Real Steel – the new sci-fi sports flick from Night at the Museum director Shawn Levy – is set in the year 2020. Its vision of the future looks remarkably similar to the present save for the fact that the sport of boxing has been taken over by pugilistic robots. There are no robot butlers taxi drivers or senators – just boxers. Apparently technology in 2020 has advanced enough to allow for the creation of massive mechanized beings of astonishing dexterity but humanity has found no use for them beyond the boxing ring.
Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton a has-been boxer turned small-time robot-fight promoter. A consummate hustler who’ll do anything for a buck Charlie’s fallen on hard times of late. Opportunity arrives in the diminutive guise of 11-year-old Max (Dakota Goyo) his estranged son who turns out to be something of an electronics wunderkind. Together they work to fashion Atom an obsolete ramshackle “sparring robot” left to rot in a junkyard into a contender.
Anyone who’s seen an underdog sports movie – or any movie for that matter – made in the last half-century can fairly easily ascertain how this one plays out. (The story borrows tropes from The Champ Rocky and Over the Top wholesale.) Atom proves surprisingly capable in the ring compensating for his inferior technology with grit perseverance and an ability to absorb massive amounts of punishment. Under the guidance of Charlie and Max he makes an improbable run through the ranks eventually earning a one-in-a-million shot at the World Robot Boxing championship.
Real Steel was executive-produced by Steven Spielberg; it bears his unmistakable imprint. Levy judiciously deploys Spielberg’s patented blockbuster mix of dazzling special effects and gooey sentiment wrapping it all in a highly polished if wholly synthetic package. Still Real Steel might have amounted to so much glossy hokum were it not for its champion Hugh Jackman. Other actors might eye such a project as an opportunity to coast for an easy paycheck but damned if Jackman isn’t completely invested. The film’s underdog storyline isn’t nearly as inspiring as watching its star so gamely devote himself to selling material that will strike anyone over the age of 12 as patently ludicrous. His efforts pay off handsomely: Real Steel is about as rousing and affecting as any film inspired by Rock’em Sock’em Robots can expect to be. (The filmmakers claim lineage to a short story-turned-Twilight Zone episode but who are they kidding?)
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a decent ninja flick. When the Golden Age of Ninja Cinema (also known as the Dudikoff Era) ebbed at the close of the ‘80s the black-clad martial artists retreated to the shadows. This week director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) aims to resurrect them with Ninja Assassin a hyperkinetic gorefest starring Korean pop star Rain.
But these ain’t your daddy’s ninjas. Though they boast the familiar wardrobe (black on black) and weapons (swords throwing stars etc.) the ninjas in this flick are thoroughly nasty buggers. Members of a super-secret international syndicate of assassins-for-hire they can dodge bullets turn invisible heal wounds and communicate telepathically. And for the low low price of 100 lbs of gold they’ll kill anyone you want no questions asked.
It’s that latter aspect that draws the scrutiny of law enforcement — specifically agents Mika Coretti (Naomi Harris) and Ryan Maslow (Ben Miles) of Europol (which appears to be a division of Interpol staffed exclusively with imbeciles). Fortunately for these hapless twits they find a potent ally in Raizo (Rain) a renegade ninja of unsurpassed ability who nurses a nasty grudge against his cruel former master Lord Ozunu (Sho Kosugi).
Fueled by childhood memories of the abuse he suffered while at Lord Ozunu’s ninja sleepaway camp Raizo will stop at nothing to bring the entire operation down. Which is good because his former chums are a persistent lot arriving in ever greater numbers to snuff out the powerful apostate.
McTeigue’s dizzying shaky-cam combined with the identical appearance of most of the ninja combatants makes the action difficult to follow at times in Ninja Assassin. It’s probably why he felt compelled to accentuate every fight scene with exaggerated bursts of CGI blood. Still as disembodied heads limbs and torsos fly across the screen in quantities not seen since Kill Bill it’s nigh impossible to determine who they belong(ed) to. Much easier to pinpoint are the glistening six-pack abs of Raizo a fighter so badass he can ward off his pursuers while wearing little more than a thin layer of baby oil.
It’s a pity Raizo couldn’t have applied his blade to the Ninja Assassin script which encumbers the first half of the movie with endless flashbacks gratuitous training sequences and pointless political squabbling. Or perhaps he could have imparted some of his skills at deception to McTeigue who exhibits all of the subtlety and unpredictability of a kamikaze pilot.
This is one ninja flick that should have remained in the shadows.
The big-screen live-action adaptation mostly captures the look and feel of the ‘60s cartoon many of us grew up watching. It could have used a few more occurrences of our favorite line “Look out Speed! AH!” but oh well. As it goes Speed (Emile Hirsch) has grown up with motor oil pumping through his veins helping his Pops (John Goodman) make racecars and idolizing his older brother Rex (Scott Porter) a top-notch driver. Then tragedy strikes when Rex is seemingly killed in an accident. Heartbroken Speed is determined to take his place showing some serious skills on the track. His girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci) thinks he’s the bomb as do his mom (Susan Sarandon) younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) and pet chimpanzee Chim-Chim. But Speed is soon in for a rude awakening when he is introduced to the corrupt world of auto racing forcing him to team up with the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) to make it right again. Go Speed go! The usually somber Hirsch--who is best known for his indie work in films such as Alpha Dog and Into the Wild--seems at first an odd choice to play Speed. But his seriousness works well against the campiness surrounding him especially in the more emotional moments. Same goes for Fox as the stoic Racer X. Still one can’t help but think of him as his Lost alter ego in a dark glasses and a mask. The rest of the cast just has way too much fun including Ricci as the cute-as-a-button-but-full-of-moxie Trixie Goodman as the blowhard Pops and especially young Litt as Spritle. Out of all Speed’s animated characters re-envisioned Litt does the best job capturing Spritle’s cartoon mischievousness. The monkey ain’t bad either. Chim-Chim AH! Oh those Wachowski brothers (Andy and Larry). They sure do like to come up with as many inventive ways to visually stimulate you as they can don’t they? Their Matrix series set CGI on fire--and now Speed Racer which quite literally takes you inside a video game the Wii or Xbox could only dream of ever creating. The film is virtual eye candy from start to finish--a mixture of Tim Burton-esque colorful sets wild adrenaline-filled special effects and constant camera movements. They may actually need to post a warning for those who suffer from motion sickness. However Speed’s main problem which is the same problem the Matrix franchise suffered from is its tendency to overanalyze the plot. The Wachowskis love to preach turning a scene about the racing world’s corrupt beginning into a 15-minute diatribe. They try to combine the campiness of the animated TV series with serious undertones but it only weighs the film down. You can feel the kids in the audience tapping their feet waiting for more action. So let’s just give the kids what they want: fast-paced excitement wrapped up in a colorful package.
Organized by a powerful pharmaceutical company a scientific expedition is sent into the deep dark jungles of Borneo to search for a rare blood-red orchid which may or may not unlock the secrets of youth and immortality. "Bigger than Viagra!" states one company exec. No kidding. The thing is the flower only blooms every seven years and it would take about 100 orchids to yield just a small amount of juice. Doesn't sound very practical if you're talking about the fountain of youth here. Imagine the demands…but I digress. What the group--which includes an obsessed scientist (Matthew Marsden); his money-hungry business partner (Morris Chestnut); the scientist's beautiful assistant (Kadee Strickland); the company's bitchy representative (Salli Richardson-Whitfield); the tough-as-nails (but very hunky) river boat captain (Johnny Messner); the comic relief (Eugene Byrd); and a couple of others--doesn't know is that these flowers have been pumping up the local fauna namely the anacondas (who are actually only native to the Amazon but hey Borneo works) as they derive their super strength and vitality from the orchids not to mention their appetites. Uh-oh. We've just got to get these crazy kids together.
You know you're in trouble when the only name you recognize on the marquee is Morris Chestnut. Not to say Chestnut best known for supporting roles in films such as Half Past Dead and Two Can Play That Game isn't a capable actor; he's just not really a name. Apparently Anacondas producers wanted to go with unknowns to separate itself from its predecessor. That and the fact most of the original cast bought the farm in the first Anaconda except for Jennifer Lopez who for obvious reasons wouldn't touch this sequel with a ten-foot pole. So. What we are left with are some pretty green actors who do their very best (which isn't saying much) to act horrified and deliver such stellar dialogue as "Everything gets eaten out here. It's a jungle" or "We are young single and in Borneo." Byrd (8 Mile) stands out slightly as the wisecracking techno geek who does some of the better freak-out scenes. But if you really want to know it's the river boat captain's pet organ-grinder monkey who steals the show; you can just feel his tension as he's running away from the slithering predators.
A sequel to a cheesy snake movie that only made money because it had a seriously disturbed cult following? What's next Showgirls 2? Anacondas classic movie monster set up is the only thing its got going for it and director Dwight H. Little (Murder at 1600) utilizes this structure to the best of his abilities showing a lot of snake some swallowing of humans and very little else. And nothing can get better than a giant snake orgy. Oh you heard right. The reason there is a plural on the end of the title (and trust me I'm not giving anything away) is that it's mating season for those frisky anacondas--and all the males have come running to find the delicious female in heat chomping on the flowers and getting huge. This is Borneo after all where apparently snake lovin' is a must. Beyond this bit of salaciousness the plot holes logic and just about anything else in the film are so appalling you actually wish the campy Jon Voight from the original movie would pop up as the mastermind behind the whole operation explaining how he was the one who brought the anacondas from the Amazon to Borneo. Now that would be a twist.
This turbo-charged film centers on street racing and the people who live for it. Dominic Toretto (the aptly named Vin Diesel) is one of them rebuilding high performance racecars by day and racing by night. Since the money he makes for winning a race (up to $10 000) barely covers his overhead costs Toretto and his band of staunch followers supplement their incomes by hijacking electronics-filled 18-wheelers. The FBI which has narrowed down the suspects to either Toretto or his arch rival Johnny Tran (Rick Yune) sends in undercover officer Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker) to get the evidence they need and arrest the right guy. O'Connor gets a job at a local high-end auto supply store and soon infiltrates Toretto's gang despite repeated warnings from its leader's steadfast cronies. He wins Toretto's respect and after predictably falling for his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) begins to question his loyalties. It's a stale story line with all the typical elements but who cares? In The Fast and the Furious the story is a mere formality.
Most of the actors in this film have been typecast but for once that's not a limiting thing. It almost seems as though Diesel (Boiler Room Pitch Black) was born to play commandeering ringleader Dominic Toretto. With his gravelly baritone voice and menacing screen presence he dominates every scene he is in. Unfortunately the script calls for him to utter obvious lines like "You break her heart I'll break your neck." Michelle Rodriguez (Girlfight) is in her element as his cagey girlfriend but could almost be mistaken for a rottweiler on a leash. She scowls and glares over the rim of her shades one too many times but demonstrates once again that she can pack a mean punch. There is a small but surprisingly funny performance by Chad Lindberg as Jesse the mechanical genius whose ADD drove him to a life of crime. But Walker (The Skulls) is as bland as his white-bread character O'Connor and the object of his affection Mia (Brewster The Invisible Circus) is equally unimpressive. But as with the story The Fast and the Furious is not about the acting.
Furious makes up for what it lacks intellectually with pure and unadulterated action. The overly choreographed scenes of cars driving in V-formations are eclipsed by the cars themselves which are the highlight of the film. The race sequences alone will practically leave you feeling compressed and the souped-up Nissans Hondas and Toyotas will make this film an instant cult classic within the car culture. Craig Lieberman one of the import car consultants on the film even provided his own 1994 Toyota Supra--complete with Greddy Turbo and NOS nitrous upgrades three TV screens VCR Sony Play Station 19" Dazz wheels and a $7 000 custom paint job. If the car didn't actually belong to a real person it might be too decadent to be believed. All in all Furious is a dizzying frenzy of noise and speed that serves up what films like Gone in 60 Seconds and Driven promise but never come close to delivering. Despite its screeching drag races and hair-raising crashes Furious probably won't appeal to the masses but expect it to fly when it gets released on DVD.