Thursday, September 12, 2019

"Next of Kin" - Swayze and Neeson Take on the Mob, Appalachian Style!

*I write these articles under the assumption that you’ve seen the movie, so...SPOILERS.

I watched the documentary about Patrick Swayze that ran on the Paramount Network a few weeks back and decided to revisit one of my Swayze movies. Honestly, I’m not a huge fan, but I do like most of his films. But off the top of my head, I only own Road House, Next of Kin, and Donnie Darko, and let’s face it, Darko isn’t exactly a Swayze movie. Road House has been made fun of and/or celebrated enough already (although I will still write about it eventually), so I went with Next of Kin, a forgotten Swayze movie about revenge and the struggle between the law and family loyalty. The film is notable for me because my father used to call me Briar during my college years, due to my resemblance to Liam Neeson in this film. It’s not because I’m tall or even look like Neeson; it was because I had a scraggly Appalachian-y beard, wore an old baseball cap, and had a coat very similar to Briar’s. In fact, I still kind of dress like that, but my beard is a bit better these days. Anyway, that’s the weird reason why I connect with this movie.

Neeson and Swayze: Kickin’ Ass, Appalachian-style!

Next of Kin tells a fairly basic story about two very different worlds: the mobbed up streets of Chicago and the lawless hills of Appalachia. Patrick Swayze and Liam Neeson are brothers, torn apart over their desire to steer their younger brother, Bill Paxton, along what they see is the right path. When Paxton is killed in Chicago by a mobster, Neeson heads to Chicago to get revenge because he doesn’t think Swayze’s devotion to being a cop will allow him to get true justice for their brother.

That set up allows for plenty of interesting story beats, but the best of them is the rivalry between Swayze and Neeson. Their scenes together are by far the best moments of the film. They argue a lot, but when they share a moment (like when Swayze tells him that Neeson is going to be an uncle) they truly come across as brothers. It makes their fight scene in the bar that much more meaningful...and funny. Since they’re brothers, any fight between them, while very violent, has a hint of humor because you can imagine that this is probably the hundredth time they’ve fought. 

The movie gains some much needed momentum when Swayze and Neeson finally decide to work together. Unfortunately that doesn’t last very long. Swayze goes out on his own, and Neeson goes after the mobsters by himself, dying in the process.

Neeson’s death is the biggest misstep of the film. There is already one dead brother, why add another? I know it prompts the rest of the family to come up to Chicago, but that whole sequence was unnecessary, in my opinion (more on that in the next section). The ending of the movie would have been so much better if it was Swayze and Neeson taking on the mob by themselves. 

You can’t fault the filmmakers for not including Neeson more in the film. In hindsight, of course a team-up of Neeson and Swayze would be amazing. But Neeson wasn’t well-known at the time, and he wouldn’t be known as an action star until after Swayze’s illness and death. As it is, Next of Kin at least gives us a glimpse of these two working together. And when you’re dealing with two actors this awesome, a glimpse can be enough.

Why Is There a School Bus Full of Snakes in This Movie?

The big action set piece of the film involves all the hill people going to Chicago to avenge Liam Neeson’s death. It is by far the silliest part of the film, and the sequence is largely played for laughs. It’s all a bit unnecessary, especially since it would have been better if the final confrontation was between the mob and Swayze and Neeson. 

Some of it is okay, like the guy throwing the hatchets and the guy using a bow and arrow. Then it gets a little silly with the one dude using dogs to chase down some mobsters. But it ventures into flat out stupid territory when the school bus full of snakes shows up.

Let’s break this down. First off, I don’t recall snake-handling being an Appalachian thing. I’m from southern Indiana, so I live a couple minutes away from Kentucky. So I’m in the general vicinity of the people in this movie, even if the eastern Kentucky they are from is hours from my location. The point is, snakes are not a prominent part of that culture, from what I know. There’s the occasional redneck snake church, but the snakes in Next of Kin are not used for religious purposes. 

Next, why take the school bus of snakes all the way up to Chicago? It’s not an ideal vehicle for that long of a trip. And why didn’t the other hill people tell him to stay home for this one? 

Lastly, and most importantly, what did the snakes accomplish? The only thing that happens is a gangster gets locked in the bus with the snakes. We don’t see the snakes bite him or anything; he just freaks out. So the snake guy drove a busful of snakes about ten hours away to scare one mobster. That’s a bit of overkill, isn’t it? Even if the snakes were featured more prominently in the plan, how much damage could they have done? 

I suppose my biggest issue with the school bus full of snakes is that it’s entirely included for laughs. Next of Kin isn’t humorless, but this is still a fairly serious movie about murder and revenge. The goofiness of the snake bus at the end takes away from that a bit. I mean, Neeson dies, so we get a bus of snakes instead. That is not a fair trade. Let me finish by making that clear: a Swayze/Neeson team-up is better than a school bus full of snakes.

Random Thoughts 

The case for the DVD mentions a pre-Twister Bill Paxton. That kind of marketing cracks me up. So someone is on the fence about buying this movie, so they read the case; does that info put them over the edge? Hey, this movie also has a pre-Heavyweights Ben Stiller! And a fellow pre-Twister Helen Hunt! And don’t forget about pre-Firefly Adam Baldwin! Man, I have to buy this movie featuring all these actors before their better-known works!

I don't know why exactly, but I love how cities are portrayed in late '80s / early '90s movies. They are absolute hellholes, but they appear lived in and more realistic than they do in newer movies.

Ted Levine! Makes me think of an Appalachian Buffalo Bob...that's a horrifying thought. 

Hey look, it's pre-Twister Bill Paxton!

Swayze's hair is a thing of beauty, especially when he fancies it up for a violin recital.

Ben Stiller had an underrated early career as a punchable twerp.

Something tells me that knife Adam Baldwin takes off of Paxton, that the camera lingers on for ten seconds, is going to factor into the story later.

Adam Baldwin gives a lovely speech offending every demographic in the country, including hillbillies. 

I know it's meant as a memorial, but that picture of Paxton at his graduation is hilarious.

I like the random hillbilly moments showcased when Swayze goes home: axe throwing, deer head in the fridge, random dude playing with a snake, little kids practicing with a bow and arrow, etc.

Those pictures of Briar and Gerald hanging out that Swayze sees in Briar', I wonder how those were made. Did Neeson and Paxton just hang out on a farm drinking beer one day while someone took candids? I sure hope so.

"Okay, fellow criminals, let's get in the most blatant mob car of all time and follow this cop without attempting to disguise ourselves at all!"

There are some weird hotels in this movie. The one at the beginning was "Men Only," and the one Briar stays at is also only for men and doesn't allow food in the rooms. Also, why not just have Briar stay at the place from the beginning? That way you could establish the Harold character earlier, since he ends up being such a friend to the hill folk.

Adam Baldwin is such a fucking prick in this movie. I hate him more each time he speaks, which is a credit to his performance. 

Baldwin calling the head mobster "Papa John" is distracting. If that pizza chain was more prominent back then, surely they would have changed it.

The song about brothers playing while Briar is in lockup is a bit on the nose.

All of this over a vending machine company…

Is this movie sponsored by Old Style?

Why kill Ben Stiller off camera? And why did they bring the fuck-up mobster along?

Holy shit, I just realized the dude with the snake is the "Are you kidding?!" guy from Road House.

"Finally I just said, 'Fuck it,' and shot him."

Why do the mob guys like Chinese food so much?

Swayze: "Yo." *Throws knife directly into goon's heart as he turns around.

So did he resign at the end? To do what exactly? I know his job is dangerous, but quitting your job right when your wife gets pregnant is stupid. Hell, what am I talking about? This is Swayze. He'll figure something out. 


Thursday, September 5, 2019

"The Hard Corps" - There's Not Enough Van Damme in This Van Damme Movie.

*I write these articles under the assumption that you’ve seen the movie, so...SPOILERS.

This month I wanted to write about Lionheart, especially since I just bought MVD Rewind edition blu-ray, but a couple things kept me from it. First, I just didn’t find the time to be able to sit through both the regular and extended cut included on that release, much less the hours of bonus footage. Second, I have to start writing about some of the direct-to-video (forever hereafter DTV) Van Damme movies otherwise I’ll burn through all the better known and beloved movies and end up writing about DTV Van Damme movies for a full year. I’m not going to pretend that these movies are very good, but I will look for the good in them as I revisit them. Mostly, I expect I’ll end up writing about how most of the DTV movies are a missed opportunity. That’s certainly the case with The Hard Corps.

A Seagal Movie Starring Van Damme.

I am clearly a Van Damme man, and I generally find Steven Seagal’s movies to be less entertaining than Van Damme’s work. I especially dislike Seagal’s half-assed career resurgence in the early 2000s with Half Past Dead and Exit Wounds co-starring Ja Rule and DMX, respectively. I only bring those films up because The Hard Corps was clearly trying to cash in on this trend, though it was a few years too late...and they couldn’t get a real rapper. DMX was apparently set to be in it, but had to back out because he was sent to jail, and he reportedly claimed that jail was the better option of the two (according to IMDb trivia). You know it’s a bad sign if the script is beneath a jail-bound DMX.

The Hard Corps is about a retired boxer feuding with a just-released-from-prison rapper. Van Damme plays a war veteran suffering from PTSD who becomes head of security for the boxer. He builds a security team, the titular Hard Corps. 

The biggest problem with this movie is that Van Damme doesn’t seem like the main star. It’s definitely more about the boxer than anything else. That’s fine, but when I see Van Damme on the cover of a DVD, I want him to be in nearly every scene. And if Van Damme isn’t in every scene, that means there will be less action, as well.

The other main issue I had with the movie was the undelivered premise. It’s called The Hard Corps because Van Damme is supposed to build a team of new recruits and old war buddies to protect the boxer. He mentions a couple of times during the movie that all of his team is not there yet, and they simply never show up. He never gets the chance to build the Hard Corps. As for the group he does have, we end up seeing three training segments with them: they run laps around a gym, they do a trial run of what to do if an attack happens, and Van Damme teaches them to not hold their guns sideways. That’s it. Van Damme does mention that they’re not ready, but he still ends up using them, so it doesn’t matter.

The Hard Corps should have been The Expendables, or at least something like it. Sure, the budget was not there to get any other big names, but the film could have been more about Van Damme building a team of new recruits. I wanted to see multiple 80s-style montages showing the “not ready yet” recruits become better body guards. The movie we got was just way too bogged down in explaining the feud between the boxer and the rapper, not to mention the unnecessary romantic angle between Van Damme and Vivica A. Fox. If they had just kept it simple and made it a movie about a team of security professionals training and protecting, then it could have been much more entertaining. 

A Typical DTV Van Damme Movie.

The downfall of the later Van Damme movies, aside from low budgets, is the bland action. 
There is way too much boring gunplay, and not nearly enough hand to hand combat. I know JCVD is older, but he's still in good enough shape in these movies to do more than just stand there holding a gun. The fight scenes in The Hard Corps are the best part of it, but they are too short. And when the fight we’ve been waiting for, Van Damme vs. the boxer, happens it gets cut short. That fight should have been a They Live-esque minutes long marathon fight. I just don’t understand why these low budget movies try to cram in all this gun violence when they could just do cheaper hand-to-hand fight scenes.

Possibly my biggest issue with this particular movie, however, is the music. The score drifts between hokey old-fashioned Hollywood (during Van Damme scenes) to awful “we couldn’t afford the rights to any real songs” rap music. I can’t describe it other than it is the most generic crap rap I’ve ever heard; think rap music in an after-school special in the late ‘90s bad. The music was completely distracting and was a constant reminder that this movie was never meant to be in a theater.

A DTV movie also means the usual tools of a big budget film are not available, such as a good editor. There is no flow to the scenes at all, and in this one they even re-used footage. The opening credits footage is just a later segment of the film shown in slow-motion. It’s baffling. Why not just go with credits on a black screen before you do something like that? 

For all I know there were more scenes about building the team that got lost in editing. Perhaps there’s a much more focused, entertaining movie in some unused footage. But I doubt it. It just sucks to see Van Damme so wasted in a movie that would have much better served a sleepwalking Steven Seagal.

Why Do I Own This?

Normally, I would say because it’s a Van Damme movie, and that’s still true, but mainly I own these DTV movies because they are part of a cheap collection of Van Damme movies that included a better movie. Note that the case pictured above claims these movies are “Hollywood Hits” despite the fact that Universal Soldier: The Return and Knock Off grossed less than $21 million combined, and the other two movies weren’t even released in theaters.

Random Thoughts 

I know I've become a bit obsessed with movie music, but that generic rap background music during any scenes with the rapper is horribly distracting.

"This little motherfucker right here went and got Michael Jackson off and custody of his two damn kids!"

"When's the last time you had your ham glazed?" Ew.

Why does Vivica A. Fox hate Van Damme at first sight? 

The club scene music is even worse. I really wish they had the budget to clear more actual music.

"You're pouring water on shit and calling it gravy."

Damn, I forgot about the dude getting filleted and fed to a fucking dog. 

If this score was the best they could come up with, they should have just gone with silence. I can't stress enough how awful and all over the place it is. Sentimental fluff one second, mid '90s fake rap the next.

I've never seen someone pour someone a glass of water like it was whiskey.

Vivica A. Fox went from zero to horny crazy fast for Van Damme, but he does have that effect on people. 

Van Damme's comments about rap being hard to understand would work if they were using an actual song instead of that bullshit that's actually playing in the scene. 

The Van Damme/Barclay fight was okay, but it was shot too close. You need to use wide shots for a proper Van Damme fight.

First proper roundhouse doesn't happen until the last ten minutes. Unacceptable. 


Tuesday, August 27, 2019

"Seraphim Falls" - War Is Purgatory.

*I write these articles under the assumption that you’ve seen the movie, so...SPOILERS. Also, this means I don’t waste words summarizing the plot of the movie. Honestly, my articles are best read after recently watching the movie.

I’m still working through all of the westerns in my collection, and I chose this one because, similar to Appaloosa, I forgot I even had it. I remember being very excited for this movie when I saw the previews for it, and then it never really came out. It ended up only getting a limited release then it was released on DVD, which is how I saw it. I really don’t understand why this happened. The two leads, Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson, were bankable enough (then and now) to warrant a wide release. And while the film ends up in pretty unique territory, the majority of it is traditional western. I suppose someone at the studio was not impressed with the final product. And that’s a shame, because this is an entertaining and thought-provoking western that deserves a larger audience.

War is purgatory.

One of the main things I remembered about Seraphim Falls was that the first time I watched it I considered Pierce Brosnan to be the good guy, then the flashback reveals he’s more of a villain than Neeson (based on what we’re shown, we don’t know what kind of military officer Neeson was). I thought that was an interesting way to tell the story for multiple reasons.

First of all, it’s always more interesting to play with an audience’s expectations. We identify with Brosnan because the story begins with him and mostly follows him. He’s portrayed as someone just living on their own who is being hunted by Neeson for unclear reasons. Neeson, on the other hand, is shown to be ruthless to the point that he comes across as evil, though most of his actions are fair, if cold-blooded (he shot the young guy out of mercy, he killed Ed Lauter’s horse because Lauter backed out of their deal, and it was Neeson’s horse, and killing Wincott...well, that was a bit evil, but Wincott was the skeeziest of the crew, so it’s forgivable). 

A movie is much more interesting if you have to decide who you should root for, if anyone. Brosnan’s actions post-Civil War make him seem like a decent person, and it’s not like he intentionally killed Neeson’s family (though fault ultimately must fall to him since the war was basically over at that point). Neeson, in the flashback, seemed like a good family man, but since that tragic day he has become more villainous in his quest for vengeance. Neeson’s turn is nothing new. It’s revenge story 101: the pursuit of vengeance often turns the victim into the villain. 

Brosnan’s character is more interesting because aside from the flashback, he’s not very remorseful. He’s basically a survivalist. By living a solitary life as a trapper in the mountains, he’s obviously decided that society is not for him, but that doesn’t mean he wants to die. So he’ll survive all the horrible crap that happens to him in the early moments in the film, and he’ll kill anyone trying to kill him. He’s not against Neeson killing him, but he’s not going to let him do it, either. I found that refreshingly realistic. People do terrible things or are responsible for them, but that doesn’t mean they lose the will to live. But what exactly is keeping Brosnan going? 

We find out in the end that war is what kept these two men going, even into the afterlife. Without his search for vengeance, what is Neeson’s life? Without being pursued, what is Brosnan’s life? Their personal conflict borne of a national war defines them beyond their natural lives. 

It’s clear by the end that at the very least, the last fifteen minutes of this movie take place in the afterlife, specifically in purgatory. Both characters come across a Native American in charge of water named in the credits as Charon (the ferryman of the River Styx in mythology) and the devil (Anjelica Huston’s character’s name is fucking Louise C. Fair), who provides them with weapons to continue their war (both characters appear out of nowhere, by the way). When Brosnan and Neeson meet one last time they decide to lay down their arms and go their separate ways, and they disappear into the landscape. I don’t see how anyone can argue that any of that was meant to be actually happening in reality. 

What can be argued is when Brosnan and Neeson die. The most likely answer is that they die of dehydration while chasing each other in the desert. I like to think that they’ve been dead the entire movie, and the flashback is the only thing that actually happened in the “real” world. I don’t have any evidence of this exactly, aside from the whole movie seemingly populated by lost souls in desolate settings. I prefer this interpretation because of what it means to the movie thematically. (I acknowledge my theory is probably wrong since the film provides a time and place stamp at the beginning, not to mention there’s nothing too weird in the film until Charon and Louise C. Fair show up. This is still the way I prefer to interpret the movie, though.)

Seraphim Falls is essentially an anti-war movie. The two main characters only find peace when they realize that they don’t have to fight, much like how humanity in general must realize that war does not have to be inevitable. Why I like the idea that these two characters (and every character, really) are dead the whole time is because it makes the effect of war that much deeper. These men lived by war, possibly died by war, and now continue their war into eternity, unless they change their ways. Them being dead the entire time makes it more interesting because it makes the struggle a much longer process. If they die in the desert, then they are only in purgatory for a few minutes. If they’re dead the whole time, who knows how long this has been going on? It makes their decision at the end to drop their weapons more meaningful if they finally change after all this time. Either way, the ending is effective, and it makes Seraphim Falls much more than just a western.

Why do I own this?

This is probably one of those that I would not have purchased if it came out today. Still, after all these years, it made for a fresh viewing, as I had forgotten most of it. Plus, I’m a sucker for westerns in general.

Random Thoughts

Some of the previews on the DVD make sense, but a couple are odd choices. I’m looking at you, Seinfeld -Season 8 and Half Nelson.

I watched this in August, but I still felt cold during those early scenes with Brosnan.

Brosnan taking that bullet out of his arm and cauterizing the wound is pretty hardcore.

Michael Wincott! He makes any movie better.

Ha ha! Forgot that he killed the first guy by dropping a knife into his forehead. 

Definitely forgot that he cut open the dead dude to warm up his hands…

The rare non-wormy Kevin J. O'Connor role.

That is an interesting use of a bear trap.

I know Jimmi Simpson and Nate Mooney's characters don't have official last names, so I'll just assume they're McPoyles.

How distracting is that, though? The McPoyles showing up in a movie before they were the McPoyles is crazy. It would be one thing if they were in different parts of the movie, but they're together and are even relatives (cousins) according to their names in the credits.

There's plenty going on Biblically early on, but things definitely get more overt later on, with them running into missionaries and talking about God not being out there.

This is certainly a film about extremes, starting in a snowy landscape and ending in a hot desert. 

Brosnan emerging from the horse carcass makes the movie for me. It's just so sudden. The first time I saw watched this, I had to scan back and watch it a few more times.

Brosnan's character must've seen Empire. The taun taun scene inspired him.

Talk about a slow burn (no pun intended) to get to the explanation for Neeson's vengeance.

But my God, what a bleak flashback. 

"You said the house was empty!"
"They're Rebs, Captain."
That's a hell of an excuse to burn a mother and her two children (one an infant) alive.

"For they that take the sword, shall perish with the sword." 
Does that quote refer to Neeson's family? You fought a war, so your family dies? It doesn't seem to be about Brosnan himself or he would have let Neeson kill him.

Wes Studi's character, in the credits, is called Charon. And he guards the only water source around. But Charon ferries the dead across the water. So now it seems these two are dead already.

Which is even more evident when Louise C. Fair shows up at the end. That name is about as subtle as De Niro's in Angel Heart: Louis Cyphre.

I suppose my takeaway from the ending is that these men are dead and in purgatory. They will stay there as long as they keep their vengeance and war alive. Once they lay down their weapons, their souls are freed. I like it, especially since that message can apply to the loving as well.