REVIEW: “Bone Tomahawk”

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Some movies are beyond categorizing. They simply can’t be kept within the bounds of a single genre. It is a tricky thing to do well and I have always enjoyed it when a movie pulls it off. The bizarrely titled “Bone Tomahawk” may be this year’s biggest example of that. This unique genre-jumping concoction could best be described as an action, horror, comedy, western, thriller. To fail to emphasize any of those components would be to fail in accurately describing this wild movie.

Is 2015 the year of the subversive western? Earlier this year we had “Slow West” and “The Salvation”, two well made films that dared to do unique and different things in the western sandbox. “Bone Tomahawk” blows the sandbox to smithereens. Writer and director S. Craig Zahler (perhaps better known for his novels and heavy metal music) makes an impressive directorial debut as he juggles genre and tone to give us a film we can never quite figure out. Every time I felt I had figured out what it was, “Bone Tomahawk” would pull the rug out from under me.

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While fleeing a posse, two murderous and thieving scoundrels (amusingly played by David Arquette and Sid Haig) stumble across a mysterious burial ground. Only Arquette’s character survives and he flees to the small town of Bright Hope. Unbeknownst to him, savages from a clan of hill-dwelling cannibals follow him to the town. They butcher a stable boy and kidnap three people. Among those taken is Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons) wife of Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson).

Kurt Russell ventures back into the wild west playing Sheriff Hunt. He and his insistent and loyal deputy Chicory (played with humorous precision by Richard Jenkins) prepare a rescue. Arthur joins their venture as does John Brooder (Matthew Fox), the town’s dapper dandy with his own violent baggage. This ragtag posse of sorts begin the three day trek to find their people unaware of the horrors that may lie ahead.

Zahler’s vision for his film is fed to us in small parts. In one moment it will feel like a traditional western. In another moment it is a suspenseful thriller. Then a subtle yet hysterical bit of dry or dark humor makes it seem like something else altogether. Also the film will occasionally hit you with a scene of gruesome horror, something akin to a B-movie cult film. Fortunately all of these work within the bounds of Zahler’s vision.

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The film also surprises with its patient, slow-burning storytelling. The intensity ratchets up in the final act, but prior to that there is a surprising amount of quality character development. For Zahler his characters are clearly a main focus and he smartly anchors them with a small but impressive cast. Kurt Russell is effortlessly superb and obviously comfortable with this type of role. Richard Jenkins is an absolute treat – a pleasant mix of humor and humanity. The underappreciated Patrick Wilson is very good in what is in many ways the main character. And Matthew Fox really impresses. At first he looks a bit too stiff for his character, but over time as layers are peeled back, Fox shows a noteworthy range. He is a lot of fun.

I’m not sure how big of an audience there is for a movie like “Bone Tomahawk”. In no ways does it bow to convention or crowd pleasing. It is far from formulaic. It certainly doesn’t follow any familiar blueprint. It does meander a bit in the middle which does make it a tad longer than it needs to be, but it still manages to be something absorbing and strikingly unique. Just go into it expecting the unexpected because that is exactly what you are going to get.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “Alex Cross”

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“Alex Cross” is Tyler Perry’s attempt at starring in a serious movie outside of his normal comfort zone. Now you won’t see him running around in drag sporting his familiar Madea getup, but there are times in “Alex Cross” where that might have made things more interesting. Now to be fair, this movie is nowhere near as unbearable as I was anticipating and there are some pretty good moments. But in the end this is all to familiar material and the movie never does anything to set itself apart. In other words we’ve seen this all before.

Tyler Perry isn’t the first actor to portray Alex Cross, the lead character from James Patterson’s series of novels. Morgan Freeman took on the role in 1997 with “Kiss the Girls” and in 2001 with “Along Came a Spider”. Not only are these two films considerably different than this new vision, but the Alex Cross character undergoes a hefty transformation as well. He’s still a police detective and forensic psychologist but here he’s more open to mixing hand-to-hand combat and his sawed off shotgun to his Sherlock Holmesesque skills of deduction.

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Life is good for Alex. He has a beautiful wife, two lovely children, and one on the way. He’s also been offered a cushiony FBI desks job that pays a lot more money and would allow him to spend more time with his family. But isn’t it just like a sadistic serial killer to make things more complicated. Alex is called to a high-profile crime scene with his partner and lifelong friend Tommy (Edward Burns). They connect the murder to a man they call Picasso. He’s played by an almost emaciated Matthew Fox sporting a shaved head and noticeably fake tattoos. As with all of these movies, Alex and company set out to stop Picasso by picking through clues and getting to the next victim before the killer does. Like I said, it’s pretty familiar material.

“Alex Cross” runs the gamut from a crime drama to a revenge thriller. As the movie continues things get grislier to the point of seriously pushing the bounds of its PG-13 rating. Considering the movie does focus on a brutal serial killer and the hunt to find him, it’s not unreasonable to expect some rather gruesome content. But while “Alex Cross” does stretch the PG-13 rating, it seems shackled by it as well. I kept feeling as if the movie wanted to be darker, grimmer, and a bit more shocking than it was. I don’t think that would transform this into a great film but I can see where it would provide an edge that would help it overall.

But back to one of the bigger questions surrounding the movie. Was Tyler Perry able to pull this off? Let me just say that he was surprisingly adequate but nothing extraordinary or memorable. And while there were no egregious flaws in his performance, there are several times where he overplays a scene and other times where his stale line-reading is a distraction. It’s interesting that Idris Elba was initially cast for the part and I can’t help thinking he would be a better choice. But as for Perry, I was expecting a lot worse.

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Edward Burns probably gives the best performance of the movie even though some of the lines he’s given are pretty lame. And then there’s Matthew Fox. His performance is a tough one to peg. There are a few scenes, particularly when he’s wrestling with threatening dialogue, where he’s not that convincing. But overall I do think he pulls it off mainly because he sells ‘crazy’ pretty well through the combination of his unusual appearance and his moral apathy. But perhaps the most jarring performance comes from John McGinley as Alex Cross’ police captain. He’s terribly miscast and every line he says is ridiculously overdone. His performance stands out but for all the wrong reasons.

“Alex Cross” isn’t the worst movie out there. Its biggest problem is that is just not memorable enough to overcome its clear flaws. Most of the movie features too much that we’ve seen before and the ending feels like a cheap cop out. And while Tyler Perry may not have been the worst choice, I think it’s obvious he wasn’t the best choice. All of this contributes to “Alex Cross” being pretty forgetful. Some ingredients are there for what could’ve been a good movie. But the ingredients themselves don’t equal a fine dish. That’s certainly the case here.

VERDICT – 2 STARS