Sunday 26 January 2014

Letterboxd: RIDDICK (2013); THE HOST (2013); COMMANDO (1985)

Sunday 26 January 2014
★★★ (out of five)

I belong to a small clique who believe Vin Diesel's Richard Riddick is one of the best turn-of-the-century action characters, who also thinks CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK was a worthwhile follow-up to PITCH BLACK (where its only fault was overreaching). I love the character and the universe writer-director David Twohy created (sort of STARSHIP TROOPERS-meets-STAR WARS), and thankfully enough of a cult has grown to allow the unlikely threequel of RIDDICK—arriving almost a decade after CHRONICLES, which was intended to be the beginning of a trilogy that never happened.

I was excited to see RIDDICK last year, but my enthusiasm was tempered by some mixed to negative reviews when it hit cinemas, so I decided to wait for the home theatre experience with lowered expectations. Having now seen it, it's certainly the least impressive of the three films, but works well enough as an amalgam of the previous entries in the Riddick storyline. It has the 'planet full of vicious aliens' component of PITCH BLACK, plus the 'bad-ass bounty hunters on a manhunt' aspect that fuelled stretches of CHRONICLES. The budget is clearly much lower than the previous movie, but beyond a few weak greenscreens and some Syfy Original Movie-esque space sequences and alien world vistas, the film holds together well. Wisely, most of the money appeared to have been spent on the two main alien creatures (jackal-like canines, and scorpion-like Mud Demons)--which are both impressively designed and vividly brought to life.

For the most part, I enjoyed the set-up of Riddick (now the Lord Marshall of the Necromongers, if you recall the ending of CHRONICLES) being left for dead on an inhospitable alien planet by an aide of his enemy Vaako (Karl Urban). Much of the first act plays like a futuristic version of a Bear Grylls survival documentary, with Riddick finding shelter, tussling with the indigenous lifeforms, hand-rearing an alien puppy to become a companion, and building an immunity to the Demon's lethal poison.

Things get a little more troublesome once Riddick's forced to activate an emergency distress beacon, which draws to groups of rival bounty hunters to the planet, each intending to kill or capture him for money. The writing for the characters isn't as strong as I'd have liked, and there are unfortunate moments when Riddick's misogyny towards Dahl (Katee Sackhoff) get unpleasant—which might have been okay, if the film had the balls to make it clear Riddick's just as villainous and nasty as the men hunting him, but over time he's become a Snake Plissken-like anti-hero in most people's minds, so it's a little uncomfortable to see him as a male chauvinist.

Fortunately, things do improve and once Riddick's playing mind games with the people sent to catch him, or making macho promises he ultimately keeps (recalling the excellent "tea cup" prison sequence from CHRONICLES), I found myself enjoying the film more and more. It just doesn't have the budget to take the CHRONICLES story forward in a more natural way, instead feeling like a compromise to assure investors the franchise still has legs and a more expensive sequel should be made. The Director's Cut even adds a different ending that teases a sequel exploring the 'Underverse' mentioned in CHRONICLES. I still hope we get to see that—as RIDDICK only cost $38m and made $90m back, with more likely to come through discs, streaming and television sales. Hopefully Diesel will continue to use his FAST & FURIOUS leverage to bankroll more Riddick outings, but I sure hope Twohy gets back to driving the story forward...

★ (out of five)

It's disheartening that writer-director Andrew Niccol's (THE TRUMAN SHOW, GATTACA) career, post IN TIME, has led him to adapt a sci-fi novel by Stephenie Meyer (TWILIGHT), but his involvement ensures THE HOST perhaps isn't as terrible as it might have been otherwise. Although it's still terrible, you understand...

I quite like the basic concept, which Meyer probably thought up after watching THE INVASION (the 2007 remake of INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS), then sutured on her primary storytelling concern of fantastical love triangles. THE HOST is set in a world where an alien race (known as 'Souls') have colonized the planet, by inserting themselves into human 'Hosts' so they can experience our lives from within. They're a benevolent race, see, if you don't mind the whole 'hijacking bodies' thing, which the obligatory human Resistance very much do.

One such freedom fighter is Melanie Stryder (Soairse Ronan), a young woman captured and bonded with a Soul called 'Wanderer', only to find her consciousness surviving the process, allowing her to make Wanderer consider matters from the human side of the situation.

I was fairly engaged with THE HOST for perhaps 30-minutes; mainly because Saorise Ronan's fantastic no matter how shoddy the material she's given, but also because you don't get too man 'alien invasion' films where the motives of the villains aren't a straightforward desire to conquer land or enslave people.

Unfortunately, it's not long before THE HOST tries to shift into another gear and things get progressively less involving and clichéd. This includes a "love square" between Melanie and Jared (Max Irons), and Wanderer and Ian (Jake Abel), which scores points for being unusual, but loses them for doing very little that's dramatic or emotional with the idea of a "woman with a split-personality" falling in love with two different men, who each love a separate part of her psyche.

So while THE HOST touches on some interesting things, not even a master of speculative sci-fi like Andrew Niccol can quite manage to turn it into anything very affecting. Ronan gives it her best throughout, and I quite liked Diane Kruger as a cool-headed 'Seeker' out to capture her and smoke out the Resistance, but halfway through it starts dragging its heels and never really stops. The tone and pace remains at a constant low hum, with not enough humour, drama, romance, or action to spur things along.

As usual for all films aiming to be 'the next TWILIGHT', it's tee'd up for a sequel involving Emily Browning (SUCKER PUNCH) that I can't imagine we'll ever see.

(Incidentally, this was the last film renowned film critic Roger Ebert published a review of before his death, which is enormously sad.)

★★★ (out of five)

Along with THE TERMINATOR, CONAN THE BARBARIAN and PREDATOR, COMMANDO is probably the quintessential 'Arnold Schwarzenegger Movie' of the 1980s.

It's a ridiculously simplistic story about an ex-Delta Force legend, John Matrix (Schwarzenegger), whose daughter's kidnapped by old friend-turned-enemy Bennett (Vernon Wells), as leverage for Matrix to assassinate a South American dictator. The set-up is about as complex as things get (maybe calling the hero Matrix is itself a joke about how uncomplicated the plot is?), as Arnie somewhat recklessly spends the film hunting down each of Bennett's cohorts, before the inevitable showdown with his nemesis after a 'one man army' assault on Bennett's island hideout.

What keeps COMMANDO buzzing is that it's home to perhaps 60% of Schwarzenegger's funniest one-liners (including the best "I'll be back" outside of THE TERMINATOR), and there's an intriguing subtext that beefcake Matrix is homophobic. An early scene finds him making a lame joke about Boy George's sexuality ("why don't they just call him Girl George?), Bennett's a walking homosexual stereotype with his Freddie Mercury moustache and chain-metal vest, and Arnie's eventually victorious after 'penetrating' Bennet's body with a metal pipe.

It's fun for fans of Arnie in his prime, and a dumb echo of then-rival Sylvester Stallone's FIRST BLOOD (although nowhere near as insightful and well-acted). It's dated in style and production design (including an achingly '80s soundtrack by James Horner that won't let the steel drums go silent), but it's enjoyable if you just want to sit back and bask in the sight of Arnie's rippling muscles and deadpan line deliveries.

If you're interested, screen daughter Alyssa Milano became a star in her own right as a grown-up (perhaps best-known for TV series CHARMED), and director Mark Lester did almost nothing of note afterwards and is now making Syfy Original Movie crapola like PTERODACTYL.
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