Director: Hyung-rae Shim
Starring: Jason Behr, Amanda Brooks, Robert Forster
Kaboom Review Action Movie Rating: 55
A man tries to save a woman from getting sacrificed to an evil dragon, and then from sacrificing herself to a good dragon. And lots of monsters attack Los Angeles.
Dragon Wars is director Hyung-rae Shim’s ambitious attempt to globalize the Korean film industry, and this film has segments that hold up amazingly well to more extravagant films. There are some surprisingly effective visual effects and action. The story makes sense, kind of. The pace is crisp enough. But the bland acting, shattered premises, and the stupidity of some of the scenes pulls this film down considerably.
I had high hopes for Dragon Wars based on the action-packed previews, but a short run in theaters and abysmal reviews wiped out any expectations I had for the film. I planned to suffer through this film, even more so than normal because I had run out of beer to soften the pain. At times I felt like I really needed that beer, but at other times I was amazed at how riveting the film was.
But let’s get the painful part over first. In many places, Dragon Wars is just plain stupid. The story, set in modern Los Angeles, revolves around a 500-year-old Korean myth involving two dragons, one good and one evil. Supposedly, the good dragon (Imoogi) has been so good that he gets to evolve into a super dragon and go to dragon heaven. But there is a catch. In order to ascend, he is supposed to get some sort of blue light ball of goodness from a woman living on Earth. And of course, the evil dragon (Buraki) wants the blue ball as well, presumably to go kill stuff. But when you think about it, this doesn’t make much sense, because the evil dragon could surely go kill stuff already, so I must have missed something here. Anyway, there is a man involved as well. He is supposed to protect the woman from getting eaten by the evil dragon. Well, according to the myth, 500 years ago the man and the woman jumped off a cliff instead of allowing the evil dragon to eat the woman. And now, 500 years later in Los Angeles, all these characters are reborn to try again. Whew.
Okay, I admit that this doesn’t sound so stupid, and it isn’t. What is stupid though, is how this story unfolds in modern Los Angeles. The first half of the film is filled with broken scenes, actions that make no sense, and a general sloppiness that leaves you shaking your head in confusion. Let me give you some noteworthy examples. Buruki, the massive evil serpent dragon, is apparently a ninja dragon that can apparate at will anywhere in Los Angeles. Poof! There is it! And poof, there it goes, with only a few people spotting it. And poor Buruki is the second dumbest dragon I have ever seen in a film. For much of the film it searches Los Angeles, with the help of an army of supporters, for Sarah (Amanda Brooks), who is the woman with the blue light inside her somewhere. On several occasions Buruki corners Sarah. With its prey cornered, what would you expect it to do? That’s right! Eat her! Of course. Instead, Buruki kinds of just sits there and watches Sarah and Ethan (her protector, played by Jason Behr) run away. Huh? Apparently he couldn’t eat her yet because it would have ended the movie too soon.
And this sort of disconnect between the action and any sense of logic continues throughout the film. At one point two FBI agents drive into a besieged Los Angeles and within seconds find Sarah. Wow. That is impressive. In another scene, an FBI agent tries to shoot Sarah from point blank. Ethan jumps in front of the bullet to save her. He then topples to the ground, shot, or so I thought. But two minutes later he gets up, unfazed by the bullet. Did it hit him? It if missed, how did it miss Sarah? Where did the damn bullet go? This sort of stuff happens constantly, and it shatters any sort of tension in the film.
But that’s not all. A clunky script and lifeless acting deaden any life in the non-action segments of the film. Main actors Jason Behr and Amanda Brooks never find any chemistry, and sleepwalk through the movie. On a good note, Robert Forster, who plays a reincarnated Korean master dedicated to helping Ethan protect Sarah, does deserve some credit for his rich, resonant voice. But it’s shallow praise when that is the sole compliment I can come up with for the cast.
With all the negativity, it’s easy to dismiss Dragon Wars as an awful film. But just when you’re ready to write the thing off, Dragon Wars does a 360-degree turn once the action starts. In spite of its low budget, this film has some top rate visual effects and action scenes. Buruki and Imoogi, the two serpent dragons, are effective and convincing throughout the film. Two scenes, in particular, define this film and save it from the dragon dung heap. The first is an amazing battle in downtown Los Angeles between the forces of Buruki and the US army. An army of black-clad ancient warriors, massive rocket-firing turtles, and screaming pteranodons attack the city in search of Sarah (who Buruki found, forgot to eat, and then lost again). The US Army aims to drive them off, and the resultant battle is a drawn-out yet thrilling visual arts extravaganza. To be fair, some scenes repeat too frequently and the action doesn’t connect well to the story, but it’s a visual treat and surprisingly entertaining. The second scene is the movie’s climax, which brings together all the forces for one last showdown. While the surrounding portions of the scene are forgettable, the battle between the two dragons is a wild, inspired, and satisfying end to the film.
Other factors work to the film’s advantage as well. Choppiness aside, the film has decent pace. The music is excellent, and the sound deserves special mention as well. The babes and hunks rating doesn’t fare as well, though. Both Behr and Brooks are decidedly average in the looks department. Nothing noteworthy here.
This is a tough film to make a final call on, but the strong and creative action scenes were so surprising and enjoyable that I found myself satisfied at the end of the film. Sure, there are major problems with the film, but for a first international effort by Hyung-rae Shim, there are enough good things going on that the film is worth watching if you are a fan of action movies.
Visionary director Hyung-rae Shim is one of the leading comedians in Korea.
Consistent Premise: 20
Body Count: 78
Special Effects: 82
Overall: 55 (Solid in some spots, awful in other spots)
Director: Roland Emmerich
Starring: Kurt Russell, James Spader, Jaye Davidson, Mili Avital
Kaboom Review Action Movie Rating: 81
A group of soldiers and a scholar make an interstellar trip through an ancient Egyptian Stargate.
Stargate is a tight science-fiction drama with an entertaining blend of adventure and action. The top-notch story sticks to its premise, the acting is convincing enough, and the construction is sharp and detailed. A film well worth watching.
Stargate tells the story of a marginalized Egyptian scholar (James Spader) and a small group of soldiers led by Colonel Jack O’Neil (Kurt Russell) as they make an interstellar trip to another planet via an ancient Stargate. Once there, they make contact with the local civilization. From that point the plot spills forward in collage of Egyptian mythology, sci-fi gadgetry, and cultural exploration. There is a lot to like in this hybrid adventure/action film.
A lot of adventure movies whitewash the details and bury or ignore any inconvenient elements of the premise in a headlong rush through their story. What makes Stargate such a joy to watch is that it takes the time to embellish the details and respect its premise. A perfect example of this is how the film handles the linguistic challenges faced by the space travelers and the local population. Many movies would plow on with little regard to any sort of cultural variety, but Stargate highlights the cultural confusion and the bumbling attempts to communicate. Eventually Stargate leaves this behind with a few forgivable plot contrivances, but on the whole the attention to cultural detail ends up enriching the movie and strengthening its premise. Rarely does a film do this so well.
A big part of the film’s effectiveness comes from its rich, varied, and well told story. Editing is top notch. Scenes mesh cleanly and rarely drag. Everything serves a purpose. For a two-hour film, there is a lot going on, yet Stargate manages to keep the story flowing nicely. The characters of the story are cliche, for sure, but they are generally interesting enough. In particular, the local community on the foreign planet is richly depicted. On the weaker side, the US soldiers are flat as characters, and Jack O’Neil is a half-developed character whose subplot fades away. The arch villain in the film (Jaye Davidson) is uninspiring but passable in his role. As an aside, his evil white glowing eyes trick—complete with ominous sound effect—made me laugh every time.
A decent supporting script and good acting enhance Stargate. Neither the script nor the acting is particularly memorable, but the script does its job, and the acting convinces. Both Kurt Russell and James Spader perform effectively in their roles. They get solid support, in particular from Erick Avari, the chief of the local tribe, and Alexis Cruz, who plays the chief’s son.
But this is an action movie blog! What about the action, you say! Well, the first half of the film is light on action, but the turmoil picks up during the back half of the film. There are battles against aircraft, close quarters combat in ancient temples, and hand-to-hand fighting. However, there is nothing particularly creative in Stargate to set its action apart from other films. On the good side, the action for the most part serves to advance the story, although I did struggle with a couple of scenes that drag on a touch too long. Visual effects are good considering they are fourteen years old. Even with that in mind, Stargate comes up a tad short in this area. There are too many close ups of random lasers firing, and random shots of bombs exploding in the desert. All in all, the film ends up as standard fare with regards to action.
Lastly, let’s take a look at babes and hunks ratings. Mili Avital plays James Spader’s love interest in the film. She sure is pretty, but her role is minor, and they smother her in heavy robes for most of the film. Shame shame. From the hunk side, James Spader has boyish good looks, but that’s about it. Kurt Russell is on the back end of his attractiveness, and several of the soldiers are fair. Raye Davidson had some strange androgynous vibe going on that didn’t work for me.
To wrap up, Stargate is a tight science-fiction drama with an entertaining blend of adventure and action. The top-notch story sticks to its premise, the acting is convincing enough, and the construction is sharp and detailed. These elements greatly overwhelm the generic aspects of the film’s action sequences and the stereotypical characters. Stargate is a film well worth watching.
Stargate was the first movie to have an official website.
Consistent Premise: 88
Body Count: 47
Time to First Dead Body: 1 hour, 25 minutes, 32 seconds
Special Effects: 67
Director: Roger Christian
Starring: John Travolta, Barry Pepper, Forest Whitaker, Sabine Karsenti
Kaboom Review Action Movie Rating: 27
Man fights back against an alien race that has enslaved it.
Battlefield Earth attempts to recount the first half of the story told in L. Ron Hubbard’s massive novel of the same name. This is an ambitious film, but shoddy acting, weak pacing, poor construction, and an illogical story bring this movie down, way down.
Battlefield Earth has all the elements of an exciting, epic action movie. There is grand scale, an aspiring rise to overthrow the bonds of slavery, an intricate plot, and plenty of action. The core story to Battlefield Earth is solid and intriguing. But the movie self destructs in its execution. Done right, this could have been a powerful movie. Unfortunately, it fails in almost every regard. What we end up with is a painful collage of poorly constructed scenes, illogical plot dynamics, and ugly acting.
There are a lot of problems with this movie, but none is bigger than the fact that the movie is poorly constructed, poorly planned, and makes little sense. A case of beer can’t cover up the wandering stupidity of this film. In the end it tells its story well enough, but there are so many scenes that drag on endlessly and so many scenes that do nothing to advance the plot. With both the details and the overall story, Battlefield Earth makes you ask “Why?” every five minutes. Why did that scene just happen? Why are the main characters screaming? Why did Terl, the supposedly intelligent officer in charge of the human slaves, think that starving men lost in the wild would eat their favorite food? Why can’t humans breathe here, but can breathe there? Why are the lead villains so incredibly naive? Why did that scene take ten minutes? Why am I still watching this movie? And if you’re not asking “Why?” you’re asking “How?” How did those ancient, forgotten American jets win dogfights against modern alien spacecraft, when the aliens supposedly wiped out the Earth’s military forces in nine minutes a thousand years ago? Even sillier, how did humans in the wild, who have never operated something as complicated as a pencil, learn how to fly fighter jets in a few days? How did the humans fly to Fort Knox so easily, when they don’t even understand the concept of borders?
When you add in the abysmally overblown acting and couple it with a painfully boring script, you drag the movie down even more. And the bad acting and poor scripting stand out the most in Terl, John Travolta’s character. I generally like John Travolta in other movies, and at times I can see that he was trying to pull off a haughty, malevolent, and diabolical villain in Terl. But it just doesn’t work, mainly because Terl ends up being an unbelievable character. At times he can plan high strategy, but he consistently underestimates humans in ways that simply don’t make sense given his intellect. At times he treats them like stupid animals, and yet he realizes they have an intellect that could allow them to fly aircraft. Travolta also never quite strikes the right vibe in Terl. The voice, the gestures, the actions never quite create an effective character. At times I felt like I was watching a Shakesperean aristocrat. At other times he comes off as a thug. And Travolta gets little help from the rest of the cast. Wide-eyed Barry Pepper, who plays the protagonist Jonnie Goodboy, is unconvincing. The rest of the supporting cast plays their roles in stone-age fashion, with the exception of Forest Whitaker as Terl’s subordinate. Whitaker is at least somewhat watchable, but he is an island in this film.
I thought perhaps some riveting action might save Battlefield Earth and cover up its weakness as an overall film. But this is not the case. When it comes down to it, there isn’t a tremendous amount of action in the film, and most of it is either someone running away and getting caught, someone confronting someone with a weapon, or people running around in the dark shooting weapons. Okay, a few of the airborne scenes are engaging and some of the cinematography is pretty, but these experiences are far and few between.
The only thing that could rescue Battlefield Earth from the garbage heap would be lots of eye candy, but the movie fails here as well. Sabine Karsenti plays Jonnie Goodboy’s beautiful love interest, but she only appears in the movie at rare intervals. What a waste. From the male side, the aliens are covered in lots of blue stuff that obscures any physical appeal, and the human are all dressed in rags, with their hair hanging in front of their faces. Not much from this angle either.
In the end, Battlefield Earth has all the elements of an exciting, epic action movie. There is grand scale, an aspiring rise to overthrow the bonds of slavery, an intricate plot, and plenty of action. The core story to Battlefield Earth is solid and intriguing. But the movie self destructs in its execution. Done right, this could have been a powerful movie. Unfortunately, it fails in almost every regard, from acting to script, and from plot to premise. What we end up with is a painful collage of poorly constructed scenes, illogical plot dynamics, and ugly acting. Pass on this one.
Battlefield Earth won seven Golden Raspberries Awards, which puts it tied for second most.
Consistent Premise: 8
Body Count: 45
Special Effects: 42
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Starring: Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Tyrese Gibson, Natalie Martinez, Ian McShane
Kaboom Review Action Movie Rating: 67
A framed convict attempts to earn his freedom by winning the prison’s deadly automobile races.
While Death Race doesn’t come close to action-film greatness, the film does a solid job with its races, spins a decent story, and has sufficient acting to hold things together. There is a lot to like here. The film exceeds expectations in every way. But there just isn’t enough meat to Death Race to carry the film to any sort of excellence: the story lacks depth and breadth; the action is limited in scope. Still, Death Race is a winner worth watching, and deserves credit for staying within itself nicely.
Death Race is not Shakespeare, but it never pretends to be. This is a film with a simple, tight mission: impress audiences with violent, bloody auto races wrapped in the thinnest of plots. Suprisingly, though, Death Race holds up well for its 90-minute run.
The heart of the film—check that—nearly all of the film, is its races. For the most part these are solid action sequences: creative, well executed, and entertaining. At times, however, things do get a bit repetitive. Cars zoom around the penitentiary track trying to blow each other to bits, and there are perhaps a hundred shots of guns firing and cars getting peppered with shells. But this weakness aside, there is a lot to like about the action in Death Race. Visually, the film is set a hard, metallic sheen—filled with stark blues and grays—that gives the film a rough, brutal edge to it. And make no mistake: Death Race is not a film for the kiddies. This film exalts in its R-rating. We’ve got decapitations, occasional gore, and plenty of swearing. The film moves along briskly, sparing only minimal time to establish the plot and hold the story together. Scenes are tight, well shot, and crisply edited. Visual effects are convincing and effective. Even during the short time the actors aren’t racing, they tend to be fighting with table trays, fists, and wrenches. These scenes are well executed, with the same brutal edge that runs throughout the film. To the film’s credit, most of the action sequences make sense, and advance the story in logical steps. I was a bit confused about the logic behind the rules and strategy of the first two races, but all in all, the action in Death Race is above expectations. Kudos!
While I was pleasantly surprised with the action, I did in all honestly expect that to be the only strong point of the film. I fully expected the plot to be a disaster, and for Death Race to be an illogical stream of destruction. So I was even more surprised that Death Race has a plot, and get this: it makes sense! Sure, it’s a simple, barebones story, and sure, it’s the tired and worn “family-gets-killed-and-hero-seeks-revenge” dynamic that we’ve seen over and over again. In short, Jensen Ames (played by Jason Statham)—a loving husband, doting father, and hard worker—gets framed for the murder of his wife so that he can be brought to prison to take the place of the recently deceased Frankenstein, a legendary driver in the Death Race TV show. All this happens in the first ten minutes of the movie, and before you know it the races have begun. Zoom zoom. But on the whole, for the scant time the movie spends on developing the story, it does manage to effectively set up the context for the races and help center the viewer on the main character. You find that you both like and care about Jensen Ames.
So, the action is good and the story is sufficient, so surely the acting and the script pull Death Race into the garbage heap, yes? Well, once again Death Race can surprise you. This isn’t to say that the acting is good, but it does well enough to not detract from the film. And this isn’t to say that the script is good—it isn’t—but you really don’t need much of a script for a movie that is mostly about cars going around in circles. Jason Statham will not win an Oscar for his work, which mainly consists of glaring at enemies. However, he succeeds in striking a nice balance between likability and toughness. He pulls off his limited lines with enough conviction. He gets some decent help from the supporting actors. In particular, Joan Allen does a respectable job as the prison’s evil warden, and Ian McShane puts a nice soft spin on Coach, one of Jensen’s car crew. Dragging down the film’s acting are the lifeless Natalie Martinez, who plays Jensen’s co-pilot, and the wooden Tyrese Gibson, who plays Jensen’s arch rival on the racecourse.
As dull as Martinez’s acting is, she is not necessarily a bad choice for her role. She is a voluptuous Selma Hayek look-alike who manages to hold up the babe rating of Death Race on her own. For eye candy from the male side of the cast, Jason Statham is clearly in amazing shape, but ends up average overall with his bland face. The rest of the male cast is decent enough to put the film into the positive.
As decent as all the elements in Death Race are, however, the film doesn’t come close to action-film greatness. The film does a solid job with its races, spins a decent story, and has sufficient acting to hold things together. There is a lot to like here, and the film exceeded my expectations in every way. But there just isn’t enough meat to Death Race to carry the film to any sort of excellence: the story lacks depth and breadth and the action is limited in scope. Still, Death Race is a winner worth watching, and deserves credit for staying within itself nicely.
The movie was filmed in only 50 days.
Consistent Premise: 67
Body Count: 53
Special Effects: 81
Sometimes your best laid plans fall apart. The other night I found myself in front of the movie theater having just missed the starting times of two other movies I wanted to see. The only alternative was Death Race.
And so Death Race will be the next review. I’ll post it this Tuesday.