Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD (1998)

Not every comic book hero has to wear a fancy costume or have superpowers. Others can get by just by being themselves. One of these characters is Nick Fury. Created by industry legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Fury first appeared in 1963 as the leader of the Howling Commandos, an elite unit of Army Rangers fighting in World War II.

The book was a solid seller, but Marvel Comics saw the popularity of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and the James Bond villains known as SPECTRE and couldn't help but capitalize upon it. Fury was reimagined in 1965 as a super-spy in charge of the government-endorsed espionage agency SHIELD. Fury and SHIELD have been mainstays within the company ever since, often having an influence on many of the characters within Marvel's fictional universe.

Though Fury's headlining books have rarely lasted long, he's been such a stalwart supporting character that he even got to star in his own motion picture. Okay, so it wasn't a huge movie. It didn't even go direct-to-video. Instead, the movie aired on the Fox Network on May 26, 1998, as the pilot episode of a potential television series that never materialized. One of the most obscure movies to be based on Marvel's characters, Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD is really one of those flicks that earned its obscurity.

Colonel Nick Fury (David Hasselhoff) is retired, having left SHIELD five years earlier for a solitary existence in a remote location in the Yukon. He'd really rather be left alone, but he just might have to come out of retirement. His old enemies, the terrorist agency known as HYDRA, have surfaced once again. Leading this new incarnation of HYDRA are Andrea von Strucker (Sandra Hess) and her brother Werner (Scott Heindl), who have acquired the cryogenically frozen body of their villainous father, Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Campbell Lane). Their intent: to use their father's DNA to create a sample of the lethal Death's Head Virus.

Despite his initial hesitation to return to active duty, Colonel Fury is prompted to rejoin SHIELD after the Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Lisa Rinna) passes along the information that the von Strucker siblings killed one of his closest friends when he attempted to thwart the theft of their father's body. Kill one of Nick Fury's friends, and he's gonna get pissed.

SHIELD has deduced that Andrea, now answering to the codename "Viper," has packed the Death's Head Virus into four missiles pointed at Manhattan. And unless HYDRA recieves one billion dollars, those missiles will be launched. The only person alive who could possibly give SHIELD the cure is Arnim Zola (Peter Haworth), a Nazi scientist who helped Baron von Strucker develop the virus in the first place.

But just their luck, Viper has planted herself within SHIELD as a spy, using their information to find Zola and take him into HYDRA's custody. It also presents her with the opportunity to infect Colonel Fury with a poison that will kill him within 48 hours. SHIELD is now stuck in a race against time to not only locate HYDRA's missiles, but find a way to save Colonel Fury's life.

Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD is a movie made during a really weird time. Its first airing back in 1998 came just three months before Blade completely revolutionized the way Marvel Comics properties were approached. It still bears resemblances to the cheesy, forgettable Marvel movies that came before it. However, perhaps it is unfair to judge it as a legitimate motion picture. After all, as I noted in the opening paragraph, it is actually the pilot episode of a television series that was never picked up. And when looking at it from that angle... yeah, it's still not all that great. If it actually had become a full-blown series, I doubt it would have lasted more than a handful of episodes, let alone a full season. It probably would have ended up going the way of other action shows like Thunder in Paradise, running for so many episodes before fading into complete obscurity following its cancellation.

The man in charge is veteran television director Rod Hardy, whose work here is competent yet somewhat underwhelming. He does the best he possibly can, but Hardy seems hampered by his apparently meager budget. This leads to sets and studio backlots that look second rate, the occasional lackluster costume, and special effects that could have used a little improvement. With a larger budget, the effects would surely have looked more impressive. But instead, you can tell what's green-screen work and what isn't. None of it is 100% convincing, but for the most part, it's at least forgivable. Hardy does, though, manage to keep things rolling at a steady pace, and he also gets some ambitious cinematography from James Bartle and a good musical score from Kevin Kiner. All in all, Hardy's direction turned out better than it should have been.

Handling the script is David Goyer, the same guy who wrote the Blade trilogy and Chris Nolan's Batman movies. No, I'm not joking. Goyer's script is where the movie really starts to become flawed. Outside of Fury, Vallegra, and Viper, the characters all seem to blend together and become forgettable. Granted, this is most likely due to the movie being a pilot for a TV show, thus necessitating the need to really emphasize the primary characters. But still, you'd think Goyer would have tried to do something to make the supporting characters indistinguishable from one another.

However, he does at least try to overcome this with some particularly good moments, like one funny scene where Fury uses his pistol to handle a troublesome elevator control panel. But these scenes end up becoming fewer and far between as the movie progresses, and unfortunately starts rendering the script kinda dull. The whole thing is really inconsistent, which ultimately brings the movie down.

Last on my list is the cast. David Hasselhoff stars in the lead role, and I think he was only hired due to his name. He'd had something of a career resurgence a few years earlier thanks to the initial popularity of Baywatch, and I guess the producers felt that if they could get him, they'd be set. The problem is that he seems to have decided to do his best impersonation of Kurt Russell's "Snake Plisskin" character for the entire movie. That is, if Snake Plisskin was more prone to make the occasional corny pun or witty quip. Don't get me wrong, he doesn't do a completely horrible job, but "The Hoff" doesn't really seem like he's on his A-game. His whole gruff, macho thing ends up becoming silly after a whole.

And then there's our villain, as played by Sandra Hess. She apparently couldn't get a handle on the German accent she took on for the character. Sometimes it's barely there, and at other times, it's so thick you can practically see it. Even when overlooking the flaws in her accent, Hess's acting is really hammy. The character is written as if it were hearkening back to the goofy spy movie villains of the '60s, and Hess goes out of her way to give a performance to match. She's over the top, but it's unfortunately not in the fun "Frank Gorshin as Riddler" kind of way. Her performance is just "bleh" if you ask me.

Rounding out the hat trick of important characters, Lisa Rinna was okay. I must admit that I almost didn't recognize her, as Botox, collagen injections, and plastic surgery have made her look more than a little bit different between 1998 and now. But looks aside, Rinna's performance isn't bad. She's likable in the role, but the bad part is she's kinda forgettable.

That's really the problem with the entire movie: it's forgettable. I just watched the thing and I don't remember half of what happened. As I said earlier, I doubt a Nick Fury TV show would have lasted very long had it become more than just this movie. It's not as bad as the earlier Marvel movies, but it's not that great either. I think if I was absolutely forced to give it a standard star rating like I usually do, I'd give Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD two stars out of the usual five. It's a rare movie to find, but unless you're an absolutely devoted fan of Nick Fury or Marvel Comics, it's really not worth the effort to find it.

Final Rating: **

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Everybody knows somebody with a bad temper. And if you're a fan of comic books, or superheroes in general, the first thing the phrase "bad temper" will bring to mind is most likely the Hulk. The destructive alter ego of scientist Bruce Banner, the Hulk was unleashed upon the world by creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1962. His comic wasn't exactly a hot seller at first, and was actually cancelled after only six issues.

He made occasional guest appearances in other comics for a while, but by 1964, Marvel Comics had caught wind of the Hulk's popularity with college students and gave him a co-starring role in their Tales to Astonish comic. He gained even more recognition through Tales to Astonish, so much so that Marvel actually changed the name of the book to The Incredible Hulk in 1968.

But it took another ten years after that for the Hulk to become a true household name, which happened when a live-action television series focusing on the character debuted on CBS in 1978. Starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, the series — bearing the appropriate title of The Incredible Hulk — has remained a cult classic and still defines the character in the eyes of many who don't read comics.

So influential was the television series that when Ang Lee's cinematic adaptation of the character hit theaters in 2003, people were less than enthused. People were expecting either an adventure in the vein of the show, or a straightforward action movie where the Hulk spends the entire movie smashing things. Instead, we got a drama featuring existentialism, poodles on steroids, and incredibly unconvincing CGI. It wasn't necessarily a bad movie, but it was no great shakes, either. It just wasn't the type of Hulk movie that anybody wanted to see. So when Universal Pictures gave the go-ahead to another Hulk movie, the decision was made to completely reboot the franchise and let Marvel themselves handle the movie's production. The resulting movie drew its inspiration from the TV series, right down to sharing a name. And the truth is that it's a better movie for it.

Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) was once nothing more than a mild-mannered scientist. That all changed when, while working on a top-secret project for the United States military, he suffered an accidental overdose of gamma radiation. Instead of killing him, the exposure to the radiation instead causes him to involuntarily transform a violent green-skinned leviathan called "the Hulk" whenever he loses control of his emotions. Thanks to the wanton destruction created by his Hulk persona, Bruce has spent the last five years as a fugitive.

After spending half a decade hiding from General Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt) and the Army, Bruce has finally found a little bit of peace. He's gotten a job at a soda bottling plant in Brazil, and with meditation and training in martial arts, he's gone 158 days without becoming the Hulk. He's also spent his time searching for a way to stop himself from ever transforming again, hunting for an antidote with the help of Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson), a scientist with whom Bruce has been anonymously corresponding online.

But when an accident at the bottling plant results in someone being stricken with gamma radiation poisoning, General Ross follows a trail of clues right to Bruce. He sends in a team of soldiers to capture his quarry, but the ensuing chase provokes an appearance from the Hulk. The Hulk tears through the soldiers and escapes, leaving only team leader Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) behind to tell the tale.

A rattled Bruce flees back to the United States soon thereafter, hoping to find more data regarding his condition and help Sterns's search for a way to suppress his monstrous alter ego. His search leads him back into the life of former flame — and General Ross's estranged daughter — Betty (Liv Tyler). Their happy reunion doesn't last too long, however; Betty's boyfriend Leonard (Ty Burrell), concerned for the safety of both Bruce and Betty, has led her resilient father straight to them.

Though the Army has yet to figure out a way to defeat the Hulk, they've come up with a new plan. Blonsky has volunteered to take controlled doses of a military-developed "super soldier" serum, an experiment that General Ross hopes will enhance him into someone who can stand toe to toe the Hulk. As a reconnected Bruce and Betty try traveling to Sterns's laboratory in New York City, they must evade General Ross's soldiers and an increasingly aggressive Blonsky, who the serum treatments are quickly rendering more monster than man.

The Incredible Hulk might not bear the sophistication of similar movies, but it's nothing short of fun. And I can't speak for anybody else, but in my eyes, being fun can go an awfully long way. It's the complete mirror opposite of Ang Lee's depiction of the Hulk, forsaking much of the angst-filled soul-searching that comprised the previous movie for a greater emphasis on action, adventure, and wanton destruction. And with Bruce Banner's struggles to find a cure, the movie is a spiritual successor to that classic television show, embracing it to the point of nearly being a stylized remake of the show. Borrowing trace elements of both the television show and the previous movie, this new telling of the Hulk's story has a particular aura of familiarity that makes it easy to jump into once things get rolling.

The movie definitely has a more action-oriented tone, which is thanks to director Louis Leterrier. Leterrier is no stranger to action, having directed Unleashed and the first two Transporter movies. And while The Incredible Hulk is a thoroughly different kind of action movie, Leterrier shows he knows how to craft a great action sequence no matter who the participants are. Teaming with cinematographer Peter Menzies, Leterrier has crafted a sleek, stylish movie that never fails to lose the audience's attention. Admittedly, the action scenes are primarily accomplished with CGI (which is drastically improved over the unrealistic, cartoony-looking effects from the previous Hulk movie), but Leterrier still manages to keep a handle on things.

But it's during the non-action scenes where Leterrier and Menzies really get the chance to shine. The movie boasts some very awesome camera setups thanks to Menzies, and Leterrier crafts these scenes in such a way that's quite engrossing. Assisting in that is the fantastic score composed by Craig Armstrong. Armstrong's music does a fine balancing act between Bruce Banner and the Hulk. The music has a sense of urgency and melancholy with Banner, whilst becoming more ferocious with the Hulk. Armstrong even manages to work in the old television show's theme song in a way that totally fits, something that I can say about the music as a whole.

Next on the list is the screenplay. It's credited solely to Zak Penn, but from what I understand, Edward Norton made some significant contributions as well. He doesn't receive an on-screen credit if he did, so maybe there's some kind of union restrictions in place or something like that, I don't know. Regardless, I didn't have any problems with the script whatsoever. Yeah, it's got the obligatory "Hulk Smash!" moments, but ultimately, it's a chase movie. The military is chasing Bruce Banner, and Banner is chasing a way to return to the normal, peaceful life he had before the Hulk.

There's also the fact that, like any good hero/villain combination, Banner and Emil Blonsky are mirror opposites of one another. Banner was stuck in an accident that created the Hulk; Blonsky becomes the Abomination on purpose. Banner wants to completely destroy the monster within him; Blonsky wants as much of that power as he can get. I will admit that they did try to do something similar with the previous Hulk movie, but its utter failure ultimately makes the attempt here look that much better. Granted, the effort here is already pretty darn good. But you know what I mean, right?

Last up to bat is the acting. In the lead role, Edward Norton is quite an improvement over Eric Bana. The characters are interpreted similarly, but with Norton's version taking a more proactive role in trying to quell his alter ego, it means he can put forth a completely different performance than the one we saw in 2003. Norton is very good in the role, playing Bruce as if he is not afraid of the Hulk, yet worries he will never be able to control it.

As with a lot of the movie's other aspects, his performance feels evocative of Bill Bixby's work on the old television show. You really get the sense that Norton's Bruce has lived with his situation long enough that he's resigned himself to the fact that he may never be able to get rid of the Hulk, but still tries to do it anyway. Norton is really convincing, and I really appreciated his efforts.

I also thought that Tim Roth's work was well done. The character is depicted as an aging soldier who wants Hulk's power for himself to circumvent the fact that he's past his prime, and Roth really does a great job in showing Blonsky's growing obsession with the not-so-jolly green giant. He makes you believe he's the character, which is probably the best compliment I can give him.

The rest of the supporting cast also put forth performances that better the movie. Liv Tyler is likable, and she and Norton have a believable chemistry that makes things work. William Hurt was also good in his role, effectively playing General Ross as the stubborn military man he needs to be. Ty Burrell appears in the movie as Leonard Samson, who's stepped in as Betty's boyfriend in Bruce's absence. Though the majority of Burrell's scenes were cut from the movie, he's good when he does show up. But my favorite performance comes from Tim Blake Nelson. He's really funny and energetic, and you can't help but enjoy his enthusiasm.

All in all, The Incredible Hulk is a thoroughly entertaining movie. I've been making comparisons between this movie and other adaptations of the Hulk throughout this entire review. Maybe those comparisons have been fair, maybe they haven't. But even as a stand-alone flick, The Incredible Hulk still holds up as 112 minutes of nonstop fun. My only true complaint is that I'd have saved Robert Downey Jr.'s cameo for a surprise after the end credits, just so the movie proper could have ended with a bigger punch. But that's an incredibly minor nitpick that really isn't enough to change my view of the movie. I enjoyed the movie quite a bit, so I'll definitely give The Incredible Hulk four stars and a big green thumbs up.

Final Rating: ****

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Punisher: War Zone (2008)

It's no secret that the principal focus in many mainstream comic books is that eternal struggle between good and evil. But while this war is waged primarily between clearly-defined superheroes and supervillains, there are also those characters that fall in between. They are the antiheroes, those who will go to whatever further lengths they deem necessary in order to accomplish their goals. Some will use fear and intimidation against their foes. Others will lie, cheat, and steal as much as they see fit all in the name of what they believe is the "greater good."

And then there are those who will cross that line that the more traditional heroes won't by killing people if they have to. Characters like Spawn and Wolverine have no problem taking a life, but one character has become synonymous with fatal violence. Whether they be mobsters, drug dealers, gangs, corrupt cops and politicians, rapists, or any other kind of criminal, they'll all eventually meet their maker thanks to the Punisher.

Created by Jerry Conway, Ross Andru, and John Romita Sr. in 1974, the Punisher was born in a time when movies like Magnum Force and Death Wish were depicting justice from the barrel of a vigilante's gun. The Punisher was a hit with fans following his initial appearance as an assassin who had been fooled into targeting Spider-Man, and he has become one of Marvel's most prolific B-list characters. And in 1989, the Punisher became the star of the second feature film to be based on a Marvel Comics property. Starring Dolph Lundgren in the title role, the movie ended up going straight to video in North America and was forgotten relatively quickly.

He got his second chance at Hollywood stardom fifteen years later in the wake of Marvel's surging dominance in the world of comic-based movies, and the movie — starring Thomas Jane in the title role and John Travolta as the villain — was only a modest box office success. It proved to be quite popular when it arrived on DVD, however, prompting Lions Gate Films to approve a sequel. But thanks to troubles during the development phases, Jane chose not to return, and the project passed through multiple writers and directors before it was decided to simply wipe the franchise's slate clean with a reboot. The movie, titled Punisher: War Zone, finally got settled enough to enter production and see its release on December 5, 2008. Unfortunately, the movie ended up being a pretty tremendous flop that was hated by critics and quickly forgotten by moviegoers. That's a shame, because they missed out on one of the most absurdly fun movies to come along in a while.

Six years have passed since Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) watched his wife and children die at the hands of the mob. During that time, Castle has become "the Punisher," a one-man army waging a violent war against organized crime. When a notorious mobster avoids jail after the shooting of a key witness, Castle decides to crash the party thrown in the mobster's honor. After he brutally kills all of the partygoers, he discovers that a lone survivor, Billy Russoti (Dominic West), managed to escape.

Castle tracks him to a recycling plant, wiping out nearly all of his henchmen before throwing Russoti into a glass-crushing machine. Unfortunately, Castle later learns that one of the henchmen he killed was actually Nicky Donatelli (Romano Orzari), an innocent FBI agent who was working undercover. A devastated Castle considers abandoning his life as the Punisher, swearing to make amends to Nicky's widow Angela (Julie Benz), and daughter Grace (Stephanie Janusauskas).

As it turns out, he may have a way to make up for his mistake. Russoti lived through Castle's attack, left with a hideously mutilated face that leads him to adopt the new alias "Jigsaw." Upon learning that Nicky was a mole, he targets Angela and Grace as he tries to find the money that Nicky had been left in charge of. And knowing that Castle will soon come after him, Jigsaw breaks his psychotic brother Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchinson) out of a mental institution to back him up and kidnaps the Donatellis and Castle's weapons supplier, Microchip (Wayne Knight). He then recruits as many punks, thugs, and goons as he can to stand between his hostages and Castle. With the FBI and the local police trying to hunt down both he and Jigsaw, Castle must fight his way through Jigsaw's personal army if he wishes to rescue those innocents who have been put in harm's way.

Punisher: War Zone is of what has become a rare breed. They simply don't make movies like this anymore. Jason Statham's movies get close, but the days of movies like Cobra and Commando are long gone. Those action movies with unstoppable protagonists and over-the-top villains stopped being trendy when the '80s ended. But Punisher: War Zone has no trouble going back to that style. It embraces it, never once trying to shy away from its nature as a B-movie. It revels in its threadbare plot, its unbelievable characters, its hammy acting, and its over-the-top violence. It's an '80s movie with a 21st-century flair, and in spite of its flaws, it's a fun movie.

At the helm is Lexi Alexander, an Oscar-nominated short film director handling only her second feature-length production here. I'll confess that I've never seen any of her prior work, but her direction here isn't bad at all. The movie has a particular energy to it, only really slowing down when it absolutely has to. She also, thankfully, never goes the trendy route by having the camera bounce around while the editor makes a cut every half a second. That sort of thing gets old quickly, and I'm glad that Alexander never resorts to it.

And thanks to the intimate cinematography from Steve Gainer, the unique use of color and lighting, and the bountiful violence and bloodshed, Alexander is able to make the movie look like Steve Dillon's Punisher artwork leapt right off the pages of the comic books. Not only does the movie look very authentic, but the efforts of Alexander and her crew help to make it feel authentic as well. Even the music composed by Christopher Franke helped to set the tone. Its militaristic sound really supports the idea that the Punisher's crusade against his foes is not just a vendetta, but a full-fledged war.

Next on my list is the screenplay, credited to Nick Santora, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway. You might think that because two of Iron Man's writers also handled Punisher: War Zone, the two movies might be similar in style. But if you do think that, you would be wrong. The similarities between this movie and that one begin and end with their Marvel Comics roots. All truth be told, there's no real reason to critique the writing in a movie like this, because its all superfluous. Nobody has ever accused the Punisher of being a very deep character, and the script ultimately reflects that. There's no real soul-searching or any reflecting on the nature of vigilantism. This isn't Death Wish or The Brave One. It's all just set pieces for the big action sequences. But is there anything really wrong with that? Not every movie has to have really thoughtful, profound writing or anything like that. What's wrong with having one-dimensional characters shooting each other for an hour and 45 minutes?

Last but not least is the acting. A lot of fans were concerned when it was announced that Thomas Jane was going to be replaced, but Ray Stevenson is great in the role. He totally embodies the character, playing him as a shark that cannot, will not be stopped. Stevenson is good in the parts where he has a dramatic moment of pain or self-doubt, but really, nobody goes to see a Punisher movie for an emo Frank Castle. They go to see him completely obliterate his enemies, and Stevenson is up to task when it comes to that.

The other members of the cast do fine jobs as well, though their roles are pretty much background dressing. Julie Benz and Wayne Knight are likable, while Dash Mihok and Colin Salmon are okay in their roles as a cop and an FBI agent relentlessly hunting the Punisher. Doug Hutchinson is also really good as Jigsaw's insane brother. But it is Dominic West that steals the show. His performance as Jigsaw seems to be inspired by Tommy Lee Jones's work in Batman Forever, playing the role as over the top as he can get. The incredibly silly accent he adopts only adds to the whole thing. You can tell West is having an incredible amount of fun as Jigsaw, and that fun is infectious. He doesn't make for a very intimidating villain, but he's most certainly an entertaining one.

It seems almost serendipitous that Lions Gate Films opened and closed 2008 with ultraviolent action movies featuring Julie Benz in a supporting role. Starting with Rambo and ending with Punisher: War Zone is a heck of a way for a movie studio to bookend a year. Granted, Punisher: War Zone is not perfect But it makes up for that by reveling in its own silliness. Yeah, it's incredibly violent. Yeah, the dialogue is bad at times, nor does it have much of a plot or character development. But the movie doesn't care, and it doesn't expect you to care either. And you know what? I enjoyed it a lot. So on my typical scale of five, I'm going to give Punisher: War Zone three and a half stars and a big thumbs up. Its not for everybody, but those who like this sort of thing will eat it up.

Final Rating: ***½