Each month The Grumps bring you a selection of what’s new and now in the Action genre. Strap in for Round-house Round-Up!
gunpowder milkshake (2021) [NEW ON NETFLIX]
Comparing art to other art can be tedious, but post-John Wick, it’s kind of hard to ignore when Wick‘s neon-tinged, high body count formula so heavily influences new Action films. Some may give Gunpowder Milkshake a pass in this regard because it’s a story about female anti-heroes, but as we’re growing more and more accustomed to gender-swapping in even the loosest of terms, I’m taking that pass off the table. Gunpowder Milkshake shows a lot of stylistic promise, set in a reality much more hyper than our own, and admittedly the fight scenes are more impressive than maybe imagined (it’s tricky for Hollywood to subvert the “weak girl” stereotype without pulling any punches, and Gunpowder handles that pretty well as opposed to, say, the Harley Quinn movie.). Although there are some great moments in the film, something about it doesn’t quite gel, and that probably lies in the story development. The history of the Librarians and their role in this fantasy crime underbelly just isn’t well-established enough. But as cliche as Gunpowder Milkshake is at times, it does succeed in something that’s missing in a lot of modern blockbusters: telling us clearly who our enemies are. Too obvious commentary on patriarchy aside, the villains in this story are a group of white-collar untouchables called The Firm, who are just cold enough to remind us down here in the working class who we should be rallying against. The revolutionary aspect of the story falls flat, though, with an ending that more so says “yay, girls’ road trip!” than leading any kind of transformative uprising.
THE HITMAN’S WIFE’S BODYGUARD (2021) [NEW IN THEATERS]
The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard and its predecessor The Hitman’s Bodyguard live in a bizarre limbo of almost being wacky but at the last minute dialing themselves back into normie territory. Ryan Reynolds takes Phil Hartman’s old “anal retentive” character and tries to make him cute in the only way he can: by being Ryan Reynolds. It works, kind of, especially when juxtaposed with the actual charisma of the now-franchise: Samuel L. Jackson and Salma Hayek as the titular hitman and his firecracker wife. Hayek is outstanding as the delightfully foul-mouthed, energetic, and voluptuous con-woman Sonia, which honestly, I’d recommend taking a pass on this picture if it wasn’t for her. Also notably charismatic is Antonio Banderas as the villain, a Grecian billionaire (weird) whose convoluted plan to drill into an underwater internet hub to take over the world is picked straight out of spy movie parody. It’s totally lovely to see him and Hayek acting opposite each other again, though; like, “Hey, the gang’s back together, let’s watch this semi-awful but kind of fun time waster of a movie.” The film has a few constructed contradictions, with Reynolds’ character adamantly opposed to unnecessary action and violence, but at the same time wrapping his entire self-worth into what his ex-communication from the totally made-up-for-the-movie exclusive bodyguard club means to him. His dreams of acceptance from this organization and his adopted father are a fantasy showboating of how he must always be The Perfect Action Hero whom everyone is jealous of. The film tries hard to have a lesson there, but again, the cuteness of it all sort of just undercuts the point.
from brian miller:
MAJOR GROM: PLAGUE DOCTOR (2021) [NEW ON NETFLIX]
Russian blockbusters, of the contemporary ilk, can be minor miracles. Sort of mockbuster superhero tales that exceed rather than fall short. Major Grom, on the other hand, falls right on his face. There is no need to feel pity though; if one could, I’m sure most would then stomp his head. Essentially this film is a Russian government propaganda piece. They took V For Vendetta and said, “actually the government are the heroes and V is trash.” They also did this with no argument for it. So the film plays out as if it is making the strong case for rebellion that V does, and then pivots points and the end suddenly goes “the rebellion is bad ‘cuz people who rebel are crazy.” That said, some of the shots here are gorgeous, the Plague Doctor’s character design is awesome, and he deserves the hero treatment this film denies him. Oh, and the opening action scene is solid slapstick in the style Korean blockbusters are nailing lately. So, go watch a better Russian blockbuster like Iron Mask or a Korean one like Extreme Job instead.
DYNASTY WARRIORS (2021) [NEW ON NETFLIX]
Few video game movies feel like actors literally behaving like the in-game characters, but with the expansive action scenes here, the relationship is one-for-one. And it works just great. The army hordes, magically inclined wire-work martial artists, and spiraling camera moves are only differentiated between the game and film by texture: game-generated art or green screen flesh and CGI. In this day and age that is minor. The drama is about on point for most martial arts epics, without a terrible amount drawing one in to care for the characters, but at worst they’re charming, and at best the philosophical discussions are surprisingly captivating. The whole thing works on a well-balanced level, even if it is just a popcorn movie.
DEATH COLLECTOR (1988) [NEW ON BLU-RAY VIA CULTURE SHOCK RELEASING]
The striking look of prime ’90s gonzo-noir cinema – be it The Crow, The Matrix, or any of dozens of others, has its roots firmly placed in the late ’80s arthouse underground. There is a reason why Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds (1989) led to the director making Dark City. Unfortunately, the director of Death Collector never got to make his own well-funded ’90s blockbuster. The vibe of this not-so-distant future piece is pure gothed-out Silk Stockings and walks that perfect line between oversexed and underlaid that we love the ’90s to tease us with. As an added bonus, the film defies its C-grade art budget and presents us with something that is like unrefined eye candy. All the while, the humor and western/cowboy aspects actually land right (even if just barely at times).
from scott floronic:
russian raid (2021) [new on blu-ray]
Russian Raid asks the age-old question “what if a bunch of tracksuit-wearing tough Russians beat up a vodka factory full of equally tough paramilitary dudes?” It wasn’t exactly a question I knew I had rattling around in my head, but I’m glad it got answered. While Russian Raid is a low budget affair, it manages to make you forget that for a while with some interesting fight sequences and camera work, though it does get a bit samey once the novelty of the setting wears off as most of these folks fight like they’re in a bar fight. What I’m saying is don’t go in expecting any Iko Uwais level choreography here and you’ll be fine. That said, there is a particularly memorable two-on-one fight (you’ll know it when you see it) that makes this an interesting watch for fans of dumb but fun fights and anyone who likes to see big muscley men showing off their muscles. The back half of the movie sees the fisticuffs turn to standard shoot ‘em up action which is serviceable but isn’t nearly as interesting as the hand-to-hand combat that makes up the first half. Unfortunately when the fists and bullets aren’t flying there isn’t much of a story to care about, but that isn’t surprising given what this movie is. Toss this one on if you want some no-nonsense beat ‘em up action but be ready to turn your brain off even more than usual with this type of movie.
jolt (2021) [new on amazon prime]
The deluge of reviews out there count this as a film after the fashion of John Wick, as seemingly every urban-set revenge film will probably be for the next decade. Even so, I suggest here that Jolt has more in common with Shoot ‘Em Up what with its Hollywood backlot city style (I also half-expected to see Richard Elfman’s shrunken heads whizzing by in the background) and the slightly goofy action direction; which is entirely serviceable, though at times lacks the snap it needs to elicit a good “ooof.” The setup, too, is clunky, and the end is cynically trying to force a franchise. Like, I’ve just finished my plate, and they’re trying to give me more before I’ve even finished with the last bite! Cool it, movie! The cast all does their job well enough, though the real clunky stuff comes from Susan Sarandon leaving Kate Beckinsale’s Lindy even more perplexed than the misadventure she’d just been through. The villain twist is something that is also way too on the nose for me. Much like George Lucas naming his villains “Dark Invader” / “Dark Insidious” / “Dark Maul” (I could go on), the dialogue of this villain is so obvious that I’d rather it be played more nefariously sickly-sweet as if someone coy like Cary Grant was the arch-nemesis…alas what we got was a bang-a-gong shorthand that everyone can understand without having to do any heavy lifting. Meh. On the plus side, Lindy is a likable enough character in spite of “on paper” being an absolutely terrible person, the credit here obviously goes to the charm and vulnerability that Kate Beckinsale so effortlessly employs. All in all, it’s a mid-tier actioner and a welcome return of Kate Beckinsale to the action genre of which she’s been a veteran for nigh on 20 years.
from nick spacek:
strike commando (1986)
invaders of the lost gold (1982)
raiders of atlantis (1983)
Warriors of the year 2072 (1983)
[all new on blu-ray from severin films]
There’s something to be said for mainlining five Italian action knock-offs in the span of one week. For one thing, you certainly start to see a lot of familiar faces. In the past seven days, I’ve burned through five new Blu-ray releases from Severin Films: 1986’s Strike Commando, 1982’s Invaders of the Lost Gold, and a trio of post-apocalyptic action from 1983 with Raiders of Atlantis, Endgame, and Warriors of the Year 2072.
Black Emmanuelle star Laura Gemser is in Invaders of the Lost Gold and Endgame, Christopher Connelly is in Raiders of Atlantis and Strike Commando, and Al Cliver is in Endgame and Warriors of the Year 2072, and I’m sure there are a few names I’ve missed in all of the mishmash. It makes sense, as the films were directed by the most notorious names in Italian genre cinema, such as Lucio Fulci (Warriors of the Year 2072), Joe D’Amato (Endgame), Ruggero Deodato (Raiders of Atlantis), and Bruno Mattei (Strike Commando), with each of these directors all responsible for their fair share of gutmunchers and gore over the course of the late ’70s through the mid-’80s.
That’s what makes this stack of films rather interesting. Given the gallons of blood spilled by these men, one goes into Strike Commando expecting a massacre, given the likes of Hell of the Living Dead, or that Warriors of the Year 2072 will see some of the madness inherent in the previous year’s Manhattan Baby, but for the most part, these titles are tame not only in comparison to their director’s previous work, but also when one sees just where the genre will be in a couple of years with the bloodbath that is 1985’s Commando.
For those used to ’80s action films, wherein the action is “go go go” for the better part of those films’ 90-minute runtimes, there’s something which might be savored or despised, depending on one’s personal preferences, in that all of these films have pretty spectacular openings and endings, and the middle 50-60 minutes is a trifle sedate. When one considers that many of these directors’ best-known films are either cannibal films or horror, the pacing makes a bit more sense, as those genres lend themselves to atmosphere building as a means towards a spectacular end.
In this case, however, the world-building is a bit of a slog. Invaders of the Lost Gold has a stellar opening with a battle from Japanese soldiers and natives on an island at the end of WWII, but after that, it’s a drag and a half to get back to that location. It looks gorgeous, thanks to its location shooting in the Philippines, but I only watched this last week and have already gotten hazy on the details.
Strike Commando and Endgame were the real gems in this stack because they lean into the absurdity of what’s going on and fully embrace their knock-off nature. Reb Brown’s Sgt. Mike Ransom in Strike Commando removes all subtlety from John Rambo, leaning into the yelling, fighting, and shooting rather large firearms, occasionally all at once. One could argue that Endgame predates 1987’s The Running Man, but it more than likely is drawing from 1982’s Turkey Shoot or even the early 1983 French release of Le prix du danger. Either way, it manages to throw in mutant telepaths, murderous blind monks, and plenty of Max Max-style modified car action for its entire duration.
Granted, all of these films look amazing. They’ve all been given great new scans, and both Endgame and Warriors of the Year 2072 have added bonuses with their soundtracks on compact disc. Even though their respective plots might be a bit of a struggle to sit through, whatever you see on-screen is going to be interesting. Raiders of Atlantis‘ post-apocalyptic mutants and their costumes are especially vivid.
If anything, Severin’s willingness to go the extra mile and make these long hoped-for releases finally available has allowed folks to see them as they were originally intended, without the usual visual murkiness and muddy audio which accompanied previous iterations. While judging them on their actual merits might not benefit them entirely positively — with Invaders of the Lost Gold‘s seemingly real-time trek through the jungle an excellent travelogue and terribly boring action film — it’s wonderful to be able to have copies to which I can go back and dig into the myriad extras.
Can’t get enough Action? Take a look at last month’s Round-house Round-Up for more!