Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Director Report Card: Richard Donner (2006)

22. 16 Blocks

It’s surprising that Richard Donner and Bruce Willis didn’t work together sooner. For a time, Donner was one of the biggest action director in Hollywood while Willis was, quite similarly, one of the biggest action stars. By the time the two did collaborated, neither was at the peak of their careers. While Bruce wasn’t box office poison then – still isn’t, somehow – he was far from a huge star. Donner, meanwhile, had suffered a major flop with “Timeline.” “16 Blocks” did about as well as you’d expect a mid-tier action flick to do at the box office, breaking even but not breaking records. Bruce continues to be a reliable draw, if a far over-the-hill one. Donner, meanwhile, hasn’t directed another film since.

Jack Mosley is an alcoholic cop, tired and old. He’s exhausted after pulling an all-nighter. That’s when his boss asked him to do a simple task: Escort a witness from police custody to court. That man is a petty thief named Eddie Bunker. While parked on a busy street, a man attempts to kill Bunker. Soon, a group of cops corner Eddie and Jack in a bar. Turns out, Eddie is about to testify against a group of dirty cops, who are intent on making sure that doesn't happen. Despite having no connection with the man, Jack decides to protect Bunker. The two men are pursued across the city by the crooked cops, each searching for redemption in their own way.

Small scale, nitty-gritty thrillers like “16 Blocks” live and die on how eye-catching their premises are. “16 Blocks,” luckily, has a pretty good one. The title is in reference to the relatively short distance between Bunker’s jail cell and the court house. In other words, it’s the area the two main characters will be traveling throughout the story. Aside from a brief prologue and epilogue, “16 Blocks” also plays out in real time. This is a good move, emphasizing Jack’s exhaustion and how precarious his situation is. While hardly ground-breaking, “16 Blocks” does have a good idea to build upon.

Yet a catchy premise probably wouldn’t have been enough even for a modest movie like “16 Blocks.” What elevates the material just high enough is the heart behind the story. Jack and Eddie are both in need of redemption. Mosley is a bitter, burnt-out, old booze hound. As the story progresses, we learn that Jack is one of the dirty cops Eddie is testifying against. His change of heart represents the last chance he has to make a decent decision, to do something good. Bunker, meanwhile, dreams of getting out of jail, traveling across the country, and opening a bakery. He’s a petty criminal who has lived his whole life in and out of prison. Near the story’s beginning, Eddie tries to convince Jack that everyone deserves a second chance. He doesn’t believe him. By the story’s end, he’s change his mind. It’s nothing mind-blowing but these hopeful, simplistic themes makes “16 Blocks” a little more then just a mildly effective thriller.

As Jack Mosley, Bruce Willis plays an alcoholic cop who has spent too many years on the force and burned most every bridge he has. It’s a part not dissimilar to where John McClane was circa “Die Hard with a Vengeance.” It’s a part well suited to the general ambivalence Willis brought to most everything he’s done in the last decade. There’s little of the humor that characterizes Willis’ best performances. However, Willis soon brings an empathetic humanity to the part. Jack is injured throughout the film, getting shot in the hand and hurting his leg. There’s something admirable about the character’s refusal to compromise in this situation. “16 Blocks” might seem like a boring Bruce Willis performance at first but, eventually, it reveals better acting then expected, utilizing some of Willis’ better attributes as a performer.

Co-starring in “16 Blocks” is the performer formally known as Mos Def. A rapper by trade, Mr. Def has shown some decent acting chops the handful of times he’s stepped in front of the camera. As Bunker, Mos Def applies a strange dialect to his voice. He mumbles, almost unintelligible throughout most of the film. The audience has to listen very closely to understand anything he’s saying. As the film progresses, the audience either gets use to it or Def’s delivery becomes more clear. Once you get passed that, you can see that the actor gives an interesting performance. Mos Def affects a slightly jittery body language, displaying the character’s nerves in his appearance. His unassailable upbeat streak wins over the audience around the same time it wins over Jack. He’s made mistakes but he’s ready to repent and start over. It’s a good bit of acting from Mos Def.

Most of “16 Blocks” is focused on Willis and Def. However, the film occasionally makes room for another character. The last Richard Donner movie David Morse appeared in was “Inside Moves,” sixteen years prior. This film’s Detective Nugent doesn’t have much in common with “Inside Moves’” Jerry. Nugent is the villain of “16 Blocks,” the leader of the corrupt cops pursing Mosley and Bunker. Morse brings a gravelly intensity to Nugent. He’s someone with no ethical opposition to what he’s doing. Instead, he approaches the murder of an innocent man as if it was any other job. Morse is intimidating but humanistic, giving the bad guy easily understood and all too earthly motives. Jenna Stern also has a likable bit part as Jack’s sister, showing a lot of charm in the few scenes she’s given.

“16 Blocks” is, for most of its run time, a chase movie. The pace rarely slows down, the movie always barreling ahead to its next set pieces. This relentless tone produces a few memorable action set pieces. Such as the shoot-out in the bar, near the beginning, when the characters are diving around gunfire. The first burst of violence happens partially off-screen, the blood and accompanying dead body smashing through a window before the viewer is clear on what’s happening. There’s a nice pause midway through a chase where the two protagonists step into an old Asian man’s apartment. An effectively directed moment has a bus, with a busted tire, taking off, crashing into a row of cars. A clever trick “16 Blocks” utilizes repeatedly has one team of characters busting in on a location, unaware that the heroes have already left. It’s a bit of misdirection at least as old as “Silence of the Lambs” but “16 Blocks” uses it well.

As exciting and well executed as “16 Blocks” can be, it’s a shame the movie’s visual design is so dour. The film is characterized by a grey color palette. Whether it’s the grey concrete of the city streets or the overcast clouds above, “16 Blocks” isn’t a very colorful movie. While mildly annoying this is less of a problem then the movie’s sometimes shaky action direction. Considering Richard Donner built his career upon clearly orchestrated, old school action, it’s disappointing to see his name on a movie with a jittery camera. While not enough to ruin the film, there are several scenes where the picture is shaking back and forth for no damn reason at all. If a gritty verisimilitude was the goal, the decision is more distracting then anything else.

While most of “16 Blocks” is constantly moving, the film takes an unexpected turn during the middle. Jack and Eddie run onto a crowded bus. Realizing they're cornered, Mosley takes all the passengers hostage. The tense stand-off that follows is actually part of the plan. It’s essentially a method to distract the bad guys, so Eddie can sneak away to safety in the crowd. While a sudden change in direction like this would derail most movies, “16 Blocks” manages to make it work. The tension doesn’t deflate. Instead, it merely changes direction. The thrills are internalized, the audience uncertain of Jack’s goals or what will happen next. Little, humanizing moments – such as Eddie bonding with a little girl on the bus – help keep the sequence grounded too.

While its thrills are of the low key variety, “16 Blocks” is ultimately an action movie. There are vehicle chases, car crashes, shoot-outs, bloody squibs, heroes and villains. However, the film’s conclusion is more preoccupied with characters then big explosions. It’s a tense stand-off between Mosley and the other dirty cops. He makes a stand against his enemies in a public place, making himself vulnerable to harm. Ultimately, it’s the pay-off of Jack’s character arc. Formally, he was a man who believed in nothing. Now, he’s standing up for something. Once again, it’s a moment that probably shouldn’t have worked but “16 Blocks” approaches the ending with patience and focus, wringing something out of nothing.

As a Richard Donner movie, “16 Blocks” features a few of the director’s trademarks. It’s pretty easy to draw a parallel between Mosley and Bunker’s love/hate relationship and the similar one between Riggs and Murtaugh. For that matter, “16 Blocks” was written by Richard Wenk, who previously wrote an unused screenplay for “Lethal Weapon 4.” Aside from their contrasting skin colors, the leads of “16 Blocks” seem to mix and match the “Lethal Weapon” partnership. Mosley is outwardly professional but inwardly crumbling. Bunker appears to be a rogue but secretly has it together. Donner also sneaks a “No Fur” poster into a background shot, naturally.

“16 Blocks” underperforming at the box office and receiving middling reviews has actually helped the film in the long run. Approached with any expectations and the film would derided as clich├ęd. If the audience goes in knowing as little as possible, “16 Blocks” proves to be a surprisingly entertaining, thoughtfully written, and expertly constructed little action/thriller. Though far from the classics that Richard Donner directed in the past, as the likely conclusion to his directorial career, it’s not a bad note to go out on. [Grade: B]

The franchises Richard Donner started will continue. In addition to that "Lethal Weapon" TV show, a new "Omen" movie was recently announced. (And Superman, of course, will never die.) While he's continued to work as a producer from time to time, the 86 year old filmmaker is more or less retired now. He seems to be enjoying his current status as the elder statesman of the superhero genre. His career had wildly divergent ups and downs but this was certainly an interesting retrospective. I don't think I've ever crossed this many genres before over one report card.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Director Report Card: Richard Donner (2003)

21. Timeline

There was a four year period between “Lethal Weapon 4” and Richard Donner’s next movie. That may not seem like very long but Donner had been cranking out movies on a very consistent schedule since the mid-seventies. The truth is “Timeline” had a troubled post-production. The movie was shot in 2001 for a 2002 release date. However, the studio was dissatisfied with the initial cut. It took two separate edits before “Timeline” satisfied the studio. All this tinkering was for naught. Dropped into theaters in late November, “Timeline” was seen by nobody. It wasn’t a high-profile flop so much as it was totally ignored by the public. There might be a reason for that. “Timeline” is exactly as memorable as that reception implies.

A group of archaeologists are excavating a location in the French countryside called Castlegard. Over six hundred years ago, a deciding battle of the Hundred Years War took place in the same place. Scottish professor Edward Johnston leads the dig. His son, Chris, isn’t especially interested in ancient history but he is interested in Kate, one of the professor’s students. Soon, Professor Johnston mysteriously vanished. Afterwards, a pair of his glasses is found inside one of the ancient castle’s sealed rooms. The eye-wear is dated to the 1300s. The corporation funding the archaeological dig soon reveals that they’ve invented a machine that can access a worm hole. Anyone sent through the device is flung back to 1357. Hoping to rescue his father, Chris and his friends willingly travel back through time. However, the past is full of danger.

Time travel is one of those sci-fi premises that writers and filmmakers can't help but return to. The idea of visiting an older time, hundreds of years before you were even born, is irresistible to just about anybody. Wikipedia refers to “Timeline” as a “techno-thriller,” which I suppose it is. The story intentionally places limitations on the heroes, creating the structure of a thriller. However, the sci-fi elements exist just to get the characters back to the twelfth century. “Timeline” is ultimately the awkward fusion of a medieval adventure movie and a science fiction story.

“Timeline” is based on a novel by Michael Crichton, that blockbuster novelist whose books were often turned into blockbuster movies. Like all of his books, Crichton meticulously researched “Timeline.” In the film adaptation, that research manifest in the mechanics of time travel. There isn’t a proper time machine in the film. Instead, “Timeline” builds upon the slightly more plausible premise of a worm hole. The scientists in the film explain time travel working in a way similar to a fax machine. Except with people, instead of letters. I’m not sure that makes sense either but at least it’s a different approach then what you usually get in time travel movies.

Despite all the details that was put into “Timeline’s” science, there’s aspect of it that annoy the audience. Where the worm hole comes from, why it’s attached to this specific date, or how people access it aren’t elaborated on. Which is fine, I guess, because we’re probably not expected to think about it that hard. The script makes constant references to characters speaking the right language. The French soldiers speak French and, once the translator gets run through with a sword, the English characters have to figure it out for themselves. Yet for all the focus that is given, the movie seems to forget that the French and English languages of the 1300s sound nothing like their modern versions. By half-assing these details, “Timeline” only draws more attention to its own plot holes.

A major theme in “Timeline” seems to be xenophobia. As soon as the English soldiers in the past meet the French translator, they murder him. Every time an Englishmen wanders into the French camps, they are threatened with death. Once again, “Timeline” pays a concept lip service without actually saying anything about it. After everyone gets to know each other, the movie goes back to ignoring the differences between countries. A different phobia ends up defining “Timeline’s” back half. Michael Crichton was an author both fascinated by and frightened by scientific advances. This conflict often manifested itself in his books and films, where breakthroughs like genetics, robotics, nanotechnology, and dinosaurs are presented as wonders that inevitably turn on humanity. Time travel is treated much the same way here. The technology has wondrous potential but is ultimately too dangerous to use. When the scientists in present are fighting over what to do with the technology, “Timeline” hammers this point too hard.

One of the biggest problem with “Timeline” is its void of a leading man. The late Paul Walker stars as Chris. Whatever talents Walker might have had, an innate cinematic charisma wasn’t one of them. Walker is a handsome blank, running through most of the movie without making an impression on the viewer. Francess O’Conner plays Kate, Chris’ love interest. O’Conner initially makes an impression on viewers, as the actress is attractive and shows some decent energy. Once everyone gets to the past though, O’Conner is reduced to a shrieking damsel in distress. The character practically disappears not long after that point, running around with the other character without making an impression.

Another one of “Timeline’s” main characters was destined for bigger stardom. Gerard Butler plays Andre, Chris’ close friend who also winds up tossed backwards in time. Butler gets to keep his Scottish accent. While Walker is ambivalent towards archaeology, Butler is enthusiastic about it. Once in 1357, Andre is forced to fight back against the attacking soldier. Andre angsts about killing a man, which is kind of funny considering Gerard Butler’s future career as a star of body count heavy action flicks. The script soon forgets this hesitation though, as Butler is striking out at opponents minutes later. While Butler has some verbose energy, the character is so thinly scripted. Anna Friel plays Claire, Butler’s love interest. The two are immediately smitten with each other, which pushes believably. Friel is charming but, like O’Conner’s character, “Timeline” is too unfocused to actually develop her personality any.

While “Timeline” casts its lead roles with hunk-of-wood would-be leading men, its supporting cast is filled with established character actors. Billy Connolly plays Chris’ dad. His voice immediately recognizable from his first scene, Connolly provides the audience with some mild amusement, even if his character ends up getting swept away by the script. David Thewlis appears as the cautious scientist in the present. Thewlis brings a nervous quality to the part which makes it slightly memorable. Neal McDonough shows up as the soldier sent back in time to protect the kids. McDonough is playing another overly competent authority figure, who gets dispatched early on, which doesn’t allow the actor much of a chance to distinguish the part. Michael Sheen appears as the primary villain, smirking evilly and hamming it up. These performances are about the only thing in “Timeline” that sticks with the audience at all.

As a latter day Richard Donner movie, “Timeline” features its fair share of action. After arriving in the past, the main characters are immediately beset by attacking archers. There’s quite a lot of horseback riding and sword slashing in these early scenes. Gerard Butler gets some action beat of his own, busting down a door with an axe or running a bad guy through with a sword. The finale of “Timeline’ involves an entire castle going up in flames. While the action sequences are clearly directed, they’re still awfully chaotic. The combination of sword fights and blazing fire causes the entire last act to disappear in a blur.

Truthfully, so much of “Timeline” looks the same. The movie has a bland visual design, composed of sterile greys contrasted against bright orange flames. For those on the look out for Richard Donner’s trademarks, at least one is present. Once again, he emphasizes action scene with some slow motion. in “Timeline,” this technique comes off as especially goofy. When the core cast screams in slow-mo before being blast to the past, the audience can’t help but laugh. Sadly, Donner doesn’t sneak any anti-NRA or anti-fur bumper stickers into the twelfth century. I was hoping he’d pull that one off.

Another side effect of “Timeline’s” strangled post-production was a shifting score. Originally, Jerry Goldsmith was going to provide the music. However, with each new recut, a newly reconfigured score was required. Goldsmith’s quickly deteriorating health made it impossible for him to continue work on the film. Thus, Bryan Taylor was brought into compose a new soundtrack for “Timeline.” Tyler’s work is fairly one-note and forgettable. He even slips in a horror movie style jump-scare stings, which are grossly inappropriate for the film. Goldsmith, which was released, is not his best effort but features some strong, brass-driven musical themes. At the very least, it’s more memorable then the music used in the final film.

“Timeline” is not a full blown fiasco. It’s not that memorable. Instead, “Timeline” is an instantly forgettable movie. The story isn’t that interesting, wasting a potentially note-worthy concept. The characters are incredibly bland, often played by actors lacking in presence. “Timeline” isn’t even able to satisfy non-demanding action fans, as the action scenes are also highly forgettable. Michael Crichton even hated the movie. It’s a shame that Richard Donner spent so much time trying to improve “Timeline.” I suspect his skills might’ve been better utilized somewhere else. [Grade: C-]

Friday, June 24, 2016

Director Report Card: Richard Donner (1998)

20. Lethal Weapon 4

It’s hard to believe that by 1998, they we’re still making “Lethal Weapon” movies. It had been six years since the last entry in the series. Richard Donner and Mel Gibson seemed to have moved on with their other collaborations. Danny Glover was hardly a box office superstar by this point. R-rated action tentpoles were not entirely extinct yet but we’re certainly less common. Not only were audience’s taste changing but so were the movies. But if something makes money, Hollywood will follow it anywhere. And the “Lethal Weapon” movies made money. So in 1998, despite no one demanding it, “Lethal Weapon 4” went before audiences.

In the middle of an active crime scene, Riggs is told that he’s going to be a father. He then turns around and tells Murtaugh that he’s going to be a grandfather. Knowing that their lives are about to change effects their perspectives on things. After stumbling upon a boat full of kidnapped Chinese people, the cops are involved in a new plot. Triad crime bosses are importing slaves into this country. Murtaugh takes it personally and takes some of them into his home. The path to track down those responsible uncovers a counterfeiting plot, the major Chinese crime bosses, and a super pissed off martial arts hitman.

By the time most series reach part four, they’re long in the tooth. The previous year, the original “Lethal Weapon” had celebrated its tenth anniversary. Danny Glover was saying he was too old for this shit for a decade. To its credit, “Lethal Weapon 4” acknowledges the passing of time. Both characters take the beatings they receive a little harder. They aren’t as pliable as they once were. One of the best scenes in the movie involves the two giving one another a mutual pep talk about their advancing age that concludes with an excited, dual shouting of “We’re not too old for this shit!” Despite their words to the contrary, both guys aren’t as young as they used to be.

With that focus on age comes a new focus on parenthood. Riggs is going to be a dad for the first time. Murtaugh is going to be a grandparent for the first time. He’s been a dad for all three movies but, since both are experiencing this now, the movie is really focusing on what’s at stake. Suddenly, Riggs is more conscious about the danger he’s putting himself in, about how this will the lives of his loved ones. How’s that for character development? In the first movie, Riggs wanted to die. Now, he emphatically wants to stay alive. The movie references that change, with Riggs talking more about his dead wife then in either previous sequel.

Also over the last two sequels, the “Lethal Weapon” franchise became the series that weaved serious real world issues into its silly action movie universe. With the fourth entry, Richard Donner and his crew turn their eyes on human trafficking. The bad guys are importing people from China in order to use them as personal slaves. This effects Murtaugh specifically, as he sees parallels between this modern form of slavery and the type of slavery that effected his ancestors. Human trafficking remains a serious problem in the world today. Honestly, out of all the topics the series took on, this one feels a little too heavy for a silly, light-hearted buddy cop flick.

This plot element allows the movie to introduce something else though. In the mid-nineties, Hong Kong kung-fu movies experienced a revival in popularity. Suddenly, giant explosions and lots of guns were not enough for modern action audiences. High risk stunts and creative acrobatics were required. For the first time in its history, the “Lethal Weapon” series decided to chase a popular trend. Mel Gibson and Danny Glover weren’t doing back flips or using a ladder to defend themselves, so Jet Li was brought in as the main villain, to provide a new flavor to this aging franchise. The producers originally wanted Jackie Chan. He turned it down due to his “no bad guys” rules. Chan would instead appear in the same year’s “Rush Hour,” a different buddy cop movie that would more directly fuse Hong Kong elements and American action attitudes.

So how does Jet Li, the second biggest name in Hong Kong action at the time, do as the bad guy? Li plays Wah Sing Ku, a brutal Triad enforcer determined to do things his way. The character doesn’t speak English, all his dialogue being subtitled. A result of this is that Li is silent throughout most of the movie. This is actually a good choice, as it makes Wah Sing Ku a straight-ahead killing machine. A nice gimmick has him executing his targets with a garrote hidden inside a string of beads. Li is an intimating presence and easily the best “Lethal Weapon” villain since Gary Busey in part one. For extra bonus points, the movie also throws in Conan Lee, a minor martial artist actor, as Ku’s brother and experience Asian-American character actor Kim Chan as Uncle Benny, the amusing Triad crime boss.

By this point in the “Lethal Weapon” universe, Leo Getz is an essential element that has to appear in each movie. I don’t know when or why it became this way but it did. By now, Getz has evolved into a full-blown Joe Pesci character. He repeatedly goes on rants about cell phones and traffic cops, using his now catchphrase about things fucking him. Pesci barely contributes to the plot, making his continued inclusion baffling. Another addition to the series is Rene Russo as Lorna Cole. Cole was just as tough as her male co-stars in the last movie. This time, however, she’s pregnant with Riggs’ kid, meaning Russo spends most of the film on the sideline. Even as someone who wasn’t the biggest fan of her in part three, I think it’s kind of unfair how they sideline the character here. She gets one brief moment of action, wrestling a knife from an attacker.

Another weird rule that has developed over the franchise is that each film must add to the “Lethal Weapon” family. Part four adds Chris Rock as Lee Butters, an enthusiastic young detective who is secretly the father of Murtaugh’s grandchild. In 1998, Rock was probably the biggest stand-up comic in the world and at the peak of his popularity. The movie bends backwards to accommodate Rock’s abilities. At least twice it stops the movie cold so that Butters can go on a Rock-ian rant, first about race and the second about cell phones. This is a bit at odds with Butters as a character, who is trying to impress his future father-in-law. The stand-up style rants are mildly amusing but slightly disappointing since Rock is better then the parts when allowed to act.

Humor remains an issue in “Lethal Weapon 4.” Some of the jokes are in keeping with the series’ style. Riggs intimidates a crime boss by smashing his two-way mirror and setting off the fire sprinklers, which is in-character and mildly funny. A decent, reoccurring gag as everyone mispronouncing Butters’ name, which he doesn’t comment on. A less funny reoccurring gag has Murtaugh misinterpreting Butters’ attempts to impress him as Butters hitting on him, a gay panic joke that really hasn’t aged well. Some of the other, broader gags don’t hit as well. An early appearance by a shark feels very over-the-top. A way-too-long gag has the entire team huffing a dentist’s laughing gas, sending them all into giggling, incoherent fits. It’s amusing at first but the film stretches it out too far. In general, the movie should have more laughs.

In another attempt to perhaps stay up-to-date, “Lethal Weapon 4” inflates the action too. The opening scene has Riggs and Murtaugh fighting a madman in home-made armor, wielding a flamethrower and a machine gun. When shot, the flamethrower’s tank explodes, sending him flying into a fuel truck which then also explodes, in an even bigger fireball. Not long afterwards, a shoot-out on a boat also results in some bigger-then-average blasts. The overdone pyrotechnics don’t work as well but the other attempts to up the action do. A fight across a freeway, which involves a tussle inside a moving vehicle and Riggs sliding across the asphalt by a trail of plastic, works fantastically. It’s probably the best action scene in a “Lethal Weapon” flick in a while. The climatic scene ups the visceral violence. Jet Li beats Mel and Danny to a bloody pulp. In response, Glover impales Li with a giant drill bit. The fight ends with an especially graphic machine gun wound. The movie toys with killing off either Riggs or Murtaugh but wimps out at the last minute. The power of male bonding brings them both back from the edge of death.

“Lethal Weapon 4” is the only film in the series to run longer then two hours. The last seventeen minutes tacks an extended coda on. Riggs consults his death wife about his future. There’s an actually pretty good monologue from Joe Pesci about a dead pet frog. There’s a hospital visit, a rabbi, two babies, and a reaffirmation of the themes of family. Oh what, you didn’t realize family was the prevailing theme of the “Lethal Weapon” series? Okay, maybe that’s one way to look at this. Yet shoving all of this into the literal last few minutes of the movie makes it feel shoveled in and sudden.

”Lethal Weapon 4” made money but was not as monstrous a hit as the previous entries in the series. Despite the public seemingly having all they wanted from Riggs and the gang, the possibility of a “Lethal Weapon 5” was still thrown around for years afterwards. A lack of interest from Mel Gibson and Richard Donner sunk that. A reboot, possibly starring Riggs’ son, was considered at one point. Now, a television adaption is moving forward. It’s probably for the best. The fourth “Lethal Weapon” is better then the third but still ranks distantly behind one or two. The franchise was fun while it lasted and successfully ran its course before it was over. This time, they were right. They were too old for this shit. [Grade: B-]

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Director Report Card: Richard Donner (1997)

19. Conspiracy Theory

I was into conspiracy theories once. To clarify, I was never truly a believer. Maybe there was something to the more grounded theories – JFK, the shadow government – but I never took them seriously. Mostly, it was the conspiracy theorist culture that fascinated me. They’re little pockets of people united by bizarre, often conflicting beliefs, building this chaotic world into something orderly with their mutual paranoias. I listened to Coast to Coast AM, lurked the occasional message board, watched a documentary about Alex Jones. Eventually, the pure toxicity of that world view pushed me away, even as just an observer. Yet that fascination with how beliefs in fringe theories form stayed with me. “Conspiracy Theory,” the fifth collaboration between Richard Donner and Mel Gibson, doesn’t explore the motivation or psychology of the conspiracy theorist very much. Instead, it’s a fairly standard thriller set around the fringes of the fringe.

Jerry is a New York cab drivers and a believer in a myriad of bizarre, detailed conspiracy theories. He happily regales his usually disinterested passengers with these theories and even published a news letter. Jerry’s sole friend in the world is Alice Sutton, a lawyer whose father died under mysterious circumstances. Alice usually humors Jerry, who harbors a crush on her. However, after Jerry successfully identifies several undercover CIA agents, people really start to come after him. There really is a conspiracy, with Jerry and Alice’s father at the center. Soon, the two go on the run, pursued by black helicopters and ominous men in suits.

As established above, the world of conspiracy theories is a diverse one. They range from the eerily plausible –  the government does hide stuff  – to the utterly batshit insane – shape-shifting lizard people control the world – to everything in-between. Disappointingly, “Conspiracy Theory” doesn’t choose one of these totally nuts beliefs as its jumping off point. Instead, the film is inspired by MK-ULTRA, a once real program surrounded by a heaping load of misconceptions. When you could have had Mel Gibson punching reptoids or fighting the New World Order, simply being wrapped up in a mind control plot isn’t as exciting. But “Conspiracy Theory” isn’t a kooky exploration of fringe beliefs. Instead, it’s of the same level as Gibson’s other nineties output. That is a mildly entertaining action/thriller.

I’ve been pointing out that Richard Donner tended to alternate between big action flicks and smaller scope dramas or comedies. “Conspiracy Theory” seems to stray from this pattern. Except the film is, in some ways, a comedy. When first introduced, Mel Gibson’s Jerry is rambling wildly about his bizarre theories. His monologues are obviously farcical, as he makes fun of militia movements or talks about the shiftiness of the Catholic church to a pair of nuns. There are repeated jokes in the movie, about Mel refrigerating his coffee or his belief that NASA will murder the president. Even after the film shifts to something more serious, there continues to be jokes. Like a genuinely amusing observation about how lone gunmen are always referred to by all three names.

“Conspiracy Theory” definitely plays Jerry’s paranoia for laughs. Until it doesn’t. After an especially bracing episode, he enters Alice’s law office with a gun. Alice manages to talk him down, the man collapsing in her arms, weeping. Later, while in Jerry’s home/secret bunker, she points out his bookshelf full of copies of “Catcher in the Rye,” a book notoriously linked to assassins. Jerry admits he’s never read it but that, whenever he sees a copy, he feels compelled to buy it. Suddenly, “Conspiracy Theory” becomes a compelling, realistic study of obsessive behavior. It’s a brief moment but a powerful one. The film needed a few more shocks like that.

“Conspiracy Theory” is probably most successful as a Mel Gibson vehicle. Casting Gibson as a nut-job back in 1997 seemed like an excuse to utilize his quirky sense of humor. Or allowing his leading man good looks to center a potentially off-putting character. Now, casting Mel Gibson as a nut-job makes a movie a documentary. Yet Gibson’s charm does make “Conspiracy Theory” a better film. Reportedly, Donner allowed Mel to ramble during Jerry’s various monologue scenes. He’s clearly having fun in those moments. When Jerry’s more pathetic attributes come to the surface, Mel is compelling in those scenes too. Joke all you want but Gibson’s sense of humor and humanity takes “Conspiracy Theory” further then you’d expect.

Of course, Mel is just one of two major box office stars in “Conspiracy Theory.” Julia Roberts co-stars as Alice. Roberts is good, alternating between incredulous at the crazy things around her to approaching the strange events with determination and toughness. However, the romance between Jerry and Alice makes the audience somewhat uneasy. Jerry is essentially Alice’s stalker. He waits outside her apartment, watching her exercise from the window. A secret room in his home is pasted with her photographs. He’s obsessed. This behavior is presented as creepy only up to a certain point. After a while, Jerry’s devotion begins to win Alice over. Man, I don’t think it works that. Gibson and Roberts’ chemistry helps paste over some of these uncomfortable qualities. Yet it can only go so far.

Because “Conspiracy Theory’s” ambitions are fairly limited, it’s faceless conspiracy with an infinite reach is controlled by one man. Patrick Stewart plays Dr. Jonas. Stewart’s authoritative voice combines with a blank suit and a pair of wire-frame glasses to become a face of abusive authority. His most chilling scene is when he calmly, nonchalantly explains how Jerry was programmed to become a killer. However, as the script progresses, Dr. Jonas becomes more of a traditional movie villains. He’s making quibs at the heroes and casually assassinating people. The script may not serve Patrick Stewart the best way but Sir Stewart is a professional and still manages to give an effective performance.

“Conspiracy Theory” is most accurately described as a thriller. However, I’m sure people going to a Mel Gibson movie in 1997 had certain expectations. Eventually, the film leaps into action movie theatrics. These shifts are often sudden. Jerry and Alice are discussing the plot in his apartment when black-clad soldiers repel from a helicopter. They fire a rocket propelled gas grenade into the building, leading to a large explosion. Gunfire breaks soon afterwards. There are other fight scenes and shoot outs in the picture, all of them on a similar level just outside the film’s previously established believably. Sometimes, these action scenes feel out of place. Other times, they don’t even make sense. Yes, the black helicopters are said to be silent. That doesn’t prevent people from looking directly overhead and seeing them.

This being a conspiracy centric film, there’s obviously going to be some twists and reveals. Yes, the movie hints that Jerry murdered Alice’s dad, a turn the audience can see coming as soon as his death is mentioned. Equally inevitable is how the story steps back that reveal, which it does somewhat awkwardly. That’s not too much of a problem because it’s expected. More disappointing is the reveal that the apparently on-the-level officer helping Jerry and Alice is a secret agent. And he’s a good guy. In a paranoid thriller, all the government agents would be assumed to be evil. The ending essentially has Jerry saved from one conspiracy by another one, an unlikely ending considering the story’s setting.

Watching Richard Donner’s films so close together has allowed me to see some of his trademarks. Despite often being considered a no-frills filmmaker, Donner does have some stylistic quirks of his on. He likes to emphasize dramatic moments with slow motion. That habit definitely appears in “Conspiracy Theory,” like during the attack on Jerry’s apartment or a cab chase scene. However, “Conspiracy Theory” features maybe the biggest stylistic flourishes of Donner’s career, since at least “Twinky.” Early on, Dr. Jonas ties Jerry to a wheelchair, tapes his eyelids open, and injects him with a psychotropic drug. The trip scene that follows features swirling colors, flashing lights, and inserts from Bugs Bunny cartoons. Some more moments like that would’ve made “Conspiracy Theory” more memorable and shown Donner’s often understated abilities as a director more.

“Conspiracy Theory” does have a pretty good score. Carter Burwell provides the music. The opening theme is surprisingly jazzy, with some soft trilling piano keys, a tapping cymbal rhythm, and a sweeping string melody tying it all together. Eventually, a brassy trumpet crescendo emerges. As the story develops, Burwell’s soundtrack becomes a more typical action movie score, focusing less on melodies and more on driving percussion. Even then, he still sneaks an occasional piano melody in. The soundtrack also makes good use of “You’re Too Good to Be True,” though I’m not much of a fan of Lauryn Hill’s cover, which accompanies the end credits.

"Conspiracy Theory" is not the most memorable of Richard Donner and Mel Gibson’s films together. The film definitely has its moments, including an entertainingly sincere Mel Gibson performance, a creepy villain in the form of Patrick Stewart, and a decent sense of humor about itself. Pairing genuine movie stars like Mel and Julia Roberts naturally led to good box office. As mildly diverting as “Conspiracy Theory” can be, a viewer can’t help but wonder about the better, more ambitious, interesting film that could’ve been made with the same premise. [Grade: C+]

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Director Report Card: Richard Donner (1995)

18. Assassins

Joel Silver has an eye for talent. In the eighties, he unleashed Shane Black onto the world. He paired with filmmakers like John McTiernan and John Millius, stars like Arnold and Mel. In the process, he created some of the most beloved, down and dirty action flicks of the eighties. As the nineties rolled on, Silver picked up another talented screenwriter. Or two, I should say. Before the Wachowskis created “The Matrix,” they sold the script for “Assassins.” Nearly directed by Mel Gibson, he passed the screenplay onto Richard Donner. Though the Wachowskis claim their script was entirely rewritten, many of their trademarks are still visible in the final product. Maybe the world wasn’t ready for the future in 1995. “Assassins” underperformed domestically and merely broke even overseas. Did the film deserve to fail?

Robert Rath kills for money. If you need someone to be dead, he’s the best man to call. Yet the years of bullets and death has taken its toll on him. Rath’s haunted by the faces of those he’s killed and is nearly ready to retire. His penultimate job puts him in conflict with Miguel Bain, another killer for hire. Unlike Rath, who is a composed professional, Bain is an unhinged psychopath. Both are hired to kill a female computer hacker. When faced with her, Rath has a change of heart. He teams up with the woman, both on the run from Bain’s mad gun, trying to discover the identity of Rath’s boss who now wants them all dead.

Here in the new millennium, it seems like every unambitious action film is about an assassin or hitman. 1995 was a year less obsessed with professional killers. Yet even back then, “Assassins'” central plot was a little old hat. Yes, this is a movie about a murderer for hire who has a change of heart. Robert Rath is old, worn out, and ready to retire. It seems like his soul is entirely calloused over when he meets Electra. The woman reignites his desire to live. United against a common enemy, they rush through one last adventure. By the conclusion, they have successfully buried their sordid old lives and our ready to build new ones. It wasn’t an unheard of story back then but plays out as incredibly old hat now.

To this well worn concept, the Wachowskis bring a new emphasis on then-current technology. Rath receives his targets over the internet. That is, on his clunky laptop computer via a dial-up connection. He contacts his employer through a simplistic chat interface, that was probably still too hi-tech for 1995. He uses the same computer to play electronic chess, a fairly strangled visual metaphor for Rath planning against his opponent. The same boss desires a floppy disc containing some pertinent information. We often see this disc shoved into a portable drive of some sort. There’s a lot of discussion about code, passwords, and encryptions. It’s nearly hokey from 2016’s perspective. Yet it’s not too difficult to see the Wachowskis leaping from the quasi-high-tech aspects of this story to the cyberpunk setting of “The Matrix.”

There is a downside to the movie’s focus on what’s new and exciting. The first act of “Assassins” borders on the incoherent. We see context lacking flashbacks, that won't mean anything for a little while longer. The movie then leaps ahead into its first action sequence, leaving little time for the audience to get its barrings. Julianne Moore’s character is introduced in an especially convoluted manner. What exactly her character is doing in the plot at first isn’t entirely clear. There’s some Dutch businessmen and some Interpol agents. Even if you pay close attention to the chat room communications between Rath and his boss, it’s possible to get lost during “Assassins” first act.

The part of Robert Rath was offered to a number of established action stars. Sean Connery, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and, uh, Michael Douglas all passed on the role. When Sylvester Stallone starred in “Assassins,” it was during his nineties low period, when the star was trying out different characters and failing to find many hits. As Robert Rath, Stallone is at his most mumbly. During a terse conversation in a taxi cab, you can barely understand anything he says. In the first half, when Rath is strictly a graveled old killer, Stallone’s performance seems bored, irritated, and one note. Eventually, he comes out of his shell some, showing a quiet humor. Still, it’s not one of Sly’s more memorable performances.

Luckily, Antonio Banderas picks up the slack. Post-“Desperado,” Banderas already had some action movie cred of his own. In “Assassins,” he goes gleefully over the top. Miguel Bain is completely unhinged. While Stallone drives a cab, he launches into a frenzied speech, describing the pleasure he takes in his profession. He punctuates the conversation by shooting the glass, mostly for the hell of it. Banderas makes pithy comments to fruit, grins, sweats, cackles, and swears. He acts up a storm, Antonio really enjoying a chance to play a nutty bad guy. Considering how muted Sly can be, Banderas’ mad villain often keeps “Assassins” entertaining. It was a performance so deranged that it even spawned an internet meme.

The third central character is Julianne Moore’s Electra. Despite Brian Helgeland’s total rewrite, I can’t help but think Moore’s character features the most Wachowski thumbprints. Aside from being a computer hacker, a hobby she shares with Neo, Electra has a number of quirks. She deeply loves her pet cat, carrying the animal everywhere she goes. She’s wired her apartment complex with cameras, spying on her neighbors. This isn’t for any malicious reason. Instead, Electra watches her neighbors’ lives like it’s a reality show. Moore is able to define her character beyond these eccentric attributes. She brings a pep and energy to the part, enlivening “Assassins’” during its more routine scenes.

Honestly, the best part of “Assassins” has nothing to do with sniper rifles or explosions. Instead, the relationship between Sylvester Stallone’s Rath and Julianne Moore’s Electra proves unusually compelling. The film seems to play this as a romantic relationship. The two share a kiss and, at the end, walk off hand in hand. However, it works better for me as an unexpected friendship. Sly plays with the pet cat, who happily climbs into his lap. She tries to shoot him but he successfully disarms the tension. After making a close getaway, the two share a laugh. Before long, Rath is criticizing Electra's taste in music. The actors don’t share much in the way of romantic chemistry. Yet they do seem to be having fun together.

Don’t think “Assassins” lacks action though. The earliest action beat is a shoot-out in a cemetery, which features Stallone hiding a hand gun in a sling on his arm. After picking up Banderas in his cab, “Assassins” hits its first really cool action beat. Bain dangles out the window while Rath drives the car into the side of the bus, trying to throw the villain out. Aside from some slightly shaky direction, it’s a neat moment. Inevitably, the two assassins meet again as enemies. While inside Electra's apartment, a shoot-out ensues. Mirrors are cleverly utilized during this scene and there’s some neat diving and firing. The shoot-out concludes with a big explosion, Banderas tossed out the window while hiding behind a table. Even a relatively simple sequence of Sly bailing out of a monorail, walking across and climbing down the platform, features some neat, action-heavy imagery.

Surprisingly, the most suspenseful action scene features comparatively little gunfire. During the last act, Stallone enters a bank. He knows Banderas is waiting in the bell tower across the street, a sniper rifle aimed at the door. He knows this because he pulled the same trick decades before. Instead of giving the bad guy what he wants, he waits him out. Stallone sits inside the air conditioned bank, happily biding his time, Moore talking to him through a hidden microphone. Antonio, meanwhile, swelters in the heat outside, pissing in a bottle, and frantically aiming his gun every time someone walks through the door. This sequence is a lot funnier and more suspenseful then the eventual final confrontation between Rath and Bain. Even that features a cool gag, of Banderas falling through several platforms through the dilapidated tower.

As a Richard Donner movie, “Assassins” isn’t that distinct visually from the rest of the director’s nineties output. His by-now trademark of slow motion photography is utilized a few times, such as when Banderas is launched out the window. Another unusual aspect of “Assassins” is the number of not-so-subtle political stickers Donner slaps in the background. While Sly and Banderas shoot at each other, anti-NRA logos are visible on a bus. While Moore tells jokes to the waiting hero, a waitress is seen wearing a “Pro-Choice” t-shirt. Is there any deeper purpose to these choices? Or did Donner just think it was funny to fill a gunfire heavy action flick with anti-firearm and other politically progressive iconography?

“Assassins” opened at number two at the box office, coming and going from theaters without much attention. I think this has less to do with the movie’s quality and more to do with the public’s general indifference to Sylvester Stallone at the time. While hardly a cult favorite, some action fans have suggested that “Assassins” deserves a second look. Which is true. The script has some bumps and Stallone doesn’t seem very interested. Yet when focused on the villain or the love interest, “Assassins” does alright for itself. The Wachowskis would go on to bigger and better things but “Assassins” is worth a watch. [Grade: B-]

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Director Report Card: Richard Donner (1994)

17. Maverick

This might be hard to believe now but, once upon a time, Mel Gibson was one of the biggest stars in the world. Many years before that, another fact that may seem difficult to believe now, westerns were the most popular genre on television. “Maverick,” a Western series that ran from 1957 to 1962, starred James Garner as a rascally card player. It was noted for being a more subversive, comedic take on the genre. For whatever reason, in 1994, Mel Gibson, Richard Donner, and screenwriter William Goldman combined to turn “Maverick” into a movie. Despite the western being an increasingly noncommercial genre in the nineties, Mel’s star power and the general affability of the final film were enough to turn “Maverick” into another hit for everyone involved.

Bret Maverick – card shark, conman, rascal, and occasional reluctant gunfighter – ambles through the Wild West. He’s on his way to a major poker tournament in New Orleans, hoping to prove himself the greatest card player of all time. But he’s a few thousand dollars short. Along the way, he meets Annabelle, a card player and con artist in her own right, and Zane Cooper, a Federal Marshall. Before they even make it to the poker game, all three will have unexpected encounters, all the while trying to figure out the others’ alliances.

Befitting an adaptation of an old TV show, “Maverick” has an appropriately episodic storyline. The main motivating factor is the river boat bound poker tournament, the ultimate destination of the primary characters. But “Maverick” doesn’t arrive there until the last forty minutes. Before that, Bret and his companions wander into a few unrelated adventures. There’s poker games escalating to bar fights, runaway carriage rides, and a mission of women who claim Indians have stolen their money. Usually, such a disconnected, off-balance screenplay would be a weakness. “Maverick” makes it work. The film is like a rambling, funny story told by an old friend, eventually circling back to the main point but making room for some amusing anecdotes along the way.

The original “Maverick’s” five year run, or even the brief 1981 revival also starring James Garner, were quite a ways off in 1994. Despite that, it’s easy to see why Bret Maverick was such a memorable, lovable character. Maverick isn’t the traditional Western white hat, in the old TV show or this movie. He’s reluctant to participate in violence, preferring poker to gun fights. When fisticuffs do arise, he’s remarkably good at thinking his way out of it. In an early scene, he impresses some combative card players by beating four men in a fist fight. Later, we discover that these guys were paid by Maverick to take tumbles in the fight. He’s often out thinking his adversaries but in a way that suggests he’s also making a lot of shit up.

Bret Maverick is a character also perfectly suited to Mel Gibson’s charms. The character is introduced on the back of a horse, with a nose around his neck. In voice over, he wryly states that he’s been having a shitty week. Though Gibson excels at playing traumatized heroes, the later “Lethal Weapon” sequels proved that easy-going and quirky Mel is the best version. “Maverick” happily provides us with another oppretunity to enjoy funny, rascally Mel. The character’s roguish attributes allow Mel to display some of that eccentric humor. He’s consistently hilarious and incredibly charming throughout, helping along “Maverick’s” easy going pace.

When you think of early nineties sex symbols, Jodie Foster is probably not the first person that comes to mind. Yet “Maverick” successfully cast her as a woman who uses her beauty and feminine charm to out think the men around her. This usually manifests as her swiping wallets while getting in close for some smooches. An especially amusing moment has Foster’s Annabelle pulling Mel’s Maverick into bed when returning to the poker table is an important matter. Foster has a mischievous glint in her smile, which takes the character a long way. And just to make sure the script doesn’t make her too wily for her own good, Annabelle is also given a clumsy streak.

As I said, “Maverick’s” willingness to ramble on and hang out is actually one of its strengths. My favorite sequence in the movie occurs about halfway through. After retrieving the mission’s stolen money, a group of Indians appear on the scene. They’re completely harmless but Maverick, the only white man there who speaks their language, instructs them to act threatening. The simple gag of subtitles showing the banal, friendly dialogue, while Mel relays violent threats to the frightening crowd, is a surprisingly sturdy gag. The Indians speaks English and are totally civil. However, a rich Russian duke is paying them to act like the pop culture conception of savages. This include saying “How!” and playing war drums all day. This is the best example of how “Maverick” subverts and plays with the expected rules of the western. Graham Greene, as Bret’s Indian friend, is also hilarious and has some great chemistry with Mel.

Casting James Garner in the cinematic version of his second most beloved TV character might seem like a gimmick at first. However, Garner is actually acting as Bret Maverick’s foil throughout the film. Playing Marshall Zane Cooper, he often responds to Bret’s antics with incredulous disbelief. He takes Foster’s character at face value, not realizing she’s a con artist too. In many ways, Garner is playing the traditional western hero that Maverick was created to subvert. At least, until the reveal in the last act… Garner gets a lot of dry humor out of the part, utilizing his scratchy voice and rugged charm extremely well.

Alfred Molina returns to a Richard Donner movie for the first time since “Ladyhawke.” He plays a not-too-dissimilar role. Angel takes poker way too seriously. He’s a twitchy-eyed nut, prone to launching into violent rages from the smallest provocations. The way Gibson’s laid back sense of humor triggers Molina’s anger also provides plenty of amusement. Molina has fun in the part, once again making the most of playing an unhinged bad guy.

It would be a stretch to call “Maverick” an action movie. However, the film still features some fun and thrilling set pieces. When traveling across the western desert in a carriage, Maverick wakes up to see that the driver has unexpectedly died. Heading towards a gorge – of course, there’s a gorge – Bret has to stop the cart. He leaps from around the moving horses, dangles from the undercarriage, nearly collides with the spinning axles, and ends the scene hanging off the gorge’s edge. It’s a well orchestrated sequence, a solid as any of the action beats in the “Lethal Weapon” franchise. The other quick flashes of action, like the quick-draw shoot-out at the end, are well done, if not as memorable as the carriage scene.

Once the gang arrives at the river boat, “Maverick” develops into a damn fine gambling flick. It takes a talented director to get tension out actors shadily glancing at each other or reading their handful of cards. The film does a surprisingly good job of balancing humor and some alright tension during this finale. During the climatic moment, Maverick slowly lays his cards down, revealing his winning hand one by one. This also pays off on Bret’s wished-for magical abilities referenced earlier in the film. The last act also brings James Coburn in for a great role, as the organizer of the event.

Like any con movie worth its salt, “Maverick” doesn’t quite end there. Instead, the film happily tacks on a fourth act, where everybody double crosses everybody else and reveals their true intentions. Garner is less heroic then he appears. Coburn wasn’t interested in playing fairly in the poker game. Jodie Foster rips everybody off. My favorite twist is the one that reveals “Maverick” isn’t an adaptation of the old TV show. It’s a sequel. Garner is reprising his original role. Mel is playing Bret Maverick the Second. It’s a genuinely unexpected turn, catching the audience off-guard in the best way. A lot of con artist movies collapse under the wait of the expected, last act twists. “Maverick” is too light-hearted and fun for that, breezing through the twists and turns with ease.

Furthering the fun, “Maverick” is full of cameos and in-jokes. Former Donner collaborators, like Corey Feldman, Margot Kidder, and Danny Glover, stop by. Glover’s brief scene is especially amusing. Multiple country and western singers, such as Clint Black and Reba MacEntire, also appear briefly. “Maverick” is a low stakes affair, more preoccupied with getting grins out of the audience then anything else. Which doesn’t mean it’s not fantastically acted and directed. In truth, creating a comedy this consistently charming and amusing is probably a lot harder then it looks. The clever script and talented cast is up to the challenge. “Maverick” is a great Sunday afternoon watch, a movie that entertains me more and more every time I see it. [Grade: B+]

Monday, June 20, 2016

Director Report Card: Richard Donner (1992) Part 3

16. Lethal Weapon 3

“Lethal Weapon” was an iconic hit and one of the defining movies of the eighties. “Lethal Weapon 2” was the third highest grossing movie of 1989, during a huge summer that included “Batman” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” “Lethal Weapon” was a gold mine franchise now and had to continue. A third Murtaugh and Riggs adventure rolled out in 1992, going on to become the biggest grossing entry in the series. It was exactly the kind of surefire hit Richard Donner needed after “Radio Flyer’s” box office failure. But at this point, the critics and audiences were less unanimous on the film’s quality. 

Three years after the last movie, Murtaugh is now a week away from retirement. While interrupting an armored truck robbery, the duo discovers that armor-piercing rounds - cop killer bullets - are now circulating on the streets. The bullets are traced back to Jack Travis, a former cop himself who is now specializing in selling illegal arms and using his construction company as a cover. Teaming up with Riggs’ new love interest and a returning Leo Getz, the gang goes about avenging the death of friends and stopping the villain.

“Lethal Weapon 2” added more gravitas to the action movie formula by incorporating the real world issue of Apartheid. Realizing that worked last time, “Lethal Weapon 3” throws in three real world issues. First is the issue of police corruption. The bad guy is a former cop himself and uses his police privileges to help facilitate his criminal empire. The second issue is the issue of armor piercing bullets and especially their available among the public. This was a hot button topic in the early nineties and provides the main MacGuffin of the plot. However, the biggest real world issue the film tackles is young people being caught in the crossfire. I was a kid in the nineties. I remember the PSAs about gangs, street crime and gun safety. More then once, “Lethal Weapon 3” makes references to “killing babies.” The villain isn’t just a bad guy because he’s selling bullets that can more easily kill cops. He’s a bad guy because his guns are killing kids.

The movie’s stabs at real world relevance feels especially forced-in at times. Not because action movies shouldn’t tackle ideas like this but because “Lethal Weapon 3” is the goofiest of the series thus far. Firstly, Leo Getz is back with an even bigger role. He acts more like your typical Joe Pesci character this time, going on more then one profane tirade. Getz was decently well used in part two but definitely takes up too much screen time. Watching him squirm on the hockey rink or deal with the aftermath of a proctology exam aren’t not exactly welcomed additions. (The character was apparently a last minute addition to the script, which is obvious.) There are other goofy, broad gags. Murtaugh attracts the attention of a portly female officer, an affection he doesn’t return and actively scorns. Riggs, meanwhile, does things like accidentally interrupt a movie shoot. The humor in this series has never been exactly cutting edge but this stuff seems awfully silly.

But the movie is still funny, at times. The opening skit has the two guys accidentally setting off a bomb they were sent to deactivate. As ridiculous at it is, this provides a decent chuckle or two. A reoccurring gag throughout the movie has Riggs attempting to quit smoking. He substitutes his cigarettes with dog biscuits. This pays off in a sequence where he befriends a vicious guard dog with the same biscuits, the dog following him home and becoming a pet. And if nothing else, the banter between Mel Gibson and Danny Glover remains strong. That counts a lot.

The eighties were over and with them the eighties style of ridiculous, hyper-campy, overly macho action movie were slowly going out of vogue. But in 1992, “Lethal Weapon 3” was keeping the gay subtext alive. Riggs and Murtaugh’s bro-mance remains epic. After shooting a perp the same age as his son, Murtaugh has a miniature breakdown, getting drunk on his boat. It’s not his wife that goes to solace him, it’s Riggs. The conversation escalates into a lover’s spat that concludes with Murtaugh admitting he loves Riggs. When Riggs says he’s attracted to a woman, Murtaugh punches him overboard. (Ostensibly, Murtaugh punches him because he thinks his best friend is sleeping with his daughter. But we all know the truth.) Before the movie is over, Danny Glover is even on his knees before Mel, holding a bouquet of flowers. “Lethal Weapon 3” reestablishes that the only thing these guy love more then stopping crime is each other.

Despite the two guys obviously only having eyes for each other, the movie invents yet another love interest for Gibson. Rene Russo co-stars as Lorna Cole, an internal affairs officer that becomes involved in the case. At first, the two share some belligerent sexual tension, reluctant to admit their mutual attraction. It takes an evening of stripping down and showing off their battle scars for them to admit they like one another. From that point on, Riggs’ main element of character development is his anxiety over dating a fellow officer. Soon, the two are trading cutesy nicknames. The movie ends with them declaring their love for one another. Gibson and Russo have alright romantic chemistry, better then Mel had with any of his previous love interests.

That’s not the problem. The problem is Russo herself. Lorna is set up as tough as her boyfriend. Before the scene where they compare battle scars, she performs a judo flip on Riggs, dropping him on his ass. Russo remains an active member in the action sequences, rushing around and blasting bad guys along with the heroes. This itself is not an issue. The problem begins when the movie starts to push it too far. The extended sequence where Riggs and Murtaugh stand back and watch while Lorna beats up potential leads in a mechanics shop goes on too long and stops the pace dead. It feels less like natural screenwriting and more like the film forcing in some self-indulgent “girl power.” It’s awkward, is what I’m saying.

Another determent towards “Lethal Weapon 3” is its villain. Part one had a psychotic Gary Busey. Part two had a pair of creepy, fascist South Africans. Part three has… A dude in a suit with a mustache. He’s not a physical threat to any of the heroes. Jack Travis is played by Stuart Wilson, an unassuming looking actor. The movie could have used this in the film’s favor. Travis could have been the kind of villain that people purposely underestimate. Instead, the film plays him up as a tough guy gangster who executes snitches and buries traitors in concrete. The character seems like less of an evil mastermind and more like a mean-spirited accountant. He even willfully exposes himself to the cops at one point. He has little cunning, his master plan is not especially brilliant, and he’s not very threatening. Jack Travis is a failure of a movie bad guy.

Travis does provide one worthy contribution to the film: An oppretunity for Danny Glover to go nuts! In no doubt an intentional move, the movie has the more reasonable partner loosing his cool. Murtaugh yanks would-be thugs out of bed and points a machine gun in their face. He holds a guy’s head near the spinning wheels of a revving vehicle. The entire time, Danny Glover’s face is caked with sweat. He gets in people’s faces and screams profanity at them. After two movies of Glover being the more reserved half of this partnership, it is sort of fun to watch him cut loose and act a little crazy for once.

For its many flaws, “Lethal Weapon 3” is still a solid action flick. The cops bust up an armored truck theft just as the vehicle peels out of there, leaving Gibson fighting in the cab of the truck and tossing the driver through a window. A shootout in a subway is dynamic enough, with some fun duel wielding and enough running, gunning, and leaping to make it fun. A freeway chase has Mel diving under a semi-truck and diving off an incomplete bridge, which features a call-back to the dislocated shoulder from the last movie.

The action highlight comes during the finale. The heroes corner Travis at his building project in the desert. It quickly goes up in flames, so now the good guys are fighting among burning buildings. Everyone gets some good shots in. My favorite of which is Murtaugh tossing a claw hammer into someone’s chest. Further proof of how ineffectual a villain Travis is appears during the climax. His Hail Mary move is not a close-quarters fight to the death or a sneaking up and shooting someone. Instead, he jumps in a bulldozer. Woo. Overall though, the fiery climax is probably one of my favorite things in “Lethal Weapon 3.”

It’s not a bad movie. There’s still some blood left in this stone. However, part three is not the most inspired entry in the franchise. Gibson and Glover’s chemistry remains strong and the action’s not bad. But the bad guy is lame, the tone is inconsistent, the humor is not as strong, and some of the new additions to the cast are questionable. What we’re left with is the most uneven “Lethal Weapon” movie yet, one that isn’t terrible but doesn’t match up to either of the previous films. [Grade: C+]