Ham-fisted action: The Professional (Georges Lautner, 1981)

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Not to be confused with Leon: The Professional, this film stars Jean-Paul Belmundo as Josselin Beaumont, a hitman betrayed by his own government. At times, Beaumont almost seems to be framed as the French Rambo, which is rather silly considering that Belmundo was, by this point, 48 years old. Worse, the film itself is meandering, dull and repulsively sexist.

The film has a few interesting aspects that are not well followed-through. The plot begins as a reasonable commentary on France’s post-colonial international meddling: Beaumont’s target is an African president whose political standing with France has little to do with how tyrannically he rules his country. The film also attempts to create in Beaumont a world-weary figure who, having lost his ideals, has no reason to live other than revenge (and getting laid a few last times).

Beaumont is difficult to sympathise with. His insistence on visiting his wife, Jeanne (Elisabeth Margoni), brings her to the attention of Inspector Rosen (Robert Hossein), who Beaumont knows full well will treat her brutally. Elisabeth faces some physical violence and is almost raped by a WPC (a shameless excuse to get the actress naked, and to use lesbianism in a pandering way). Beaumont exacts revenge on her behalf, but the fact remains that she only had those experiences because of him. As he proceeds towards his goal, the film still pretends that Beaumont’s likeable, but guilt doesn’t seem to be reason enough for old and new friends to help him.

Visually, The Professional looks lacklustre, barely above a TV production. This carries through in the action scenes, which are almost all clumsy. The comedic touch they often receive detracts from any sense of tension or from the bleak outlook the film attempts to portray. Beaumont’s original jail break is so poorly staged that it’s complete nonsense. A car chase in which some quite good stunt drivers tear through Paris streets, even below the Eiffel Tower, is the one bit of decent action in the film.

The last straw is that way The Professional uses Ennio Morricon’s “Chi Mai”. It is, in a word, incessant. It might have been enough to ruin the movie – if the movie was any good to begin with.

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Whoopi’s post-The Color Purple blues: Fatal Beauty (Tom Holland, 1987)

Fatal Beauty is a messy, obnoxious, and really quite stupid movie. There’s something fascinating, though, about its tonal mishmash and sheer 80s loudness. Whoopi Goldberg plays Detective Rita Rizzoli, an LA cop who’s bent on cleaning drug dealers off the streets, any way she can. When a botched batch of coke lives up to its name, Fatal Beauty, and starts killing everyone who tries it, she has her sights set on meteoric businessman Conrad Kroll (Harris Yulin). Kroll sends his head of security, Mike Marshak (Sam Elliott), to keep her in line. Disbelieving Rizzoli’s suspicions about his boss, but quickly growing to like her anyway, Marshak takes his orders seriously and is a great help in her encounters with psycho dealer Leo Nova (Brad Dourif). Rizzoli hates Kroll enough, however, that she tries to stay resistant to Marshak’s charm.

Tell me you ever expected to see a movie starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sam Elliott and I will call you a LIAR.
Tell me you ever expected to see a movie starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sam Elliott and I will call you a LIAR.

Goldberg made several action comedies after her Oscar win for The Color Purple, none of them good. She’s given a raw deal with this script and barely manages to carry it. I want Rizzoli to be a tough, capable cop who’s devoted to protecting vulnerable women, but the movie quickly shows she can’t be both. Disguised as a hooker, Rizzoli blows a sting while defending one of her female informants from a beating. More than that, a guy kicks the crap out of her while using the N word with quite a bit of enthusiasm.

Charles Hallahan and M. C. Gainley onscreen at the same time? I’m freaking out!
M. C. Gainley and Charles Hallahan raise the film’s character actor quotient.

Fatal Beauty fails almost totally as a comedy, in no small part because Rizzoli faces constant, brutal misogyny and racism. The put-downs she deals out in return rely on lazy jokes about dick size, leaving me exasperated both at how she’s being treated and by the writers’ inability to make her a genuine wise-ass. The overwhelming majority of the movie’s jokes fall flat; a facial expression from Elliott that did make me chuckle was quickly followed up with a line that over-explained something he’d just capably expressed on his own. There’s also some racist jokes about Mexicans and the Japanese that show just how blind the writers are to what they’re doing.

Is this outfit supposed to impress me? I can’t tell.
Is this outfit supposed to look good? I can’t tell.

Fatal Beauty’s thoroughly dated style must be the first thing the viewer notices. The soundtrack has a typical 80s sound while having no distinctive songs whatsoever; it’s stock music with lyrics. The costumes, meanwhile, are a neverending cavalcade of neon, sparkles and spandex. The hair, of course, is big all round. You won’t be able to look away.

Despite the movie’s silliness, the subject matter gets quite bleak. Dozens of people are killed by drugs, and many more are gunned down. Rizzoli’s back story is as dark as it gets, even if the writers’ decision to have her reveal it all in one exposition-dump monologue makes it as hard to take seriously as Phoebe Cates’ famous scene in Gremlins. Fatal Beauty isn’t a gritty cop drama, and it isn’t a fun comedy. It wants to be both, and the conflict between them tugs the movie in too many directions.

A few actors in the movie seem to know what they’re doing. (Goldberg just about has the right attitude, but the aforementioned terrible jokes let her down; she does better in scenes that rely on tension instead.) Elliott in particular is giving his role far more credit than it deserves. Rizzoli treats Marshak worse than she needs to, but Elliott sells Marshak’s growing affections for her, as well as his moral conflict.

Checks and houndstooth? We're dealing with a madman.
Checks and houndstooth? We’re dealing with a madman.

The other actor of note in Fatal Beauty is Brad Dourif. One of the big problems with the movie is that there’s not enough of him, in fact. There’s too many needless characters in the script, and it’s not always clear which villain is the real threat. It’s got to be Dourif: he’s the one who manages to be funny and threatening, who fits best into this live-action cartoon of a movie. Kroll isn’t interesting at all, and the other villains can’t get the right goofy/nasty balance. If the subject matter was lightened up a bit, and the story was centred around Leo, Fatal Beauty would be much more coherent and enjoyable.

The writers seem to have some sort of grasp on the fact that Leo is the most arresting villain here; he’s the last one standing. His final line is undoubtedly the best thing about the whole movie. Seriously, go here and skip to 11:15. Creepy, crazy and hilarious. Rizzoli’s retort is pretty good, too.

Okay, I like this outfit.
An outfit with genuine style.

Dourif would have the last laugh. A year later, Tom Holland made Child’s Play, with Dourif in the role of Charles Lee Ray, or rather, Chucky. It was Holland’s experience with Dourif in making Fatal Beauty that led to this casting. With his obscenity screaming and running-while-shot acting, there are some similarities between what Dourif’s doing in both movies. There’s no puppet here, though.

Chucky became a horror icon, but who remembers Fatal Beauty? To its credit, it is entertaining. This is a movie where people don’t die without letting off a hail of bullets first, and where you can’t see the lead character near a swimming pool without intuiting that she’ll wind up punching someone into it. The romance involves her shooting out the guy’s tires, turning down his gift of a $5000 dress, and punching him in the crotch. Meanwhile, several of the actors do good work regardless of what’s going on around them, and of how well the script serves their characters. Fatal Beauty isn’t boring. It’s a movie that doesn’t know what it’s trying to be but sure makes a lot of noise doing it.

Someone film the original script, please: Die Hard: With a Vengeance (John McTiernan, 1995)

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I had ranked this as on par with Die Hard, but it’s really not. The script’s origin as a standalone film, unrelated to John McLean, is pretty clear in how the quality changes as the film progresses. Things go awry after Simon’s plan really gets underway, which is a shame, as the twist about his identity and his true motivation deserves a better follow-through.

The film gets off to a great start as McLean and Zeus careen all over NYC to meet Simon’s demands. The last half, unfortunately, doesn’t match up to the beginning. The set pieces get bigger and use fewer physical effects, which makes them look less convincing. They also involve too much coincidence. (I’m not saying everything in the first half of the film is believable, but it doesn’t have to be: McLean shouldn’t have survived throwing the bomb off the train, but at least the carriage looks real as it slides across the platform.) And there’s just not enough imagination behind them: Simon’s games are unpredictable, but the tunnel sequence feels rote and has no sense of threat.

Taking the action off Manhattan Island, let alone all the way to the Canadian border, lets down the character of the film’s first half. The handling of the bomb at the school is genuinely tense, and a promising hint at how good the film could have been if it had somehow stayed within NYC.

These flaws aren’t enough to keep the film from being enjoyable, particularly since Samuel L. Jackson and Jeremy Irons are such brilliant additions to the cast. The police team also provide solid support, and it looks like a rare instance of colour-blind casting for Graham Greene.

On another note: I saw this on TV in Japan, and the voice actors dubbing for Willis and Jackson both sounded like generic tough guys, which was pretty disappointing when they were substituting for actors with such distinctive voices!

Revisiting an old favourite: Aliens [Director’s Cut] (James Cameron, 1986)

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Back when I first saw this movie, I was young enough that my parents probably should have gone all Ted Crilly on me about it. (“Dougal! We are not watching Aliens!”) But they didn’t, and it was the scariest thing I’d ever seen. Also the best, obviously. (Alien, however, bored me, which amazes me every time I rewatch it.) I’d never seen the Director’s Cut, though, so recently decided to give it a whirl.

A few thoughts:

– I appreciate the storyline about Ripley’s grief over her daughter, but agree with the general consensus that the extra scenes in the Director’s Cut are unnecessary. The movie works perfectly well without the padding, and the beginning has far more suspense if we haven’t seen anything on LV-426 before the Sulaco arrives. And no one in the world has ever wanted to hear more of Newt screaming.

– As a Red Dwarf fan, it was still good to see Mac McDonald in an extra scene. Turns out he’s basically playing a non-comedic version of Hollister. There’s a certain irony here; Alien had a strong influence on Red Dwarf, whereas Aliens probably had none at all.

– Bishop has a constant air of embarassment, and yet he’s capable of doing something like crawling through that mortifying tube. He’s so human and not human at the same time.

– I’ve characterised Cameron as a writer of hokey dialogue, but after rewatching this, I think I need to cut him some slack. Aside from, arguably, some of the stuff with Newt, this is not a hokey movie.

– I’ve read that Sigourney Weaver worked out in preparation for this movie, but didn’t diet. This is cool and all, but it’s not entirely positive to say that some female actors and models can be successful without starving themselves when being naturally thin has something to do with it.

– Some of the worse moments in this movie are when the characters unintentionally make things worse for each other, eg. Vasquez getting Drake sprayed with acid when she’s trying to save him, and Vasquez and Gorman’s grenade knocking Newt into the sewers.

– It really gets to me that not only does Hicks die in his sleep, he never even finds out if Ripley and Newt survive. Thanks for nothing, Alien3. (NOTHING.)

– I’ve heard some people say that Aliens is better than Alien because Alien is “just a slasher movie.” Wouldn’t saying that Aliens is “just an action movie” sound snobbish (as well be as asking for trouble)?

They weren’t kidding about the subtext: Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991)

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I had low expectations for Point Break, but found that although it’s easy to ridicule, it’s nearly good enough to be more than a guilty pleasure. The plot is ludicrous, of course, and there’s more surfing scenes than I can possibly care about. However, since this is Bigelow, the action scenes are great stuff. They’re economically filmed yet still manage to feature nice stylistic touches, such as the well-placed slow-mo shots and the camera’s limited field of vision in parts of the suburban chase scene. They also have enough surprising moments to keep the tension up, like Swayze locking a sliding door to delay his pursuer, or the naked woman in the bathroom deciding to stop screaming and beat Reeves up instead. And even if there’s too much surfing, it does look good; the sky-diving, which is less superfluous, looks stunning.

Point Break would be better if I actually felt engaged with the characters or if the subtext was text or if the writers had some understanding of Australian weather patterns, but that’s okay. From the seemingly endless scenes of Reeves and Swayze writhing on top of each other to John C. McGinley doing what he does best (scream abuse) to is that Anthony Kiedis what the fuck? this movie is damned enjoyable. And watching it does make Hot Fuzz funnier. …Does that mean I have to watch Bad Boys II as well? Help!