So far, I’ve looked back at my favorite blockbuster and newer horror viewing experiences of the year, so now it’s time to talk about action flicks! In 2017, I discovered some underrated movies in this department, saw some way more well-known ones, dipped into a few new genres and even marathoned the films of a particular 80s and 90s action icon!
I’m a big fan of Quentin Tarantino’s films. I certainly don’t like all of his movies equally — Jackie Brown and Death Proof don’t really do it for me — but I rank the rest of them in the Awesome category. Reservoir Dogs was my first and still one of my all time favorite films, Pulp Fiction is a classic, Kill Bill is both an amazing homage and also a brilliant bit of bloody goodness and Inglourious Basterds is so wonderful I can still write the title correctly. I’m actually surprised that I haven’t reviewed any of his other movies here on the blog, but I think part of that stems from the idea that a lot of ink has already been spilled on Tarantino’s career and I’ve found that some things are just so close to my heart that I don’t want to write about them. Sometimes you just want to keep something for your self.
I thought about skipping a review for Django Unchained, Tarantino’s first western, but after thinking about it for awhile, I decided to dive in a bit. If you haven’t seen the movie, do it. It bummed me out that I had to wait as long as I did to see this movie, but that’s what happens when you have a kid and no babysitter. The story revolves around bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) buying slave Django (Jamie Foxx) in an effort to track down a particular bounty. Along the way, Schultz trains Django to become a bounty hunter and the pair become friends to the point where Django tells King that he wants to track down his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who was sold to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) a plantation owner who gets his kicks from watching slaves beat each other to death.
Considering the setting and the director, you probably have a pretty good idea of what you’re getting with this movie and it’s truly not for the faint of heart. Even I was impressed with how much blood was spilled in this film, mostly through old school gunfights and a few fights. And, as you’ve probably heard, the language is very of-the-time which translates into “incredibly racist.”
But the real heart of the story revolves around a man taking advantage of every opportunity to find the love of his life. He’ll act like a slave trader himself, he’ll kill people, he’ll play nice with the man who enslaved his wife. But, when the chips are down and it’s time to pull through, Django does everything he can to achieve his goal. Foxx does a terrific job in his role as does, well, everyone else in the whole movie. As you can expect there’s some touchy areas here, but everyone really commits to their parts and Tarantino directed them deftly. All around, Tarantino once again shows how good he can be at taking a genre he loves, mixing in his own sensibilities and even his own take on history and creating something that’s both emotionally satisfying and also fun to watch.
Gangster Squad also takes viewers to a time in our country’s past and features a heckuva hero. This time we’re in 1949 LA which has been overrun with gangsters like Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). But there’s still a few good cops around like Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) who’s a heard headed justice seeker unafraid to mix it up with the bad guys in an effort to keep his city safe. The police chief (Nick Nolte) realizes this and offers him a chance to go after Cohen and company, but only off the books. O’Mara puts a team together that includes guys played by Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovonni Ribisi, Michael Pena and Robert Patrick who do just that.
The film, directed Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland), is actually based on real life events from the time, but, of course, punched up for more Hollywood goodness. Emma Stone plays both sides of the fence as one of Cohen’s regular lady friends and faling for Gosling’s character (who can blame her). The story bobs and weaves around, actually taking on a lot of the same story beats seen in Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (a longtime favorite of mine, gotta check out that Blu-ray).
As I noted in this week’s episode of the Pop Poppa Nap Cast, posted over on my dad blog Pop Poppa, I really appreciated the bravery these men exemplified in their attempts to clean up the city. O’Mara’s the kind of classic hero we don’t see much of anymore. He does the right thing because it’s right and good and the only gain he gets out of it is the ability to live in a better world…assuming he doesn’t get killed along the way. All the other guys on the squad have similar motivations, wanting to make the world a better place for their kids, the people in their neighborhood and the like. They’re real, old school heroes who also happen to look and talk slick, shoot well and fight even better. Once again that mix of heart and action really gets me. It also helps that this movie is freaking gorgeous and looks amazing on Blu-ray, as did Django though I didn’t mention above.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive turned out to be a much different movie than I expected. I tried to avoid most talk about the film because I wanted to see if, but my baby-watching schedule doesn’t allow much time for theater-going anymore. I somehow got the impression that it was an awesome, full throttle action movie that looked moody and had a soundtrack that people really dug. That’s about half right.
First up the movie, starring the very excellent Ryan Gosling, is much slower than I anticipated. After hearing the Driver list his rules (which you can see on the poster) I figured this would be a more stylish version of The Transporter with Gosling doing a job that goes wrong and the following him as he tries to make it right or take out his enemies. And that’s sort of what it’s about, but wrapped around this idea that he falls for Carey Mulligan’s character and decides to help her husband out of some trouble with some mobsters. Most of the moments with Gosling and Mulligan are spent in silence which is fine, it conveys a sense of trust and comfortableness that I understand, but they also slowed things way down for a movie I thought was going to be much faster pace.
Things do pick up at the end when the job with her husband goes bad and Gosling goes on his rampage. It’s the kind of story point I honestly did not get. Why does he care so much? Because his crush’s husband got messed up? Is that enough reason to completely go after all the underworld people you work for? I listened to Refn talk to Jeff Goldsmith on his excellent podcast The Q & A (listen here or do a search on iTunes) and he said that this showed how Godling’s character was kind of a classical hero, one who would do anything for a person he cares for even if it’s not necessarily reciprocal. I guess I buy that, but it’s not something I thought of while watching the movie and kind of stuck in my craw for the last half or so.
This rampage includes a fire fight with shotguns, a head getting blown off, dudes getting hammered in the legs in strip clubs, double stabbings and a few other scenes that were bloodier than I expected and therefore awesome. I wouldn’t really call this a fight-scene heavy movie though as it’s mostly more grounded and real world attacks that either get fended off or do their job. I’ll be honest, some of the things Gosling’s character does surprised me, especially with how far he went, but as Refn said in the interview, he’s a man living on the outside of society who’s a sociopath, but still wants to be part of things.
I think I was mostly thrown on this film. It feels uneven. It starts off and seems like it’s supposed to be a capital A awesome movie, something like the aforementioned Transporter series or maybe even Crank. I mean, he has a list of rules and wears a shiny jacket with a scorpion on it and those funny looking driving gloves that have knuckle holes. He pulls a wild job and then you see the credits which are presented in hot pink cursive and the music comes in and you’re like YES, LET’S GO ON THIS RIDE, DRIVE! Then we get a very quite “getting to know you” movie for much longer than I expected. So, I think I was thrown by equal parts pieces of things I’d heard and the film switching gears (pun!) unexpectedly. I think it would have been much better going into this movie knowing absolutely nothing because my expectation were playing tricks on me. I will say that the film was full of surprises, as, after all the nice relationship stuff, I did not expect heads to explodes or knees to get bashed in so graphically with hammers. Anyone seen Refn’s other movies like Bronson or the Pusher flicks? I’m curious if they’re as diverse in tone as this one.