Thursday, October 2, 2008


"Django" director Sergio Corbucci's Spaghetti western "The Mercenary" (**** out of ****) about an itinerant Polish pistolero Sergei Kowalski (Franco Nero of "Camelot") in Mexico at the turn of the century who takes a poor ignorant peasant (Tomas Musante of "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage") under his gun arm and elevates him to the status of hero of the Mexican revolution beat Sergio Leone's "Duck, You Sucker" by three years. In "Duck, You Sucker," an Irish revolutionary (James Coburn) took a penniless peasant (Rod Steiger) and elevated him to the status of Pancho Villa during the Mexican revolution. Indeed, the basic plots of "The Mercenary" and "Duck, You Sucker" resemble each other closely, except the characters and the endings differ drastically. The peasant here in "The Mercenary" is Paco Roman, a young, wifeless, childless, blue-collar laborer toiling in the mines of a wealthy aristocrat with a taste for opera. In "Duck, You Sucker," the peasant was much older, with a brood of trigger-happy sons, and a passion for thievery. In retrospect, the similarity between "The Mercenary" and "Duck, You Sucker" shouldn't seem too surprisingly when you consider that the same scenarist, Luciano Vincenzoni—who penned "Death Rides A Horse," "For A Few Dollars More," and "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"—wrote both "The Mercenary" and "Duck, You Sucker." "The Mercenary" was Corbucci's first Mexican revolutionary western that he would follow up with "Companeros" starring Franco Nero as a Swedish arms dealer, Tomas Milian as the Mexican peasant, and Jack Palance as the villain.

"The Mercenary" opens in an arena with clowns simulating a bullfight. The main clown is really Paco; he is on the run from wealthy mine owner Alfonso García (Eduardo Fajardo of "Bad Man's River") and a deadly but dandified gambler Curly (Jack Palance) who is in league with Garcia. The Polish gunman Kowalski (Nero) sits in the stands and watches Paco until the time for the sundown comes. At that point, Corbucci and his multitude of writers—among them Franco Solinas of "A Bullet for the General" and Vincenzoni—flash back to the first meeting between our heroes who later become fast friends. Two Mexican mine owner pay Kowalski to get their silver. Curly follows them after he sees them talking to Kowalski. Curly is deeply interested in them because he had to have one of his henchmen, Studs (Franco Ressel of "Sabata"), killed for trying to kill Kowalski. You see, Kowalski caught Studs gambling with loaded dice and made him swallow the dice with a glass of milk.

Anyway, Curly kills the two Mexicans and rides out to get the silver and Kowalski. Meanwhile, at the mine, Paco and his fellow miners—exploited at poverty wages—dine on execrable food and Paco discovers a lizard in his food. Everybody has a good laugh about the 'meat' in the grub. Later, in Garcia's office, the mine owner comes face-to-face with Paco holding a pig on a platter with a pistol sticking out of its mouth. Paco hand feeds Garcia the lizard and the two are enemies for life. When Kowalski shows up to pick up the money, he finds himself surrounded by Paco and his men. They are going to kill the Polish gunman until the Mexican army, with a vengeful Garcia in the ranks, intervenes with an artillery barrage. Vincenzoni wrote a similar scene in Leone's "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" as Tuco was about to hang Blonde from a hotel rafter. In the middle of all the shooting, the wealthy Paco explains that the silver can never be gotten to but he has fistfuls of paper money. He pays Kowalski to teach him how to operate a machine gun and the two become revolutionaries.

Kowalski takes his hard earned money and leaves Paco, only to be trapped in the desert by Curly and his gunmen. This time Paco intervenes in the showdown between Kowalski and Curly and kills all of Curly's men and forces Curly to walk away without a stitch of clothing on in humiliation. Now, Curly has it in for Paco as well as the Polish soldier-of-fortune. Essentially, Kowalski teaches Paco how to run a revolution until an interfering woman Columba (Giovanna Ralli of "Cannon for Cordoba") joins them and turns Paco against his pal. As they make more money, Kowalski's demands become outrageous. He prefers to be paid in coin and he forces Paco's army to stop in the middle of the desert so that he can improvise a shower to cool himself off. No sooner have Paco and Columba wed and left Kowalski tied up in a stable than Garcia and Curly arrive, again with the Mexican army and a bi-plane that drops bombs.

Spaghetti director Sergio Corbucci wrote and directed twice as many westerns as Sergio Leone. Corbucci lacked Leone's flamboyant style and his lucky break in establishing the Italian western. Nevertheless, he was his equal when it came to staging gunfights and helming snappy action stories. Franco Nero became his Clint Eastwood and Corbucci gained fame as Burt Reynolds called him 'the other Sergio' for his diverse oaters. Corbucci bucked the 'southwest' look of Spaghetti westerns with his oddball oater "The Great Silence" and his muddy western "Django" where the hero dragged around a coffin with a machine gun stashed in it. Corbucci maintains a furious pace throughout "The Mercenary," even though it starts up with a flashback and sacrifices some suspense—because you know the principals cannot die until the flashback ends. Predictably, the body count is as high as the film's cynicism. At one point, Curly jams a hand grenade into a revolutionary soldier's mouth and blows him up. However, Corbucci shows uncharacteristic flair when he stages a killing and a torture scene and declines to show the violence in each scene. In one scene, a thug batters the truth out of an unwilling victim while we watch Curly ride around in a circle. This kind of subtlety is very unusual for a Spaghetti western.


This delightfully funny British import from the guys who gave us "Four Weddings and a Funeral" (1994) combines the best elements of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" with the classic fairy tale favorite "Cinderella." Bestselling author Helen Fleming, who penned the phenomenal 1996 novel of the same name, wrote the screenplay with ex-boyfriend Richard ("Notting Hill") Curtis and Andrew (the BBC's "Pride and Prejudice") Davies. This saucy romantic chick flick with its unconventional heroine, clever slapstick farce, witty charismatic cast, predictable happy ending, and relentlessly self-depreciating British humor qualifies as the best chubby girl comedy since the 1966 ugly duckling English romp "Georgy Girl" headlining a plump Lynn Redgrave. Texas native Renee Zellweger of "Jerry Maguire" adopts a serviceable British accent and captures the klutzy charm of the eponymous 32-year old West London bachelorette torn between her womanizing boss Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant of "Mickey Blue Eyes") and divorced human rights barrister Mark Darcy (Colin Firth of "Shakespeare in Love"). As comparisons go, "Bridget Jones's Diary" (**** out of ****) resembles a funnier, more down-to-earth, big-screen version of TV's "Friends."

"Diary" chronicles our neurotic but sympathetic, size twelve, London office girl's year-long efforts to discover love and happiness. The vetty British soap operatic action opens one snowy Christmas. Bridget resolves to lose twenty pounds, to stop chain-smoking, to stop bingeing on chocolate, and to stop swilling Chardonnay at home alone while warbling the lyrics to Eric Carmen's "All By Myself." In an ironic voice over, poor Bridget muses, "Unless I changed my life, I was destined to die alone and be found three weeks later, half-eaten by Alsatians. Bridget sets about entering her current weight as well as cigarette and alcohol use in a daily diary. At the same time, she vows with mock conviction to find a "nice, sensible boyfriend to go out with" and refuses "to form romantic attachments to any of the following: alcoholics, workaholics, commitment phobic's, peeping Toms, megalomaniacs" and so forth. No sooner has Bridget made such pretentious pledges than she finds herself dating Daniel Cleaver and flirting with the scoundrel at the office via e-mail. Meanwhile, Bridget's well-meaning but intrusive parents introduce her to another eligible bachelor, Mark Darcy, at their Christmas party.

Bridget and Mark get off on the wrong foot. She overhears Mark call her a "verbally incontinent spinster." Later, Daniel reveals that Mark stole his previous girlfriend. Bridget's dislike for Mark mounts. The conflict reaches boiling point when both guys confront each other at a dinner party that Bridget has whipped up for her friends. Basically, she serves them blue soup. Suddenly, Daniel and Mark tie into each other with fists flying and wind up in the street for one of the funniest fights ever filmed. The highlight of the fisticuffs occurs when our combatants carry their slugfest into a restaurant and pause long enough to chime in for a chorus of "Happy Birthday" for a dinner guest! Happily, unlike "Four Weddings and a Funeral," nobody dies in "Bridget Jones's Diary." Nevertheless, scenarists Fielding, Curtis, and Davies maintain a commendable level of suspense throughout about Bridget's uncertain destiny.

Freshman director Sharon Maguire manages to keep everything light and flighty with an occasional poignant moment. For example, Bridget attends a "Tarts & Vicars" costume party dressed as a Playboy bunny, learning only too late that costumes were no longer required. Later, after she leaves Daniel and takes a job as an on-camera reporter for the TV show "Sit Up, Britain," she ends up exposing her buttocks to the camera when she slides down a firehouse pole! Basically, "Bridget Jones's Diary" features several embarrassing moments, one wedding and a marriage renewal. When Bridget cruises for the elusive Mr. Right, her parents (Gemma Jones of "Sense and Sensibility" and Jim Broadbent of "The Avengers") break up and her mom takes up with a TV shopping channel host. Lonely, single, average females without the heroin-chic, media-made looks of haughty Cosmopolitan cover girls searching for love in all the wrong places (might as well include their similarly distressed masculine counterparts) will applaud this helium light whimsy.

A truly outstanding cast breathes credibility into their characters. Zellweger steals every scene she has with her handsome English co-stars. Interestingly, Barbara Berkery, the dialogue coach who trained Gwyneth Paltrow for "Sliding Doors" and "Shakespeare in Love," guided Zellweger's miraculous vocal transformation from Texan to Londoner. Further, Zellweger pulled a Robert De Niro stunt and packed on 20 actual pounds to appear plump enough for the role. Finally, to prepare herself intellectually, she spent time working at the London publishing house Picador, so she could get a feel for Bridget's job. Clearly, on the basis of this kind of dedication to her acting, Zellweger deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Hugh Grant breaks new ground playing a convincingly leery-eyed, conniving cad, while Colin Firth maintains his dignity no matter how silly he appears in a clownish brawl with Grant or whatever outfit he wears, such as a reindeer sweater when Bridget and he meet for the first time. Mind you, it is no mistake that Firth won the role of Mark Darcy. Fielding has written complimentary remarks about Firth in her two "Bridget" novels and the in-joke is that Firth portrayed another Darcy in the acclaimed BBC version of "Pride and Prejudice." "Bridget Jones's Diary" proves a thousand times better than Renee Zellweger's earlier and abysmal "Nurse Betty."


"Mister Scarface" director Fernando Di Leo has a high-ranking Italian police official compare Mafia gang wars with the Vietnam War in "The Boss," the final explosive chapter of his "Milieu Trilogy" that began with "Caliber 9" (1972), aka "Milano calibro 9" (1972) with Frank Wolff and followed with "Manhunt" aka "La Mala ordina, " (1972) co-starring Henry Silva and Woody Strode. If you're looking for no-holds-barred violence on a grand scale, "The Boss" antes up more than enough mayhem and murder during its 100 minute running time to satisfy your thirst for blood. Skull-faced heavy Henry Silva delivers another monosyllabic performance as a cold-blooded Mafia executioner. Veteran Hollywood star Richard Conte lends strong support as the top-most Mafia chieftain.

"The Boss" (**** out of ****) covers several weeks of action. It begins inconspicuously enough with a guy carrying a package under his arm who enters an anonymous building. Di Leo shrouds this uneventful activity with composer Luis Enríquez Bacalov's slightly paranoid jazz soundtrack and create a modicum of tension. An entirely different guy in a red shirt delivers a film reel to the projectionist upstairs so we now know that the building houses a movie theater. Downstairs, a well-dressed, loud-talking mobster leads a group of mobsters in business suits into an auditorium. He proclaims that they are about to watch a Danish porn movie with "the best looking broads in the world." Meanwhile, the man with the package, Nick Lanzetta (Henry Silva of "Ocean's 11"), relieves the projectionist of his duties, clobbers him over the head, and get him out of his way. Nick assembles a rifle with a grenade launcher. He turns the auditorium where the mobsters are sawing the porn movie into a inferno. The implicit message that pornographic films are bad for you is unmistakable.

Commissioner Torri (Gianni Garko of "Bad Man's River") runs the Mafia types out of the police morgue where the charred remains of the burned bodies lay on slabs. Torri explains his theory to his boss, Il Questore (Vittorio Caprioli of "Mister Scarface"), that the government is to blame for the bloodshed. "It's the fault of the government," Torri argues, "The results of a policy that is a failure. Since the government forced the old bosses into exile, their families have been left fighting for position. That results in complete disorder. All your newer families begin to feel impatient—I'm talking about the oldest ones they suddenly get the ideas that they can start grabbing for power because their own coppo was around to keep it under control." Torri argues that everything is liable to explode if they don't bring back the old dons. Tension exists between Torri and Il Questore because the latter knows that the former receives bribes from the Mafia. Il Questore cannot make any charges stick against Torri and he cannot transfer him out of his department.

The massacre in the movie theatre was triggered when an outsider, Cocchi, (Pier Paolo Capponi of "My Name is Pecos"), who is not a Sicilian, wanted to get into the family. Cocchi wants to deal in drugs. Don Corrasco (Richard Conte of "The Violent Professionals") doesn't want drugs in Sicily. Hmn, sounds like "The Godfather." Anyway, Do Corrasco refuses to have anybody in his family that has survived for 40 years who isn't a Sicilian. Fifteen minutes later in the movie, the remaining members of the crime family that Nick wiped out in the porn movie abducts the daughter, Rina Daniello (Antonia Santilli), of Don Giuseppe Daniello (Claudio Nicastro of "A Man Called Magnum), who set Nick on them. The abductors specify their demands: "We don't want money and we don't want the girl. Nothing is going to happen to her, if we can have you, your life for hers. We figure that's a fair exchange." Meanwhile, Cocchi's perverted hoodlums ply poor Rina with liquor and rape her with gleeful abandon.

The Don refuses to let Don Giuseppe exchange himself for his daughter. "They would torture you first, would just kill you, they would torture you first. They'd eventually make you tell them who the family contacts are. I'm not thinking of myself but the family it existed for forty years, Giuseppe. We've built it up and defended it together. Nothing is yours not when it interferes with the family." Nick suggests that they offer Cocchi money to stall for time. He insists also that they tell the kidnappers that Don Giuseppe has suffered a heart attack.

When Don Giuseppe wants to buy his daughter back without Don Corrasco's permission, Nick shoots Giuseppe and has his body cremated. Nick is an orphan who Don Giuseppe Daniello was raised as his own son, but he has no qualms about killing Giuseppe and Giuseppe's right-hand man. Nick arranges a deal with another gangster, the brother of the Mafia chieftain that he exterminated in the movie theatre. The guy reveals the whereabouts of Rina. Single-handedly, Silva rescues her as two thugs are raping her and kills them without a qualm. He drives through a wall and smashes another car into three pieces.

By this time, all the bloodshed has upset Mafia leaders in Rome. They want to see Cocchi and Don Corrasco strike a deal so the killing can stop. Don Corrasco dispatches Nick to finish off Cocchi's gang. The Mafia liaison from Rome urges Don Corrasco to eliminate Nick. According to Don Corrasco, Nick is a man of "infinite resource." Nevertheless, the Don arranges a deal with Torri to arrest Nick and find incriminating evidence that Nick was behind the movie theatre massacre. Torri confronts Nick at his apartment. Nick turns the tables on Torri and forces him at gunpoint to call up Cocchi and invite him to visit him.

"The Boss" chronicles one bloodbath after another with double-crosses galore in a Mafia power struggle over territory. This is one of the very best Mafia melodramas to come out of Italy.


Any students that believe they can watch the new cartoon movie "Beowulf" (** out of ****) and then fool their English literature professors into believing that they read the 6th century Anglo-Saxon epic poem are in for a rude awakening. Indeed, none of the film or television versions of the Beowulf legend have kept the action of the original old English poem intact. As the first adaptation of the ancient Beowulf yarn, "Grendel Grendel Grendel" (1981) drew its storyline from author John Gardner's 1971 novella "Grendel." Essentially, Gardner depicted the hideous Grendel monster in a sympathetic light. Not only was "Grendel Grendel Grendel" the first attempt at filming Beowulf, but the movie also relied on animation to render its larger-than-life events. In 1998, the BBC and HBO teamed up to televise a second cartoon version appropriately entitled "Beowulf," with the incomparable London stage actor Sir Derek Jacobi serving as narrator. Later, British director Graham Baker helmed the first major attempt to film the vintage Old English poem. Baker cast "Highlander" actor Christopher Lambert as the title character in "Beowulf" (1999), but it departed drastically from the poem, too. Essentially an outlandish science fiction spin on the fable, Baker changed the setting of "Beowulf" from ancient times to the post-apocalyptic future. Meanwhile, Icelandic director Sturla Gunnarsson's tedious "Beowulf & Grendel" (2005) with "300" star Gerard Butler, emerged as the next major television rehash, and Gunnarsson treated the Grendel monster as an outcast human. More recently, The Sci-Fi Channel aired its version of Beowulf back in January of 2007 and called it "Grendel," but it differed in several aspects from the original poem, too. Not surprisingly, "Back to the Future" director Robert Zemeckis' new "Beowulf" takes considerable liberties with the source material. Imagine what the sword & sandal saga "300" would look like if it were done as a cartoon, and you'll know what to expect from "Beowulf." Unfortunately, Zemeckis' use of state-of-the-art, motion capture technology, which converts real-life actors into cartoon figures, is both its chief claim to fame as well as its main liability.

Scribes Roger ("Pulp Fiction") Avary and Neil ("Stardust") Gaiman dispense with the poem's opening lineage passages and launch headlong into the myth. As the story unfolds, King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins of "Fracture") and his Danish subjects are about to christen a massive mead hall—something akin to a private corporate camp house--with women, liquor, and loud music. Amazingly, Hrothgar and company create such uproar that it enrages Grendel, a truly pathetic-looking monster in the snow-swept wilderness not far away from the hall. This murderous fiend storms the mead hall and slaughters warriors left and right. Here, Grendel (Crispin Glover of "Willard") resembles a cross-between of an evil juvenile delinquent straight out of an "Aqua Team Hunger Force" TV episode and a huge emaciated cadaver. Basically, Grendel consists of bone and sinew, but he is merciless when he goes on a rampage.

Naturally, Grendel's bloody massacre horrifies Hrothgar, and the king summons any and all warriors willing to risk their necks, to slay Grendel. A Swedish warrior named Beowulf (paunchy Ray Winstone of "The Departed") and his sword-wielding soldiers arrive after a rigorous voyage. Hrothgar reopens the hall. Beowulf strips nude and sets aside his arsenal of weapons. He plans to kill Grendel with his bare hands. Later that evening after all the revelers have passed out, Grendel surprises them, but the warriors are ready for him. Beowulf rips off Grendel's arm, and the monster vamooses. Not long afterward, Grendel's mother appears and challenges Beowulf. Grendel's mother is not the hag in the poem. Instead, she emerges as a sexy, shape-shifting siren in stiletto heels, played by "Tomb Raider" star Angelina Jolie.

What Avary and Gaiman have scripted is not much more than a standard "Conan" movie, except for the alluring power that Grendel's mother exerts over King Hrothgar and later Beowulf. The two writers have filled in the gaps between the three major set-pieces; (1) Beowulf's battle with Grendel, (2) Beowulf's combat with Grendel's mom, and decades later (3) the fight with a dragon. In doing so, Avary and Gaiman argue that King Hrothgar had a tryst with Grendel's mom and sired their illegitimate offspring.

Altogether, Zemeckis' ambitious but underwhelming "Beowulf" resembles a souped version of an old 1960's Jonny Quest episode, unless you're fortunate enough to catch the 3-D version of this movie in an IMAX Theater. The animated eyes of the characters lack the vivacity of actual humans. Furthermore, their hands are crudely drawn and they look hilarious when they run. Despite the considerable advances made in photo-realistic, motion capture technology, "Beowulf" forfeits the subtly nuanced acting skills of thespians like Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Crispin Glover, Robin Wright Penn, and Brendan Gleeson. Meanwhile, everything non-human looks terrific. All works of literature and film are linked by universality. "Beowulf" constitutes the 6th century equivalent of a 21st century home invasion. Sadly, the hilarious looking Grendel villain and the less-than spectacular animation of the principal actors defeats "Beowulf."


Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and director David Miller, who later helmed the John Wayne aerial opus "The Flying Tigers" and the last Marx Brothers' comedy "Love Happy," give the notorious legend of Billy the Kid the glamorous treatment in this spectacular-looking Technicolor western epic. Indeed, Robert Taylor looks far too mature to be essaying of role of the murderous young ruffian. Although he was a right-hander in life, Taylor packs his pistol on his left hip, and scenarist Gene Fowler conjures up some clever dialogue to account for his southpaw status. Chief villain Dan Hickey (Gene Lockhart of "Edge of Darkness") makes the pointed observation the first time that he encounters Billy: "Left-handed, eh?" Billy replies with insouciance, "I'm saving my right to shake hands with friends." This left versus right hand theme is concluded in the off-beat ending that ennobles the title character. Meanwhile, M-G-M decks Taylor out in black from Stetson to spurs as the grim, unshaven, lead-slinging lawbreaker. Interestingly, our when ill-fated protagonist—since he is clearly not the hero—joins the underdog cattleman, he curbs his violent urges and the filmmakers reflect Billy's change of nature by allowing him to shed his black-leather jacket. Of course, Billy doesn't stay on the right side of the law for long. Dour but dependable Brian Donlevy—often cast as a villain for the sake of his thin mustache—plays Billy's childhood friend; the two of them grew up in Silver City and Donlevy as Jim Sherwood believes that his friend got the shaft. It seems that somebody gunned down Billy's father in the back and he hasn't forgotten that injustice. Despite the age discrepancy, Taylor turns in an effective, downbeat performance.

Scenarist Gene Fowler, who contributed to Twentieth Century Fox's 1939 biography of Jesse James with Tyrone Power, based his script ostensibly on William Barnes Noble's vintage book "The Saga of Billy the Kid," but—not surprisingly—"Billy the Kid" (**1/2 out of ****) takes liberties with history. Essentially, most of the facts remain intact, though never as authentically as they were depicted in Arthur Penn's "The Left-Handed Gun" with Paul Newman, Andrew V. McLaglen's "Chism" with John Wayne, Sam Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid" with Kris Kristofferson and the two "Young Guns" movies with Emilio Estevez. The names have been altered. The villainous Hickey stands in for Lawrence Murphy, while British cattleman Henry Tunstall has been renamed Eric Keating. Lawman Pat Garrett is called Jim Sherwood. The action still occurs in Lincoln County, New Mexico territory in the 1880s.

The plot opens with Billy stealthily breaking his Mexican partner Pedro Gonzales (Italian actor Frank Puglia of "The Burning Hills") out of jail and then inciting a fight in Hickey's saloon with the distasteful likes of the bouncer played by odious Lon Chaney, Jr., because the saloon doesn't serve Hispanics. After this short-lived scuffle, Hickey convinces Billy to hire on with his outfit and ride with him. Under Hickey's orders, the Kid launches a stampede of Keating's cattle to whittle not the numbers of steers down as well as cut back on their pound per hoof. During the stampede, the Kid encounters his old Silver City friend, Jim Sherwood (Brian Donlevy of "Never So Few") and nearly gets his head shot off. Eventually, he switches sides and joins Keating. One of the primary differences between the wealthy Hickey and the foreigner Keating is that the latter have no objections to Billy's Hispanic partner signing on, too. Not long after Billy has turned over a new leaf, he discovers Pedro dead in the corral where they were gentling a horse for Keating's sister. Inevitably, when Keating takes his case to the territory governor and convinces the lawmakers to give in a U.S. Marshall's badge. Not only does Keating swear in Jim Sherwood as U.S. Deputy Marshall, but he also secures a pardon for Billy the Kid that later will serve as a basis for his pardon. Just everything is looking optimistic, Keating rides off from his ranch one day and his rider horse returns without him. Neither M-G-M nor Miller filmed Keating's murder at the hands of Hickey's henchmen with their own deputy badges. Primarily, they shot down Keating because he was harboring a fugitive—Billy the Kid—and Keating's death puts Billy on the prod.

Classic western helmer John Ford photographed his best oaters in scenic Monument Valley with its flat, sagebrush studded terrain with buttes crenellating the horizon. Evidently, what was good enough for Ford proved good enough for Miller. Sadly, Miller lensed too much of "Billy the Kid" on indoor soundstages with the actors straddling ersatz horses. In the exterior long shots, we see horsemen pouring across the wilderness, then for the closer shots we are transported to a soundstage with the characters riding either fake nags or real ones slowed down to a walk with back projection of Monument Valley. In an interesting scene between Keating and the Kid outside on the trail, the Kid learns that Keating has no love for firearms. However, Keating's non-violent ideology doesn't preclude him from being a crack shot. As vultures circle overhead, Billy knocks one out of the skies and Keating borrows the Kid's six-shooter and knocks down two birds. The vultures are unmistakably animated as are several backdrop shots of the mountainous terrain. Ian Hunter, who played King Richard the Lion-Heart in the Errol Flynn swashbuckler "The Adventures of Robin Hood," is solidly cast as the transplanted Englishman. Mary Howard, who went on to appear in "Riders of the Purple Sage," is flat as Keating's sister Edith that the Kid has a crush on but who is destined to marry Sherwood. Appropriately, Miller saves Billy's death scene for the last few minutes and Billy gives his friend Sherwood an edge on him by wearing his six-gun on his right hip so that he cannot win in a fast-draw competition. "Billy the Kid" is okay for what it is, but it is no classic.


This Caped Crusader prequel, appropriately entitled "Batman Begins" (***1/2 out of ****) tops all previous "Batman" epics, beginning with Tim Burton's revisionist 1989 "Batman" starring Michael Keaton and winding down with Joel Schumacher's cartoon-like "Batman and Robin" (1997) with George Clooney. Fortunately, "Memento" writer & director Christopher Nolan brings a welcome sense of gravity to the legendary DC Comics mortal hero franchise that eluded earlier epics. (I'm not including either the supremely satirical "Batman" TV series and its spin-off movie or either "Batman" film serials from 1943 and 1949. The first two Burton-helmed features "Batman" and "Batman Returns" converted our hero into a dark, lone avenger, negotiating a surreal landscape and clashing with warped villains, while the Schumacher "Batman" movies tried to lighten things up by imitating the seminal 1960's live-action, ABC-TV series.

Although "Blade" scenarist David Goyer and Nolan get nearly about everything right, they fall just short of perfection on three counts. First, the featherweight casting of Katie Holmes as an anemic but idealistic love interest who acts like every damsel-in-distress weakens not only the plot but any respect we might have felt for her clichéd heroine.

Second, the heavyweight presence of two-time, Oscar-winner Michael Caine as a highly dignified but personable Alfred, Bruce Wayne's loyal butler, literally blows Christian Bale off the screen whenever they appear together. The senior British superstar dominates every scene and everybody around him with the merest facial expression or the inflection of a line of dialogue. Similarly, as if to compensate for our limited exposure to Bale as a fixture in mainstream movies, Warner Brothers has stuffed this superior saga with other high-profile celebrity actors, such as Oscar-winner Morgan Freeman, Emmy-winner Gary Oldman, and none other than Rutger Hauer in a breakout role from his usual straight-to-video tripe. The Brothers Warner need not have worried, because Bale ranks as the best Batman to date.

Third, Goyer and Nolan give Bruce Wayne's playboy billionaire character the short shrift and emphasize instead his death-defying alter-ego. Reckless, debonair playboy Bruce Wayne shows up for only a couple of scenes. (Aside from these complaints, the only other problem that bothered me in this spectacularly lensed, richly atmospheric crime melodrama was the beards that Bale and Oscar-nominated Liam Neeson wear at the outset. The beards appeared as bored stiff make-up artists had pasted them onto the actors!) Meanwhile, a dynamic ending sets us up for the inevitable sequel. Happily, everybody from the original has been signed up for the follow-up film, except the expendable Holmes, and up as Batman's next nemesis, no doubt an homage to Burton's "Batman," is the Joker. "Batman Begins" benefits immensely from the offbeat casting of second-string leading man Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader. Imagine Michael Keaton buffed up and stretched out on a rack to leading man heights, and you'll get a good idea what to expect from "American Psycho" star. Not only does he exert more presence as Batman, Bale looks rugged enough and believable as an individual who has endured more than his share of tragedy and turmoil. Unlike the unhinged Keaton Batman, Bale doesn't have an anger management problem. If anything, Bale's Batman suffers from a fear management problem. Furthermore, Bale doesn't look like the Ken doll that pretty boy Val Kilmer was, and the Batman costume that Bale dons isn't decked out with nipples like the one George Clooney had to wear in "Batman and Robin." Indeed, Goyer and Nolan had elevated their Batman to Shakespearean heights. Like the Keaton "Batman" movies, "Batman Begins" qualifies as a dark, foreboding thriller with horrific touches that you'd never imagine in a PG-13 rated movie.

Best of all "Batman Begins" provides a solid basis for the origins of the Caped Crusader. During the first third of the action, Goyer and Nolan examine Bruce Wayne's troubled childhood, the random but cold-blooded back alley murder of his parents, and the guilt that impressionable young Bruce shoulders as a result of his parents' death. Indeed, the sequences with a grown-up Bruce slugging it out with thuggish inmates at a Red Chinese prison are about as far out as any Batman movie has ever dared to go. Happily, Goyer and Nolan have given Bruce Wayne a legitimate reason for venturing off to China, so these scenes don't degenerate into a sight-seeing travelogue. "Batman Begins" shows us what the Batcave looked like before the furniture found its way into it. Unlike the last four "Batman" pictures, "Batman Begins" confines itself to one major villain backed up by two secondary bad guys who are no slouches in themselves. Liam Neeson arrives earliest as Bruce Wayne's ruthless battle teacher. A great deal of similarity exists between Neeson's role here and his Jedi Knight in George Lucas' "Star Wars, Episode One: The Phantom Menace." Oscar-winner English actor Tom Wilkinson of "In the Bedroom" (2002) makes villainous Carmine Falcone into a loud-mouthed, unsympathetic lout, while Irish actor Cillian Murphy brings a fiendish quality to an otherwise mild-mannered Dr. Krane. Meanwhile, in keeping with "Batman Begins" prequel status, Bale cuts quite a figure in the least glamorous looking Batman outfit, which features no signature Bat chest-piece emblem. If you took the best parts of the four earlier Batman movies and balanced them out, you'd come close to "Batman Begins." Hardcore fans of DC Comics' Batman can finally have their cape and eat it, too.

Principally, "Batman Begins" differs from the other movies based on Bob Kane's immortal comic book character in that it borrows the training sequences from the Antonio Banderas swashbuckler "The Mask of Zorro" and adds elements of spiritualism from marital arts movies. Ultimately, "Batman Begins" ushers the Caped Crusader into the 21st century with fanfare galore. If you call yourself a "Batman" fan, you're going to have to watch this movie.


"The Beach" (**** out of ****), an exotic, symbol-laden saga about the elusive quest for paradise, qualifies as Leonardo DiCaprio's first serious movie since the controversial "Basketball Diaries." The talented "Trainspotting" trio of director Danny Boyle, scenarist John Hodge, and producer Andrew MacDonald have surpassed themselves again with another marvelously staged, provocatively plotted, and opulently produced film. Based on English author Alex Garland's bestseller, this lofty romantic thriller pays homage to "Apocalypse Now," "Jaws," "Lord of the Flies," "The Mosquito Coast," and "The Swiss Family Robinson" in its abrasive yarn about three, adventure seeking, twentysomethings that gate crash a secret society on a forbidden island in Thailand where a fabled beach unblemished by civilization shimmers in the sunlight.

"The Beach" begins sluggishly with our protagonist, Richard (Leonard DiCaprio) restlessly prowling Bangkok, a glitzy decadent tourist trap, before he checks into a shabby but suitable bug-infested hotel. Richard yearns for something dangerous, something to test the bounds of reality as he knows it and attain a state of nirvana. Essentially, "The Beach" concerns a young man's rites of passage, an end of innocence and illusions, and a descent into the chaos of maturity. At his seedy hotel, where everybody uses a communal bathroom, Richard emerges from the shower, naked except for a towel athwart his waist, and discovers to his embarrassment that he cannot unlock his door. An alluring French babe, Francoise (Virginie Ledoyen of "A Single Girl"), spots him and help him with his door. She blinds him with a smile as her boyfriend Etienne (French heartthrob Guillaume Canet), joins her. Later, a lonely Richard lies awake in bed at night while his French neighbors bang away in the room next door.

Enter Robert Carlyle as Daffy. He energizes "The Beach" as Richard's demented, suicidal lodger from the other side who has fled the island paradise. Daffy provides the necessary exposition, or background information, that sets up the story. While they smoke a joint, Daffy rhapsodizes about the island. Later, before he slashes his wrists and dies, Daffy leaves Richard a map to this mythical place. Richard persuades Francoise, with Etienne, of course, to accompany him on his trip to this topical Shangri-La. Eventually, they arrive on the coast, brave the shark-infested waters around the island, and find themselves standing at the edge of a sprawling field of marihuana.

Their bliss is ephemeral. Richard spots an adorable tree monkey and then realizes the cute little simian serves as a guard dog. Suddenly, a grim-looking bunch of ganja growers armed with AK-47 assault rifles are scouring the fields for intruders. Director Danny Boyle keeps you guessing throughout "The Beach," and this quirky scene exemplifies his bizarre sense of irony. Boyle alternates the good with the bad, so you never see what is coming until it occurs. As the farmers comb the fields, our heroes grovel in horror. Just as they have reached the end of the rainbow, a small monkey stands between them and their pot of gold! The image of a monkey as their nemesis enhances the humor of this scene, too.

After our heroes evade the farmers, they stumble onto a hidden sanctuary of an ideology-free commune, "a beach resort for people who don't like beach resorts," where everybody lives in apparent harmony. This lost tribe of twentysomethings has erected a bamboo society not entirely unlike the one that the castaways created in "Gilligan's Island." Some couples are straight, while other are gay. Boyle glosses over most of the commune members. He fleshes out some characters, like the cook who is obsessed with cleanliness, but he restricts them to the background unless they exert a major role in a scene. Anyway, they grow their own crops; marihuana included, and survive on fish caught from the lagoon. The shortage of feminine hygiene products and batteries for the Game Boys are virtually the only reason that these mod squatters dispatch trading emissaries to the mainland. Basically, they grow enough dope not only to keep themselves blitzed but also to sell to pay for their needs.

An uneasy truce exists between these lotus eaters and the pot farmers. The farmers let the hippies live on the other side of the island as long as nobody joins them. They fear that hordes of tourists would bring the law down on them. In one scene, they appeal to the sympathy of the commune with the story that their marihuana crop enables them to provide financially for their own families. Clearly, Richard and company have shattered the calm. While she doesn't warm to them immediately, Sal (Oscar winner Tilda Swinton), the leader of this make-shift society, welcomes them. The late, lamented Daffy—she explains—helped found their colony, but he suffered from depression and went AWOL. While our heroes assure Sal that they have the only existing map, Richard refuses to mention the copy that he entrusted to another group of stoners. Later, Richard's secret comes back to haunt him.

The first part of "The Beach" bristles with adventure, but the second half is more downbeat and depressing. Paradise may not be all it is cracked up to be. Richard's stoner friends becomes his worst nightmare as they paddle to the island and run afoul of the pot farmers. A shark attack plunges the commune into despair until they banish the survivor, who refuses to check into a hospital on the mainland. Everybody else tires of his whining and wants only to catch up on their suntans, casual sex, and volleyball without hearing him cry in agony.

Altogether, "The Beach" is not mindless juvenile pabulum, but an ambitious, serious-minded epic that exposes the dark side of paradise. Those who enjoyed "Shallow Grave: and "Trainspotting" will find that "The Beach" addressed the same themes that Boyle and his collaborators have dealt with before in different settings. Nothing predictable stagnates the storyline, and the main characters are more than horny, one-dimensional pawns.


You know that a $120 million plus movie is in big trouble when the most entertaining character appears in only one scene. Moreover, she defies the status quo ideal of the Hollywood babe. Rebel Wilson plays an overweight Goth chick that the hero in "Ghost Rider" saves from a vicious mugger. During a TV news interview, she describes her rescuer and flutters her fingers around her head to illustrate the flames that engulfed Ghost Rider's bone-white skull. Clever, off-beat and hilarious as this memorable scene is, "Daredevil" writer-director Mark Steven Johnson fails to deliver anything as comparatively fresh and spontaneous in his big-screen adaptation of "Ghost Rider," essentially supernatural skullduggery of a superficial sort. No, I haven't read the Marvel Comic, but what I have seen in them surpasses anything in the 110-minute, PG-13 rated Columbia Pictures' release. Altogether, "Ghost Rider" (** out of ****) suffers chiefly from hackneyed writing, lackluster villains, and pointless action scenes. "Ghost Rider" lacks the epic scale of "Superman," "Batman," "Blade," "X-Men," and "The Punisher." Nevertheless, despite all these shortcomings, "Ghost Rider" does boast a first-rate, hypnotic cast and impressive digital special effects. Neither compensate in the long run for the unimaginative screenplay so unless you are a hardcore "Ghost Rider" disciple you can stand the wait until this opus hits DVD and save yourself a fistful of bucks.

"Ghost Rider" unfolds in chronological order. We see Johnny Blaze, portrayed early on by handsome young newcomer Matt Long, at age seventeen. Mind you, the resemblance between Long and Cage is negligible. Johnny discovers to his horror that his madcap motorcyclist father, Barton Blaze (seasoned TV star Brett Cullen), has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and his chances of survival are remote. In saunters an elegantly-clad, perfectly coiffed Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda of "Easy Rider") with a cane. Meph offers to save Barton's life if Johnny will sell him his soul. Johnny bows to the devil's demands. Miraculously, Barton's doctor gives him a clean bill of health. Nevertheless, Barton dies tragically in the next scene when he crashes on the jump ramp and is burned to death. Predictably, Johnny explodes with rage, but he decides to live up to his end of the bargain, so dumps his pretty girlfriend Roxanne Simpson (Raquel Alessi) and goes off to become a legendary motorcyclist stunt master in the tradition of Evel Knievel. Nicolas Cage takes over as a grown-up, laid-back Johnny Blaze and he drives his manager Mack (Donal Logue of "Blade") around the bend with one impossible stunt after another. At one point, Johnny makes a clearly impossible jump over four Black Hawk army helicopters in a football stadium without getting a scratch.

Nothing in Mark Steven Johnson's script approaches realism and anybody who takes "Ghost Rider" literally should be buckled into a straitjacket and bundled off to the nearest insane asylum for psychiatric evaluation. This Faustian fable about a motorcycle daredevil who is transformed after the sun goes down into a sinister skull-headed bounty hunter for Satan features the most anemic Satan since Elizabeth Hurley essayed the role in "Bedazzled." Traditionally, Mephistopheles is the toughest, most treacherous villain on the books, but this Meph falls back on Ghost Rider to fend off competition from his upstart son Blackheart ("American Beauty's" Wes Bentley in cadaverous pale white-face make-up), who wants to usurp his father. At this point, Johnson's script becomes convoluted as all get-out and introduces a cemetery caretaker (Sam Elliot of "Rush") who keeps our hero abreast of all major plot revelations, including his own that he was once a Ghost Rider on horseback. Basically, aside from his flaming skull, Ghost Rider uses his penetrating glare, called a Penance Stare, to make his victims experience the anxiety of those that they have tormented. Naturally, this doesn't have much of an effect on Blackheart and they engage in a running fight. Teaming up with Blackheart are three cool-looking reprobates, Earth, Wind, and Fire. Like Blackheart, our hero takes his time dispatching these ruffians in looks only, otherwise "Ghost Rider" would have been twenty minutes shorter (and probably better). Nicolas Cage takes none of this half-baked hocus pocus seriously and plays Johnny Blaze with a bad hair-cut for laughs, gobbling jelly beans out of a martini glass rather than drinking while he relaxes to Karen Carpenter 'sTop-40 songs, until the surprise ending that leaves the movie open for a sequel. Peter Fonda does as little as possible and plays Satan as if he were a mannequin, but at least he is stylish in his restraint. Sexy Eva Mendes plays Roxanne as a grown-up who has become a Lois Lane-type TV news reporter than keeps track of Johnny's exploits. Inevitably, to get to Ghost Rider, Blackheart kidnaps Roxanne and the two guys clash in the desert at a western town. The former Ghost Rider (Sam Elliot) saddles up and rides out into sand with Ghost Rider for the showdown. Once they arrive, the old grizzled Ghost Rider pitches our protagonist his shotgun and then hightails it. Talk about a waste of Sam Elliot. Blackheart never poses a genuine threat to Ghost Rider and our hero decks his unsavory henchmen as easily as if they were ten-pins in a bowling alley. The CGI of Ghost Rider riding a gravity-defying motorcycle vertically up a skyscraper and then wielding a blazing chain whip to attack an airborne helicopter looks terrific (with an obvious nod to "King Kong") but means little in the overall scheme of things. As ominous as the hero looks after his transformation into a skeletal emissary of Satan, "Ghost Rider" emerges as more kooky than spooky.


Everybody ought to know by now that director Alfred Werker's semi-documentary police procedural "He Walked By Night" (***1/2 out of ****) with Richard Basehart and Scott Brady, inspired Jack Webb's classic radio and television crime series "Dragnet." The evocative, film noir photography of the late great John Alton, who also lensed a couple of John Sturges films "Mystery Street" and "The People Against O'Hara" as well as Richard Brooks' "Elmer Gantry," gives this lean, mean 1949 thriller an edge that neither its budget nor its action could have achieved in tandem. Alton's photography makes "He Walked By Night" the memorable experience that it remains. Good acting by all involved bolsters the film's credibility, especially a low-key Basehart registering brilliantly as a contemplative homicidal killer with a pet dog. The dog humanizes Basehart's elusive killer. The most overlooked performance is Whit Bissell as the timid electronics factory owner. Other commentators have provided relevant historical background for this atmospheric melodrama and they are worth reading if the historical background appeals to you. The noted film scholar Jeanne Basinger in her exemplary book about director Anthony Mann writers settles the issue of the directorial authorship of "He Walked By Night." She points out that Werker received final credit for "He Walked By Night," but Mann helmed all the scenes with Richard Basehart. Clearly, "He Walked By Night" qualifies more as a Mann film than a Werker effort. Critics have never ballyhooed this low-budget, superbly made, minor urban crime thriller, and this lack of critical recognition is really unfortunate. "He Walked By Night" provides top-drawer suspense entertainment in virtually every department. The only objectionable scene here involves a couple of detectives grilling a Chinese suspect. Not only does the man not know English, but also the detectives look like idiots for questioning someone that clearly doesn't understand English.

"He Walked by Night" unfolds with several long shots of a Los Angeles city map. "Racket Squad" actor Reed Hadley delivers the prototypical description of L.A. that would open each "Dragnet" episode over similar shots. Afterward, Mann takes us first to the Hollywood Police Division where we learn that "He Walked By Night" is "the case history of a killer." The scene shifts to a dark, quiet. tree-lined street late one evening in Hollywood. An immaculately dressed Roy Martin (Richard Basehart of "Moby Dick") is prowling dark streets and casing an electronics shop. Equipped with lock-picking tools, he is about to commit burglary when an off-duty cop heading home, Office Robert Rawlins (John McGuire of "Flamingo Road"), spots him. Rawlins pulls over and questions him. When he asks to see some identification, Rawlins isn't prepared for the reception that he receives. Martin produces a gun from his suit and blasts away. Swiftly, the killer scrambles to his car, while Rawlins struggles to fire shots at him. In a desperate bid to stop Martin, Rawlins guns his sedan. Swerves it across the street and smashes into Martin's stolen car before he can get it cranked. Witnesses provide the authorities with a description, but Martin shaves off the pencil-thin mustache and begins on his next criminal endeavor. Later, we learn that Rawlins has died from his gunshot wounds.

When he isn't committing crimes, Martin modifies his stolen equipment and then rents it out to Reeves Electronics Laboratory run by Paul Reeves (a bespectacled Whit Bissell) who urges Roy to join his firm. Roy brings in his television projection set and leaves before the original owner arrives. The owner identifies the equipment and calls the police. At this point, Captain Breen (Roy Roberts of "My Darling Clementine") assigns Sgt. Marty Brennan (Scott Brady of "Dollars") and Sgt. Chuck Jones (James Cardwell of "The Sullivans") to the case and they question Reeves. Martin calls up and Reeves tells him that he has sold his television projector. Jones gets Reeves to tell Martin that he has his dough ready and to come in that night and pick it up. Later, Martin surprises everybody that night and shoots Jones, paralyzing him and knocking Brennan unconscious. In the process, however, Martin is wounded by Jones. In a scene that predates "First Blood," Martin digs out the slug himself with sterilized doctor's tools. Meanwhile, the crime technician, Lee (Jack Webb of "Dragnet") gradually pieces together information about Martin until Brennan suggests that he use something that allows witnesses of Martin's robberies to create a picture of him. It seems that Martin has been on a robbery spree and uses the storm drainage system underneath Los Angeles to escape from the authorities.

Anyway, Captain Breen relieves Brennan from the case since the latter has made no headway in capturing Martin and Breen is feeling the heat from his own superiors. Later, during one of his visits with the recuperating Jones, Brennan learns that the Breen is trying to rattle him enough to come up with a fresh approach to the case. Brennan starts looking where he didn't before—in the surrounding police departments. Eventually, he uncovers Martin's secret and his real name Roy Morgan. Breen masquerades as a milk man and finds where Morgan lives. The long arm of the law assembles with cops, guns, and tear gas to flush Morgan out. Predictably, Morgan flees to the storm drainage system with the LAPD in hot pursuit. They don't aim to let him escape their clutches again! This tightly-knit thriller is pretty good, even by 1948 standards. The police are depicted like idiots during the first hour because they constantly underestimated the resourceful adversary who even keeps a shotgun stored in the underground drain system. John Alton creates a marvelous sense of atmosphere with images that highlight the area above the heads of the participants. The photography in the storm drainage system is terrific stuff! Scott Brady is good as the cop determined to bust Morgan, and his Sgt. Brennan's one characteristic that is emphasized is his shortage of matches for his cigarette habit.


"Bad Day at Black Rock" director John Sturges revisits the Wyatt Earp/Ike Clanton feud in "Hour of the Gun" with James Garner and Jason Robards that he began in 1957 with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in the Hal B. Wallis production of "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral." Although Sturges' "Hour of the Gun" (**** out of ****) boasts greater visual and historic realism than "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral," this sequel of sorts veers off course toward the end and two-time Oscar-winning scenarist Edward Anhalt of "Becket" contrives scenes that are not historically accurate principally for the sake of dramatic license to provide audiences with closure. Unlike the Paramount release that featured Rhonda Fleming as Wyatt Earp's love interest, Sturges dispenses with women altogether in this United Artists release and confines himself to the feud. The practically all male cast features lean, rugged Robert Ryan as Earp's chief real-life nemesis Ike Clanton and in his second motion picture lanky Jon Voight of "Midnight Cowboy" fame. Indeed, as much as possible Anhalt and Sturges have tried to stick with history. For example, the dialogue in the courtroom sequences came verbatim from the actual transcripts. Moreover, unlike previous Wyatt Earps, James Garner is allowed to play the legendary lawman without a halo. This Earp wants to kill out of brotherly vengeance than take the villains in to stand trial. After all, the tagline for the film reads: Wyatt Earp - hero with a badge or cold-blooded killer? Known for the affable screen characters that he played over the years, Garner makes a great change of pace as a vengeful Earp in a taut, grim-faced performance unlike anything that he had done before and not again until he starred in Vic Morrow's spaghetti western "A Man Called Sledge." The action opens on the main street of Tombstone as our black-clad in business suited heroes: Wyatt Earp (a mustached James Garner), Doc Holiday (two-time Oscar-winner Jason Robards of "Once Upon a Time in the West"), Morgan Earp (Sam Melville of "Big Wednesday"), and Virgil Earp (Frank Converse of the TV show "Movin' On") march down to the O.K. Corral after Ike Clanton's gunmen have assembled for the fateful showdown. The shoot-out is over in a mere matter of minutes. During the shooting, Ike Clanton ducks into a photography shop and sits out the gun battle. Morgan takes a slug in the shoulder while Virgil receives bullet in the leg. After the gunfight, County Sheriff Jimmy Ryan (Bill Fletcher of "5-Card Stud") and his deputy Frank Stilwell (Robert Phillips of "The Dirty Dozen") confront the Earps and Holiday. Ryan tries to arrest them. "Not today, tomorrow, or ever," growls Wyatt. "You don't have jurisdiction in the city of Tombstone. If you did, you couldn't make it stick if you did." Clanton parades the bodies of his dead through Tombstone and charges that the Earps murdered them. In court, however, Judge Herman Spicer (William Schallert of "Will Penny") concludes otherwise based on factual evidence, and the Earps and Holiday are exonerated. Clanton's gunmen, principally Curly Bill Brocius (Jon Voight), Andy Warshaw (Steve Inhat of "Madigan"), and Stilwell ambush Virgil Earp at night while he is checking doors. Virgil is crippled for life and cannot run for city marshal so Morgan replaces him. Morgan wins the election, but before he can serve, the same three Clanton gunmen blast him in the back with a shotgun while he is playing billiards. Wyatt accuses Clanton's men of homicide but he cannot furnish a witness and the killers go free. Meantime, the honest citizens of Tombstone get Wyatt an appointment as Deputy U.S. Marshal and warrants to serve on those Clanton men alleged to have participated in the shootings of Wyatt's brothers. Wyatt hires Tucson lawman Sherman McMasters (Monte Markham of "Guns of the Magnificent Seven") to help him out while Doc decides to observe the letter of the law and join Earp's posse. Doc recruits a couple of gunmen, Turkey Creek Johnson (Lonny Chapman of "Baby Doll") and Texas Jack Vermillion (William Windom of "Cattle King") and they pursue Clanton's killers.

The joy of watching any John Sturges western lies in the choreography. Sturges is one of the few directors who can make the simple act of men crossing a dusty frontier street look like very cool. Mind you, he knows how to block a scene so that everybody is shown moving around for a purpose. Sturges' movies are full of these cinematic maneuvers. Sturges stages all of the shoot-outs with his customary aplomb. "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" differs drastically from "Hour of the Gun." "Gunfight" qualified as a more bombastic western than the subdued "Hour of the Gun." Sturges has eliminated any love interest for Earp in "Hour of the Gun" so this biographical western is all about business. The photography, the settings, and the atmospheric help make this western outstanding. Sturges generates suspense with Wyatt Earp's moral decline; his willingness to let his personal feelings overwhelm his judgment. Jerry Goldsmith's evocative music seems inseparable from the gritty action. Jason Robards is both brilliant but ironic as the morally unscrupulous gambler who provides commentary on his friend's moral lapses.

An excellent book to peruse if you are interested in John Sturges, his life, and his films is Glen Lovell's top-notch biography on Sturges entitled "Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges." Mr. Lovell spent 10 years writing and researching this seminal text about Sturges.


Anybody who doesn't like the director Gary Marshall's "Runaway Bride" (*** out of ****) must be a curmudgeon. This harmless but hilarious romantic comedy about a bride with a chronic case of cold feet who abandons her men at the altar before van vow "I Do" reunites "Pretty Woman" co-stars Julia Roberts and Richard Gere after a nine year hiatus. While the big city "Pretty Woman" tied the romantic knot between a lonely investment banker and a hot, awesome street walker of a babe, "Runaway Bride" retreats deep into the country to bring a gray-haired, chauvinistic USA Today columnist eyeball-to-eyeball with a flirtatious but fickle-minded maiden who owns a local hardware store. Aside from a couple of bittersweet moments, "Runaway Bride" emerges as luminous and lighthearted as Julia's radiant smile.

Although most of the comedy in "Bride" occurs in the small town of Hale, Maryland, this entertaining battle of the sexes opens in a cozy, New York City neighborhood bar where fast-talking cynic Ike Graham (Richard Gere of "Red Corner") is searching desperately for either something or somebody to skewer in his daily column. Ike loves to infuriate woman, and many of them take a whack at him on the street with his own newspaper as if he were a mangy mutt. After director Garry Marshall and co-scenarists Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott, who together wrote "Worth Winning" and "The Favor," establish that he is a last-minute journalist, Ike hears a story that he embellishes with his sarcastic wit. A jilted groom tells Kike about a hysterical dame in Maryland who accepts marriage proposals but skips out on the way to the altar at the last minute, catching a ride on truck or horse if either is available to make good her getaway.

Unfortunately, Maggie Carpenter (Julia Roberts of "Ocean's Twelve") compiles a laundry list of Ike's inaccuracies. This prompts Ike's ex-wife turned editor, Ellie (Rita Wilson of "The Story of Us"), to fire him. No sooner has poor Ike gotten sacked than Fisher (Hector Elizondo of "Valdez Is Coming"), Ike's good friend and a photographer that free-lances for GQ magazine, concocts revenge for our hero. If Ike can catch Maggie in flight from her next wedding, GQ will publish his story and Ike's reputation will be restored.

When Ike arrives in Hale, Maryland, a community so harmonious that the town's barbershop quartet performs regularly in public, Maggie is working on fiancé number four, Bob (Christopher Meloni of "Twelve Monkeys"), a high school football coach. Of course, Maggie wants nothing to do with Ike, but Ike isn't easily shunned. Initially, as a joke during his first interview with her, Maggie and her hairdresser friends dupe Ike and dye his mane the colors of the rainbow. Later, Ike cozies up with Maggie's family. Before long, he has the entire town eating out of his hand as he learns more about Maggie's dysfunctional lifestyle. Eventually, instead of hating one another, Ike and Maggie become attracted to each other, much to Bob's chagrin.

Hopelessly predictable as it is, "Runaway Bride" qualifies nevertheless as a lot of fun, especially if you're looking for a bright, infectiously funny comedy to lighten your mood.


Once upon a time Hollywood produced live-action, G-rated movies without foul language, immorality, and gore-splattered violence. These movies neither insulted your intelligence no manipulated your emotions. The heroes differed little from the crowd. They shared the same feelings and bore the same burdens. Since the 1970s, the film industry has pretty much written off G-rated movies for adults. Basically, modern mature audiences demand large doses of embellished realism for their cinematic diet, laced heavily with vile profanity, mattress-thumping sex, and knuckle-bruising fisticuffs. These ingredients constitute the difference between G-rated movies and those rated either PG or PG-13.

Miraculously, director John Lee Hancock, who penned scripts for Clint Eastwood's "A Perfect World" (1993) and "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" (1997), hits a home run with this G-rated, feel-good, four-bagger of a baseball epic that not only celebrates America's favorite summer time sport, but also extols the competitive spirit of the game. Essentially, "The Rookie" (**** out of ****) resembles the 1984 Robert Redford saga "The Natural" about an old-time slugger who makes a comeback. Unlike "The Natural," "The Rookie" shuns swearing, sex, and violence.

Moreover, rugged Dennis Quaid plays a real-life individual. Jim Morris' autobiography, "The Oldest Rookie: Big-League Dreams from a Small-Town Guy," served as the basis for Mike "Finding Forrester") Rich's unpretentious, Norman Rockwell-style screenplay about white, middle-class aspirations. Morris attained his dream when eh debuted on the mound as a relief pitcher in 1999. Although it doesn't belong in the same league with the inspirational James Stewart classic "The Stratton Story" (1949), "The Rookie" qualifies as the kind of movie that Hollywood rarely makes anymore because audiences find them antiquated.

Hancock and Rich encapsulate their entertaining oddball biography in a halo of mysticism. A wildcat oil prospector convinces two Catholic nuns back in the 1920s to bankroll a West Texas well. Fearing they have blown their bucks on an ill-advised fantasy, the sisters blanket the arid terrain with rose petals and entreat St. Rita 'patron saint of hopeless causes' to intervene. The well gushes! The Town of Big Lake emerges, and roughnecks swat at baseballs when they aren't drilling holes in the terrain. The spirit of baseball oozes from the earth like petroleum. Meanwhile, years later, the U.S. Navy doesn't keep Jim Morris, Sr., (Brian Cos of "Manhunter") and his family in one place long before uprooting them. The constant moving takes a toll on Jim Junior. Jim's dad shows little sympathy and berates baseball.

Nevertheless, Jim has baseball in his blood, enough so that when he accepts a high school chemistry teacher's job in his Texas hometown, he organizes a baseball team. Like the foul-mouthed "Bad News Bears," "The Rookie" chronicles Jim's triumph at turning losers into winners. Morris promises the team if they reach the divisional playoffs, he will try out for a professional baseball team. Predictably, Morris' students maintain their end of the bargain. At age 35, Jim stuns the big league scouts when he hurls fastballs at 98 miles-per-hour! "The Rookie" never fouls out.


Bestselling novelist Clive Cussler should have known better than to trust Hollywood to make another of his exciting, sea-going yarns about Dirk Pitt into a movie. The first Pitt cliffhanger, "Raise the Titanic" (1980), tanked so badly at the box office that it actually hurt sales of Cussler's literary franchise. Twenty-five years after that fiasco, Cussler must have felt confident that the time was right to give his larger-than-life hero a second chance. Evidently, something went awry somewhere in the mix, because Cussler is currently suing the producers. He says that they promised him script approval then ignored him. Despite a first-rate cast, top-lining Matthew McConaughey, Stephen Zahn, and sexy Penelope Cruz, along with some scenic Moroccan locales, "Sahara" (** out of ****) amounts to nothing more than a noisy, episodic, run-of-the-thrill, $120-million potboiler. This second-rate, sun-scorched saga serves up more amusing lightweight moments than heavyweight melodramatic face-offs. The hopelessly over-plotted screenplay concocted by four scribes (newcomers Thomas Dean Donnelly & Joshua Oppenheimer as well as John C. Richards of "Nurse Betty" and James V. Hart of "Laura Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life") recycles all the usual action movie clichés and never deviates from the standard-issue, derring-do formula. For example, a henchman with a sniper rifle cannot nail a good guy charging toward him across open terrain! Armed with shell-spewing automatic weapons, the other heavies are incredibly sorry shots. Nobody but the heroes here can hit the side of a sand dune. Usually, audiences must suspend their disbelief to make it through a James Bond extravaganza or Indiana Jones epic, but "Sahara" gives new meaning to preposterous. Were that not bad enough, the chief villains emerge as ordinary, ineffectual ruffians. They pose either no tangible threat or such a marginal dramatic menace that we know our long-suffering heroes will vanquish them. When the villains lack magnitude, then the heroes lack stature. Villains make or break action movies, and the villains here have only half as much screen time as the heroes.

"Sahara" opens with a bang in the year 1865 during the final days of the Civil War. The pyrotechnics in this scene surpass anything that follows. As the Union Army bombards Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, the rebels load a fortune in gold coins aboard the C.S.S. ironclad Texas. Miraculously, the ironclad slips through the Federal blockade and vanishes without a trace. Some 140 years after the mysterious disappearance of the Texas, an ex-U.S. Navy Seal, Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey of "Reign of Fire"), embarks on an obsessive search for the missing vessel. When he isn't pursuing leads on the Texas, Pitt works as a jack-of-all-trades, deep-sea diving daredevil for retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Sandecker (the ever dependable William H. Macey of "Cellular") who presides over a private maritime salvage outfit called the National Underwater Marine Agency (NUMA). When we first meet Pitt, Sandecker, and Pitt's perennial comic sidekick Al Giordino (Steve Zahn of "National Security"), our trio of treasure hunters are pulling an African artifact off the ocean floor near Nigeria, for Yves Massarde (Lambert Wilson of "The Matrix Reloaded") a wealthy French industrialist. Meanwhile, in a separate plot, two World Health Organization doctors, Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz of "Blow") and Frank Hopper (Glynn Turman of "Light It Up"), discover a deadly infectious plague. When Eva investigates, she places herself in jeopardy. Three thugs working for a bloodthirsty African warlord, General Kazim (Lennie James of "Snatch") who has a taste for rare autos and antique firearms, manhandle Eve on a beach. Since he happens to be snorkeling nearby, Pitt intervenes and delivers Eva from their evil clutches. After she has recovered from the incident, Admiral Sandecker agrees to let Frank and her hitch a ride with Pitt and Giordino on a NUMA yacht into war-torn Mali where Pitt is tracking down his latest lead on the Texas. Sandecker has given Pitt three days to find his fabled ironclad. It seems that our hero found one of those CSA twenty dollar gold coins in a nearby African town. Naturally, our heroes collide with the ruthless general and his trigger-happy minions. Mind you, this synopsis covers only the first third of an action-thriller overloaded with exposition.

The worse thing about "Sahara" is that our heroes yap more than scrap. The bullets begin to fly about forty minutes or so into the modern day fracas. Although Eva and Dirk fight alongside each other, the sparks never fly between them. McConaughey and Cruz aren't allowed to smooch until they've dispatched the villains and saved the world from an environmental cataclysm. Not surprisingly, every character in "Sahara" qualifies as a stereotype. The scruffy, lovable Zahn steals the show with his witticisms and his butt-crack antics, while McConaughey hurls his brawny, buffed-up, deeply-tanned physique into one predicament after another. The charismatic McConaughey acquits himself well enough as an action figure, but his Dirk Pitt makes little impression as the hero of a proposed franchise. Unlike Cussler's larger-than-life literary hero, McConaughey's Pitt comes off as a colorless cross-between of James Bond and Angus MacGyver. In a crowd of cinematic heroes, Dirk Pitt just doesn't stand out. One minute Cruz's Eva behaves like a dainty, bespectacled doctor but the next minute she blasts away with a sub-machine gun like a gangster and straddles a camel as if to the saddle born. First-time helmer Breck Eisner (son of former Disney honcho Michael Eisner) directs with solid proficiency but little flair. He sticks to basics in the combat scenes. You've seen the boat chases, helicopter/car chase, and the shoot outs staged with greater ingenuity in better movies. Clocking in at over two hours, Eisner could have eliminated thirty minutes. He shepherds "Sahara" along at a leisurely pace as if urgency weren't a priority. Civil War buffs won't be fooled for an instant that anything like what "Sahara" conjures up could have occurred. Nowhere near as entertaining as the vastly superior "National Treasure," "Sahara" shares more similarities with the sprawling desert from which it draws it name.


André De Toth's brisk 74 minute western "Riding Shotgun" (*** out of ****) is an ambitious, above-average Randolph Scott horse opera that stands out from the herd. The trigger-happy outlaws here are a downright dastardly bunch; the townspeople turn into a moronic mob, and the hero creates more trouble for himself because of this credulous mob that refuse to believe him. Literally, Scott becomes the cowboy who cried wolf as far as the citizens are concerned.

Seasoned western scenarist Thomas Blackburn and De Toth have fashioned Kenneth Perkins' novel "Riding Solo" into a first-rate, suspenseful sagebrusher that never lets up on its surprises. Moreover, "Riding Shotgun" illustrates De Toth's obsession with realism. The Marady gang's decoy strategy, the act of cinching a saddle onto a horse, the use of a derringer to blast the ropes off the hero's wrists, and actions of a mob that intensify without reason keep things lively in this slam-bang shoot'em up. For example, early in the action, heroic Larry DeLong (Randolph Scott of "Colt .45") has to get a horse to follow a man who may lead him to his sworn enemy Dan Marady. Instead of simply getting an already saddled mount and swinging astride, De Toth shows Delong actually taking the time to cinch the saddle to its' back. As is the case in many De Toth films, we see the heroes and villains actually doing things—like saddling a horse—that other directors would eliminate as time-consuming and mundane. However, this is a set-up that De Toth pays off later when Delong sabotages the outlaw gang's departure by slicing through the cinches on their saddles so that they will bite the dust when they try to step aboard their p0nies.

De Toth and Blackburn allow the Randolph Scott character to narrate the picture so as to push the plot ahead and plant in our minds the very personal nature of Delong's revenge. The movie opens with Delong riding atop a stage coach as the shotgun messenger while Scott provides voice-over narration that brings the action quickly up to speed.

"For three years I dedicated every waking moment of my life to scouring the frontier for a killer for a very personal reason. I'd worked at all kinds of jobs from Wyoming to Oregon. In the last year, I'd working every stage line between Canada and Mexico, riding shotgun. I knew that sooner or later my path would again cross that of the man I wanted—Dan Marady." No sooner has Delong furnished this exposition and the stage coach rumbled past the camera than infamous Dan Marady (James Mullican of "Winchester '73") descends from the top of the pass that the stage just driven by and sends an old-timer off to the stage relay station to snooker Delong. Marady lives up to Delong's description: "as clever as he is ruthless and always managed to escape capture." Delong doesn't want to capture Marady; however, he means to kill him for the shooting deaths of his sister and his nephew. Consequently, from the outset, the hero has a strong motive to slay the villain. That makes for good drama! Anyway, Marady wants to rob the stage coach that Delong is guarding. To lure Delong away from the stage, he sends an old-timer into the relay station with his (Marady's) lucky charm derringer. At the station, Delong gets the shock of his life when he sees Marady's lucky derringer. He quits the stage coach to find out where the old-timer got the derringer and gets himself jumped and hogtied by Pinto ("The Great Escape's" Charles Bronson back when he was Buchinsky) and the rest of Marady's gang.

Marady's gang stops the coach, take the strong box, shoots up the passengers (but doesn't kill anybody) and sends the riddled stage coach off to Deepwater where the citizens take the law seriously. The outlaws—principally Pinto—mistakenly share their devious strategy with Delong who warns them about the law and order imperative of Deepwater and its stern sheriff Buck Curlew. As it turns out, Marady is counting on the zealous law and order attitude of Deepwater. He plans to let the shot-up stage careen into town. Curlew and a posse will light out after them, but they won't know that they are chasing a herd of horses instead of Marady. Meanwhile, the Marady gang will rob the Bank Club, a gambling house, and escape without harm with loot. Unfortunately, for Marady and company, Delong escapes by shooting his ropes with Marady's derringer that the old-timer dropped by accident. When Delong shows up in Deepwater with news about the Marady gang, the citizens believe that he helped the gang rob the stage since he quit guarding it. Even a kid with a slingshot pops Delong on the cheek with a stone and our hero retreats into the sanctuary of a cantina to protect himself from the angry citizen's mob. Deputy Sheriff Tub Murphy (World War II flying ace Wayne Morris of "Bad Men of Missouri") has a field day as a pot-bellied lawman that refuses to capitulate to an irate mob and has the good sense to leave Delong alone. One of the townspeople, a man (Howard Davis of "The Andy Griffith Show where he played Earnest T. Bass) has noose ready for our hero. Eventually, the Marady gang ride into Deepwater and the fireworks erupt.

The good thing about "Riding Shotgun" is that the noble hero finds himself behind the eight-ball more often than not, and life is no cake walk for him. Millican is great as Scott's nemesis and Davis makes memorable impression without having to utter a syllable. Bronson has a great scene where he describes his trek across an inhospitable desert as a result of Delong's pursuit. De Toth sprinkles prostitute characters in the street mob as an added example of realism. "Riding Shotgun" is loaded with enough excitement, realism, and suspense to make it a blast to watch despite its age.


"My Six Convicts" director Hugo Fregonese's American Civil War saga "The Raid" (**** out of ****) qualifies as a genuine cult classic because it represents one of the rare occasions where the Confederacy triumphs over the Union in a Hollywood war picture. Not only does Major Neal Benton (Van Heflin of "Shane") lead his men in gray to victory, but he also achieves this exceptional feat in the North's own backyard in New England. Ostensibly, "Violent Saturday" scenarist Sydney Boehm derived his well-written screenplay from Francis Cockrell's story taken from Charleston author Herbert Ravenal Sass's non-fiction book "Affair at St. Albans." The trim, 83-minute, widescreen, Cinemascope, Technicolor epic depicts Confederate soldiers robbing three banks in St. Albans, Vermont, during October of 1864 and getting away with the loot! In other words, the Confederacy wins in the end! Mind you, any American Civil War historian knows that the Dixie won its share of battles during the war, but Hollywood seldom lets the South win on the big-screen. The same critics and moviegoers who objected strenuously to director Ronald Maxwell's sympathetic portrayal of Jeb Stuart and the Confederacy in "Gods and Generals" probably would abhor this true-life re-enactment of a Southern victory. Simply said, movies like "Gods and Generals" and "The Raid" are not politically correct in our status quo driven society. Nevertheless, Buenos Aires born helmer Hugo Fregonese has acquitted himself splendidly with the material and has assembled a first-rate cast, including Richard Boone, Lee Marvin, James Best, Claude Akins, and Peter Graves in strong supporting roles. Tension, suspense, and surprises galore make this movie intriguing and enjoyable, particularly for the sons and daughters of Confederate veterans who want to relive a moment of glory. Naturally, if you've read this far, the tension, suspense and surprises will be mitigated because you'll know the outcome. When I first saw "The Raid," I have gnawing dread in my stomach that the Yankees would win because they are typically regarded as the good guys and the Rebels are consistently shown as the bad guys. Whatever possessed Twentieth Century Fox to produce this movie is beyond me, but I know that the same studio took a beating for its first movie about Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Henry Hathaway's "The Desert Fox," which critics and the public alike condemned.

C.S.A. Major Neal Benton (Van Heflin) and his fellow officers break out of a Union stockade in Plattsburg, New York, late one evening. Lieutenant Keating (Lee Marvin of "The Dirty Dozen"), Captain Frank Dwyer (Peter Graves of "Stalag 13"), Lieutenant Ramsey (Claude Atkins of "Return of the Seven"), and Lieutenant Robinson (James Best of "The Dukes of Hazzard") almost make it out of the stockade before Union sentries spot them and Keating kills one with a rifle. The Yankees pursue them and our heroes have to leave a fatally wounded comrade, Captain Dupree (George Keymass), behind with a revolver. When the Yankees catch up with Dupree, they shoot him ten times and he dies, but our protagonists manage to flee to the sanctuary of Canada. During this exciting episode, Fregonese and Boehm establish the villainy of one Confederate officer; Lee Marvin's Lieutenant Keating is a hot-headed, pugnacious Southerner who is obsessed with the destruction of all things Northern. Benton knows that Keating is a liability, but he brings him along anyway. Early in his career, the future Academy Award winning Marvin specialized in playing merciless killers. Once the Southerners are across the border, they go into action again and Confederate Colonel Tucker (British born actor Paul Cavanagh of "The House of Fear") furnishes them with provisions for a raid across the border into the fat, sassy New England town of St. Albans with its three banks.

Benton masquerades as Canadian businessman Neal Swayze and visits local banker Josiah Anderson, (Will Wright who played skinflint Ben Weaver on three episodes of "The Andy Griffith Show") about properties for sale around the town. Anderson recommends that Swayze stay at the boarding house of Katie Bishop (Oscar winner Anne Bancroft of "The Miracle Worker") and her young son Larry (Tommy Rettig of CBS-TV's "Lassie"), because the vittles are good. In reality, Anderson owns the note on Bishop's boarding house. Swayze relies on both Katie and Larry to show him around the outskirts of St. Albans so he can see the properties. Swayze's presence in Katie's boarding house grates on one of her boarders, one-armed Union officer Captain Lionel Foster (Richard Boone of "The Shootist"), who resents the way that Swayze appears to toy with Katie's affections. Anyway, Swayze completes his reconnaissance of St. Albans and learns that the road out of town crosses a deep, rapidly flowing river. He brings his men into St. Albans and stations them at an abandoned farmhouse on the far side of the river. Keating and Robinson appear in town and not long afterward Dwyer arrives in a wagon selling pots and pans. Later, Swayze lays out his attack plan on the town and demonstrates the use of liquid explosives which they will use to burn parts of the town. Colonel Tucker wants this raid to be the first of many so that Union troops will be forced to serve rear guard duty.

Fregonese and Boehm cram a surfeit of detail into his crisp, concise thriller. Swayze grows fond of Katie and her son Larry worships him, especially after he is forced to gun down one of his men in church to prevent the townspeople from learning about their raid. Nothing is a picnic in "The Raid." The Southern protagonists have as much to worry about from their own kind as well as the Yankees who make an unscheduled appearance in town and thwart their time table. Nevertheless, Fregonese and Boehm don't waste a moment and "The Raid" gathers momentum right up to the infamous raid itself. This movie will keep you on the edge of your seat if you enjoy this type of drama. All the characters are beautifully written, especially Richard Boone's dour Captain Foster.


The lavish 1945 Warner Brothers western release "San Antonio" (***1/2 out of ****) with Errol Flynn, Alexis Smith, Paul Kelly, and S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall qualifies as an above average frontier fracas, probably the last really top-notch oater that Flynn made before his career dried up in the late 1950s. Mind you, Flynn, Smith, and Sakall reassembled for Ray Enright's "Montana" in 1950. The chief asset of war-time western is Bert Glennon's glorious Technicolor photography. Check out the shots near the beginning as a horseman is silhouetted against a burnished gold sky and the night-time long shot inside the Alamo, these shots look dazzling even on my ancient 20 inch color TV. The action in this World War II era sagebrusher is fairly ordinary on cursory inspection until you've seen it a few times and you think about how anarchic things are in Texas that the hero is forced into exile in Mexico while the villains live things up in the lap of luxury in San Antonio. Flynn never made a movie where his heroic character was in such a bad way that he had to voluntarily leave America and conceal himself. Of course, in his incomparable "Captain Blood," he was wrongly imprisoned, but he didn't imprison himself. Flynn fans will enjoy his cheerful banter with co-star Alex Smith. Many feel that she was not as compatible with him the way that dainty little Olivia De Havilland was in their five films together. Actually, I think that the Smith & Flynn relationship is more even, because she projects a greater physical presence than De Havilland. In other words, Smith could go toe to toe with Flynn better than the diminutive Ms. De Havilland. The other outstanding thing about "San Antonio" is its Oscar nominated theme song "One Sunday Morning." This knock-out tune bolsters the movie and it improves with each viewing. The other Oscar nomination went to the art direction which the beautiful Technicolor lensing brings in fabulous detail. "San Antonio" ranks at the very least as an all around good looking western with a superb song, spectacular color photography, and Max Steiner's lively contribution to the orchestral score is unmistakable.

The action opens with Texas cattleman Charlie Bell (the ever reliable John Litel) crossing the Tex-Mex border to root Clay Hardin (Errol Flynn) out of exile. As it turns out, Clay has been biding his time before he returns to Texas for a showdown with lead heavy Roy Stuart (Paul Kelly of "The Springfield Rifle") who is the chief architect behind a massive cattle rustling ring that has robbed and stolen thousands of dollars from Texas cattlemen. It seems that Clay liberated a tally book from one of Stuart's henchmen has all the dirty details. Charlie Bell warns Clay that the opposition is expecting him and wants to kill him, but threats of death and violence do not deter Clay Hardin. He tells Charlie to get him a ticket on the next stage to San Antonio. Of course, Charlie regards this as a brazen and unwise thing to do, but Clay goes ahead with it anyway. Meanwhile, two Stuart henchmen are waiting for our hero who stops off along the way to catch a ride on a different stagecoach, one chartered for a New Orleans entertainer Jeanne Star (Alexis Smith of "The Doughgirls") who is supposed to sing in Roy Stuart's saloon. Jeanne's likable but befuddled business manager Sacha Bozic (lovable flabby jowled S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall of "Casablanca") lined up the engagement through an old acquaintance of her Jeanne's Legare (shifty-eyed Victor Francen of "The Desert Song") who is partners with Roy Stuart. Along the way, Clay tangles with Stuart-sent gunman Lafe Williams (Tom Tyler of "The Adventures of Captain Marvel") and guns him down in a memorable shoot-out. The rest of "San Antonio" consists of Clay Hardin and Roy Stuart circling each other warily like a mongoose and a cobra in an arena that only one can exit alive. The action really gathers momentum after an exciting scene where Legare guns down Charlie Bell in a back ally and the shadow of Sacha looms over both. Legare threatens to kill Sacha if the funny little fat man utters a word. Meanwhile, Clay gets the mistaken notion that Jeanne set him up for Roy Stuart. Later, we get to see a massive saloon shoot-out on the scale of the saloon brawl in Michael Curtiz's "Dodge City." The eventful, hard-as-nails frontier action in an above-average script by "Little Caesar" scenarist W.R. Burnett and Alan Le May—best known for his novel "The Searchers" that became a John Wayne classic—offsets the antics of Cuddles. Anybody who knows anything about Warner Brothers movies from that age knows that a lot of Cuddles' dialogue sounds like something that Michael Curtiz would have said. When Cuddles spots a rider less horse, he turns to the stagecoach driver and proclaims, "There goes an empty horse." This line immortalized first in David Niven's autobiography about the time that he made "The Charge of the Light Brigade" with Flynn and Curtiz referred to bare-backed horses as "empty" horses. The dialogue turns out to be filled in loads of quotable dialogue. Cuddles' comic dialogue sounds almost as good as the Marx Brothers with lines like: "If you can't say nothing, don't speak." Kelly and Francen make excellent villains as does Tom Tyler at the beginning of the film. Let's not overlook those sexy costumes that Alexis flaunts her oh-so-hottie body in.

You can't go wrong with "San Antonio."


When British Major Richard Mace (Stewart Granger of "North to Alaska") with his stiff upper lip meets the five convicts from all parts of the globe who are going to help him carry out his difficult but important mission, he informs them from the start: "You men were not my choice for this mission. Intelligence seems to think that your peculiar talents could be of some value but don't for a moment imagine that serving under me will be easier than the prisons you came from. You've all been offered pardons to undertake this mission. You've given your word to cooperate and I expect you to keep it." Roberto Rocca (Raf Vallone of "Nevada Smith") is the most literate with a college degree in psychology and he becomes the organizer of the bunch. Mickey Rooney of the famous MGM "Andy Hardy" movies is an Irishman named Terry Scanlon; his specialties including picking locks and demolitions unless he can find a good bottle of corn whiskey to distract him. Edd Byrnes of TV's "77 Sunset Strip" is the forger Simon Fell. Tough guy actor Henry Silva of "Ocean's 11" is the cold-blooded assassin John Durrell, a man of few words whose actions speak far more eloquently than his language. Finally, William Campbell is pretty boy Jean Saval who can impersonate anybody. Mace and these men are part of an overall Allied invasion of the southern Europe, principally the Balkans. Their mission is to distract the Nazis from the actual invasion by liberating a high-ranking officer General Quadri (Enzo Fiermonte of "A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die") from a Nazi prison stronghold who can unite the partisans and keep the German Army busy.

Producer & director Roger Corman earned a reputation cranking out low budget, drive-in movie creature features, but "The Secret Invasion" represents a drastic departure of his usual nonsense. This above-average World War II epic is bolstered by a strong cast headed by English actor Stewart Granger and scenic locations in both Croatia and Yugoslavia that lend a sense of authenticity to this impossible mission epic. Furthermore, produced as it was in 1964, "The Secret Invasion" beat director Robert Aldritch's superior pardon the convicts for a top secret classified mission "The Dirty Dozen" (1967) by three years. Mind you, "The Secret Invasion" wasn't the top box office draw of 1964 that "The Dirty Dozen" proved it was in 1967, but this offbeat World War II movie is still pretty damned good in and of itself.

Our heroes enter the Balkans by way of a fishing boat, rather like Gregory Peck and his companions in "The Guns of Navarone," but things go awry when Simon tries to escape and the others have to dive over the side and swim around behind a Nazi patrol boat to kill the enemy. Once they enter the country, they start to work on a plan, but their plans are short-lived because the Nazis capture a resistance leader and he cracks under torture. Eventually, after a running roof-top gun battle between our heroes and the Nazis, the Germans are able to capture the good guys. As Roberto observes when the Nazis demand their surrender, they had planned all along to get into the prison one way or another. Once they are prisoners, they have to put up with the former commandant's eternal interrogations, but our heroes fool him long enough for Scanlon to pick the lock of their cell with a tool devised from dinner ware while Saval impersonates him. They manage to escape with General Quadri. The first convict to bite the dust is Simon Fell. Scanlon manages to blow up a machine gun nest in a fortified battlement but Major Mace receives a nasty leg wound and opts to lead their pursuers in the wrong direction. When the remainder of the convicts reach the resistance holed up in a monastery, they are surprised to learn that General Quadri is not General Quadri but instead an imposter! Now, how do they get out of this tight spot? "The Secret Invasion" qualifies as one of the few times that director Roger Corman proved that he could make a bigger budget picture. There's nothing really outlandish in R. Wright Campbell's formulaic screenplay. One of the most memorable scenes has one of the convicts smothering an infant to keep it from crying out and alerting the Nazis about their whereabouts. The irony is that the character that smothers the child while its mother stood beside him had no idea what he was doing when he did it.

Hardcore World War II movie fanatics shouldn't miss this landmark pardon the convicts spectacle.


Anybody that enjoyed "Reservoir Dogs" (1992) Quentin Tarantino's bloody, bullet-riddled heist caper, should have no qualms about watching veteran director John Frankenheimer's hard-boiled crime thriller "Reindeer Games" (**** out of ****) with Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron, and Gary Sinise.

This outlandish but entertaining Tarantinoesque slay ride about mistaken identities, double-crosses galore, machine-gun toting Santa Clauses, and a botched casino robbery at Christmas flaunts a quality cast, an audacious script, and some riveting, white-knuckled suspense scenes.

Affleck makes a strong, charismatic hero in his first tough guy actioneer as he matches wits, fists, and guns with sinister Gary Sinise. While heavily-armed, trash-talking, macho males dominate this testosterone-soaked saga, Charlize Theron takes top acting honors as a manipulative, man-eating temptress.

Scenarist Ehren Kruger, who penned "Arlington Road" and "Scream 3," has written a lively but literate, tongue-in-check melodrama with about as many endings as the 1998 Denise Richards romp "Wild Things" with Matt Dillon.

Auto thief Rudy Duncan (Ben Affleck of "Chasing Amy") and his cellmate, Nick (James Frain), have 48-hours left to serve in Michigan's austere Iron Mountain Prison. Rudy has grown weary of listening to Nick read him letters from a woman who has become his pen pal. No matter how often Rudy warns him about strange women, Nick plans to hook up with this dame after he gets out.

Everything is going swell for them when a riot erupts in the prison cafeteria over a roach-infested gelatin dessert. A vengeful inmate, just out-of-solitary packing a grudge and a shiv for Rudy, tries to carve up our protagonist during the chaos, but Nick takes the knife for his friend and appears to die in his arms.

As Rudy leave prison, he spots Ashley Mercer (sexy Charlize Theron of "Monster"), the girl Nick had worshipped in his letters, and decides to take advantage of her ignorance. Nick never sent her his photo, so Ashley believes Rudy when he takes over Nick's identity. Rudy enjoys a bang-up, one-night orgy until Ashley's low-life brother, Gabriel (Gary Sinise of "Mission to Mars"), a violent, unhinged, trucker who sells contraband guns, spoils their fun.

No matter how much he protests that he isn't Nick, Rudy cannot convince Gabriel and his trigger-happy thugs that they have made a mistake. Ashley warns Rudy that her brother won't hesitate to kill him if he suspects treachery.

Reluctantly, Rudy assures Gabriel that he is really Nick, only to learn that Gabriel wants to knock over the casino where Nick worked before he went up to serve time. Meanwhile, former Las Vegas casino operator Jack Bangs (Dennis Farina of "Manhunter") is having trouble attracting gamblers to the Tomahawk, a casino owned by an Indian tribe. Gabriel plans the robbery for Christmas day, with Rudy providing crucial details about the guards, alarms, and security precautions.

Legendary director John Frankenheimer, who helmed "Ronin," "Seconds," and "The Manchurian Candidate," never lets the action bog down in this nimble-minded thriller. Great action movies paint their heroes into a corner and try to bring the house down on them. "Reindeer Games," a first-rate, four-star action opus, piles on the pressure and never gives its wily protagonist a break until fade-out. Outside of his work with Kevin Smith, this ranks as Ben Affleck's best work.


The notorious Reno outlaw gang ride into the town of North Vernon in Indiana in 1866 and try to rob the bank, but the good citizens have prepared a reception for them, and they manage to surprise and kill one of the gang. Forrest Tucker of "Sands of Iwo Jima" heads up the Reno gang as Frank. His brothers include Sim Reno (J. Carrol Naish of "Tiger Shark"), John Reno (Myron Healey of "Combat Squad"), and Bill Reno (Richard Garland of "The Lawless Breed"). Bill dies during the abortive bank robbery, shot dead on the plank walk outside the bank after the gang had climbed out of a high-walled wagon that they had hidden in during the ride into town.

The authorities pursue the gang on horseback to the county line where they have to rein up because the Renos control the law in Jackson County in which they live. Indeed, the Jackson County authorities receive a percentage of the proceeds from each Reno gang robbery so they tolerate the brothers. Anyway, Frank Reno is furious about Bill's death because he suspected that something just wasn't right when they rode into town. Meanwhile, his sister Laura (Mala Powers of "The Storm Rider") isn't overjoyed about it either. She serves as their cook and allows them to live in the house that she inherited from her parents. Laura's relationship with her outlaw brothers ripples with tension. The Renos believe that a spy must have warned the citizens of North Vernon. Initially, Sim accuses their psalm-singing brother Clint (Denver Pyle of "The Dukes of Hazzard") of informing on them, but they discover that the real rat is Murphy (Arthur Space of "Target Earth"), a bartender in town who sends messages to the Chicago-based Peterson Detective Agency. Frank, Sim, and John beat Murphy up, tie his unconscious body to a stall in a horse stable, and torch the place. 'Cremated alive' proclaims the press when word of Murphy's death reaches the Windy City. After word reaches the Peterson Agency, they hire James Barlow (Randolph Scott of "Seven Men from Now") to lead the investigation. The Detective Agency boss tells one of his seasoned hands that he has recalled from Denver, Monk Claxton (Kenneth Tobey of "The Thing from Another World"), that he is to follow all of Barlow's orders "implicitly." According to the Peterson chief, Barlow is worth "an army of men." Western novelist and scriptwriter Frank Gruber of "Northern Pursuit" wrote the story for "Rage at Dawn" and crime novelist Horace McCoy penned the screenplay. This outdoors melodrama is another one of those movies where the hero stages a hold-up to infiltrate a gang, but Barlow plans to have the Reno brothers ask for him to join them than the other way around. Barlow is known to be "irresistible" to the ladies and he helps Laura when he meets her in the store and flashes his cash from the 'supposed' robbery. Meanwhile, Prosecuting Attorney Lattimore (Howard Petrie of "The Tin Star") and the sheriff (Ray Teal of TV's "Bonanza") visit the Reno place and question Frank about the robbery. Repeatedly, Frank assures them that the Renos did not rob the train, but Sim observes that he wished they had waylaid the train and taken the $30-thousand dollars. Frank spits in contempt at the prosecutor, and the sheriff and Lattimore leave as Laurie returns from his grocery shopping. During her shopping in town, she met James Barlow and he helped her carry her goods to her buggy. When two Reno gang henchmen tried to run the unarmed Barlow off, he roughed them up and disarmed them. Barlow is posing as a painter. Not surprisingly, when Lattimore and the sheriff return to town, they have a parley with another member of the local government, the judge (Edgar Buchanan of "Texas"), who is in on the graft and corruption, too. Lattimore is worried because their collusion with the Reno brothers is the worst kept secret in the county. Eventually, the corrupt officials get suspicious about James and Monk and drag them in for questioning. Barlow demands to see the judge and he works out a sweet deal with his honor. The corrupt officials send Barlow along with the Renos in their next hold-up and Barlow shoots the gun out of a clerk's hand during the robbery. The Renos are angry with Barlow because he forced them to flee too early, but Barlow defends his actions. Instead of letting the employees stand up during the robbery, Barlow argues that everybody should have been on the floor. Peterson and Barlow arrange for another robbery for $100-thousand dollars and Barlow informs the judge. Reluctantly, the Renos agree to ride with Barlow and Monk, but Sim threatens to kill Barlow once they've robbed the train..

"Rage at Dawn" (** out of ****) gets off to a nimble start. Director Tim Whelan introduces us to the nefarious Reno brothers in the opening 20 minutes. After Whelan and McCoy have established the Renos' villainy and the corruption of the Jackson County officials, Scott makes his entrance. Before Scott shows up, the Peterson Detective Agency president builds him up to Monk and his son as a titan. Previously Whelan had directed Randolph Scott in "Badman's Territory" (1946). Moreover, in 1950, Scott and Tucker co-starred in "The Nevadan." "The Nevadan" had a similar plot with Scott going undercover. Ostensibly, "Rage at Dawn" is just another disposable western shoot'em up. Nevertheless, Scott, Tucker, Naish, and a veteran cast are a pleasure to watch and Whelan paces the action agreeably enough in this solid, if uninspired oater. Most of the DVD versions of this public domain western are full-screen, but you can tell from the pictorial compositions that the screen ratio wasn't 1:33.1, but was probably either 1.66 or 1.78, because characters are cut-off in the frame. Ray Rennahan's color photography gives this oater an epic quality. Beware of the PMC Corporation DVD version; the lips are not synchronized properly with the dialogue.