Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Action/Adventure - Charlie Brigden ""

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Underrated Action/Adventure - Charlie Brigden

Charlie Brigden is Editor-in-Chief of Filmsonwax.com.
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FIREFOX (1982, Dir: Clint Eastwood)
Based on the novel by Craig Thomas and directed and produced by Eastwood, FIREFOX is a classic tale of American/Russian antagonism and paranoia, where the USSR build a lethal advanced warplane, and the US - along with MI6 - devise a plan to steal it in fear of the Soviets dominating air-based conflicts. Eastwood's Mitchell Gant (such a great name) is supposedly the only pilot who can fly it, so he's smuggled into Russia and helped along by Russian dissidents to go into disguise to nick the superjet - the MiG-31, codename "Firefox".
FIREFOX is a movie of two halves, one of those films where you imagine two clumsy interns carrying two different reels across the lot, bumping into each other and getting the resulting film mixed up. The first two acts are a slightly grim (and slightly tedious) spy drama, more in the vein of John Le Carre rather than Ian Fleming, and it's refreshing that Gant is quite the bungler when it comes to this kind of work, to the point where you hope his flying is a lot better than his spying. But the moment when he steals the Firefox is where the flick turns into an exhilarating flying extravaganza, where Gant has some fun with the plane against Russian forces before the second prototype (of course) is launched against him. This is where it literally turns into the final reel of STAR WARS, with Gant flying through mountains of ice suspiciously like the Death Star trench, with Firefox no. 2 hot on his heels, and it's no surprise with SW veteran John Dykstra in charge of the effects. The transition between the second and third acts actually goes pretty smoothly, helped along by Maurice Jarre's score, which is primarily electronic and downbeat during the spy parts, only to become a rousing orchestral work when the Firefox takes flight.

FIREFOX has a fun cast with a ton of British character actors including Nigel Hawthorne, Warren Clarke, and Freddie Francis, as well as Lucasfilm alumni Kenneth Colley, Ronald Lacey, and Wolf Kahler. Eastwood moves from the stoic Clint we all know and love to a lighter quipping type, and the entire third act features a conversation between Gant and the KGB, which is all pretty entertaining.  It does have issues - the tonal shifts are occasionally jarring, and it's hard to reconcile scenes of people being abducted and stabbed with the jingoistic finale, but it's a ripping matinee yarn that doesn't really deserve the critical battering it's had. And you can always count on Clint.

BLUE THUNDER (1983, dir: John Badham)
From one advanced aircraft to another with John Badham's government conspiracy thriller BLUE THUNDER. Originally conceived by Dan O'Bannon as a response to the constant noise of LAPD choppers in the night sky, the flick was rewritten to make the lead more heroic and stuffed with a bunch of great actors led by the amazing Roy Scheider. Scheider's Frank Murphy is a 'nam veteran with shades of PTSD, perhaps not the best choice as the test pilot for super-whirlybird "Blue Thunder". Things go awry when he finds out fellow vet Cochran (Malcolm McDowell) is the original project pilot and that he's also involved in a plot to use the helicopter for urban pacification, a plot which uses the murder of an LA councilwoman to justify a green light for Blue Thunder to police from the skies.

Two things hold BLUE THUNDER together: Roy Scheider's Murphy and the exceptional flying scenes, particularly the inevitable final reel battle that puts Murphy up against Cochran in another armed chopper as well as two F-16 jets. The film is full of great shots involving the helicopter and the camera is certainly in love with its subject; there's a great sequence that involves Blue Thunder and its pursuee zooming through the LA aquaducts, the first appearance of the aircraft out of a morning sunrise, and it rising above a bridge to face two beat cops trying to arrest Murphy's girlfriend (Candy Clark). The picture features some fine actors including an irrascible Warren Oates as Murphy's boss (his final role) and Daniel Stern as rookie pilot Lymangood, and has a good sense of humour, especially in the last act when Clark's car starts doing stunts out of The Dukes of Hazzard, and great interplay between Scheider and Oates. But what sticks is my mind is the final scene, as Murphy walks away from Blue Thunder as it's hit by a freight train, with Scheider giving a wry shudder as it explodes, ending the story and the helicopter. No sequel here (it did get a TV show though).

MIAMI VICE (2006, dir: Michael Mann)
Many eyes rolled when it was announced that Michael Mann would be making a big-screen feature out of the long-running television show he produced with Anthony Yerkovich. Miami Vice was MTV cops, with Ferraris and linen suits and alligators on boats, and while the show had layers of darkness underneath, it was never widely acknowledged by those who expected a similar movie to 2004's STARSKY & HUTCH parody. What we got was a superior crime picture which held steadfast to Vice's original themes, but with an updated visual style and language. The story was a typical Vice plot - detectives Crockett and Tubbs are sent undercover to discover who's supplying heroin to a bunch of Neo-Nazis in Miami - but the presentation is anything but. 

Dion Beebe's digital photography is incredible, moving from travelogue images to handheld, making MIAMI VICE look both like an advert for South American tourism and the best ever episode of COPS. Mann gives it a documentary feel; it's absolutely raw and at times very grim. The film starts in media res, we're dropped right in the middle of a case, before being shoved into another which goes very wrong. The language is technical, terms like OBSEC are thrown around without any explanation whatsoever, and we feel like we're right in the middle. Like all Mann films, the music is note perfect, from John Murphy's score to Moby remixing Nina Simone to Mogwai, but it's surprising how quiet the film is, making the action scenes all the more louder. Mann's themes are all here: the blurred lines between good and bad, going undercover, falling in love with the wrong person, and it's all put together with an incredible cast, especially John Ortiz and Gong Li. I'm always amazed at the reactions I see to this film, but glad that it seems to have a bit of a following. A masterpiece.

RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD, PART II (1985, dir: George P. Cosmatos)
The last time we saw John Rambo, he was posited as someone terribly affected by war and PTSD to the point where he was reliving it at home. That all seems to have unravelled by the time he gets to RAMBO, the whole film of which is personified by his ludicrous question re: Vietnam: "Do we get to win this time?" What follows is the super-soldier returning to investigate tales of existing POW camps and eventually blowing everything to hell in order to save them. It's absolutely crazy but essential action viewing as he not only tears around Asia with explosive-tipped arrows and vengeance in his eyes, but also falls in love with agent Co-Bao, who eventually dies with the classic line "You... not... expendable." Oh, and Steven Berkoff plays a vicious Soviet commander.

Perhaps your reaction to the film will be based on how much of the jingoism you can stomach; screenwriter James Cameron famously said that he wrote the action and Stallone wrote the politics, but when you get down to the action it's a blast. There's a certain flavour to the action that makes Stallone seem like the Predator, hiding in mud, underwater, just coming out of nowhere to dispatch his foes. And when he does rescue the POWs he flies them out in a Huey chopper which subsequently gets chased by the Russkies (yup, in another classic bit of Cold War paranoia, they're behind it all) all to the rousing music of Jerry Goldsmith. Few things are as amazing as when Rambo leaps out of a river to take out a Russian gunner with Goldsmith's huge theme exploding in the background. And then there's the scowling Charles Napier whose betrayal of Rambo leads to the best setpiece of the film as Rambo growls "Murdoch... I'm coming to get YOU!" before slamming a microphone into a Soviet's face. Action perfected.

BLACK DEATH (2010, Christopher Smith)
BLACK DEATH is an odd beast. Self-described as a "medieval men on a mission" movie, it follows a group of mercenaries in the dark ages trying to find a suppposed necromancer while the black plague reigns, led by a typically gruff Sean Bean. While Bean's Ulric is the leader, the main character is Eddie Redmayne's monk Osmund, who tags along seeing this as a sign to find his lady that he had sent away. The group arrive at the village to find it under the command of Langiva (Carice Van Houten) who has everyone convinced that she is keeping the plague away with her powers, and subsequently are captured and thrown into a water-filled cage, with the promise that they will be saved if they renounce God. 

What follows is both surprising and unsurprising (based on how closely you follow the fate of Sean Bean's characters in film and TV) but altogether becomes a war based on faith and the seduction of those who follow God, particularly Osmund. After discovering his lady's shredded and bloodied clothing, Osmund sees Langiva bring her back to life, only for Osmund to send her back to hell in an event that helps him set upon a truly different path. The finale packs a hard punch with shades of Vincent Price in WITCHFINDER GENERAL, with Osmund a lifetime away from the person he was at the start of the film. A neat and underseen picture that definitely deserves a re-evaluation.

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