Friday, March 28, 2014

Sabotage: Definitely more than the trailers crack this up to be (Spoilers present)

It's no secret that Schwarzenegger's been out of the acting game for a while. He's made a few passable entries since his return like "The Last Stand" and "The Expendables 2." Those were merely passable at best. The former didn't quite have the over-the-top violence that action movie lovers like myself crave. So now Arnie's back with "Sabotage," which in the trailers is advertised as an over-the-top Expendables-style flick in which Sam Worthington looks like the lead singer from Five Finger Death Punch and Joe Manganiello looks like ... I don't really know, but he has cornrows. But in reality, the movie's not quite like the trailer, and that's a good thing.

"Sabotage" is an adaptation of the classic Agatha Christie story "And then there were none." It is a story that hasn't really received a proper screen treatment in my opinion, at least until now. Because of this, "Sabotage" is more of a mystery/thriller than a balls out action movie like "Expendables." But that doesn't mean there's no action in it.

The film starts out with Arnie's character watching a snuff film of his wife getting tortured to death by a drug cartel. It then cuts to "8 months later." Some people who saw the trailer might thing WTF since it makes us believe that Arnie's family got kidnapped halfway through. Nope. That little opening, which like the rest of the movie pushes the envelope of good taste in movie violence, sets up the plot perfectly. So then cut to the present, and Arnie's leading a team of elite DEA agents in a safehouse bust. It becomes clear the minute we see them that these guys have more in common with, say, bikers or military spec ops because of the way they dress and act. The point is, these aren't your average pole-up-their-ass Feds. These guys are hardcore badasses and conduct themselves as such.

So during the bust, they find a big pile of money, not unlike the one belonging to Walter White in "Breaking Bad," and decide to steal $10 million (of cartel money) for themselves and split it up. They bury it in a sewage pipe to retrieve it another day, of course until, surprise, it's all gone because someone stole it. Then the killing begins, and these badasses start getting picked off one by one.

The most noteworthy thing that sets "Sabotage" apart from its competitors is the violence. Ho-LEE SHIEETT. While again, this isn't quite the testosterone-fueled ride the trailers seemed to suggest, the ways in which people die here are staggeringly brutal, and I'm a guy who's seen a lot of action movies. They're also actually pretty plausible, especially the guy dying early on after his RV gets hit my a train (spoiler: it's really, really messy). There's also plenty of up-close shots of people getting shot in the head, and again, it all feels very realistic. One of the ones that actually made me go "DAMN" was when a car crashed into one of those wrecker trucks in a manner that the bed basically sliced half the car in half horizontally. This is not a movie you want to take the whole family to see.

Where "Sabotage" really shines is the plot. For an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, it's actually somewhat smart. Up until the very last act, we're led to believe that a group of cartel assassins is picking the DEA team off one by one because some cartel boss got pissed that $10 million, a pretty small amount for cartel standards, got stolen. Now anyone who's read "And then there were none" probably could have seen this coming a mile away, but it's really someone on the team behind it all. And said perpetrator somehow managed to make everyone think it was the cartel assassins. It's all pretty clever, watch the movie.

The acting isn't that special. Arnie's the same as in all his movies. Sam Worthington's not bad, it's just quite like him to look more like a heavy metal frontman. Joe Manganiello does decent as the squad's "big guy," and this is certainly a little different fare for Terrence Howard, who again handles it well. Back to Joe Manganiello, I still can't take seriously a guy who played a character named "Big Dick Richie" in "Magic Mike." The real standout is Mireille Enos, who is absolutely convincing as a federal agent who's not really all there if you get what I mean. She's sexy as hell and absolutely nuts, which I guess is a good fit for an undercover agent. Olivia Williams does ok as the uptight homicide detective I'm sure everyone's seen a hundred times.

To wrap it all up, "Sabotage" is definitely not what the trailers said it would be. That's a good thing. Sometimes trailers inadvertently show the whole movie, so it's good when the actual product is a little different. Like most thrillers, this one may have you on the edge of your seat through most of the film, but that really really gets amplified in the final act. The violence is some of the most brutal I've yet seen in any action movie, and that makes this not at all a family experience.

7.75 out of 10 for being somewhat different than the competitors.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

"300: Rise of an Empire" review

When "300" came out seven years ago, it was a legitimate cultural phenomenon, at least among anyone male aged 16-25, myself included. And I'll have to admit, other than the overdose of testosterone that made everyone in my high school want to become a Spartan warrior, the film's use of CGI and slow motion was somewhat unprecedented. Also somewhat unprecedented was the way the entire main cast got into shape for the movie. Not since the 1980s had anyone seen so many buff bodies in a single movie. And although it was based on a graphic novel, "300" did well enough, and like anything that makes enough money in Hollywood, they made a sequel.

Fortunately, the original graphic novel is based on events set during a particularly turbulent time in Greece's history. So there was absolutely more than enough material to draw from in order to make a coherent follow-up story. And that's the thing. I can only call "Rise of an Empire" a pseudo-sequel because most of the movie isn't set after the events of "300." Instead, it touches on events that occurred before and concurrent to what was going on with Leonidas and company. The finale is set after Leonidas and the 300 got overrun. It's an interesting way to frame a follow-up movie.

"Rise of an Empire" starts out with Leonidas' widow (played by Lena Hedey of "Game of Thrones") recalling the Battle of Marathon, in which a then-nobody Athenian soldier named Themistocles managed to not only help an over matched Greek army drive back the Persian invaders, he also managed to kill the Persian King Darius. I won't really care much about spoilers because this is a fairly straightforward movie, and if you took any history classes, you should be at least somewhat familiar with what's going on here. Anyway, Darius dies as a result of his wounds, and his most loyal servant, Artemesia (Eva Green of "Casino Royale"), swears vengeance on the Greeks. But first, she somehow turns Darius' cowardly son Xerxes into the "god king" we all remember from the original movie. Xerxes (and Artemesia, who is manipulating him) blames all of Persia's previous problems on Greece and declares war again. And that's where our story really begins.

While "300" focused on the land battle in Greece's war against Persia, "Rise of an Empire" has a much more nautical feel to it. It follows the aforementioned Themistocles, who was actually present during events of the original movie (he narrowly missed the famous "THIS IS SPARTA" moment). While Leonidas wants to fight his battle on land, Themistocles challenges the Persians at sea. It's an interesting change of scenery and changes the overall hue from orange/bronze to blue. Either way, it's all still very obvious CGI done in the style that Zack Snyder made all the rage for stylish action movies. Like its predecessor, the battles here are over the top and a lot of fun to watch. The fact that most of "Rise of an Empire" takes place at sea make for a somewhat more tactical feel since it deals with ships and not just people. Leonidas was all about funneling large amounts of men into a tight space so that they could be slaughtered easily. Themistocles is more calculating and strategic, utilizing feigned retreats and deception that lead to some of the movie's best sequences. And for some reason, I found this entry to actually up the gore up from its predecessor. At least in the dismemberment arena. I won't say too much, but the finale is very satisfying to watch. However, the style of the action is not new. But that doesn't mean it's not fun, either.

These are not movies you watch for acting. Sullivan Stapleton, while passable, is no Gerard Butler in terms of stage presence (who wasn't even that good an actor in the first one to begin with considering how one-dimensional these roles are). The clear standout here is Eva Green. Her character of Artemesia is deliciously manipulative and quite frankly, sexy as hell. And that's what makes her such a great villain. She's not afraid to manipulate those around her to get what she wants. She's not afraid to sleep with the enemy. And like Darth Vader, she doesn't smile upon failure. Lena Hedey and David Wenham reprise their roles from the previous film, but they're honestly more like extended cameos.

Overall, "Rise of an Empire" accomplishes exactly the same thing its predecessor did. It introduces a very fantasized portion of Greek history to a new crowd, who might have been too young when "300" was first released. The score will get your adrenaline pumping, and there's a rather awesome use of Black Sabbath's hit "War Pigs" somewhere in there. It's a little less effective and jarring than its predecessor, but it still works. At least for an action-movie lover like me, watching these types of stylish, ultra-violent movies won't get old for a good long while.