquired the Star Wars brand from George Lucas for $4.06 billion there was reason for Star Wars junkies like myself to at least be cautious. The Disney-fication (my new word) of Star Wars worried me. Then J.J. Abrams was given the keys to the new film. Abrams, a guy I have always seen as hit-or-miss, is best known for rebooting the Star Trek film series. But he didn’t only reboot Star Trek. He completely altered the structure, tone, and feeling of the Star Trek universe replacing it with a hip new Hollywood version. That’s the last thing I want in a new Star Wars picture.

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Abrams, a self-admitted Star Wars fanboy, has said all the right things when talking about the new film. He directs, co-writes, and co-produces “The Force Awakens”, which is essentially Episode VII. It is a film positioned as a conduit connecting the old to the new as well as an injection of fresh energy for a new generation. That sounds good, but can it deliver? Can this new era of Star Wars suck me in like the previous efforts. An answer was hinted at once John Williams’ score struck that glorious and familiar opening note.

I was able to avoid spoilers and all story details which made my viewing experience all the better. For that reason I’ll stay away from any semblance of a plot synopsis. But let’s just say the film starts with a bang and we are quickly introduced to the franchise’s new players. Abrams wants us to make early connections with these folks because they are clearly set to be key ingredients in this film and the franchise in general.

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On one side we meet the resourceful scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley). She’s the highlight of the new bunch – a strong independent sparkplug who is remarkably resourceful yet burdened by her past. We get the jittery, disillusioned Finn (John Boyega). He’s the film’s cowardly lion – a man with a conscience but who is too afraid to follow it. Boyega goes full throttle in every scene which isn’t always the best acting choice. And then there is Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), the best pilot in the galaxy. He’s a cool, rousing Han Solo type but with Luke Skywalker’s unwavering devotion to his cause. And then there is the little droid BB-8, an example of a cutesy character done right.

 

In the other corner we have The First Order, an evil Third Reich-ish force risen from the ashes of the Empire. They are led (or are they) by the volatile and dangerous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). He is driven by an almost maniacal obsession to be the most feared person in the galaxy. There is the smug opportunist General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) whose lust for power rivals that of Kylo Ren. He operates a Nazi-like military force and flexes his murderous muscles at will. But there is also the shadowy enigmatic Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) who we only see in a familiar grainy hologram form.

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And then you have the classic characters who Star Wars fans love. It has been roughly 30 years since the events of “Return of the Jedi” and names like Han, Luke, and Leia are spoken of by many in near mythical terms. Harrison Ford returns as Han and he gets the bigger chunk of screen time. He’s slower, grayer, but ever the cool space pirate. He and his howling compadre Chewbacca feel as if they haven’t missed a beat. Leia (Carrie Fisher) is focused on leading the resistance movement against The First Order. Luke (Mark Hamill) has disappeared after a particularly troubling event. And of course there is C3PO and R2D2. Seeing these characters again is exciting for any true fanboy. I do think there are moments between them that deserved a little more attention, but I’ll leave that one alone for now.

The real trick for Abrams is juggling all of these characters both old and new. To help he brought in writers Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan (who also worked on the scripts for “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi”). The script works mainly because the characters never get lost in a deluge of special effects. Each are given their own moments particularly the new faces who are well-developed and left with enough questions to be intriguing.

Speaking of the effects, there is a ton of CGI yet it never looks overused or blatantly obvious.  As good as the prequels often looked there were many instances where Lucas would visually overload his screen. Not here. Regardless of how fantastical things get, the special effects work to promote the setting, the characters, or the story. The new weapons, vehicles, and technology are fun, much of it based on blueprints from the original trilogy. Star Wars has always been known for its top-notch sound design. Here is no different. And Williams’ score is perfect sometimes feeling plucked right out the earliest films.

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Seasoned Star Wars fans will notice several nostalgic throwbacks, entertaining Easter eggs, and cool bits of fan service, but in a sense this contributes one of the film’s few problems. It plays it too safe specifically in the final act. Don’t get me wrong, I love the fan service. It struck a strong chord with me. But at the same time it kept the big ending on a relatively short leash. It was way too familiar down to certain details. Not bad by any means, but very familiar. It could be that Abrams feared alienating the tough-minded and vocal fan base. I can respect that. Now that he has expressed himself as a Star Wars loyalist I’m hoping the next installments will take us into some newer directions.

But enough of that. I am so happy to be able to stand up and tip my hat to J.J. Abrams. Talk about a bold and pressure-filled undertaking. Taking the reigns of the biggest entertainment franchise in the world was gutsy and the pressures to deliver a new yet faithful sequel were intense. But he does it. “The Force Awakens” is a fun, action-packed tablesetter for a new era of Star Wars. It has heart, emotion, and a childlike exuberance that should spark a flicker of excitement in even the most hardened person’s heart. But most importantly it FEELS LIKE a Star Wars movie. That may sound a bit silly to the more casual audience, but Star Wars fans know exactly what I mean and that may be J.J. Abrams’ single greatest accomplishment with this film.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW : “The Expendables 3”

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The entire Expendables franchise started as a nostalgic rekindling of the once prominent over-the-top action genre. It wasn’t afraid to parody itself or play with the familiar action cliches of the 1980s and early 90s. And half of the fun was just seeing these actors together hamming it up and shooting a ton of bullets. The first film was entertaining and it set the table for the second installment which I thought was funnier and more self-deprecating while clinging to the all-important nostalgia. Now we have an inevitable third film which tries to keep the ball rolling.

“The Expendables 3” is made for a PG-13 audience (at least so it says), but don’t be misled. The body count is still astronomical and bullets fly aplenty. But the blood is reined in just enough to somehow keep it from an R rating. Unfortunately its desire for a broader audience, while noble in purpose, is undermined by the fact that the movie simply isn’t as fun or nostalgic as either of the first two pictures.

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Sylvester Stallone and his action ensemble returns minus Bruce Willis who declined because he wanted more money (one of the film’s funnier jokes takes a shot at the publicized dispute). And in keeping with the franchise’s trend, several new stars are added into the mix. Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, and action star extraordinaire (sarcasm absolutely intended) Kelsey Grammer. These are some interesting names and it would be fun to see what the movie would be like if they were all that was added to it.

But in an attempt to inject some youth and potentially pass the torch, a group of new Expendables are added to the group. This is one of the film’s major blunders because none of these youngsters are the slightest bit interesting. They are cardboard cutouts and sometimes their acting makes Stallone’s look good. In case you don’t know, that is no compliment. They are walking talking cliches and they zap the movie of its fun and playful energy.

But the film’s main dish is the action and as I mentioned there is plenty of it. The problem is it lacks the pop that we’ve seen in the other flicks. What I mean is the action scenes rarely energize the movie. In the earlier films regardless of whatever narrative problems they would be having you could count on the action to liven things up. Here it often feels generic and monotonous. There are moments when they do pull off one of those great over-the-top stunts that feels right at home in the 80s. There are other moments that just feel like a boring grind.

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Thankfully some of the old action veterans do save this from being a disaster. Mel Gibson is deliciously maniacal as the head baddie. While his grand scheme and ultimate motivations are murky, Gibson has a ball with the character and I loved every minute he was on screen. Harrison Ford was also a hoot as a grumpy hard-nosed CIA officer. Arnold Schwarzenegger is also fun and every line he has seems to be poking fun at himself. Same with Wesley Snipes. But many of the cast gets lost in the shuffle and rarely get their signature moment in the film. Too many characters and not enough screen time to go around.

In the end “The Expendables 3” lacks the fun, the excitement, and the charm that the franchise built itself on. The action isn’t good enough this time around to save the film from its clunky and paper-thin plot. And while some of the old guys are a lot of fun, namely Gibson and Ford, too many characters are shortchanged thanks to the introduction of an insipid younger crew. It’s unfortunate because I have always enjoyed these movies as entertaining nostalgic escapes. “The Expendables 3” has left me wondering if this ship has run its course.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Ender’s Game”

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It would be easy to lump “Ender’s Game” in with the current trend of science-fiction films centered around young people. These movies seem to be popular now and modern Hollywood has shown it will milk popular trends dry. But while “Ender’s Game” has several elements that puts it in this category, it also does somethings that sets it apart. It is a movie with a thinly-veiled message, but it’s also a fun bit of science fiction that doesn’t always feel original but still works as a whole.

Asa Butterfield, who I loved as the wide-eyed title character in Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”, plays a young prodigy named Andrew “Ender” Wiggin. After months of observation, he is sent to an advanced battle school by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford). The school is the first step in preparing the kids for war with an alien species known as the Formics. 50 years earlier the Formics attacked Earth but were finally repelled by the heroic and sacrificial acts of a now iconic soldier named Mazer Rackham. The military believes another alien attack is inevitable so they plan to strike before the aliens do.

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The film follows Ender and a number of other kids through various stages of Battle School. You see apparently these video game savvy youth have acquired a better skill set for the video game-like combat of the future. As Ender advances he encounters an assortment of new kids, some of which are characters we’ve seen in movies a hundred times before. For example, there is an adolescent “Top Gun” rivalry that was just too corny to buy into. All of this is going on under the watchful eye of the cold, businesslike Colonel Graff and his counterpoint Major Anderson (Viola Davis) who is more interested in the children’s emotional well-being.

The story builds and builds towards the seemingly inevitable war to come. Ender develops a few close relationships with fellow cadets including an outgoing girl named Petra. She’s played by Hailee Steinfeld, one of my favorite young actresses in Hollywood. Ben Kingsley also pops up in the second half of the film with an interesting role and a face full of tattoos. The performances from all who I’ve mentioned are solid. I’m really impressed with Butterfield and Steinfeld, both of whom know how to handle themselves in front of the camera. Some of the other young actors, not so much.

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While I liked the story of “Ender’s Game” as a whole it does run into a wall about two-thirds of the way through. It begins to feel as if it is repeating itself (with slight advancements of the plot) at certain junctures. I eventually found myself ready to move past Ender’s training and get to the big finale. It certainly does come with some big special effects and a few rather disorienting twists that took a minute or two to soak in. Some interesting ramifications and personal conflicts follow which I thought was a neat way to end the story.

Maybe I shouldn’t say “end the story” because “Ender’s Game” is clearly set up with a franchise in mind. The final scene leaves no doubt about that. I would check out another chapter of this story although I’m not sure how compelling the new direction might be. As for this first installment, it is a fairly satisfying bit of science fiction that walks the tricky line of trying to appeal to youth and adults alike. For the most part it succeeds. It’s not a movie I would rush to see again, but it is a film I can appreciate.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

“42” – 3.5 STARS

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I am a huge baseball fan and I’ve always been drawn to a good baseball movie. Unlike any other sport, baseball has the history, the personalities, and the spirit which are perfect ingredients for a good sports movie. For years we’ve seen baseball movies that focus on everything from the sport’s history and inspirational true stories to hilarious locker room comedies and spirited fantasy pictures. I’m always excited when I see a new baseball film and the newest one to join the bunch is “42”. It’s the story of Jackie Robinson and his breaking of the color barrier which opened the door for black baseball players to play in the big leagues.

I mentioned inspirational, it’s hard to find a more inspirational story than this one. While this is the story of Jackie Robinson, a large part of the movie focuses on Branch Rickey, the president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. In the film Rickey (Harrison Ford) decides to shake things up in the world of baseball by bringing a black player into an all white league. With the 1946 season ahead, Ricky knows that the backlash will be severe but he believes it’s the right thing not just for baseball but for his bottom line. He believes he’s found his man in Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) – a tough kid who Rickey believes can handle the pressures that are sure to come.

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Jackie is brought from the Negro League to play for the Montreal Royals, Brooklyn’s farm team. The movie then follows his eventual rise to the big leagues while documenting the many struggles and hardships he faced in a segregated and racially divided environment. Writer and director Brian Helgeland doesn’t gloss over the uncomfortable racism of the time and that’s something that gives Jackie’s story a key sense of significance and importance. It makes his endurance and accomplishment all the more profound.

I also appreciated how Helgeland showed the good on both sides of the racial line. This wasn’t a single man’s accomplishment. It took fair minded people on both sides who were willing to look past the peripheral façades in order to see and accomplish a greater good. “42” takes time to tell this part of the story which keeps it more grounded in reality while also conveying a good, strong message. The film also does a great job of recreating the mid-1940s. The clothes, uniforms, and neighborhoods all brim with a pitch perfect period feel. And seeing Ebbets Field recreated full of energy and life was spectacular.

Boseman gives a really nice performance. In movies like this actors will often take an opportunity to overact which tends to heighten the performance while lowering the material. That’s not the case here. Boseman remains surprisingly restrained even during more emotional scenes. I was also struck by how much he resembled Robinson, not so much in the off the field scenes but during the baseball games. There were four or five glimpses on the field where I would have sworn there was CGI trickery involved.

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And then there’s Harrison Ford, fake eyebrows, gravely voice, and all. He really steals the show here. It took me a couple of minutes to adjust to his performance but in no time I was completely sold on his character. It’s such a great role and Ford knocks it out of the park (pun most certainly intended). Ford and Boseman are the two big performances but there is some good supporting work worth mentioning. I really liked Christopher Meloni as manger Leo Durocher. Unfortunately his role is a pretty small one. I also liked Nicole Beharie as Jackie’s wife Rachel. And then the baseball guy in me really enjoyed watching Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese. Granted, sometimes the material he’s given is pretty flimsy but he’s still a lot of fun.

All of these things help make “42” a good movie but I did have some issues with it. I was really hoping the movie would be able to avoid many of the common trappings that biopics fall into. Unfortunately it couldn’t and this is particularly obvious with the ending. Now I knew Jackie’s story so I wasn’t expecting a huge surprise. But I also was hoping for more than the obvious and conventional finale we’re given. I won’t go into detail but let’s just say everything falls perfectly into place to try and give the movie the emotionally uplifting ending it aims for. You see it coming a mile away.

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I also had to roll my eyes at several injected scenes meant for either dramatic effect or to shed light on the racism of the day. These particular scenes felt just like overly scripted Hollywood fabrications. Now I’m not at all saying that these types of things didn’t happen at the time. But the way they’re presented in the movie clearly exposes them as phony and misguided melodrama. It stands out because in several other scenes “42” shows the racism of the day in much more potent and effective ways. And then there’s Alan Tudyk as Phillies manager Ben Chapman. History bears witness that Chapman was a bad guy and his actions, especially against Jackie Robinson, were deplorable. But here he almost comes across as a cartoon character. He has a big sequence later in the film and while he gets to the heart of what actually happened I had a hard time buying into him.

While these things kept me from embracing “42” as a great film, make no mistake, this is still a really good baseball movie based on an incredible story of courage and perseverance. I also couldn’t help but feel that giddy baseball fan excitement well up inside of me as I watched it. There’s a great sense of love for the game and a sensitive respectfulness for the subject matter found in “42”. And while it’s not a perfect film it’s yet another shining example of how this great sport is fertile ground for quality movies.

5 PHENOMENAL MOTORCYCLE MOVIE SCENES

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Have you ever stopped and thought about how many great motorcycle movie scenes there have been over the years? I’ve never owned one but I’ve always thought motorcycles were cool especially when our favorite movie stars are speeding, flipping, and jumping them in ways only possible in the movies. So why not look at 5 Phenomenal Motorcycle Movie Scenes? Now this was a tough list to put together because I always like to include a little variety. But there are some iconic motorcycle scenes that I hate to leave off. So here they are. Now I know people will find some popular choices missing therefore I’m not calling this the definitive list. But I have no trouble calling these five motorcycle movie scenes absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “THE GREAT ESCAPE”

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Steve McQueen was one tough dude. He also had an affection for fast vehicles and maybe that’s one reason his motorcycle scene from “The Great Escape” is so good. McQueen, decked out in full Nazi soldier garb, makes his way by motorcycle into a small German occupied village as he tries to sneak out of Nazi territory. There he is discovered which leads to an amazing chase through the rolling Bavarian meadows. The gorgeous scenery is one thing, but watching McQueen handle the bike with Nazis in pursuit is exhilarating. Very little stunt work was needed. McQueen was a skilled motorcycle rider and he even played the Nazis pursuing him in several shots. The sequence climaxes with an amazing jump over a barbed wire fence (this time done by a stuntman). It’s a great scene from a great film.

#4 – “INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE”

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There is a wonderful motorcycle sequence in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”. Indy (Harrison Ford) and his father (Sean Connery) make a wild escape after being captured by the Nazis. The pair tear off on a motorcycle and sidecar with five Nazis on bikes right behind them. This is a typical Indiana Jones action scene and I love it. They bust through checkpoints, joust with an oncoming Nazi biker, and cause some of the wildest motorcycle crashes you’ll ever see. But as you would expect from an Indy film, humor is a key ingredient to making the scene work. It’s funny enough seeing Sean Connery whizzing around in a motorcycle sidecar. But watching Indy’s childlike exuberance when he takes out a Nazi versus his dad’s scowling show of disapproval is just hilarious.

#3 – “SKYFALL”
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I love it when I am able to put a newer movie on one of these lists and I have no reservations with including “Skyfall”. Much like “Casino Royale” this film starts with a bang as Bond (Daniel Craig) is pursuing a mercenary who has killed an agent and stolen a hard drive. The chase eventually ends up on motorcycles as the two speed through the crowded Istanbul market streets. From there they go to the rooftops of the Grand Bazaar before ending up on a moving train. This motorcycle chase sequence is utterly insane and a lot of that can be attributed to the profoundly good cinematography of Roger Deakins. This is a pure edge-of-your-seat adrenaline rush and its easily one of the best motorcycle chases of all time. Don’t believe me? Just check it out!

#2 – “SHERLOCK, JR.”

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I feel for anyone who hasn’t experienced a Buster Keaton film. He was a true master of filmmaking and physical comedy. For those unfamiliar with his work, “Sherlock, Jr.” is a beautiful starting point. This 45 minute gem is absolutely hilarious and features some of Keaton’s greatest stunts. It also gives us one of cinema’s greatest motorcycle sequences hands down. In this scene Keaton finds himself sitting on the handlebars of a motorcycle. He doesn’t notice the driver is knocked off after hitting a big bump and he zips through a series of insane near-miss obstacles with no one steering the bike. This is truly jaw-dropping cinema. He flies through traffic, skims across a collapsing bridge (while it’s collapsing mind you), and almost gets hit by a train in one of the film’s most amazing shots. Give this silent film a watch. I promise you, the motorcycle sequence with blow you away!

#1 – “MISSION IMPOSSIBLE II”

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Many people didn’t care for “Mission Impossible II” but I enjoyed John Woo’s more stylized and action-packed picture. One of the reasons I liked it was the wild and explosive finale. In it Tom Cruise hops on a Triumph motorcycle and flees from a big group of baddies in SUVs followed by the terrorist leader on a bike of his own. Cruise jumps onto bridges, rides through explosions, and gets in a shoot out while going 90 mph. And of course the big showdown comes down to motorcycle versus motorcycle. Woo’s well known visual techniques of moving camera shots and slow-motion gives the sequence an over-the-top kinetic energy that I thought was great. “Mission Impossible II” certainly wasn’t a perfect movie, but its big motorcycle finish is just phenomenal.

Now let your voices be heard. See a pick of mine you agree or disagree with? Let me know. Also, be sure to share your favorite motorcycle movie scene.