5-Word 365 #311 – Ninja Assassin

You can blame America for today’s delay, since I was up all night watching Sir David Dimbleby on Her Majesty’s BBC reporting on the election as the results came in. Far be it for me to get all political up in your asses, but I just wanted to say well done America. Well done. And now on with the show.

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5-Word 365 #135 – Montana

Time for a confession: today, I am slightly cheating. I have seen some of this film before. It was on one of the satellite movie channels in the middle of the night about 12 years ago. I was working in a casino at the time and on my nights off I would sit up watching movies until sunrise. I stumbled across the last half hour of this little gem by random chance at about 3 in the morning and I have never been able to find it again since. Then one day just a couple of weeks ago I stumbled across it by random chance again, this time on Lovefilm. And because it is such a criminally underseen film, I just have to share it with you. Read More

5-Word 365 #130 – Four Brothers

I’m running a little late tonight, because I made the mistake of rewatching this flick immediately with the DVD commentary. I also fell into a bit of a YouTube hole when I got home from the office. I would say I need to stop turning on my computer as soon as I get in from work, but these columns won’t write themselves. More’s the pity. Read More

5-Word 365 #065 – Smokin’ Aces 2: Assassin’s Ball

There’s a sale on at HMV. It seems there’s always a sale on at HMV, in fact, but this past Saturday I ambled along and picked up five new movies to run through the Review-o-tron (patent pending). Here’s the first.

Smokin’ Aces 2: Assassin’s Ball

More fun than I expected.

The FBI discovers that one of their own – a low-level intelligence analyst named Walter Weed – has had a hit put out on him. The bounty is $3 million and an international Who’s Who of the assassins’ fraternity has been notified. Walter is shipped off to a top-secret bunker under a Bureau-owned jazz club in a Chicago back street, but of course it doesn’t stay top-secret for long and soon Walter’s guardians are in a race against time to keep him alive until the contract expires. Gunplay and exploding clowns ensue.

I love Smokin’ Aces. When I want to watch some balls-out fun, it is one of my go-to movies. In fact, I think all of Joe Carnahan’s films are fantastic for what they are. As a filmmaker, he’s a throwback to the good old days of the 60’s and 70’s. In years to come I reckon he’ll be remembered as this era’s Sam Peckinpah: a profane whirlwind of violent exuberance. I’m sorry; I just had a bit of a moment imagining a Carnahan western. So imagine my hesitation when I discovered a DTV sequel, starring Vinnie Jones. I immediately pictured a no-budget knock-off made by a studio that had picked up the rights to the name, with no connection to the original. American Pie with guns, so to speak. I was slightly reassured when I saw Carnahan’s “story by” and exec producer credit on the box but I still wasn’t in a mad hurry to see this for fear that it would tarnish my feelings for the first movie. And, while the scope or star power can’t quite measure up, director PJ Pesce does bring the fun. Another way this flick dodges the ‘cheap knock-off sequel’ trap is by actually being a cheap knock-off prequel. The events here take place prior to that one night in Tahoe, but it’s not made clear exactly how much prior.

"What do you mean, I'm not on the poster? I'm the second lead, goddamn it!"

Cast-wise, there are three returning players: Tommy Flanagan, Maury Sterling and Christopher Michael Holley. Flanagan and Sterling are reprising their characters from Smokin’ Aces – master of disguise Lazlo Soot and psychopathic Lester Tremor respectively – while Holley is doing something a little different. He shows up here as an undercover FBI agent posing as the owner of the club, and in a brief exchange with Clayne Crawford’s heroic g-man Baker mentions that he’s been working on a new alias named Beanie for a piece of work in Vegas. Beanie, of course, was part of Buddy Israel’s entourage when the killers came calling. The rest of the cannon fodder comprises, as the DVD blurb puts it, “a mixture of grizzled veterans and newcomers”; the veterans being Tom Berenger as Walter, Tarantino favourite Michael Parks as Fritz, the father of the Tremor clan, and England’s own Mr V Jones as Finbar “The Surgeon” McTeague, a killer renowned for the medical-style torture of his victims.

"I wonder why they didn't put him on the poster? He's so much prettier than me."

The newcomers include the two token ladies Martha Higareda and Autumn Reeser. Neither one of them is strictly a newcomer though; Higareda has been a star in Mexican films and TV for years, and Reeser has done alright for herself particularly in TV in the States, but with the odd movie role too. I’ll say this for nothing though: she’s really grown up since her time on The O.C. Higareda is Ariella Martinez, a fan of the old poisoned kiss trick, while Reeser is Kaitlyn “AK47” Tremor – the first female Tremor seen in this world. Everyone acquits themselves to the material with gusto, although some of the Feds are among the least convincing lawmen ever to appear on film.

At one point, she blows a guy's head off right after sex. If I could choose my way to die...

I mentioned earlier that the scale of this prequel can’t match the original flick. That’s a budgetary thing which I can’t really make a legitimate complaint about. The fact is that despite the obvious financial limitations, there is only really one sequence where the film looks cheap, and that’s during the final assault on the bunker when the Tremors are firing RPGs into an open stairwell to try and kill the Feds there protecting the door. Just in this one short scene, the picture takes on the distinctive ‘shot on digital’ feel. It looks like it was done on some dude’s camcorder frankly. The entire rest of the flick has been colour-timed and processed and looks really good, all things considered, but I found this part visually jarring. It did take me out of the film for a couple of minutes, which is a real shame since it is meant to be the centrepiece of the big action climax. Also, there is some key dialogue towards the end that is completely drowned out by gunfire. Maybe the sound mix could have used a tweak here and there.

"I told them they should have put me on the poster..."

Shit, I nearly forgot about the exploding clowns. Well, exploding midget clowns if I’m being pedantic about it. You know what? Just watch it. It’ll be more fun to find out for yourself.

5-Word 365 #045 – You Kill Me

 One of my favourite films ever is the poker movie Rounders. I can watch that every time it comes on the TV and I always find something new, even just a throwaway line or the look on someone’s face, that makes it a pleasure to sit through. The director of Rounders, John Dahl, has only made a handful of features in over 20 years, and this is the latest.

Welcome back to Bad Photoshop Land!

You Kill Me

A great advertisement for A.A.

Like a cross between My Name Is Joe and Grosse Pointe Blank, You Kill Me is the story of Frank Falenczyk, an alcoholic hitman from Buffalo, New York who screws up a job for his Polish mob employers and is sent out to San Francisco to dry out. There, he joins AA (no, not the roadside assistance crowd. The other one) and tentatively falls in love with a woman he meets while working in a funeral home. Of course he must eventually return to his old life when a local Irish family tries to move in on the Poles.

With this 2007 flick, director John Dahl strikes a tone slightly to the whimsical side of his biggest hit The Last Seduction, switching out the coolly manipulative Linda Fiorentino for the more shambling Ben Kingsley. Yes, you heard me: this movie stars Sir Ben Kingsley, Ghandi himself, as a down-on-his-luck, drunken, Polish-American hitman. And he pulls it off admirably. In fact all the gangsters in You Kill Me are cast for the strength of the actor as opposed to any kind of ethnic verisimilitude. Philip Baker Hall plays Roman, the head of the Polish family and Dennis Farina shows up as his Irish opposite number – his classic Italian-American Chicago accent slightly at odds with the name O’Leary – but these are irrelevant quibbles in the grand scheme of things.

Apparently he's a natural redhead.


This is a very well-structured film, as you would expect from someone of Dahl’s calibre. Even though the movie is about Frank, the story cross-cuts back and forth to show the steady takeover of Roman’s operation by O’Leary’s mob. As such, you end up more invested in what’s happening back in Buffalo than if Frank had just got a phone call at the end of Act 2 to tell him to get his ass back. This then in turn makes his decision whether to go or to stay in San Francisco that bit more compelling. The two halves of the film are balanced right down to the casts. There are three key characters in both cities with Frank in the middle: Roman and his son Stef with O’Leary as the antagonist in Buffalo, and Frank’s sponsor Tom and girlfriend Laurel in San Francisco along with Bill Pullman relishing all the sleaziness he can wring out of Dave, the “fixer” who sets up Frank with an apartment and the funeral home gig on his arrival in town. Speaking of San Francisco, the extended middle section in the West Coast town is probably the most entertaining “recovering alcoholic” story I’ve ever seen. Initially hesitant, Frank soon gets fully involved in his recovery and takes advantage of the Anonymous part in order to be completely open about what he does for a living, to the mostly unfazed reactions of his fellow meeting attendees. Only Tom (Luke Wilson in typical deadpan mode) seems a bit unsure at first, but Frank is never judged for what he does. As I understand it, that’s part of the deal with AA. And then we have Laurel. Téa Leoni, who also produced the flick, is introduced while flirting with Frank as he prepares her recently deceased uncle for burial. You could say it’s love at first sight. Theirs is a refreshingly honest relationship. Frank never lies about his recovery or his job, and Laurel is not without her own issues; her chronic refusal to recognise the word “no” does leave her somewhat without boundaries. They make an engaging couple though, and Laurel’s headstrongness (is that a word?) contrasted with Frank’s more mild mannered personality neutralises any weirdness from the age gap.

Admit it: he's a bit of a step down from Will Smith.

The script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the pair behind the three recent Chronicles of Narnia movies as well as Captain America) is full of wit and covers some uncomfortable territory without being mawkish. The comedy is more of the snark variety than the laugh-a-minute gag fest. It is good to see the reality of overcoming addiction as well, insofar as can be shown in a 90-minute gangster comedy. For Frank, A.A. isn’t a magic bullet. He slips more than once before he gets properly on the wagon, and it is only after the Buffalo business is resolved that he can make a real committed go of it. As for John Dahl, this story is right in his wheelhouse: gangsters and addicts, both living life on the fringes of acceptable behaviour, both doing it with the sharpest of tongues. I’ve been a fan of his since I first saw Red Rock West back in the mid-nineties, and it’s always good to see his name next to “Directed by”. If only he had made more than eight movies in the 23 years since his debut Kill Me Again, although he does have a healthy list of quality TV to his name as well (and The Vampire Diaries).

As much as I personally dislike the word quirky, it fits this movie. Not in a deliberately self-aware way, but it has an off-balance way of looking at people and the situations they find themselves in. For me, that’s always a good place to start a story. Also, this may be the closest John Dahl ever gets to a romantic comedy.