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REVIEW: Upgrade (2018)

After a brutal attack that leaves his wife (Melanie Vallejo) dead and himself a quadriplegic, Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) feels his life isn’t worth living. When an artificial intelligence implant called STEM is offered to him, Grey is able to move again and with his newfound abilities he seeks revenge for his wife’s murder.

Upgrade is really clever while never being obnoxious with it. The basic premise is something we’ve all seen before – having a man seek revenge/justice for his wife/girlfriend/family’s murder is the starting point for so many action/thriller films. With Upgrade it it takes that starting point and takes it to new and interesting places.

Upgrade is set in the new future where technology is so advanced. There are self-driving cars, smart houses, and the integration between humans and machinery seen as the norm. Grey is a guy who prefers to not rely on technology and to build things himself, so when he’s suddenly put in the position where he’s near enough defenceless without technology it makes things challenging for him as he has to relearn his body – both when he’s paralysed and when he can suddenly move again thanks to STEM.

STEM is like its own character. Grey can here its voice in his head and they have these conversations, discussing how to find the people who killed his wife. Stem can also take complete control of Grey’s body which lead to some very violent and innovative fight sequences. They really are great, and Marshall-Green does a great job as his body is moving robotically but brutally but the expressions on his face (which he always has complete control over) are often scared, confused and shocked by what he’s doing. His performance is all around great as you can clearly see the difference between not only when STEM has control and not, but also how Grey was before the attack.

Upgrade is a great revenge action flick but it’s also one of those films that has a decent amount of substance to it. In this world where reliance on technology is so great, there’s ethical dilemmas about what Grey has done to his body and how he can allow something to take control of it. And even outside of Grey’s situation the little bits of world-building that show how everyone is reliant on technology, surveillance and AI is interesting.

Upgrade is tense and thrilling and the action sequences really stand out due to how well they’re shot and how creative they are. The violence is sometimes pretty gruesome so be aware of that, but it’s also surprisingly funny thanks to the dynamic between Grey and STEM. Upgrade really is one of those films that you hear a load of great stuff about, and it does indeed live up to the hype. 4/5.

REVIEW: Vehicle 19 (2013)

Michael Woods (Paul Walker), a parolee, arrives in Johannesburg to reconnect with his ex-wife but when he unknowingly picks up a rental car that has kidnapped whistleblower Rachel Shabangu (Naima McLean) in the boot, he becomes entangled with the corrupt local police.

Vehicle 19 is one of those one location films and this one takes place in a car. It’s in a similar vein to Locke (2013) and Wheelman (2017) however with Vehicle 19 the camera never leaves the inside of the car. While Michael may briefly leave the car, the camera stays stationary. This technique is a double-edged sword really. It’s supposed to rack up tension as you are in a tight space with the main character with no escape, but equally some thing’s end up repetitive as you’re forced to see the action happening at a distance through the car windows.

Paul Walker does a good job carrying the film, giving a solid performance. His character wants nothing to do with Rachel and the trouble he’s now involved in and seeing him go from self-centred to determined to do what’s right feels like it’s earnt. Rachel and Michael’s dynamic ends up being really interesting and something I wish we’d seen more of. The fact that Michael is kind of a fish out of water works well too, both in terms of the politics of the city and just knowing about the layout of the city. He is clearly a skilful driver, but he doesn’t know Johannesburg at all so is often forced to ask for directions or go back on himself as he races through the streets.

Corrupt police officers are nothing new in film, but Vehicle 19 does manage to pull a few surprises with the genre. The car chases are often exciting though sometimes restrictive in terms of how the action is shown.

At just over 80 minutes Vehicle 19 does go by at a good pace and, after more character stuff at the beginning, the action beats are hit steadily. Vehicle 19 is a decent thriller and though its unusual filming style makes it stand out a little more than the generic action film it could’ve been, it’s still not something that’s super memorable. 3/5.

REVIEW: 30 Days of Night (2007)

After the Alaskan town of Barrow is plunged into darkness for a month, it is attacked by a bloodthirsty gang of vampires and survivors, led by Sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett), fight to survive the next thirty days until the sun comes up again.

30 Days of Night is a great vampire film and it’s also a great apocalyptic survival film. The film begins with many of the townsfolk moving away for the month as thirty days without sunlight is enough to put anyone on edge, nevermind throwing vampires into the mix. As people move out, Eben is called to investigate more and more weird occurrences and soon it becomes clear that something is trying to cut the town off from the rest of the world. When the sun goes down, it’s clear why that’s the case.

The film quickly sets up Eben as the lead and introduces various townsfolk and the people who are most important to him; his grandmother (Elizabeth McRae), his younger brother Jake (Mark Rendall) and his ex-wife Stella (Melissa George). As the sun sets and the vampires attack, things get very gruesome very quickly.

The initial attack on the town is brilliant. It’s very suspenseful and does the jump scares just right. There’s also a great overhead view of the town that shows the devastation these vampires are causing, pools of blood on the snow, people trying to escape before being struck down, and the echoes of screams.

The vampires themselves are very creepy and effective. They are all dressed really smartly but then they have pale skin, black eyes and a load of blood coating their faces and hands. Danny Huston plays the leader of the vampires and he is an intimidating presence whenever he’s on screen. Admittedly I often find Danny Huston menacing in films as I think I’ve only ever seen him play the bad guy, but adding fangs, long nails and blood into the mix makes him even more menacing.

There are time jumps, as seeing the whole thirty days would make a very long film, and it shows how time has passed with the growth of Josh Hartnett’s beard. The survivors have to decide between whether staying put for the thirty days would be their best option, or do they need to go out for supplies and maybe move elsewhere to be safer.

30 Days of Night is so effective because normally in vampire (or any monster) films, the humans only need to survive for one night, or generally a much shorter period of time than thirty days. The thirty days adds an extra layer of tension as there’s so many other things that could go wrong. The survivors could be discovered, they could turn on one another, they might run out of supplies – some of these elements could have been explored more but the ones it does touch on are good.

The performances are all great too, naturally the characters closer to Eben are given more to do and development than others, but there’s still some effective character moments. 30 Days of Night is an unsettling vampire/survival film, the score is eerie and adds to the whole creepy vibe of the story and the vampires themselves are some of the most lethal and scary ones I’ve seen for a while. 4/5.

REVIEW: Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015)

When a zombie apocalypse breaks out in their small town, best friends and scouts Ben (Tye Sheridan), Carter (Logan Miller) and Augie (Joey Morgan) – along with cocktail waitress Denise (Sarah Dumont) – must use their scouting skills to make it out alive.

This is one of those films where it started out and I was like, “Yeah, this is alright, a bit generic but fine” but then something clicked and I ended up having a great time with it.

The actual proper zombie battle stuff does take a while to get going, instead it spends time focussing on the friendship between the three scouts. The three scouts all have the sort of personalities you’d expect; Ben is the normal, relatable one, Carter is the loudmouth one and Augie is the more awkward one. They bicker and fall out as some of them feel like they’re getting to old for scouts while others still love it and it’s all very normal teen friend drama but in scout uniforms.

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse is actually really funny. There are clever visual gags, one-liners, gross out and humour (they’re teen boys – what do you expect?!), and just a lot of laugh out loud moments. Perhaps I went into this with rather low expectations, but this was far funnier than I was expecting it to be.

The comedic timing and chemistry between the three friends and Denise is really good. Denise is badass and how she fits into the dynamic of this kind of dorky friendship group works surprisingly well. The four of them each bring their own skills to the zombie fighting and the action sequences are all well shot and very entertaining.

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse has a solid mix of gore, crudity and laughs which makes it very enjoyable in its ridiculousness. Like honestly, there’s zombie cats and it has possibly the best use of a Dolly Parton song I’ve ever seen and that whole sequence, just like the film in general, is just so much fun. 4/5.

REVIEW: Ready Player One (2018)

When James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the creator of a popular virtual reality called the OASIS dies, a virtual contest is created to compete for his fortune and for control of this virtual world.

Ready Player One is based on the book of the same name by Ernest Cline. I read the book back in 2016 when the hype for it was at its peak and to be honest, I didn’t really like the book. I thought the main character was creepy towards and obsessed about the main female character as well as being very arrogant and all around unlikable – and then there was this over reliance on pop culture references that ended up being more annoying than anything else. So to say I had low expectations for the film version is an understatement.

The film follows Wade Watts or, as he’s known in the OASIS, Parzival (Tye Sheridan) as he and his friends search through the OASIS for the clues to finding the keys that will lead to Halliday’s fortune. There’s car races and battles and so many pop culture references. Some references are very blatant while others are blink and you’ll miss it types where if you get it that’s cool but it if you don’t you’re not missing anything. Or at least, I feel that what the film was going for but as it relies so heavily on nostalgia and computer game and movie references, there’s a whole other level of enjoyment to potentially have with Ready Player One if you get all these references. Otherwise, when Wade is in the virtual world it does look great and there’s all these cool looking characters or items, but you don’t get any meaning from them – they’re just there.

Wade’s not as unlikable here compared to his book counterpart and that’s probably because while we do get voice over narration from him explaining what the OASIS is, you don’t spend all his time with his thoughts. There’s still a very rushed “romance” that’s terrible and Wade’s friends turn out to tick the ethically diverse box.

As well as Wade and his friends competing with other players to find the keys to OASIS’s future, there’s a big bad corporate businessman played by Ben Mendelsohn who wants to win the challenge in order for his company to take it over. It’s such a cliché and Mendelsohn is pretty great as the over the top businessman who’ll stop at nothing to stop those pesky kids, but it’s something we’ve all seen so many times before and they don’t do anything interesting with it.

In the virtual world, Ready Player One looks great and some of the battle sequences are engaging but on the whole the characters and story just seem flat. It’s also a pretty depressing future (it’s set in 2045) where people escape into the OASIS because everyone’s stopped trying to make the real world better. Ready Player One plays out like a video game and if you enjoy them and know a lot of the pop culture references, you’ll probably have more fun with this film than I did. 2/5.

REVIEW: The New Mutants (2020)

The saga of The New Mutants production and release is almost legendary at this point. Different cuts were made, reshoots happened and the release date got pushed back by at least two years and was then released after the supposed peak of a global pandemic. What a legacy this film has.

The New Mutants follows Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt) who wakes up in a facility after her home is destroyed. There she’s told by Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga) that she’s a mutant and she and the four other teenagers are there to learn how to control their powers.

The New Mutants gets props for attempting something different within the comic book/superhero genre. There’s a small group of superpowered people (something we’re all familiar with by now) but instead of being in a safe and nurturing environment to learn about their powers like we’ve seen in previous X-Men movies, these teens are in what is called a hospital but is more like a creepy mental institution from a horror movie. There’s cameras and microphones everywhere and Dr Reyes likes to do tests on them and send them to solitary confinement if they misbehave. And that’s before each of the teens start to see and experience unexplainable horrors.

These mutant characters aren’t ones that are so easily recognisable. Personally while they’re regular human names didn’t instantly mean something to me, like Scott Summers would for instance, as their powers were slowly revealed I realised that all but one of the five were in the latter seasons of the X-Men: Evolution cartoon series. I highly recommend that series (it does the Apocalypse storyline brilliantly) especially if you want to see more of these characters as I feel it’s unlikely they’ll get a movie sequel.

Danielle is a nice enough character but isn’t particularly compelling. Her scenes with Rahne (Maisie Williams) are the best as their hesitant but blossoming relationship is an unexpected bright spot in a film where all the characters have or currently are experiencing great trauma. Anya Taylor-Joy often steals the limelight as the cutting Illyana, while Sam Guthrie and Henry Zaga aren’t given much to work with as their characters are the stereotypical quiet but nice guy and the brash jock type respectively.

After all the wait, The New Mutants is just fine really. It could’ve been scarier, and it could’ve delved more into these characters, so it doesn’t end up fulfilling the potential of its concept. It has a 90 minute runtime and you do feel that, an extra 20 minutes could’ve done wonders for character development and allowed for scenes to breathe as it was hard to gauge how long Danielle and the others had been in the facility before everything went wrong. Overall, The New Mutants is perfectly serviceable but not one to rush out to see during a pandemic. 3/5.

REVIEW: Victor Frankenstein (2015)

Told from Igor’s (Daniel Radcliffe) perspective, the troubled young apprentice tells the tale of his unhappy life before being rescued and befriended by Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy) and how they worked together to create life where it should not be.

The story of Frankenstein is so well known – it’s the blueprint for the monster genre – that it is nice to see a film that does try and put its own spin on things, however that doesn’t mean it’s successful in doing so. Having Igor being the main character is new and having him being intelligent and not a snivelling sidekick to Frankenstein was interesting. He goes from being downtrodden and never having anyone care about him, or even see him as a human being, to being more self-assured thanks to Frankenstein’s friendship and belief in him – that turn around is very quick though.

McAvoy as Frankenstein is good fun, the way he annunciates certain words or gets into other characters personal spaces is unsettling as he seems like he’s living life on a knifes edge. His Frankenstein is obsessive and volatile and is indeed the quintessential mad scientist. The characteristics of this Frankenstein seems to take a lot of inspiration from Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes. In fact, the tone and filming and editing style seems to be trying to emulate the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films. There’s the bickering relationship between Frankenstein and Igor, the random slow-motion shots in action sequences, the illustrated title cards, and one scene where Igor runs through a forest seemed to be a poor imitation of a sequence in A Game of Shadows.

Besides from the ethical dilemma of what Frankenstein and Igor are trying to achieve, the main antagonist for them is Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott) who is investigating the thefts of human and animal bodies parts. He is also obsessive and unfortunately quickly becomes a cartoonish villain – though a verbal sparring session between him and Frankenstein is one of the more compelling parts of the film.

The editing in the scenes where Frankenstein and Igor have successfully animated a dead body and then everything goes wrong is not good. Especially in the final showdown it is difficult to keep track of where characters are in relation to each other and to generally have a good idea of the space they are currently inhabiting. It’s hard to keep track of what’s happening and minor antagonists are dispatched so quickly it’s laughable.

While Victor Frankenstein does attempt to breathe new life (ha!) into a well-known story, in the end the final act becomes a clichéd monster movie and the lead up to it often feels like you’ve seen it before due to character and stylistic choices being so similar to previous big franchises. 2/5.

REVIEW: The Losers (2010)

I shall preface this by saying I think this “critical review” is going to turn more into a “gushing review” as I talk about one of my favourite films.

After a CIA special forces team known as the Losers are betrayed and left for dead by their superiors and a mysterious and powerful man known only as Max (Jason Patric), the Losers wage a war against them in order to get their lives back.

A film like The Losers lives or dies on its core team of characters and The Losers thrives. From the first scene you can feel the comradery between the Losers and can feel how these often very different men fit together in a cohesive team. Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays Clay, the leader of this team. He’s more world-weary and feels responsible for the others. As a side note: I once heard someone saying Jeffrey Dean Morgan should have the career Gerard Butler has and I can’t say I totally disagree with that statement.

Anyway, back to the team. Roque (Idris Elba) is more volatile but he and Clay balance one another out. Pooch (Columbus Short) is the wheelman and has some very funny moments, while Chris Evans plays a very sarcastic and talkative Jensen who’s the tech guy. It’s honestly a delight seeing Chris Evans in a role like this, especially as The Losers was released a year before he made his debut as Captain America. To round out the Losers there’s sniper Cougar (Óscar Jaenada), who’s more of the silent but deadly type.

When a secretive woman Aisha (Zoe Saldana) comes to the Losers with a plan for them to get Max, things get complicated as they have heists to carry out in order to get to Max. Max is a fun character too. He’s shady, unpredictable nature, and always has an air of menace even though you rarely see him get his hands dirty. Think it’s down to the costuming choice.

Having read the comics this film is based on (and after seeing the film), I think The Losers is one of the best comic book movie adaptations out there. It has the same humour, the essence of the story is there, if naturally changed a little, and the actors do a great job at bringing these characters to the screen.

The way The Losers is shot is fun and interesting. A lot of the time it’s like a standard action film, but then there’s slow-motion shots of fights or sudden camera zooms; it’s like the filmmakers had fun with the concept of bring a comic book to life.

I think fun is a good word to describe The Losers. The action, the fights, the dialogue, it’s all really fun and enjoyable to watch. The character beats are good, the intrigue is there, the music choices are sometimes unexpected but great, and it has a proper tight script and a runtime close to the 90 minutes mark. The Losers is a great comic book adaptation and a really enjoyable film. 5/5. Fun fact: The Losers is also one of my go to comfort films and is a great piece of escapism.

REVIEW: Skyscraper (2018)

Framed for the unfolding disaster, security expert Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) must infiltrate the world’s tallest building as it burns to save his family who are trapped inside with criminals.

If the premise of Skyscraper sounds familiar to you, that’s probably because you’ve seen some variation of this film before and it hits some pretty generic action beats to move the plot along. It’s also very easy to make comparisons to Die Hard and The Towering Inferno. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say Skyscraper is a combination of the two. Luckily for Skyscraper it has Dwayne Johnson as it’s lead, so some terrible dialogue and recycled plot points are easier to ignore.

Honestly the charisma and star power of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson really has to be admired as he will make any generic action film watchable. Will Sawyer is a compelling character who happens to be ex-military and is an amputee with a prosthetic leg. Having the hero of this disaster movie be more vulnerable was a nice touch. While Will was still strong and capable of running through fires, climbing buildings and fighting bad guys, there are moments where he has to stop and check his prosthetic leg over. Plus, as the days turmoil goes on it shows how having a prosthetic leg can be both a help and a hinderance in this unique situation. There are some action sequences that make use of the prosthetic leg, but on the whole, it is just shown as a part of him and that he is just fighting to save his family.

The performances from the supporting cast are solid too with people like Noah Taylor and Chin Han showing up making you go “I know him from somewhere!” Neve Campbell plays Sarah, Will’s wife, and she actually ends up with more to do than you think.

The set pieces are pretty spectacular, and I imagine seeing Skyscraper on a big screen would’ve made them even more impressive – and maybe even a sense of vertigo. The sequences where Will is climbing outside of the building, or his family is running through the burning building are good though the closer hand to hand fight scenes are a bit harder to follow and look a little messy at times.

Skyscraper isn’t really anything new to the disaster/action move genre, and it’s more serious than you’d expect, but it’s still reasonably enjoyable even if you can predict a lot of what happens and everything gets wrapped up unexpectedly quickly. 3/5.

REVIEW: Bloodshot (2020)

After he and his wife are murdered, Ray Garrison (Vin Diesel) wakes up with no memories, having been resurrected and enhanced by a team of scientists. The nanotechnology in his blood makes him a super soldier and near indestructible. But as flashes of what happened to his wife come back to him, he seeks revenge, not realising that there might be more to his resurrection than he was led to believe.

Bloodshot is an action/sci-fi film that doesn’t quite now if it wants to be cheesy and fun or overly serious. Vin Diesel is his usual growly self. Is decent in the fight sequences and does a good job at being confused when needed. The supporting cast are pretty fun, with them all fitting the usual tropes. After Ray wakes up, he meets Dr Emil Harting (Guy Pearce), the scientist who saved and enhanced him, along with other former military personal who have been given a new lease of life by Harting’s technology.

KT (Eiza González) is the former soldier that gets the most development and appears to have more of a moral integrity than the others. There are small moments with her that make you start to suspect there’s something more going on. Alas those moments are small because the answers are given far too quickly.

There is some intrigue to be had in Bloodshot but unfortunately due to the script being chockfull of exposition – honestly some characters just monologue on their motivations or backstory at the drop of a hat – the intrigue comes to nothing. It’s like the filmmakers didn’t trust the audience was smart enough to pay attention to some pretty big cues and to puzzle together what was happening themselves. Instead, anytime there seemed to be a moment where new information was being revealed, it was explained almost straightaway.

The action and special effects with the nanotechnology are pretty good. There’s an action sequence in a tunnel that really stands out. The action is contained to a small area and it really showcases the power Ray has at his fingertips. It’s also lit by red flares and the smoke and powder everywhere along with the dramatic score and slow-motion shots, makes it an aesthetically pleasing sequence.

That being said, another action scene stands out for the wrong reasons. There’s an action/chase sequence that’s supposed to be taking part in London, but it is so clearly not in London that it’s completely jarring. It doesn’t even look like the characters are in the UK anymore as they run down side streets and encounter police cars that look nothing like UK police cars. At a guess, I’d say it was filmed in a Mediterranean country because the houses and shops in the UK look nothing like the ones in that sequence.

The concept of Bloodshot is interesting and while the majority of the action sequences are well shot and engaging, the actual plot doesn’t live up to its potential. 2/5.

While I’ve included the trailer like I always do, I’d not recommend watching it as it gives away the majority of the twists and turns in Bloodshot.