The concept of an older, adult hero taking on a younger sidekick to aid him in his work is nothing new in pop culture. It's been around since the Golden Age of comics in the form of Batman and Robin, Captain America and Bucky, The Human Torch and Toro, Sandman and Sandy, Green Arrow and Speedy, Aquaman and Aqualad, Flash and Kid Flash., etc. You get the picture. In Japan, Lone Wolf and Cub was both a popular manga and film series in which a lone samurai roamed the countryside with his infant son in tow. KICK ASS (2010) brought us the insanely twisted father-daughter duo of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz). But all of the characters listed here (and others) were basically good guys, fighting crime and injustice. They were true heroes that their young charges could look up to and admire. They weren't professional killers. After all, it would be crazy for a hit man to adopt a young girl and train her in the fine art of assassination.
Crazy as it may be, that's the brilliant, "put-it-on-a-bumper-sticker" conceit of Luc Besson's fuel injected thriller LEON (1994) (released in the U.S. as THE PROFESSIONAL). I saw this when it first came out and enjoyed it immensely. I watched it again the other day for the first time in over 20 years and it holds up extremely well. The addition of 24 minutes of previously unseen footage helped to flesh out the characters and their touching but doomed relationship.
Jean Reno stars as Leon, a professional killer in the employ of Tony (Danny Aiello), a mafioso with headquarters in New York's Little Italy. Leon makes a good living but he lives a solitary, and isolated existence, devoid of any human contact. The only living thing he cares about is his potted plant. He drinks gallons of milk and patiently waits for his next assignment.
Mathilda (Natalie Portman), is a twelve-year-old girl who is left orphaned when her family (father, mother, sister and brother) are all brutally killed by bent DEA agent Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman) and his goons. With no where to go, no one to turn to and fearing for her life, Mathilda knocks on neighbor Leon's door for help. He reluctantly takes her in on a temporary basis of course but Mathilda burns with a desire for vengeance. She coaxes Leon into teaching her the tools of his trade so that she can kill Stansfield and his men.
After some initial resistance, Leon eventually gives in and begins showing Mathilda the ropes of professional killing. All the while the two form a genuinely sweet relationship with Mathilda falling in love with the broken older man. Things come to a head in a spectacularly staged gun battle in Leon's apartment building in which he goes up against a small army of police officers.
Writer/director Luc Besson is equally adept at the character bits in the film as he is at orchestrating blistering action sequences. Reno is touching, Aiello solid and Oldman crazy as only Gary Oldman can play crazy. But the real standout here is young Natalie Portman in her motion picture debut. She's funny, sweet, vulnerable, tough, cocky and completely adorable. When I saw LEON for the first time I recall thinking that this girl had a great career ahead of her. I wasn't wrong. With appearances in the three STAR WARS prequel films, V FOR VENDETTA (2006), playing Jane Foster in two THOR movies and a Best Actress Academy Award winning performance in BLACK SWAN (2010), Portman has proved herself both a bankable movie star and a very talented actress.
LEON is a terrific film. Part action thriller, part quirky relationship comedy/drama, it's well written, directed and acted. Kudos to all involved. Recommended.
I watched GREEN ZONE (2010) for the first time the other day. I knew nothing about this one going in but decided to take a chance on it. Based on the book IMPERIAL LIFE IN THE EMERALD CITY by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, this "ripped from the headlines" war film deals with the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the futile search for alleged weapons of mass destruction.
Matt Damon stars as U.S, Army Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller. His team is assigned various targets to strike in Baghdad that are supposed to be storehouses of WMDs. They never find anything in their raids and Miller begins to question the intel. What is the source of this erroneous information and why are American troops being asked to sacrifice their lives for nothing?
The source is someone within the now toppled government of Saddam Hussein code named "Magellan". This source has allegedly given the information to Pentagon official Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), who in turn has leaked the material to Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan). Miller soon discovers a source of his own in the form of "Freddy" (Khalid Abdalla), a Baghdad citizen who leads Miller and his men to a clandestine meeting of Hussein's men. Things start to go wrong and before long it's a race against time as Miller tries to rescue "Magellan" from the U.S. special forces and learn the truth about what he told Poundstone.
In the end, a new Iraqi leader is put in place, someone approved and sanctioned by the U.S. government. Poundstone is smug and proud of his accomplishment. He's helped depose a very bad man and start a plan to build a democracy in the shattered country. He leaves a meeting room to have a brief conversation with Miller and when he returns to the room, all hell has broken lose as the various Iraqi factions, Shiites, Sunnis, Bathists and others are screaming and shouting at each other, each sect demanding their own power and piece of the pie. It's reminiscent of the scene in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962), where Lawrence has united the Arab tribes in Damascus only to see the coalition immediately devolve into chaos.
Directed by Paul Greengrass with a screenplay by Brian Helgeland, GREEN ZONE is a smart, compelling thriller, expertly blending real events with a plausible explanation of why the United States invaded Iraq when the official reason, weapons of mass destruction, clearly didn't exist. The cinematography by Barry Ackroyd has to be commended. The shaky, hand held camera work and frenetic editing (which I normally don't like), works to great advantage here, accurately and believably depicting the second-to-second chaos, confusion and insanity that is modern urban warfare.
While not a masterpiece on the level of THE HURT LOCKER (2008), GREEN ZONE is nonetheless a worthwhile film that delivers both action movie thrills and excitement and some harsh, sober and thought provoking geo-political truths. Recommended.
AMERICA VS. THE JUSTICE SOCIETY was originally published by DC Comics as a four-issue mini-series in 1985. It was published shortly before the universe upsetting maxi-series CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. I bought and read the series at the time and recall that I enjoyed it. I recently purchased the trade paperback collection of the series and read it again for the first time in 30 years this weekend. Boy, have times in comic book land changed.
Let me go on the record here and now (if I haven't already done so) and state that Roy Thomas, who penned AVJSA, is my all time favorite comic book writer (sorry Stan!). I've loved everything Thomas has written over the years for both Marvel and DC. Two of my favorite Thomas comic book series are Marvel's mid-'70s THE INVADERS (which features Timely Comics big three Captain America, Sub-Mariner and Human Torch in WWII) and DC's early '80s ALL-STAR SQUADRON (which did the same thing for DC (and other publishers) superheroes in WWII). I love the combination of super-heroes and World War II, which is one of the reasons why CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, is my favorite of all of the recent Marvel Comics movies. I also adored the run on AVENGERS in the mid-'60s by Thomas, John Buscema and Tom Palmer, his work on X-MEN with Neal Adams and Palmer and of course, his brilliant run on CONAN THE BARBARIAN with first, Barry Smith and later John Buscema and others.
One of the things I admire about Thomas is his unabashed love for the DC golden age heroes, especially those who appeared as members of the Justice Society of America in the pages of ALL-STAR COMICS. That love informs every page of AVJSA as Thomas tells a tale that is part congressional hearing, part history of the mighty, legendary Justice Society. A diary written by the late Batman (Bruce Wayne), makes the claim that the JSA committed acts of treason during WWII. Of course they didn't but the diary is authentic so what's really going on here? It will take a lengthy hearing to get to the bottom of this mystery that spans decades. Acting as counsel for the JSA is Helena (The Huntress) Wayne, daughter of the late Bruce Wayne while serving in the same capacity for the government is none other than Richard (Robin) Grayson, long time partner to the caped crusader.
The story features appearances by everyone who was ever a member of the JSA and a fairly detailed history of their exploits. Guest villains The Wizard and Per Degaton show up and the mystery of Batman's accusatory diary is finally solved by, appropriately, Dick Grayson. It's a fun romp with nice artwork by Rafael Kayanan (and others) and lush inking by Alfredo Alcala.
I enjoyed the hell of this one but while reading it I was struck by a couple of thoughts. One, DC comics would never publish a story like this in 2016. Why? Well, for one thing, there's very little action to speak of. There is a ton of dialog and wordy captions that actually inform the reader while advancing the narrative, something you don't see much of these days. But mainly, it's the fact that Roy Thomas genuinely loves and respects these characters and took a great deal of time and effort to recount their history shortly before CRISIS hit the first of way too many reset buttons. Can you imagine a history of the JSA being published today? Which iteration (there have been dozens), would the story focus on? Which version of the team is considered the "real"version? There have been some good Justice Society comics published over the years but I doubt any current writer wants to try to make a coherent story out of the convoluted history of the team as it stands. There's no Roy Thomas out there to set the record straight and I guarantee you the DC top brass has no interest in tackling such a project. After all, any version of JSA that's out there now will only get blown up when the next company wide restart is mandated.
And you wonder why I gave up on contemporary comics?
AMERICA VS THE JUSTICE SOCIETY is for old-timers like me who enjoy a well scripted trip down memory lane with some of the greatest super-heroes of all time. If you care about DC comics history, if you like the work of Roy Thomas, if you love the original incarnation of the Justice Society of America, check it out. You won't be disappointed.
"They" say you can't judge a book by its' cover.
I sure as hell judged A KILL IN THE MORNING (2015) by Graeme Shimmin by its' cover when I first saw it on the bookstore shelf and that judgment was a positive one. What caught my eye was the evocative art that so wonderfully captured the essence and spirit of those classic vintage men's adventure magazines that I so dearly love. A guy with a sniper's rifle. A hot babe in a slinky outfit. A futuristic aircraft of some kind. A Nazi officer in red cross hairs and gun sight. Running Nazis. Yep, every element on this cover pushed my hot buttons and whispered to me: "buy me and read me sixty-year-old man, you will love me!"
You know what?
It was the truth.
To paraphrase Stefon on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, this book has everything: an alternate universe 1955 in which Nazi Germany, armed with nuclear weapons, controls continental Europe while waging a cold war against a likewise nuclear armed Great Britain, a world where Churchill died in 1941, Nazis, an unnamed British agent/assassin who has a taste for the good life and is described as "a blunt instrument", Nazis, two successive heads of MI6, both of which have last names starting with the letter "M", "Grand Slam" earthquake bombs, Nazis, "we have all the time in the world", Nazis, two sexy good girls, Kitty and Molly, two sexy bad girls the zaftig Mitzi twins, Nazis, name drops of both Ultima Thule and Hyperborea, Nazis, technologically advanced aircraft, Nazis, a "pre-title" raid on a Nazi concentration camp, Nazis, a flashback to a raid on a Nazi heavy water facility in Norway, gunfights, car chases, Nazis, an immense and incredibly powerful time machine, Nazis, time travel, our hero captured by the bad guy, a super-Nazi with a personal force field, and forced to listen to his mad plans for world domination, wild aerial dogfights, Nazis, an immense underground Nazi fortress stuffed to the gills with "Wunderwaffen" (wonder weapons), flying saucers, Israeli commandos, and finally, a divergent timeline. All this, and world war, too. Oh, and did I mention Nazis?
The clues as to what this book is really about are contained in the above paragraph. Astute thriller readers and movie fans will have no problem figuring out the identity of the hero of A KILL IN THE MORNING (hell, even the title is a clue). I don't want to spoil it for anyone who has yet to discover the pluperfect pulp pleasures contained within this debut novel by British novelist Shimmin. I'll just say that it's a brilliant, fiendishly simple and masterfully executed high concept:
***** **** Vs. The Nazis.
I loved every page of this book and I couldn't turn them fast enough. I've read a lot of good books so far this year but this is far and away the best one yet.
Please Mr. Shimmin, can we have another?
My lovely wife Judy gave me a copy of AMERICANA: DISPATCHES FROM THE NEW FRONTIER (2004) by Hampton Sides this past Christmas. I finished reading it the other evening and it's a good one. This was the first book by Sides that I've read but I will certainly be reading more of his work in the days ahead. I have on my shelves copies of GHOST SOLDIERS and BLOOD AND THUNDER and I'm on the lookout for other titles by him.
The book is a collection of thirty magazine articles published over several years in various titles, all of which showcase various people, places and things in America and all brought vividly to life by Sides' considerable skill as a storyteller and observer of the human condition. Some pieces are humorous while others are dead serious. Some are short, others quite lengthy. But they're all good and well worth your reading time.
The book begins with a portrait of skateboard icon Tony Hawk and ends with the story of the first U.S. Marine to die in combat in Iraq in 2003. The centerpiece (and best entry) of the collection is " A Murder in Falkner", a riveting, lengthy true crime narrative whose extra word count allows Sides plenty of room to fully explore a murder case in the American South. Other standouts include a harrowing account of 9/11 by three survivors who were at Ground Zero and a reunion of American servicemen who were held captive by the Japanese in the Philippines in WWII.
AMERICANA is a grand and glorious road trip across our great and ever evolving country with a master tour guide behind the wheel. Much has changed in the years since Sides first recorded these snapshots of unique times, people and places. But every piece holds up well, with each one being entertaining, informative and compelling. I was exposed to a lot of things I knew nothing about while reading AMERICANA but I'm glad to have had the chance to learn about them. That's the mark of a good read in my book.
|"God said to Abraham, kill me a son."|
Submitted for your consideration the career of one William Friedkin, a director who began his career in the 1960s and is still working, albeit sporadically, today. It's tempting to divide Friedkin's career into three neat sections. There's the certifiable classics, masterpieces of groundbreaking American cinema that are still as fresh, thrilling and compelling today as when they were first released. Those films are, of course, THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) and THE EXORCIST (1973). THE FRENCH CONNECTION, a bracing, gritty urban cop thriller scored eight Academy Award nominations winning five: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Gene Hackman), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing. Then, two years later, THE EXORCIST caused more than a few heads to spin and vomit to be spewed (both on screen and in theaters), in what ranks as one of the most terrifying films ever made. THE EXORCIST was the first horror film to receive a Best Picture of the Year Academy Award nomination, along with nine other Oscar nominations, winning two: Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound Mixing.
Then there are the films that were good, solid productions but somehow failed to find large and receptive audiences. Films such as SORCERER (1977) (a remake of the French thriller THE WAGES OF FEAR (1953)) and the neo-noir TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (1985). Finally, there are the absolute WTF? bombs such as CRUISING (1980), in which Al Pacino spends the entire film desperately trying not to drop the soap and the D.O.A. comedy DEAL OF THE CENTURY (1983). You have to give Friedkin props for having such a long and incredibly varied career as a filmmaker. Some out of the park blasts, a few solid base hits and one or two (or three) strike outs. Not bad for almost fifty years of movie making.
All of which brings us to THE HUNTED (2003), which I watched for the first time last week. The film has strong echoes of the Sylvester Stallone thriller FIRST BLOOD (1982) but ultimately blazes it's own trail. U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Aaron Hallam (Benicio del Toro), is a trained special ops killer. We see him in action in Kosovo in the film's opening sequence. After his tour of duty is over, Aaron can't adjust to peace time, civilian life. He apparently suffers from PTSD (although the screenplay, by David Griffiths, Peter Griffiths and Art Monterastelli, never makes this explicit) and begins stalking and killing hunters in the woods of the Pacific Northwest.
The man who trained Aaron, L.T. Bonham (Tommy Lee Jones), lives a life of seclusion in the Alaskan wilderness. He wants nothing more to do with war and the training of men to be killers. But Bonham is an expert tracker and he's the only man who can track down Aaron and bring him in to stand trial.
Bonham reluctantly agrees. He successfully tracks and subdues Aaron who is taken into custody and transported to Portland, Oregon. Bonham thinks his job is over but wait a minute Chester, before you know it Aaron escapes and thus begins a long chase through an urban jungle in which Bonham's tracking skills are put to the test. I kept hoping Aaron would find time to stop and eviscerate a Portland hipster or two or three (hell, a dozen would have been nice), while he was on the run. I would have liked this film a lot more if he had.
Aaron and Bonham eventually end up back in the wilderness where the whole long contest of wills and skills began. Bonham realizes that he is responsible for creating this killing machine and he is ultimately responsible for ending the threat. Aaron looks to Bonham as a father figure, one to whom he repeatedly reached out to in the form of unanswered letters. That's a lot of guilt for Bonham to carry.
The fight and chase scenes, both in the forest and the city, are expertly staged and filmed. However, both of these men absorb an incredible amount of physical damage during the film and it's amazing that (trained or not), they're both still standing (more or less) at the end. Friedkin knows how to orchestrate action sequences and the cinematography by Caleb Deschanel is especially good at bringing the natural and man made worlds to life.
THE HUNTED is not a bad film but it feels like there's something missing. I could have used a bit more explanation as to what was going on psychologically with both men if only to add a layer of substance to the characters. These guys are trained to kill and it's hard for Aaron to turn that skill set off with just the flick of a switch while Bonham falls back into his old habits with frightening ease.
As is, THE HUNTED ranks as one of those middling Friedkin films. Not a classic. Not a bomb. Just a solid action thriller with two very good actors in the lead roles. Worth seeing.
Have I mentioned here lately how much I admire the work of Lawrence Block? He's one of the best mystery/crime writers to emerge in the latter half of the twentieth century and the quality of his work has not diminished now that we are well into the twenty-first century. A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF (2011), which I finished reading last night, is the seventeenth book in the Matthew Scudder series, a run of books that Block began way back in 1976 with the publication of SINS OF THE FATHERS. I've read several Scudder books over the years (not all of them) and I've enjoyed each and every one of them.
Scudder is an interesting character. He's an ex-cop who quit the NYPD after he accidentally shot and killed a young girl in the course of bringing down fleeing criminals. His pain and guilt drove his wife and sons away and he found solace in the bottle. But Scudder eventually overcame his addiction and lives life as a recovering alcoholic while working as an unlicensed private detective in New York City.
I don't know if Block himself has gone through the Alcoholics Anonymous twelve-step program or if he knows someone who has or if he's just a very, very good writer but he gets the gritty details of life in AA right. It's a fascinating milieu in which to set a series of crime novels and we learn much (possibly more) about AA than we've ever known before. In this regard, the Scudder novels are similar to Block's series about professional hit man Keller, who spends his non-killing time collecting stamps. The Keller books always contain a lot of info about the stamp world as Scudder's adventures always involve AA. No complaint really, because both series and characters are extremely well drawn and compelling.
A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF takes place during Scudder's first year of sobriety. Scudder grew up with one Jack Ellery. Scudder became a cop. Ellery became a crook. Both became drunks. When Ellery gets sober and begins working the steps, he makes a list of the people he needs to make amends to. Before you know it, Ellery is murdered, shot once in the mouth and once in the head. Scudder figures the killer is someone on Ellery's list. But he soon clears all of the suspects and the case appears to have reached a dead end. But one of the people on the list is killed and then Ellery's sponsor turns up dead and it's apparent that the killer is still out there somewhere and his next target is Scudder.
Block eschews a slam-bang, action-packed finale and throws us a curve in the final chapters that nonetheless is fitting and satisfying. A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF is many things. It's a first rate whodunit (although I must confess to having correctly identified the killer early on), a story of regrets and redemption and a look at the men and women who wrestle with their own inner demons one day at a time. Highly recommended.