Sunday, October 5, 2008


"Ride Beyond Vengeance" (**1/2 out of ****)is a gritty, violent, but far from unsavory frontier western revenge saga starring Chuck Connors that could almost be mistaken for a Spaghetti western, except for its polished production values, its humane characters, and its offbeat ending. Hollywood wasn't making westerns like this until a few years later after the Spaghettis had taken violence to more intense, savage levels. In fact, in 1968, Chuck Connors followed a stream of American leading men who migrated to Europe to cash in on the Spaghetti western craze and played in a forgotten but rip-snorting little shoot'em up called "Kill Them All and Come Back Alive."

Derived from Al Dewlen's novel "Night of the Tiger," "Ride Beyond Vengeance" begins in the contemporary Texas town of Cold Iron when an exhausted census taker (James MacArthur of CBS-TV's "Hawaii 5-0") visits a cafe and points out to the man behind the counter (Arthur O'Connell of "The Poseidon Adventure") that three names are popular with the town's folk. The narrator explains the relevance of those names and links them to a legend about a vengeful man who went on a rampage in Cold Iron when it was a frontier berg. Veteran TV director Bernard McEveety, who helmed episodes on virtually every major TV western series, including "Gunsmoke," "Branded," "Laredo," "Bonanza," and "Rawhide," takes us back to the past as O'Connell begins his narration about the turbulent events that rocked Cold Iron to its roots.

The first set of flashbacks open with rugged Chuck Connors sporting a shaggy beard and riding a horse through the wilderness. We learn that he had left his hometown eleven years and also had deserted his pretty wife. During that decade he lived as a buffalo hunter and earned $17-thousand dollars shooting and killing the beasts for their hides. On his way back to Cold Iron, Jonas (Chuck Connors of "The Big Country") spots a campfire. Although he finds nobody at the camp, he helps himself to the coffee and then notices a roped calf nearby. At that point, things take a turn for the worst. Three men emerge from the brush and get the drop on him. Crazy, pistol-toting Elwood Coates (Claude Atkins of "Return of the Seven"), handsome, well-dressed Johnsy Boy Hood (Bill Bixby of CBS-TV's "My Favorite Martian"), and local banker Brooks Durham (Michael Rennie of "The Day The Earth Stood Still") accuse Jonas of rustling cattle. Naturally, our innocent protagonist denies their allegation. Coates wants to string up Jonas. Brooks persuades them not to hang Jonas, but Johnsy Boy devises something rather sadistic instead of hanging. He wields a branding iron and sears a T-shape mark into Jonas' chest and our hero passes out. McEveety shows us the branding iron from Jonas's point of view so that the glowing end is hovering in our faces.

We learn from another flashback in writer/producer Andrew J. Fenady's screenplay that Jonas came from the wrong side of the tracks and married a town girl, Jessie (TV actress Kathryn Hays), despite the protests of her wealthy mother. Jessie lied to her Aunt Gussie (Ruth Warrick of "Citizen Kane") and told her that she was pregnant in order to wed Jonas. Eventually, Jonas gets fed up with living with his aunt. He hates the fact that he cannot find a decent job and must do the work of a boy for the pay of a boy. Jonas tries to convince Jessie to leave her aunt and start life anew, but she refuses to abandon her ailing aunt. Jonas rides off and Jessie discovers that her wealthy mother was up to her ears in debt and Jessie has to rely on Durham to help her survive.

Eventually, Jonas recovers from the branding and discovers that his $17-thousand dollars is missing. He rides into Cold Iron and finds Johnsy Boy, follows him into the brush, and threatens to brand him as Johnsy had branded him. At the last minute, as Jonas is about to relent, Johnsy Boy seizes the branding iron, brands himself and disappears howling mad insane into the wilderness. Later, Elwood learns about the missing money and he tries to kill Brooks. Elwood gets into a knuckle-busting fight with Jonas and they destroy the local saloon before Jonas shoots him. Brooks confesses to the townspeople that he stole Jonas' money. When everything is said and done, Jonas lets Brooks live and leaves the town and his wife again.

Director Bernard McEveety must have relished this opportunity to make a grim, unrelenting western as opposed to the family friendly western fare that he had done for prime-time television. Everybody uses some profanity, primarily "Hell" and "bastard," and Fenady's flavorful dialogue is rift with interesting slang. "Ride Beyond Vengeance" isn't exactly memorable, but it is gripping throughout its 101 minutes and boils over with melodrama. Bill Bixby and Claude Atkins shine as venomous villains. Atkins' ruffian character carries on a conversation with an imaginary character called 'Whiskey Man.' McEveety stages a standard knock down, drag-out brawl in a saloon between Atkins and Connors that was a little rougher than usual. The supporting cast is almost too good for this minor western. In the process seasoned Hollywood celebrities like Joan Blondell and Gloria Grahame are squandered in peripheral roles as is Frank Gorshin who has one big scene where he describes the grisly death of Bill Bixby's character, particularly how Johnsy Boy's guts resembled blue snakes. The atmospheric title song by Glenn Yarbrough has some catchy lyrics. Writer/producer Fenady went on to produce the John Wayne epic "Chism," but "Ride Beyond Vengeance" surpasses "Chism" in terms of its violence and its villains. Most but not all of the action takes place in a Hollywood western set that looks too polished for it to be a Spaghetti western. Nevertheless, Connors makes a convincing, sympathetic hero who loves cats. Not bad for its kind.


Sometimes when you get a chance to see the previews for a movie, you learn more about the story than the characters even know. Worse, you find yourself so far ahead of them that you grow impatient while waiting for them to catch up. They call this situation 'dramatic irony.' More than 30 minutes elapse in "Random Hearts" (* out of ****)before Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas realize that their respective spouses have not only died in a tragic plane crash, but that they also were cheating on them. Sadly, Oscar-winning director Sydney Pollack of "Out of Africa" and his scenarists—Kurt Luedtke and Daryl Ponicsan--belabor the inevitable, trivialize adultery, and pad the action with two obligatory subplots that interfere with the main romance.

Although Warren Adler's novel served as the source material for "Random Hearts," this contemporary tale of ill-fated, middle-aged lovers draws inspiration from Sir David Lean's classic, 1945, rainy day soaper "Brief Encounter." Unlike Lean's legendary weepie, "Random Hearts" whirls aimlessly in circles but never seems to go anywhere, chiseling its audience out of any kind of emotional closure with its humdrum ending. Ford and Thomas both radiate celestial Hollywood star power, but their combined wattage cannot energize this comatose two-hour and 13-minute tearjerker.

Cast as a District of Columbia cop assigned to Internal Affairs, Ford is appropriately tight-lipped and believably gruff as Sergeant Dutch Van Den Broeck. "They call me Dutch—it's easier," he likes to tell people. Dutch busts bad cops, but racking up convictions to earn a long overdue promotion to lieutenant is not his style. He is as content as a police sergeant as he is secure in his marriage to his pretty wife Peyton (Susan Thompson of "Ghosts of Mississippi), a catalog designer for Saks Fifth Avenue. Sadly, Dutch lives in a fool's paradise, and the revelations from the plane crash shatter him. Ford is credible as the cuckolded cop, but his short, bristly hairstyle and a gold stud in his ear lobe contradict his blue-collar sensibilities.

Thomas plays Kay Chandler, a fastidious, New Hampshire, Republican congresswoman running for reelection against a billionaire opponent with few scruples. Married to well-heeled Washington attorney Cullen (Peter Coyote in a cameo role), Kay adores her 15-year old daughter Jessica (Kate Mara). Obviously, a scandal is the last thing that Kay needs during her re-election bid. When she discovers what her philandering husband has been doing, she keeps the truth from her daughter—and tries to deny it herself. "If they find out about your wife, it's gossip," Kay tells Dutch. "If they find out about my husband, it's in the newspapers.

The recurring question that haunts the characters in the Kurt "Out of Africa" Luedtke & Daryl "The Last Detail" Ponicsan screenplay is: How deeply can we trust our partners as well as ourselves? The drama in "Random Hearts: grows out of the troubled relationship that evolved when Dutch shows up at her apartment one day with a series of questions about Cullen. Dutch cannot believe that his wife cheated on him. Obsessively, he must turn over every rock in his search for the truth. Dutch figures Kay must be just as curious. They have a fling while he investigates the untimely death of their spouses. Kay fears Dutch because he cannot leave well enough alone, and the sense of betrayal that Dutch feels threatens his sanity.

The people that made "Random Hearts" had the right idea. Like most classic love stories, the characters share little in common except for their grief and betrayal, and they clash when they first collide. Diametrical opposites always attract in this genre, but the coupling of Kay and Dutch seems more like a screenwriter's conceit than a credible liaison. These characters never win our sympathy because they are too self-absorbed to see what is really happening around them. Further, Dutch and Kay aren't as interesting as their adulterous spouses. You know that a movie is in trouble, too, when forty-five minutes pass before its main characters get together. Luedtke and Ponicsan furnish Ford and Thomas with dialogue that verges on the ridiculous.

At one point, before they hop into the sack, Kay says to Dutch: "I'm not going to make small talk so there won't be any junk between us." Later, Kay observes about herself: "Nobody knows who I am anymore." While "Random Hearts" refuses to condone adultery, its sentiments about extramarital affairs seems capricious. During a conversation with one of his late wife's colleagues, Dutch listens as the woman explains how she accidentally caught her own erring husband in bed with another woman. Instead of exposing them, she felt discretion was the better part of fidelity and fled. "I kept my mouth shut and I never went home again without calling first," she states.

Some of the late Stanley Kubrick must have rubbed off on Pollack. Pollack, if you recall, acted in Kubrick's final film "Eyes Wide Shut." Kubrick was known for slowly paced epics. Similarly, Pollack takes great pains to draw out "Random Hearts" with long, dramatic pauses. The two subplots involving a crooked cop that Dutch is investigating and Kay's reelection campaign add nothing other than an obligatory shoot-out and Pollack himself as a spin doctor moderating Kay's election.

"Random Hearts" emerges as a gorgeous looking but glum melodrama that creeps along with agonizing solemnity before it arbitrarily fades out on a hollow note. Despite its gripping premise and its polished craftsmanship, "Random Hearts" is still a mopey love story in search of a pulse.


Husband and wife scenarists John and Joyce Carrington of "Boxcar Bertha" fame alter Richard Matheson's novel "I Am Legend" in "Mosquito Squadron" director Boris Sagal's violent remake as "The Omega Man" (**1/2 out of ****)with Charlton Heston taking over the character that Vincent Price created in the 1964 original film "The Last Man on Earth." Germ warfare has devastated the earth, and scientist John Neville is the only man alive who has acquired immunity from the plague that gradually turns humans into mutants. Unlike the brooding Italian-produced original, where the plague turned everybody into zombie-like vampires, "The Omega Man" turns everybody into a mob of pale-faced maniacs that can only come out after dark to do their dirty deeds. These fiends wear hooded robes and resemble albinos. They are a murderous bunch led by a former TV news announcer named Mathias (Anthony Zerbe of "License to Kill") and they refer to themselves as 'the Family.' This is one of the better aspect of this hit and miss melodrama. Mathias is Neville's sworn enemy, and Mathias' mutant mob never stop trying to kill our hero. When Mathias and company are not roaming the streets in search of Neville, they hole up in the courthouse and await the sun to go down. (This is another clever touch in a film that needs a lot of clever touches. Sunlight damages their eyes and weakens them. During the day, Neville scours Los Angeles for signs of intelligent life. The mutant capture him early on, and Mathias is about to have him killed when Dutch (Paul Koslo of "Joe Kidd") and Lisa (Rosalind Cash of "Klute") rescue him. They surprise the mutants by turning on the stadium lights so Neville can overpower his captors and flee. Briefly, Neville and his newly discovered friends join forces. Neville distills a serum from his own blood and saves Lisa's little brother Ritchie (Eric Laneuville of "Death Wish") but Lisa turns and allows Mathias and his vermin ambush Neville.

Warner Brothers lensed the second version of "I Am Legend" entirely in Los Angeles on Sundays and holidays when the streets were empty and the filmmakers could simulate a city abandoned. Boris Sagal and his scribes change up the hero so that he is more military minded in his destruction of his enemies. Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) was merely a scientist, whereas Heston arms himself with an array of ultra-cool, exotic weaponry to battle the villains. Unlike Vincent Price and Will Smith's heroes, Heston doesn't have a dog. Heston's Neville resides in a fortified town-house and parks his car in an underground garage, a far cry from Price's modest digs. The other major change is that the villains are no longer vampires. They behave like a mob. They don't shamble like zombies; instead, they can run, jump, and throw spears. Despite their greater numbers, they prove easy prey when our hero packs a grease gun and can mow them down. Unquestionably, Sagal and company have opened up the Matheson novel and given it greater scope—aside from its widescreen Cinemascope—with an ending that bodes well for humanity. Basically, "The Omega Man" serves as a metaphor of the theme of the erosion of white male authority figures during the 1970s when fringe groups managed to acquire greater influence over society. Otherwise, most of what happens alternates between Neville shooting his way out of scrapes and pretentious dialogue about his messiah status. An inter-racial romance between Heston and Cash isn't allowed to go very far, even though they spend an on-screen night in the sack and we see Cash nude from the side the next morning as she opens the curtains to let the sun into the room. Charlton Heston spends at least half of the film running around bare-chested displaying his athletic prowess. Composer Ron Grainer of "Dr. Who" and "The Prisoner" contributes a lackluster score, especially during the opening credits.

Undoubtedly, "The Omega Man" sits better for a mainstream audience but it lacks the atmosphere of the Price original.


Sergio Leone's superlative "For a Few Dollars More" (**** OUT OF ****) with Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef ranks in the top five of all Spaghetti westerns. This exciting bounty hunter shoot'em up has Monco (Clint Eastwood) forming an uneasy alliance with Colonel Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) to wipe out a ruthless gang of murderous desperadoes. Monco wants the bounty on El Indio (Gian Maria Volonte of "A Bullet for the General") and his gang, while Colonel Mortimer vows to kill Indio strictly out of revenge because the dastard raped his sister and she committed suicide. A multitude of distinctive Leone touches appear in this fabulous frontier saga; this represents the first time that Leone would stage a gunfight in the round. Meanwhile, Ennio Morricone's theme music is classic with its chiming bells, piercing whistles, and crisp whip cracks, but it is the tender and moving watch-piece theme that is really memorable here. Leone and cinematographer Massimo Dallamano lensed this 132 minute oater in the craggy mountainous regions of southern Spain that substitute marvelously for the American southwest. Every time that a six-gun toting character tramps the gritty earth with his jingling, spur-clad boots, you can hear the scratchy sound of dirt being displaced. The sets seem so much more authentic the way that they have been grafted to the spartan scenery.

The opening words on screen establish "For a Few Dollars More" as a bounty hunting western: "Where life has no value, death sometimes has its price. This is why the bounty hunters appeared." Clint Eastwood returns as the monosyllabic gunman dressed in a serape, with wrist-bands, and a Colt's .45 revolver with a coiled snake on the plow handle grip. More than Eastwood's stoic performance, it is Lee Van Cleef's formidable presence as a natty stranger clad in black who carries an arsenal of weapons on his horse that makes this western stand out. Originally, Leone had sought the service of Lee Marvin. Marvin would have been exemplary, but veteran western heavy Lee Van Cleef made the role of the Colonel into one of his most memorable roles. Later, Van Cleef would take the Colonel character a bit farther in Gianfranco Parolini's exciting saga "Sabata." As the pot-smoking villain, Gian Maria Volonte challenges both men at every turn of the plot. Volonte looks like the equivalent of a wolf with his lupine features and grizzled hair. There is a psychotic glint in his eyes that make you believe that he prefers to shoot first and ask questions later. "For A Few Dollars More" represents the first western in over 40 years where a character actually smokes a marihuana cigarette. Everybody here looks like a mutant, especially Klaus Kinski cast as a killer named 'Wild' with a hunchback. Leone characterizes each character with an Ennio Morricone musical motif.

"For A Few Dollars More" begins with Colonel Mortimer killing a repulsively ugly outlaw named Guy Calloway (José Terrón of ""God Forgives... I Don't!") after he tries to flee from the colonel. Mortimer wields a rifle, kills Guy's horse and then kills Guy with a bullet in the forehead as the villain shoots at him. Mortimer collects a thousand dollars for Calloway, and the scene shifts to White Rocks where Monco shows up to claim the $2-thousand bounty on 'Baby' Red Cavanaugh (José Marco of "Man of the Cursed Valley") and winds up not only killing him but three of Red's gunslinging partners. Now that Leone has set up his two heroes, he shifts the scene again to introduce the villain as a band of killers break El Indio out of prison. Coincidentally, Indio shares his cell with a carpenter (Dante Maggio of "The Fighting Fists of Shangai Joe") who knows a thing or two about the safe at the Bank of El Paso. El Indio and his trigger-happy gunslingers kill all the uniformed prison guards and Indio shoots the warden in the face. Later, Indio tracks down the man who turned him into the authorities and used the bounty money to start a family. Indio's men murder the man's wife and 18 month old son and then Indio prods the man into a duel with the watch-piece used as a timer.

Meanwhile, Mortimer searches for a bank that only a maniac would try to rob and learns that the Bank of El Paso is just such a bank. Indeed, Indio plans to rob a bank, but he has planned a very unconventional hold-up. Monco and Colonel Mortimer arrive in town at the same time. They agree to work together but neither truly trusts the other. Earlier, they spent an evening shooting at each other's hats that ended into a stand-off. Monco shot at Mortimer's hat and the hat skidded past Mortimer. Comparatively, Mortimer blows Monco's hat off his head and continues to shoot at it in the air. Afterward, they devise a plan that calls on Monco infiltrating the gang. Monco uses dynamite to blow a hole in the cell occupied by El Indio's right-hand man Sancho Perez (Panos Papadopoulos of "The Indian Tomb") who is serving time in prison. When Indio asked him why he wants to join his gang, Monco says that he wants to kill them all for the bounty on their heads. Indio appreciates Monco's audacity and admits him to his gang.

The bank hold-up itself differs from most westerns of the day. After they blast a hole in the rear of the bank, the bandits take the entire safe, something that would be imitated in "Sabata," and haul it off in a wagon. Mortimer worms his way into the gang because he claims that he can open it with nitro after the villains cannot blast it open without destroying the bank notes. Each shoot out is terrifically staged and the gunshots themselves are nothing like the American equivalent. The final shoot-out in the round with the chimes on the watch serving as the timing device is imaginative. "For a Few Dollars More" is better than both "A Fistful of Dollars" and "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." British spaghetti western expert Christopher Frayling has written an excellent book about this movie and its shattering impact on American westerns as well as Italian westerns.


The trail of a notorious Confederate gunslinger through and after the American Civil War as shown in the superb western "The Outlaw Josey Wales" (**** out of ****) is a dangerous and blood splattered trail to follow. As directed by Clint Eastwood, "Josey Wales" is as much an attack on war and the degrading effects war has on man as it is on the double-dealing politicians and scalawag soldiers who tried to profit by war to achieve their own selfish aims at the expense of innocent men's lives. "The Outlaw Josey Wales" is about revenge and rebirth. When the family of a harmless sod buster, Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood of "Hang'em High"), massacred by Northern raiders, Wales joins a band of Confederates led by Bloody Bill Anderson (John Russell of "Pale Rider") to go North and "set things a-right." In a masterful stroke of directorial genius, Eastwood compresses the Civil War into a tightly constructed title credit sequence which documents the transformation of Wales the poor dirt farmer into Wales the most feared of all guerrilla fighters. At the end of the war, as Josey is about to hang up his six-guns, he witnesses an incredible act of cold-blooded murder. Reluctant to turn himself over the Federal authorities, Josey remains behind and watches as his men surrender to the Yankees who repay them by wiping them out with a Gatling gun after they have been disarmed. "There is no end to doing right," cries the leader of these ruthless Yankees, a Captain Terrill (Bill McKinney of "Deliverance") who was also responsible for killing Josey's wife (director William Wellman's daughter Cissy Wellman of "Redline 7000") as well as son and leaving Josey literally scared for life with than painful memory. Indeed, Terrill slashes our protagonist's face so he wears a scar.

Josey tries to escape Terrill and his troops, but everywhere he goes, he is found out and must fight. Finally, in the unlikely company of renegade Indians and the survivors of Comanchero raiders, Josey tries to start a new life. He picks up an Indian friend, Lone Watie (Chief Dan George of "Americathon"), and Watie becomes his sidekick. Before Josey can fully restart his life, however, he must confront the man who destroyed his life.

For all its macho, action-paced gunfights, "The Outlaw Josey Wales" is also a film about the growth of America and the Utopia that the West offered in place of the war-torn East. Among the film's assets are Bruce Surtees's outstanding, widescreen color cinematography and a richly comic performance by Chief Dan George. One example of the humor occurs during a ride through the wilderness when Wales observes, "When I get to knowing somebody, they ain't around for long." To which Lone Watie replies, "I noticed when you get to disliking somebody, they ain't around for long." Eastwood shuns a poncho and his wardrobe reflects the time period. He doesn't wear his "Rawhide" gun belt with the low-slung holsters. Instead, he sports black powder pistols in holster that ride high on his hips and he totes multiple firearms. Black powder pistols required a longer time to reload because they didn't accommodate store-bought metallic cartridges. Eastwood doesn't smoke a cigar as he did in his Sergio Leone westerns. Instead, he chews tobacco and gets a lot of mileage out of spitting before he shoots and kills. Lone Watie narrates one of Josey's confrontations from afar and says, "Now, spit." After Josey spits, he blows away the opposition in a hail of gunfire.

Wales and Lone Watie befriend an immigrant group and rescue them from the Comancheros and Wales falls for a slender, thread of a woman, Laura Lee (Sondra Locke of "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter"), and helps the remnants of this settler family when Terrill and his marauders arrive to wipe him out. At the end, when Wales tries to make peace, he remarks "a little part in each of us died in that damned war." Although the character refers to the American Civil War, there is a strong underlying suggestion that runs throughout "Josey Wales" that director Clint Eastwood and his scenarist Philip Kaufman of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" that they are alluding to the Vietnam war.

Some of the more memorable scenes include the Missouri boat ride scene, the shoot-out in the trading post when Josey displays his skill with twirling guns around, and the scene at the end when Josey dry-fires his arsenal of guns before he runs the villain through with a saber. Anybody that loves seminal westerns and Clint Eastwood westerns in particular MUST watch "The Outlaw Josey Wales."


Oscar winning "Braveheart" director Mel Gibson sets a whole new standard for Biblical epics in his "The Passion of the Christ" (**** out of ****), an inspiringly original but incredibly visceral account of the final 12 hours in the life of Jesus of Nazareth between his arrest in Gethsemane and his crucifixion at Golgotha. Everything that everybody's told you about this two hour & six minute, sincerely made, moodily filmed, but sadomasochistic saga rings true. However, "The Passion" does NOT qualify as remotely anti-Semitic. Sure, it is blatantly Anti-Pharisee, but not anti-Semitic. Anybody who calls "The Passion" anti-Semitic is naïve beyond belief. The anti-Semitism accusation is so general as to be inconsequential. You can condemn the actions of a handful of men (in this case the self-righteous Pharisees), but you cannot condemn an entire race of people (in this case Jewish) for the actions of a heinous few. Indeed, several Jewish characters in "The Passion" come to Jesus' aid. Labeling "The Passion" as anti-Semitic is as ludicrous as describing The Bible as anti-Semitic. Were these sentiments not sufficient, the central message of Gibson's "Passion" pleads for the audience to forgive your enemies.

The violence registers off the Richter scale. The torture scene where the Roman soldiers compete to inflict the most damage on the Son of God gives new meaning to gratuitous violence. Okay, isn't violence in any form gratuitous? In this instance, gratuitous violence suits the situation, because the torture and crucifixion of Jesus were about as gratuitous as violence can get. Nevertheless, chances are you may not survive this torture scene, especially if you haven't seen a gory R-rated movie. The graphic crucifixion scene reminds us of the heartless savagery of public executions in New Testament times, too. Gibson must have spilled several gallons of Karo syrup mixed with red food coloring for this scene as well as the 45-minute flogging scene to emphasize the violence as it has never been stressed before in spectacles like "King of Kings" (1961) and "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965). Perhaps the only movie to rival Gibson's "Passion" for its documentary realism is the obscure 1966 Italian art film "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" that portrays Jesus as an activist.

The largely unknown cast adds to the authenticity. Actor Jim Caviezel's exploits as the cinematic Jesus have been well-documented in the news media. Indeed, he took an accidental lashing during the scourging scene and nearly passed out from the impact. Later, lightning struck him on the cross. Happily, throughout "The Passion," Caviezel delivers a nuanced performance that never overshadows his messiah character. Unlike most Jesus movies, "The Passion" gives us a Christ who looks and behaves as an ordinary individual. This Jesus isn't a blond, blue-eyed loafer with shaven armpits in an immaculate white robe. Gibson shows Jesus the carpenter finishing up a table. When his mother Mary (Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern) brings him a bowl of water, he splashes it on her in an example of a playful mother a son relationship. This unusual scene of Jesus clowning is a welcome relief from those sanitized and solemn depictions of Christ as a man with no sense of humor. Earlier, Caviezel gives us a glimpse of Jesus' humanity in Gethsemane when he chides his drowsy disciples for failing to stay awake. At the same time, this Jesus is no weakling. During his first encounter with Satan, Jesus stomps the Devil's snake into the ground and gives Lucifer a dirty look. By the end of "The Passion," Caviezel doesn't have to act and looks virtually unrecognizable under all the blood, gore, and crown of thorns. Aside from Caviezel, who’s acting credits include "Angel Eyes," "Frequency," and "The Thin Red Line," Gibson wisely cast no-name actors. As Mary Magdalene, a tastefully subdued Monica Bellucci of "The Matrix Reloaded" is the only other big-name Hollywood refugee. Hristo Shopov takes top honors for his thoughtful performance as the conflicted Pontius Pilate, while Italian actress Rosalinda Celentano of "The Other" makes a creepy, androgynous Satan. She is enough to send a shiver up or down your spine. Collectively, however, the actors who impersonate the sadistic Roman soldiers give the movie its gut-wrenching quality with their savage shenanigans, especially when they flip the cross over to beat the protruding nails sideways. These guys give new meaning to evil!

Loosely based on the Synoptic New Testament gospels as well as the book of John along with the Catholic Church's 14 Stations of the Cross, "The Passion" champions celluloid realism, but falls short of strict theological authenticity. Reportedly, Gibson also relied on the visions of two nuns: the 17th century Mary of Agreda and the 18th century Anne Catherine Emmerich. What "Saving Private Ryan" did for W.W. II movies; what "Pulp Fiction" did for crime movies, what "Star Wars" did for science fiction movies, "The Passion" does for Biblical epics. The late movie director Cecil B. DeMille, who made both versions of "The Ten Commandants," would stand up in his grave and applaud Mel Gibson for reinventing the genre. When the actors speak, they utter their lines in either Latin or Aramaic to give this chronicle a convincing sense of historicity. Don't worry, the subtitles are easily read. Ironically, for a movie about Christ, "The Passion" doesn't preach as much as you might expect. Instead, Gibson lets the visuals tell the story. He intersperses several flashbacks throughout, such as the Sermon on the Mount and the Last Supper, but "The Passion" focuses largely on the agony of Christ. Other characters that appear in "The Passion" as they have never before been seen include Herod (played as a cretinous homosexual) and the despicable Barabbas (nothing like the Barabbas that Anthony Quinn played in the 1961 movie.) The script by Gibson and scenarist Benedict Fitzgerald of TV's "In Cold Blood" doesn't provide a literal transcription of Biblical events, but present a poetic reenactment on a heretofore reverential but imaginative scale. One of the more touching flashbacks shows mother Mary reacting to young Jesus falling down and hurting him (something never mentioned in scripture). Gibson inserts this flashback into a scene where Jesus falls under the burden of the cross while Mary watches. Certain scenes will give you goose-bumps, especially when the demonic children chase Judas (Italian actor Luca Lionello) into the desert where he commits suicide. In another scene, a door flies open, but the effect is such that you want to jump. In many ways, "The Passion" resembles a horror movie, until the last few minutes when the Resurrection occurs.

If you watch movies for recreation, "The Passion" may be more than you counted on seeing. If your faith drives you to watch "The Passion," you may find yourself sorely tested, particular when those Roman soldier wield their scourges. Whether you're saved or secular, "The Passion" remains a seminal movie for our times. Churchgoers will revel in its heightened realistic portrayal of an event that previous movies have been too lily-livered to show, while secular filmgoers can savor the archetypal sequence of events that Hollywood recreates on a regular basis for its own pseudo messiah heroes. Despite some minor technical flaws which you may miss because you're caught up in the action, "The Passion of the Christ" emerges as a cinematic revelation.


Clint Eastwood makes out two kinds of movies. He cranks sure-fire popcorn hits such as "Dirty Harry" (1971) and "Pale Rider" (1985). But he also gambles with unproven, oddball projects such as "Pink Cadillac" (1989) and "A Perfect World" (1993). Eastwood's latest opus "Absolute Power," (***OUT OF****) co-starring Gene Hackman, Judy Davis, Ed Harris, Laura Linney, and Scott Glenn, combines elements of both kinds of Clint flicks. Altogether, "Absolute Power" is a laid back, efficient potboiler that avoids rabid sensationalism but delivers the goods.

In "Absolute Power," Clint plays Luther Whitney, a elderly but hi-tech cat burglar. During a jewelry heist at the posh estate of a well-known Washington, D.C. power broker, a drunken couple interrupt Luther as he's cleaning out the safe. He's trapped in a closet that houses the vault and valuables, but he remains undetected throughout the tryst. Suddenly,things get rough, and the man (Gene Hackman) finds himself in a deadly fight with a scorned woman. She stabs him once in the arm and is poised to plunge a letter opener into his chest when his Secret Service bodyguards scramble in and gun her down. Meanwhile, a shocked Luther sits quietly in the closet behind a two-way mirror and grimly contemplates his future. The man responsible for the murder of the socialite is none other than the President of the United States!

Republicans will no doubt stand in line and argue that Alan Richmond (Hackman) is a Democrat. The President in "Absolute Power" is insidious. Gene Hackman, a gifted actor who can turn on his emotions as easily as a water facet, excels in his portrayal of a philandering President. The President's Chief of Staff (Judy Davis) struggles to keep a lid on the murder. The Secret Service agent (Scott Glenn) who shot the girl bows to the Chief of Staff's decision not to summon the police. They clear the room of all evidence. But they lose the incriminating letter opener. When they go back, they find it gone and a rope hanging out a bedroom window. They realize somebody witnessed the murder, but they fail to capture him.

"Absolute Power" contains a couple of classic scenes. The President's tango with his chief of staff in a room full of guests while they discuss the murder is superb. Eastwood's clash with a Secret Service agent at the hospital is hard-edged Old Testament revenge. If you're looking for a dandy confrontation scene between Eastwood and Hackman like the one they had in "Unforgiven" prepare to be disappointed. The Eastwood and Hackman characters never cross paths.

Scriptwriter William Goldman of "Heat" has retooled David Baldacci's bestseller. Notably, he's changed the ending. "Absolute Power" has enough scenes from the popcorn style Clint movies to get it over the rough spots, but it strives to be different. Clint fans will approve of their hero's invincibility. As Luther Whitney, Eastwood doesn't miss a trick in besting the badguys. But he doesn't play his usual taciturn loner. His role emphasizes him as his father figure more than his action figure. "Absolute Power" is rated R, but there's no nudity, little blood, and moderate profanity.


Zombie movies are a dime a dozen nowadays, and the latest zombie movie "28 Weeks Later" (** out of ****) isn't worth a dime. Technically, "28 Weeks Later" qualifies as a sequel of sorts to British director Danny Boyle's 2002 zombie chiller "28 Days Later." In "28 Days Later," a botched laboratory experiment on animals unleashed a deadly virus that mutated humans into frenzied flesh-feasting maniacs on the rampage in the United Kingdom. None of the original cast survives to reprise their roles in Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's follow-up epic that he penned with three other scenarists Rowan Joffe, Enrique Lopez Lavigne, and Jesus Olmo. Original writer Alex Garland and Boyle serve only as producers, but apparently they felt confident enough about Fresnadillo to give the Spaniard a free hand. Indeed, the situation has changed dramatically from the first film. If movies were rated strictly on production values, "28 Weeks Later" would be a top-notch spine-tingler, but the monolithic plot and the dire lack of originality cripple this giddy chiller. The first scene that introduces us to the predicament of leading man Robert Carlyle promises more than the rest of the film can deliver. The exception to the rule is one scene where a U.S. Army helicopter flies low enough with its rotor blades acting as scythes to devastate a horde of zombies scrambling feverishly across an open field. This is about as fresh as this grisly yarn can get. The action degenerates into one hair-raising chase after another on foot, by car, by chopper, etc., with snarling zombies in hot pursuit with nothing to differentiate it from the countless other zombie movies out there. Worst, there's really nobody to either identify with and everybody pretty much gets bitten and turned into zombies.

"28 Weeks Later" opens serenely enough in an isolated English farmhouse where a group of survivors hide out in relative peace. Husband Don Harris (Robert Carlyle of "The World Is Not Enough") and his wife Scarlet (Rose Byrne) are sharing the premises with another couple when somebody knocks at their door. They let the latest survivor--a child in--and set about feeding him when out of nowhere a horde of zombie burst to attack the house and literally rip it apart. During this melee, Don and Scarlet are separated, but Don can do nothing to save Scarlet. As the zombies charge after him, it is all Don can do to save his own skin and his escape is pretty narrow. After this explosive opener, "28 Weeks Later" goes about its business bringing audiences up to date on the latest events. You have to read several captions to grasp the current predicament. Fifteen days after the initial outbreak, the authorities quarantined mainland Britain. The rage virus decimated the population some 28 days later. Eleven weeks afterward, a U.S.-led NATO force arrived in London, and 18 weeks later, this force confirmed that the country was "free" of infection. NATO forces along with the returning civilian population began rebuilding twenty-four weeks later, and twenty-eight weeks later these citizens started their lives anew within the confines of a niche of the city. Snipers are stationed everywhere in case zombies reappear and helicopters with machine guns patrol the city.

At this point, Don is reunited with his two children, Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton) and Tammy (Imogen Poots), who had been earlier relocated to safety on the Spanish mainland. They inquire about their mother, and Don cringes with guilt as he tries to explain that he had to abandon her. Don's kids are curious, and they sneak off into the forbidden zone to check out their old home. Miraculously, they discover their mother, and the authorities lock up Rose to conduct tests on her because she appears unscathed from the ordeal. An Army medical expert believes that Rose may hold the solution to curing the plague since she hasn't mutated into a zombie. Meanwhile, the authorities have given Don special privileges to assist them. Incredibly, those special privileges extend to giving him a key that allows him access into any secure area. He visits Scarlet and kisses her and promptly contracts the plague. It's a little hard to believe that the authorities would have given Don such freedom, but it is also hard to believe that Rose could have escaped without a scratch.

Afterward, Don pursues his kids and an Army sniper who is trying to lead them to safety. "28 Weeks Later" turns into a mindless melodrama that tries to milk this predicament for all the adrenaline that it can, but it gets tiresome after the first chase and goes downhill. Predictably, "28 Weeks Later" ends with a set-up for a sequel which will hopefully not illuminate the big screen anytime soon.


Spaghetti western helmer Sergio Leone worshipped American director Robert Aldritch, even though Leone's experience as Aldritch's second-unit director on the Biblical epic "Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) proved short-lived. After he attained fame and fortune with his "Dollars" trilogy, Leone said that he owed it all to Aldritch. The Italian maestro rhapsodized especially over an earlier Aldritch oater "Vera Cruz" (1954) with Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster. The best part of Aldritch's "Four For Texas" is the opening gambit. This exciting but abortive stagecoach robbery foreshadows everything that the Spaghetti western later espoused as its formula and ideology.

Matson (Charles Bronson of "The Dirty Dozen") and his gang are in hot pursuit after a stagecoach carrying $100-thousand dollars. Galveston entrepreneur Zack Thomas (Frank Sinatra of "Sergeants 3") lies sprawled atop the coach. He shoots at the bad guys with his Winchester repeating rifle, while Joe Jarrett (Dean Martin of "Rio Bravo") rides inside the vehicle. Joe pokes his head and gun arm out the window and racks up his share of kills. Our heroes dispatch at least six of Matson's gang before Matson calls a halt to the pursuit and withdraws to head back to town. One of Matson's cronies, Dobie (Jack Elam of "Once Upon A Time in the West), who appears in pre-Sergio Leone style close-up briefly, warns Matson that their boss, treacherous Harvey Burden (Victor Buono of "The Silencers"), won't be happy that they failed. Without blinking an eye, Matson guns down Dobie, blasting him out of the saddle with one lethal shot. Meanwhile, the stagecoach rider dies from a wound that he received from Matson's men and Zack has to stop a runaway stagecoach. He cannot and the vehicle rolls over with a crash. For the rest of the sequence, Zack and Joe engage in a contest of one-upmanship, the kind of games that Blonde and Tuco played in "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly." First, Joe gets the drop on Zack who no longer has his rifle and takes the money. Second, Zack retrieves an entirely different Winchester rifle that he found cached with the money. He waits until Joe has ridden far enough away so that he can open up on him with his Winchester without fear of retaliatory gunfire. When this occurs, Joe realizes that he is at Zack's mercy. Joe's six-gun lacks the longer more accurate range of Zack's rifle. Zack forces Joe to fork over the fortune. Third, Joe surprises Zack when he palms a derringer concealed inside his Stetson and appropriates the money for the second time. In the first instance, Frank Sinatra behaves like a Spaghetti western anti-hero might as he ignites a cigar and patiently allows Dean Martin to out of range before he wields the Winchester. Sinatra even wears an outfit roughly similar to the togs that 'the Man With No Name' sported. This entire scene is better than anything else in this otherwise mediocre western. "Four for Texas" indulges in the two themes that characterized Italian westerns: (1) a cynical disregard for human life, and (2) an obsession with money that amounts to greed. The setting with its sharply-chiseled mountain peaks rearing up majestically in the background and arid desert stretching for miles in every direction replicates the typical south of the border scenery in spaghetti westerns. Indeed, for all practical purposes, the opening scene in "Four For Texas" qualifies as the only scene with action lensed on location beyond the confines of the studio.

Meanwhile, gluttonous Harvey Burden acts like Zack's friend. What Zack doesn't know is that the President of the Galveston Savings & Trust Bank has Matson and his gang of cutthroats secretly on his payroll. Victor Buono's first scene in Galveston is wonderful. He explains to "Walton's" star Ellen Corby, a widow with another elderly woman in a wheelchair with her, that if he loaned them the money that they requested that eventually he might have to foreclose on them and earn a bad reputation in the process. At about that time, Joe Jarrett shows up in town with the fortune in money sewn into his suit jacket and deposits it in Harvey's bank. Joe and Zack have the oddest friendship that evolves over time once they meet each other's girlfriends. Zack keeps fashion designer Elya Carlson (the voluptuous Swedish beauty Anita Ekberg of "La Dolce Vita") as his main squeeze. Joe hooks up with scantily clad Maxine Richter (Ursula Andress of "Dr. No") who owns a rundown riverboat that Joe helps her convert into a floating casino. Roughly speaking, the time that elapses between Joe's arrival in Galveston until the climactic scene on the docks when Zack and he join forces is equivalent to the time it takes to refurbish Maxine's riverboat.

"Four For Texas" (** out of ****) conjures up few surprises to keep you guessing throughout its uneven 115 minutes. Zack and Joe play cat and mouse games, but you know that Frank and Dean couldn't remain at loggerheads for long. The chief bad guy here is Charles Bronson and it takes both of them to whip him. Bronson's death scene on the paddle wheel of the riverboat looks cool. The relationship between Victor Buono and Charles Bronson conceals the only surprise. An unbelievable moment occurs in Galveston that refutes the opening scene where our heroes ruthlessly tried to eliminate the outlaws. Jarrett wings Matson in a restaurant as the evildoer is poised to bushwhack Zack. That Joe and Zack would let Matson live is difficult to swallow, especially after their deadly shooting during the hold-up attempt. The brawl on the docks at the end looks like poor crowd control, but there is another surprise that comes out. However, by this time, "Four For Texas" has sacrificed any dramatic vigor as an interesting western. Unless you're a Rat Packer, skip "Four For Texas."

FILM REVIEW OF ''3:10 TO YUMA'' (2007)

"Walk the Line" director James Mangold's noisy, violent, bullet-riddled remake of the classic 1957 Glenn Ford western "3:10 to Yuma" won't spur a revival of western movies. If you've seen the Columbia Pictures version with Van Heflin as the desperate, drought-stricken rancher who keeps Glenn Ford at gunpoint and manages to get him to the train on time, you'll see why even the best intended remakes are doomed to failure. Naturally, Mangold and his writers have punched up the action with gratuitous gunplay galore. A sturdy cast has the acting credentials to pull it off, but the characters that they play are overwritten. We're supposed to cry for the misguided villain because his parents abandoned him as a youngster. Meanwhile, the crippled hero worries about everything, especially that his son no longer worships him. Worse, the gloomy ending for the new "3:10 to Yuma" (** out of ****) will disillusion anybody who prefers to feel good at fade-out. Perhaps the DVD will contain a suitable alternate ending. Anything resembling subtlety and suspense is absent from this pretentious western, too. The only reason to watch "3:10 to Yuma" is to brag that you've seen a big-screen western. As a remake, "3:10 to Yuma" needs to be put out of our misery. As a western in general, "3:10 to Yuma" scrounges few of the sterling qualities that distinguished sagebrushers like "Silverado," "Unforgiven," "Tombstone," and "Open Range."

The people that produced "3:10 to Yuma" fix up a classic that needed no alterations. A small-time cattle rancher at the mercy of inclement weather struggles to preserve his herd despite a shortage of water. Mangold and his writers up the ante so that heroic Dan Evans (Christian Bale of "Batman Begins") must not only contend with an evil landlord who wants his property because the railroad will cross it but also with the inhospitable weather that is killing his cattle. This landlord subplot—not in the original—resembles on a small scale the Sergio Leone classic "Once Upon a Time in the West" about a widow with property that refuses to sell out to the railroad. Meanwhile, infamous outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe of "The Quick and the Dead") wages a war against the Butterfield Railroad. He has robbed their payroll stages over twenty times when he isn't sketching pictures of birds and naked babes.

As the film unfolds, the Wade gang waylay a Butterfield stagecoach equipped with a Gatlin gun. A Gatlin gun amounted to the nineteenth century equivalent of an Uzi. Historically, a Gatlin gun could deliver up to 600 rounds a minute. Although the good guys possess superior firepower, they don't have the expertise with the gun to vanquish the enemy. Clearly, Mangold borrowed this convention from big dumb action movies where nobody but a hero can hit anything with a machine gun. In the Glenn Ford version, the Wade gang held-up a stagecoach, and the villain shot only one man, the stagecoach driver after he took one of the Wade gang hostage. Nonetheless, in this remake, the entire scene recycles the gimmick from the John Wayne western "The War Wagon" where an steel-plated wagon with a Gatlin gun in a turret transported the gold shipments. Unfortunately, the "Yuma" stagecoach doesn't boast a turret to house its rapid fire weapon. When his army of gunslingers cannot stop the stagecoach after basically killing everybody on board, Wade steps in and stampedes a herd of cattle to halt the coach. As it turns out, the cattle belong to our hero.

After the robbery, Wade and his gang ride into town. Later, they split up, but Wade malingers in the local saloon to sketch a saloon girl, Emmy Nelson (Vinessa Shaw), in the nude. When the posse returns to town, they get the drop on Wade with Dan's help. Penniless Dan jumps at the chance to escort the outlaw to Contention for the prison train to Yuma. The pay outweighs the risks, so Dan assists the authorities. Along the way, Wade offers our hero a bribe for his freedom, but Dan Evans proves incorruptible. The two suffer through an agonizing wait for the train in an upstairs hotel room while Wade's gang assembles outside with everything that they have to rescue their boss.

Mangold, who helmed "Copland" with Sylvester Stallone and "Identity" with John Cusack," is no slouch as a director. However, he clutters up a simple story with far too much exposition, additional characters, and unwarranted violence. "3:10 to Yuma" dangerously borders on burlesque with its high body count. They could have renamed it "The Thick Red Line." The glut of violence dilutes what little moral ambiguity survived from the first film. Whereas the Glenn Ford original was a polished, spartan effort brimming with intensity to spare, Mangold's version of "3:10 to Yuma" leaves little to the imagination. Of course, today's audiences abhor westerns, so Mangold exaggerated the violence to compensate for the harsh realism. The hero displays only a trace of humanity; instead, he emerges as a tragic figure of epic proportions, hounded by his own upstart 14-year old son who refuses to obey his father at every turn. Make no mistake; Christian Bale gives it everything that he has in a bravura performance. Sadly, his character is so grim that you cringe at the sight of him rather than sympathize about his plight. Ben Foster excels as trigger-happy Charlie Prince, Wade's second-in-command, who kills without a qualm. Russell Crowe brings his hulking physical presence to bear, but he generates none of the charisma that Glenn Ford conjured up to win audience sympathy. Crowe comes off as a tactless lout, an absurd figure who does what nobody would do at the end. While it pales by comparison with the Glenn Ford original, "3:10 to Yuma" fares somewhat better as a western in general.


Thirteen turns out to be a lucky number for Antonio Banderas in "Die Hard" helmer John McTiernan's adventure epic "The Thirteenth Warrior," Banderas' first movie since "The Mask of Zorro." This spectacular sword & sorcery saga about an ostracized Arab poet (Antonio Banderas), a dirty dozen of rugged Viking warriors, and a mysterious tribe of cannibalistic pagans clad in bear skins who devastate a helpless Scandinavian village resembles "The Magnificent Seven"—plus six—crossed with "Conan the Barbarian." Derived from producer Michael Crichton's grisly novel "Eaters of the Dead," "The Thirteen Warrior" emerges as a larger-than-life epic that should enthrall guys.

When he wrote "Eaters of the Dead" in 1976, bestselling "Jurassic Park" novelist Michael Crichton obviously had "Beowulf" on his brain. "The Thirteenth Warrior" (*** out of ****) deconstructs the legend that most college freshmen have to suffer through in English Literature. If you recall, Beowulf was a famous Scandinavian warrior who responded to King Hrothgar's summons to slay the flesh-munching monster Grendel. After dispatching the vicious brute, Beowulf invaded Grendel's cave and butchered his beastly mom. In Crichton's spin on this saga, a savage horde of headhunters, who masquerade as demonic beasts and attack without mercy under the cover of darkness, have replaced Grendel. Like his literary counterpart, Buliwyf (Vladimir Kulich of "Red Scorpion 2") wins his reputation by spearheading a search and destroy mission behind enemy lines to axe the female chieftain.

"The Thirteenth Warrior" takes place in the 10th century. As Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan, Banderas portrays a well-bred Persian noble exiled from the medieval court at Baghdad for sexual indiscretions with the Caliph's wife. Ibn wanders the earth now as an emissary with his faithful manservant Melchisidek (Omar Sharif of "The Burglars"), who acts as his translator. At a river crossing in Russia, they meet a rough-riding band of Viking marauders. Commemorating the death of their former leader, these stout-hearted Norsemen celebrate the promotion of Buliwyf as their leader.

A weary messenger from King Hrothgar (Sven Wollter) stumbles into their camp with news about 'a terror that must not be named' that has besieged his kingdom. Buliwyf consults a soothsayer. Although he has assembled twelve of his best fighters, the old crone warns him that the thirteenth warrior must be 'one who is not from the North.' Before Melchisidek can translate the oracle's words, Ibn realizes that he has been conscripted. At first, the Vikings scorn Ibn, so some of the suspense is lost, while Banderas' narration covers those points not immediately obvious to audiences.

The William Wisher & Warren Lewis screenplay keeps us in the dark about the cannibals. Indeed, in their refusal to unmask the villains, they cheat us out of the satisfaction of knowing exactly who these predators are. Instead, the filmmakers confer more artistic ambiguity on this medieval swashbuckler than it needs to measure up to its formulaic promise. Evil—in a sense—looms as something greater than any man-made incarnation.

"The Thirteen Warrior" is a visual feast. "Die Hard: With a Vengeance" lenser Peter Menzies shoots these brigands through gauzy filters so they look like titans. Horror movies usually delay unveiling the monsters in much the same way that McTiernan waits until the final quarter hour to expose the cannibals. The sequence where Buliwyf, Ibn and the Norsemen infiltrate the enemy lair and storm through a maze of caves to kill the female chieftain is in the same league with "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." The free-for-all excitement that Menzies' fast-moving cameras impart enhances the atmosphere and suspense.

Director John McTiernan helms this movie with a heavy hand. Alternating stunning battlefield footage with straightforward expository scenes about the characters and their enemy, he sacrifices anything approaching romance. Doom hangs palpably over "The Thirteenth Warrior," so moments of frivolity are ephemeral. Clearly outnumbered by hundreds of cannibals, the Vikings and Ibn feel as if they are living on borrowed time. Indeed, with broadswords shrieking through the air and decapitated heads flying off amid spurts of blood, McTiernan stages the combat without the same gladiatorial verse that Mel Gibson brought to "Braveheart." Aside from Banderas, the cast consists of little-known and unknown thespians whose characters are also eminently expendable. The Scandinavian cast rises to the occasion as the battle-hardened, suicidal Vikings. Second-billed actress Diane Venora as Queen Weilew utters a couple of lines. Venora's role appears to have been pruned along with the court intrigue, which is only hinted at in a scene where a Viking challenges one of Hrothgar's champions.

Sometimes, "The Thirteenth Warrior" seems almost too glum for its own good. While McTiernan and his scenarists exploit the cultural differences between Ibn and the Vikings for the bulk of the humor, this blood-drenched saga focuses more often on high-octane action than subtle nuances. The Viking hygiene scene is hilarious, but the humor is far too intermittent. The breathtaking scenery and the impressive battle scenes overshadow the clichés. Your breath will catch in your throat when our heroes confront the cannibals on a rain swept battlefield for the final engagement. Veteran film composer Jerry Goldsmith of "Breakheart Pass" pumps up the action with another of his booming Wagnerian orchestral scores.

If those hordes of dubbed spear & sandal epics that the Italians produced in the early 1960s appealed to you, "The Thirteenth Warrior" qualifies as your kind of movie!


"Gold Raiders" (No stars out of ****) deserves to be in the All-Time Bad Movie Hall of Shame. This egregious shlock lacks any redeeming features, except that everything in it goes terribly, horribly, hilariously awful. Robert Ginty of "The Exterminator" movies must have needed a pay check and a vacation, since it doesn't appear that anything else could have attracted him to this shoddy saga about the recovery of a fortune in Swiss gold from the jungle. Ginty as Mark Banner joins up with a ragtag group of Philipinos that are dispatched to bring back the gold after a plane shot down the cargo plane transporting it. Our heroes finds themselves squared off against a Communist commander who isn't beneath shooting his own men with the occasion dictates. He qualifies as a classic villain because he wears a mustache, shaves his head like all good evil bad guys, and enjoys rough sex with abducted women. The high point of this pointless adventure thriller comes when our nasty villain finishes having sex with one poor female and turns around to screw his fake wooden leg back on to his body. Inexplicably, the villain's pet German shepherd decides on impulse to snatch up the leg in his jaws and hightail it. Our hopping mad bad guy pursues the pooch and fires a couple of shots at the thieving canine that eventually discards the commander's leg. One incredibly schlocky line of dialogue goes something like this: "You're too beautiful a woman to be a sadist." Our never-say-die heroes embark on a journey of hardship, lessened somewhat when Mark Banner unveils a motorcycle powered by crystal fuel cells (this bikes smokes horribly) and it comes equipped with a powered para-sail that turns it into a flying motorcycle, armed as the case is with rockets. Probably the most incredible feat occurs when our hero rides his bike across a gorge on one flimsy steel cable. Like the other commentators have observed about "Gold Raiders," it suffers from poor dubbing. When I mean poor dubbing, not only do the lines rarely match the mouths, but virtually everybody sounds like they were dubbed by people of an entirely different nationality, making the lines doubly incongruous. A Filipino guy sounds like an American golf announcer with a deep, heavy accent. Improbable and sometimes bloodthirsty, "Gold Raiders" robs the bottom of the barrel. Truly, this is a movie that should be reserved for special occasions when you want to treat somebody to a genuinely rotten movie. Oh, yes, check out the phony looking fishing scene and the giant shark-like fish that the Filipino's fishermen harpoon.


Although it's neither as classic as John Sturges' "The Magnificent Seven" (1960) nor as striking as Burt Kennedy's "Return of the Seven" (1966), director Paul Wendkos' "Guns of the Magnificent Seven" (*** out of ****) qualifies as a solidly-made, beautifully-lensed horse opera that takes our heroes south of the border again, but this time the seven are fighting with the peasants in a greater cause to topple a draconian political regime. "Cool Hand Luke" Oscar winner George Kennedy steps into Yul Brynner's boots as Chris who heads-up the septet in all four theatrical features. Mind you, Kennedy's a fine dramatic actor, but he looks miscast. He looks like he had a tough time getting around on-screen. His dialogue deliveries are letter-perfect and he looks rugged enough, but he lacks the charisma of a Saturday Matinée hero. He fared a lot better as the villain in "The Sons of Katie Elder." Meanwhile, this "Seven" differs in several respects from the first two. First, the end of the frontier and the decline of the gunfighter as a theme is never mentioned in Wendkos' "Seven." In "The Magnificent Seven," Chris tells Vin that they lost and the farmers won, while in "Return of the Seven," Chris refers to himself as 'damned.' Second, the heroes don't take time out to bitch about the tragic life of a gunfighter. They don't dissuade young Max from leading his people into the hills to continue the revolutionary struggle. Third, George Kennedy's Chris isn't as dark or as remorseful as Yul Brynner's Chris. Fourth, the inventive Herman Hoffman screenplay emphasizes elements usually found in the Spaghetti westerns of the day. This time around Chris and company dynamite a Mexican political prison and liberate a crusading leader of the revolution. Neither the peasants nor the bandits in the hills could have achieved this feat without the seven. Fifth, the ethnic composition of Wendkos' "Seven" has grown more complicated. Bernie Casey as Cassie emerges as the first African-American to appear in a "Seven" western, and the broad hint is that James Whitmore's Levi Morgan is Jewish. Sixth, a handicapped character joins the seven; Joe Don Baker plays Slater, an ex-Confederate soldier with a useless left arm, a character rarely seen in westerns but quite popular in martial arts epics, like Chen Chang's "One Armed Swordsman" (1967). Seven, though they are paid a hefty $100 for their services--they are the highest paid "Seven" in history, none of them collects a dime. George Kennedy and James Whitmore ride off without a word about their money. Eighth, the Mexican bandits that the seven fought in the first two films are now on their side and serve as the cavalry function. Ninth, this is the first "Seven" movie to employ a Gatling gun as a part of the villain's arsenal.

Chris gathers one of the least memorable line-up of characters in "Guns." Keno with his "No questions" motto is straight out of prison. Interestingly enough, he dresses a lot like the Steve McQueen character in "The Magnificent Seven." Cassie has been fired from a mining company where he used dynamite blast holes in the mountain so that the miners could dig ore. Slater puts on a marksman's act at a carnival and calls himself "half-man, half-gun." Levi has already settled down with a wife and a family but needs a new well. P.J., the most enigmatic of the crew, is a consumptive who dresses in black like Yul Brynner's Chris. Finally, Max is a mealy-mouthed Mexican twenthysomething who doesn't know the first thing about fighting but is willing to learn. There are no moral degenerates like Warren Oates' Colbee or suicidal maniacs Claude Atkins's Frank in "Return of the Seven." Unfortunately, the death scenes for the four ill-fated gunfighters aren't as memorable as those in the first two "Seven" movies. Slater appears to throw his life away and Cassie dies without getting his gun out of his holster. P.J.'s death scene is no great shakes either. Only Monte Markham's Keno achieves some dramatic statue in his demise.

Chris' first scene in town where the people are going to hang Keno (Monte Markham of "Hour of the Gun") for stealing a man's horse is a visual delight and a dramatic triumph. Wendkos uses clever camera set-ups to anticipate which person that the horse will inevitably respond to. The introduction even before that scene of the evil prison warden, Colonel Diego (played with slimy urbanity by veteran heavy Michael Ansara) is powerful. A prisoner is dragged into the warden's presence and deposited at his booted feet. We don't see Ansara at first; all we see is his ominous shadow hovering over the prisoner. The off-kilter camera angles in the shoot-out between Slater and the loud-mouthed cowboy enhance the dramatic tension of the showdown. Wendkos stages each of the gun battles with verve. The scene where Whitmore hits the tower guard with a knife in the back and the peasant that he has trained hits the same guard in the chest is good, too. The explosion that destroys the gates of the Rat Hole is composed so that we see the violence of it sweep across the screen from left to right is visually invigorating. The showdown between Chris and Colonel Diego compares favorably with the Yul Brynner & Eli Wallach showdown in "The Magnificent Seven." The chief difference is that whereas the Wallach villain couldn't understand why a man like Chris came back to such a lowly village, Colonel Diego believes that Chris is an indifferent mercenary who has no passion for the revolution and will allow Diego to live. The outcome of the Chris & Diego showdown, however, was sealed during the human rights violation scene where Diego let his soldiers gallop their horses around the prison yard where the tongue-tied inmates had buried up to their chins in the ground.

"Guns of the Magnificent Seven" is a good western, not as good as the first two "Seven" movies, but definitely better than "The Magnificent Seven Ride!"


Rugged western leading man George Montgomery stars in this lightweight, juvenile, World War II adventure-comedy about an American gambler, Brass Murphy (Montgomery), and a bevy of American showgirls that catch a ride on a U.S. military transport plane leaving Manila in the Philippines.

The action takes place less than a month after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Brass loses everything gambling and gets into a fight. He is rewarded with a black eye and is nursing it in a hotel lobby when a considerate Catholic priest, Father Osgood, befriends him. Osgood observes that everybody is in a frenzy to leave Manila while he is quite content to stick around and help his fellow men. He tells Murphy that he wants to see that his military pass will go to someone deserving. He sends Murphy to his room to fetch it, but Murphy finds it, decks himself out like a priest and heads to the airport. The transport crashes and Murphy winds up in a raft with the gals. They paddle to the nearest island only to discover that the Japanese hold it—that is, two Japanese soldiers with a radio unit hold it. Nevertheless, Murphy advises his five showgirls that they should stay out of sight of the enemy. If they overpowered the two Japanese soldiers, the rest of the Imperial Army might swarm the island in an effort to find two missing soldiers.

Meanwhile, neither man nor woman lives by bread alone. Murphy conducts a night-time raid on the Japanese for food. The superior Japanese officer is bathing and his radio man is dressed up like a Geisha girl to entertain him. No, it doesn't get any more provocative than the humor implied by one guy cross-dressing as a woman. While the Japanese are splashing around and entertaining each other, Murphy tries to raise the Allies on the Japanese radio. Murphy's biggest threat as he tries to contact the Allies is a rooster.

Later, a numerically overwhelming force of Japanese soldiers infests the island. Montgomery steals a Japanese uniform and is able to approach and clobber them and then lug their unconscious bodies to the girls who strip the uniform off and climb into them. During the evening, Murphy sabotages a roast pig and triggers mass hysteria among the Japanese troops. Not surprisingly, native Phillipine scenarist Ferde Grofé Jr. makes the Japanese appear like simple-minded numb skulls. They never really pose a threat to our hero and heroine. Of course, the showgirls truly do believe that Murphy is a man of the cloth and they are upset in the end when they learn the truth about him. This disposable World War II movie really never lives up to its title. The showgirls don't commit any genuine acts of sabotage. Mongtomery doesn't take himself seriously and gives rather funny performance as a man stranded among a group of showgirls with no opportunity to take advantage of them because they are convinced that he is a man of God. The VCI DVD for "Guerrillas in Pink Lace" (** out of ****) is a full frame version and the film was lensed in a widescreen format so the pictorials are clipped. Completist World War II buffs will be disappointed. Time wise, "Guerrillas in Pink Lace" clocks in at 96 minutes. Incidentally, the film boasts some level of authenticity because the Japanese speak in their native tongue and the action was filmed on location in the Phillippines.


The title to writer-director James Gray's new crime thriller "We Own the Night" (** out of ****) sounds like it concerns either insomniacs or vampires. Actually, the New York Police Department adopted the motto "We Own the Night" back in the 1980s as a slogan to publicize their efforts to reclaim the streets from evil drug pushers run amok. Unfortunately, despite its powerhouse celebrity cast, including Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, and Robert Duvall, and its authentic Big Apple locales, this plodding crime thriller ranks as both implausible and predictable. If you've seen any of the movies or TV shows made about the N.Y.P.D. during the 1980s or in the last twenty-five years, you won't find anything bigger or better in "We Own the Night." Indeed, Gray packs this urban potboiler with plenty of action, but he stages these scenes with little sense of flourish. "We Own the Night" qualifies as one of those 'us against them' actioneers. The bad guys are expatriate Russian mobsters that have infiltrated Brooklyn and are trying to conqueror the New York night club scene by selling kilos of souped up cocaine.

"We Own the Night" also qualifies as a 'brother versus brother' movie. The story takes place in 1988. N.Y.P.D. Chief Burt Grusinsky (Robert Duvall of "The Godfather") has two sons. Lieutenant Joseph Grusinksy (Mark Wahlberg of "The Departed") is the apple of his father's eye. Joseph mastered dyslexia in his youth and went on to become a cop. When the story opens, Joseph has just been promoted to captain. Joseph has a wife and three kids. Meanwhile, Joseph's older brother Bobby Green (pudgy Joaquin Phoenix of "Walk the Line") is the black sheep of the family. Bobby manages a popular night club in New York called El Caribe for Russian emigrant, gray-haired Marat Bujayev (Moni Moshonov of "Forgiveness"), and Marat treats Bobby as if he were family. Of course, Bobby has never told anybody at the night club that he is the police chief's son. Moreover, Bobby has changed his last name Grusinsky to Green, his mother's maiden name. When Bobby isn't hobnobbing with Marat's family, he snorts cocaine and smokes marihuana with his Puerto Rican girlfriend Amada Juarez (Eva Mendez of "Ghost Rider") who displays few inhibitions. Neither Joseph nor the Chief approves of Bobby's behavior, but he doesn't care what they think. He lives to keep Amada happy and everything running smoothly at the El Caribe.

Things take a turn for the worse when Burt and Joseph warn him about their raid on the night club that he manages. They suspect that Marat's nephew, ruthless Russian mobster Vadim Nezhinski (Alex Veadov of "Air Force One"), is smuggling huge quantities of cocaine. The bust takes place, and Bobby finds himself collared along with one of Vadim's henchman. No sooner have the police brought in the henchman than the man slices his own throat and dies in a pool of blood. The Russians are prepared to terminate anybody who interferes with their plans with extreme prejudice. Naturally, Bobby is infuriated with his father and older brother. Later, Bobby struggles in vain to convince them that these Russians have no respect for the N.Y.P.D. Joseph discovers this first-hand when a bold Russian hit-man shoots him in the face in front of his own house and then firebombs his car. Miraculously, Joseph survives this murder attempt. These Russians acts like standard hit men in movies that cannot hit a sardine in a can with a magnifying glass. Joseph winds up in the hospital for four months, and Wahlberg has nothing to do but snooze up until the finale. After Bobby is released from jail, Vadim asks if he would like to help him distribute his narcotics. The Russian mobster arranges to take Bobby blindfolded to a remote location so that he can sample the product. Since Joseph was nearly killed, Bobby has changed his mind about his Russian friends. He has also returned to the family fold like a prodigal son. However, neither Grusinsky knows that he has agreed to wear a wire. When Vadim finds the wire, chaos erupts, and the N.Y.P.D. storms the building. No sooner have the police placed Vadim behind bars than he fakes an illness and escapes in route to the hospital. Bobby's father puts Amada and him in protective custody. Bobby fears that Vadim will put a contract out on Amada. Somehow, word gets to the Russians. During a trip from one motel to another in the pouring rain, Russians try audaciously to kill Bobby and Amada. "We Own the Night" makes the N.Y.P.D. look like imbeciles. At this point, Bobby is fed up. He decides to join the N.Y.P.D. against Amada's wishes and take down the elusive Vadim permanently.

"We Own the Night" boasts enough plot for a trilogy of movies. "Little Odessa" director James Gray shoehorns so much information into the movie's bare bones 117 minutes that the action seems implausible. For example, Bobby's impetuous conversion from party animal to policeman lacks believability. It would have been more exciting if Bobby had turned vigilante and cornered Vadim. Mark Wahlberg fans are in for a shock, too, because he plays such a wimpy character. He's nothing like the characters that he played in either "The Departed" or "Shooter." Altogether, "We Own the Night" should have been called "We Own the Clichés."


"Lethal Weapon" superstar Mel Gibson shows his softer side in director Nancy Meyers' "What Women Want," an entertaining but stereotypical battle of the sexes romantic comedy that co-stars Helen Hunt, Alan Alda, and Bette Midler. Cast as ace Chicago advertising executive Nick Marshall, Gibson plays the quintessential man's man: an unapologetic male chauvinist who believes that you can sell anything if bikini-clad babes bedeck it. Success thus far has proved Nick right, so he fully expects his chummy boss, Dan Wanamaker (Alan Alda), to promote him as the agency's new creative director. Unfortunately, Wanamakers is in big trouble, and in an effort to save his ailing ad agency, Dan decides to target women rather than men. "Girls born in the mid-1980s control our advertising dollars," Dan explains. "It's a woman's world. You can get into their pants better than anyone I know, but getting into their psyche is something else." That said, Wanamakers hires an outsider, Darcy McGuire (Helen Hunt), recently booted from a rival agency on the basis of sexual discrimination to fill the spot that Nick thought he had sown up.

At their first meeting, Darcy gives everybody an array of feminine products: toenail polish, pantyhose, lipstick, mascara, a wonder bra, and leg wax. She asks them to concoct a campaign that will make these items irresistible to women. Nursing his bruised ego but willing to tough it out, Nick experiments with these wares to find an innovative advertising angle. Meanwhile, Nick's ex-wife Gigi (Lauren Holly) is getting remarried and dumps his 15-year old daughter, Alex (Ashley Johnson), on him while her new husband and she head off for their honeymoon. Nick polishes his toenails, applies mascara, leg wax, and cavorts in the bathroom with a hair dryer. Accidentally, during his fantasy role-playing, he falls into the bathtub and electrocutes himself.

No, Nick doesn't wind up with a halo and a harp. Instead, he can hear the innermost thoughts of all the women, especially his prom-bound daughter. Initially, this drives Nick totally nuts. Eventually, he appeals to his former marriage counselor (Bette Midler) and proves to her that he can read her thoughts. "If you know what women want," Bette's eyes bug out, "you can rule!" And rule Nick does. He uses his uncanny talent to read Darcy's thoughts and steal her ideas. Before long Dan believes that he has misjudged not only Nick but also Darcy. Nick's sudden sensitivity even astonishes Darcy, so that when Nike comes to court Wanamakers, the unscrupulous Nick uses Darcy's ideas to land the account.

The premise of "What Women Want" (*** out of ****) is the stuff of classic screwball comedies. Of course, only in a movie could somebody survive electrocution and emerge as a mind reader. If you can dismiss this preposterous plot device, the subsequent comedy and romance that ensue should please both sexes. Predictably, Nick sees the error of his ways. As Mel's first romantic comedy since 1992's "Forever Young," "What Women Want" qualifies as amusing fluff that gives Gibson a change of pace.


In "What Dreams May Come," Robin Williams plays a doctor who dies and goes to Hell. Sitting through New Zealand director Vincent Ward's visually arresting but histrionic New Age allegory about life, death, suicide, and reincarnation is like going to Hell, too. "What Dreams May Come" derives its title from William Shakespeare's "Hamlet," but prolific science fiction & fantasy writer Richard Matheson penned the actual novel. No, I haven't perused Matheson's novel, but people have reliably assured me that the movie pales in comparison with its literary source. An earlier and more successful Matheson novel "Bid Time Return" became the cult romance classic "Somewhere in Time" with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour.

Kiddie friendly pediatrician Chris Nelsen (Robin Williams) and his gifted artist wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra of "Jungle Fever") are soul mates. Nothing can separate them! "Dreams" repeats this theme ad nauseam so that its ludicrously lackadaisical ending comes as no revelation. Meeting in their youth on a serene lake in Switzerland, they court in the scenic Alps. Life blesses them. Residing in a palatial home, they raise two adorable teenagers, Ian (Josh Paddock) and Marie (Jessica Brooks), along with a rambunctious Dalmatian. Chris enjoys a successful practice as a doctor, while Annie doubles not only as an artist but also as an art gallery curator.

During the opening expository scenes, "Dreams" bathes audiences in the warm radiance that wreathes the Nielsen home. Predictably, the good times prove ephemeral. Less than twenty minutes into the action, an off-screen auto accident claims the lives of both Ian and Marie. A few scenes later (four years in story time), Chris dies in a spectacular on-screen accident. Initially, Chris refuses to believe that he has kicked the bucket. After all, Chris is walking on Earth as the living do, and he appears none the worse for all his wear and tear. Audiences know better, however, because they see his heavily bandaged body from several high angle shots that suggest his spirit has blown town. Chris eavesdrops on his own funeral. He struggles to console his grief-stricken wife. Eventually, his fuzzy-looking spiritual guide, Albert (Cuba Gooding Jr.), convinces Chris that he can do Annie no good by lingering. Every time that Chris achieves a breakthrough with Annie, she collapses in tears and recriminations. Frustrated, Chris gives up the "Ghost" routine.

Meanwhile, Annie's condition steadily deteriorates. She holds herself responsible for the accidental deaths of both her children and Chris. She let their housekeeper drive Ian and Marie to school the day of their fatal accident because she was too busy with her career. Later, she dispatched Chris to get some paintings for an upcoming gallery exhibit which she couldn't fetch because she was feeling poorly. Colliding with death in a traffic-clogged tunnel, Chris dies playing Good Samaritan to a woman trapped in a wrecked car. After Chris's funeral, Annie considers suicide. Nothing can console her, not even the diary that her therapist has made her compile to deal with her grief and guilt.

Veteran scenarist Ronald Bass adapted "Dreams." Usually, he knows what constitutes a worthwhile weepie. His impressive credits include "Waiting to Exhale," "When a Man Loves a Woman," and "How Stella Got Her Groove Back." Sadly, Bass's skills abandon him in this overblown, love-conquerors-all melodrama riddled with chaos, contrivance, and a conspicuous lack of coherence. Neither Bass nor Ward focuses enough time on the Nielson family as a unit to make them seem sympathetic or charismatic. Cluttered incomprehensibly with flashbacks which come and go in fits and starts, "Dreams" generates wholesale confusion. Ward and Bass shuttle audiences incessantly between the present and the past as well as Heaven and Hell. Not only do they weave a tangled tale, but they also play musical chairs with their characters. The characters aren't so much individuals as they are puppets that stand for ideas.

Despite all of this rampant confusion, "Dreams" conjures up some of the most phantasmagorical imagery that any movie has ever offered. Lenser Eduardo Serra of "Blood Diamond" and production designer Eugenio Zanetti of "Flatliners" deserve Oscars for their sterling efforts. Even when "Dreams" is boring, the LSD scenery is powerful. Hell resembles a conventional synthesis of Dante's "Inferno" and the art of Dutch painter Hieronymous Bosch.

A miscast Robin Williams does a mediocre Kevin Kline impersonation. Worse, reverting to his usual comic antics, Williams cracks giddy jokes that clash with more than compliment this metaphysical melodrama. Sciorra suffers from a string of bad hair scenes. Williams and Sciorra both play characters that reinforce sexist, one-dimensional stereotypes. Chris braves Hades as the never-say-die husband hero, while Annie epitomizes the hysterical damsel-in-distress. "Dreams" represents Sciorra's first role after an absence of some years. Too bad that she chose to grace this poster-art pabulum to stage a comeback.

Only mahogany-faced Max Von Sydow of "Flash Gordon" emerges with his reputation intact. Cast as 'the Tracker,' he escorts Chris through Hades to find Annie. Sydow wears an outfit that combines Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name with Charon, the ferryman of Greek mythology who steers the dead to Hades over the river Styx. Meanwhile, Cuba Gooding Jr. brings good cheer to a role that qualifies as strictly secondary.

"What Dreams May Come" (* out of ****) makes the after-life appear alluring. Admirably, the filmmakers treat suicide as a big no-no. Horribly, they do a soft shoe where morality is concerned. In granting amnesty to Sciorra's suicidal character, "Dreams" suggests that life and death are not altogether terminal states of consciousness. The theology of "Dreams" stirs Greek mythology, New Age religion, and Judeo-Christian traditions into a thick soup that shouldn't offend anybody except die-hard fundamentalists. Although thematically ambitious and visually spectacular, "What Dreams May Come" degenerates into a sluggish, schmaltzy, tear-jerker whose happy ending is hopeless manipulative.

FILM REVIEW OF ''xXx" (2002)

Brawny, bald-headed, baritone-voiced, tough-guy Vin Diesel radiates the kind of charisma and presence reminiscent of the late Telly Savalas. Savalas made a career out of playing notorious villains, most memorably arch-foe Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the 007 classic "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (1969), until he won TV fame as the lollipop-licking N.Y.P.D. Detective "Kojak"(1973-78), who popularized the phrase "Who loves ya, baby?" Like Savalas, Diesel usually portrays villains, but his morally-ambiguous rogues heroically redeem themselves in thrillers like "Pitch Black" (2000), "The Fast and the Furious" (2001), and if it gets released in October, the long-overdue Mafia melodrama "Knockabout Guys" (2001). When he isn't cast as a bad-guy-gone-good, Diesel has provided the voice for the misunderstood monster in "The Iron Giant" (1999) and aroused sympathy as a doomed G.I. in Steven Spielberg's overrated, below-average, World War II bloodbath "Saving Private Ryan" (1998). Instead of signing up for the "Furious" sequel, Diesel has teamed up with director Rob Cohen, who called the shots on "Furious," to produce "xXx," a superficial, slam-bang, European-lensed spy saga in the tradition of James Bond but aimed primarily at the PlayStation generation. Although it lacks the originality of "Furious," "xXx"(**1/2 out of ****) compensates for its formulaic flaws with high-voltage pyrotechnics, unbelievable stunts, and a sadistic ex-Soviet officer with a scheme to topple all status quo governments.

The hopelessly derivative screenplay by Rich Wilkes, whose credits include "The Jerky Boys," "The Stoned Age," and "Airheads," plunders the Bond franchise but pays homage to "Pulp Fiction" and "The Third Man." Diesel flexes his tattooed biceps as Xander Cage, an anti- smoking activist/outlaw Internet celebrity who risks his neck with extreme-sports escapades like stealing a right-wing California state senator's Corvette. Cage rigs the ride with crash- proof Sony cameras, so he can broadcast the footage later on-line and rebut the senator's campaign to ban rap music, skateboards, and videogames. Plunging the car off a high-rise bridge, Cage bails out with a parachute at the last minute before a fireball explosion obliterates the vehicle. Inevitably, the cops catch up with him. In swaggers National Security Agency honcho Augustus Gibbons (the incomparable Samuel L. Jackson with a facial scar like Play-Doh and a Velco-looking wig) who cuts a deal with Cage and packs him off to Prague. Xander penetrates a plug-ugly posse of perpetrators known as 'Anarchy 99.' Led by Yorgi (New Zealand actor Marton Csoka who played Celeborn in "The Lord of the Rings") and his cold-as-ice concubine Yelena (sexy Asia Argento, renowned Italian horror movie maestro Dario Argento's daughter), these nefarious nihilists party hardy with German metal band Rammstein when they aren't assembling a hydrofoil sub to deploy their biological weapon named 'Silent Night.'

Director Rob Cohen shrewdly shuns subtlety in "xXx" for the sake of super-charged sensationalism. This invigorating but uninspired PG-13 rated epic features a gratuitous number of superbly-choreographed car chases, acrobatic motorcycle antics, and ear- splitting gunplay, along with several obvious anti-substance abuse messages. Watching "xXx" is the cinematic equivalent of chomping a giant, greasy, triple-decker cheeseburger.


Although its aliens resemble varmints, "Wing Commander" (**1/2 out of ****) emerges as a predictable but entertaining "Star War" clone distinguished by Digital Anvil's dazzling special effects, Oscar winner Peter Lamont's atmospheric production designs, and a first-class supporting cast. While his directorial film debut lacks originality, director Chris Roberts shows adequate ingenuity in his treatment of venerable science-fiction clichés and conventions. "Wing Commander" recycles enough surefire elements from "Star Wars," "Star Trek 2," "Top Gun," "Starship Troopers," and "The Hunt for Red October" to satisfy hardcore sci-fi fans. Starring Freddie ("She's All That") Prinze Jr., and Matthew ("Scream") Lillard, "Wing Commander" charts the course of two audacious starship fighter pilots fresh out of the Confederation academy who find themselves thrown into the middle of an intergalactic war. The year is 2654. Earth is at war with the xenophobic Kilarthi, an ancient alien race of felines with retractable Freddy Krueger claws that resolve to obliterate the planet when diplomatic solutions fail.

Freshman director Chris Roberts and scenarist Kevin ("Mortal Combat") Droney launch the action with a devastating Kilarthi surprise attack on Pegasus, a secret Confederation outpost in an asteroid chain. The attack resembles the Japanese 'sneak' attack on Pearl Harbor, only instead of the U.S. Pacific Fleet getting destroyed, the Confederation's Vega System Fleet gets wiped out while in dry dock. The bad guys secure a fabled navigational device which will enable them to attack Earth before the Confederation can stop them.

Meanwhile, Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn (David Warner of "Titanic") relays a coded transmission to a freighter in route to the closest hope for Earth's survival: the aircraft carrier style starship Tiger Claw. Tolwyn entrusts the message to the son of a war hero, Chris 'Maverick' Blair. When he arrives aboard the Tiger Claw, Blair receives a chilly response from the second-in-command, Captain Gerald (Jurgen Prochnow of "Beverly Hills Cop 2"), who mistrusts the rookie pilot because he is a half-breed whose mother was an infamous Pilgrim.

According to Droney's expository rich screenplay, the Pilgrims explored the far corners of the universe first and cultivated unique genetic powers which allowed them to navigate through space time anomalies without the aid of computers. The Pilgrims, however, grew proud and arrogant. Eventually, they revolted against their fellow Earthlings, fought a terrible war, and became hated until their race died out. The point is that speed matters in the story, and Chris Blair knows which short cuts to take through space to beat the Kilrathi before they reach Earth. Blair's identity crisis lies at the heart of the action. Until this predicament, Blair knew nothing about either his Pilgrim heritage or his special qualities.

Sadly, everything falls apart when the villain storm onto the screen. Adventure movies live and die on the strength of their villains. The Kilrathi qualify as the all-time worst science fiction villains since "The Green Slime" back in 1968. Resembling "Karate Kid" star Pat Morita from the neck up, they dress like the cast of the Broadway musical "Cats" in tacky Naugahyde green suits from the neck down. Prudently, Roberts and Droney have pared down the screen time devoted to the Kilrathi to the absolute minimum. One glimpse at these farcical foes is enough to undermine either any suspense or credibility that "Wing Commander" generates during its trim PG-13 rated running time of 100 minutes.

Questions left unanswered about the Kilrathi may annoy some audiences. Who are the Kilrathi? Where did they come from? Why are they so determined to destroy Earth? Practically the only thing intimidating about the Kilrathi is the way their name sounds when anybody utters it.

What differentiates "Wing Commander" from the standard "Star Wars" clone is its anachronistic but novel hardware designs. Although its hackneyed story occurs in the 27th century, the Confederation deploys comparatively low-tech arsenals of bullets and torpedoes rather than high-tech lasers to battle the Kilrathi. Peter Lamont, who won an Oscar fro his production designs on "Titanic," models the space fighters on the gull-wing Chance-Vought Corsairs of World War II rather than the Tie fighter or X-Wing craft of "Star Wars." The space cruisers in "Wing Commander" have an antiquated but grungy look that links them with other notably grungy sci-fi thrillers such as "Outland," the "Alien" franchise, and "Event Horizon." Altogether, it is nothing new, but "Wing Commander" generates a lot of atmosphere with its retro-space look.

So obsessed is "Wing Commander" creator Chris Roberts with World War II technology that he shuns the usual Buck Rogers paraphernalia. An interstellar fight between the Tiger Claw and a Kilrathi vessel is staged like a confrontation between pirate ships.

Like "Starship Troopers," "Wing Commander" boasts independent, strong-willed female characters that don't flinch at the sight of blood and violence. Saffron ("Circle of Friends") Burrows is cast as the tight-lipped, dry ice title character, Jeanette 'Angel' Marshall who suffers nobody's insolence. She believes that they are all living on borrowed time, and the idealistic Blair does his best to refute that thinking. Burrows' sullen good looks and sexy Emma Peel presence make you forget about the laughable Kilrathi. Ginny Holden's daredevil fighter pilot make a memorable impression, too.

Tolerant sci-fi audiences will appreciate this serviceable sci-fi saga more than discriminating adults that expect more from Hollywood science fiction outings. "Wing Commander" has enough good things going for it so that its threadbare plot and enigmatic hairball villains don't sabotage it. Top lenser Thierry Arbogast, who filmed "The Fifth Element," bolsters "Wing Commander" with his exhilarating widescreen cinematography. Arbogast's stirring long shots of space vehicles zipping past planets to vanish into the distant vistas of stars makes "Wing Commander" a treat for the eyes. Kevin Kiner's rousing orchestral score, that David "Independence Day" Arnold helped compose, give the action a dignity and stature that it otherwise would lack.

Sure, the dog-eared scenario of "Wing Commander" has been replicated ad nauseam, but director Chris Roberts' generally competent helming of this $27-million production makes it worth watching once.


Writer & director Stephen Sommers reinvents the nemesis of "Dracula" in "Van Helsing" starring Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale. Sommers brings the same larger-than-life swashbuckling bravado to "Van Helsing" that he brought to his macabre but campy reboot of "The Mummy" (1932) in the blockbuster Brendan Fraser flicks "The Mummy" (1999) and "The Mummy Returns" (2001). Even more outrageously preposterous but thoroughly entertaining than Sommers' adrenalin-driven "Mummy" remakes, "Van Helsing" (**** out of ****) alters more than Dracula's archenemy. Sommers performs makeovers on the Frankenstein monster and Dracula's brides, too. Now, the Frankenstein monster fights for the good guys, while the airborne vampire brides swoop down like harpies on their victims and haul them away in their talons. Even Dracula himself undergoes changes. Stakes through the heart, garlic, crucifixes, holy water and sunlight have no effect. However, nothing is as radical as the transformation of Van Helsing. In the original 1931 "Dracula," Professor Abraham Van Helsing was a much older man with close-cropped hair and thick glasses who practiced medicine. In other words, 60-year old vampire slayer Edward Van Sloan looked nothing like buffed up "X-Men" star Hugh Jackman. Neither does Jackman resemble the venerable Peter Cushing, who portrayed Van Helsing as an older but more energetic professor type during the 1950s-60s in five Hammer "Dracula" movies. An unkempt Anthony Hopkins hammed up the role in "Bram Stoker's Dracula" (1992). The closest anybody has come to Hugh Jackson's Gabriel Van Helsing is Christopher Plummer in "Dracula 2000." Nonetheless, even Plummer played Van Helsing as an older man armed with a deadly cross-bow. Not only does Jackman arm himself with a gas-operated, semi-automatic cross-bow, but also he totes two six-guns and a hand-held, kung-fu flying guillotine. For martial arts illiterates, a hand-held, kung-fu flying guillotine looks like a Frisbee with jagged metal edges. Young, virile, and fast on the draw, Jackman's Van Helsing dresses like an Italian western gunslinger with a black, floor-length coat and a broad-brimmed hat. His uncanny resemblance to Clint Eastwood enhances that impression.

"Van Helsing" hits you with back-to-back prologues that identify the chief characters. An enraged Transylvanian mob storms Dracula's castle in the late 1880s. Evidently, Dracula (Richard Roxburgh of "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen") has given Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Samuel West of "Notting Hill") refuge in his castle, so the scientist can complete his experiments with reanimating dead tissue. Of course, Dracula isn't generous for nothing. He has a stake in giving life to the dead offspring of him and his brides. Thousands of icky-looking embryos that dangle lifelessly from the ceiling like wasp nests clutter up Dracula's castle. Meanwhile, the Vatican dispatches Van Helsing as their troubleshooter to destroy monsters. In his opening prologue, Van Helsing appears in Paris with the Eiffel Tower under construction and battles the only non-Universal Studios monster, the Mr. Hyde (Robbie Coltrane's voice), half of Dr. Jekyll. Afterward, our stalwart hero rides back on horse to the Vatican for new orders. Director John Carpenter first linked the Vatican with destroying vampires in his own movie "Vampires" (1998) with James Woods as a cross-bow wielding vampire killer. Although he wears old west duds, Van Helsing acts more like James Bond. At the Vatican, the equivalent of 007's Q in the guise of Friar Carl (scene-stealing David Wenham, Faramir in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy) devises a variety of gadgets for Van Helsing. Cardinal Jinette (Alun Armstrong of "Patriot Games") dispatches Van Helsing to save the last two members of a vampire slaying clan. They are gypsy princess Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale of "Pearl Harbor") and her brother Veklan (Will Kemp of "Mindhunters")who gets bitten by a werewolf early on in the action. Unfortunately, Veklan falls under Dracula's power and becomes his werewolf slave. Initially, neither Van Helsing nor Anna likes each other, but they join forces reluctantly to put Dracula on ice. In the middle of all this mayhem, we find the Frankenstein monster (Shuler Hensley of "Someone Like You") serving as the key to Dracula's efforts to give his dead offspring life.

Sommers pulls out all stops in this slam-bang, high-octane, over-the-top, roller-coaster of an adventure that has vampires and werewolves battling each other. Twists follow turns in the contrived but imaginative plot, and surprises alternate with shocks. Although he has revamped those classic horror characters, Sommers' "Van Helsing" consists more of atmospheric, computer-generated locales and harrowing jolts that occur when monsters appear suddenly behind characters for maximum shock effect. No, anybody over age 12 shouldn't suffer nightmares from this formulaic action epic, because "Van Helsing" is basically a horror comedy. Imagine a monster mash cross-between of "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" and "The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me But Your Teeth Are In My Neck" (1967), and you'll know what to expect of "Van Helsing." Nothing about "Van Helsing" is remotely credible, but the breathlessly paced story throws so many curves that you cannot predict what is going to happen from one set-piece to the next. When Hugh Jackman isn't performing testosterone-fueled stunts, Kate Beckinsale indulges in her own estrogen-based acrobatics that make her werewolf slayer in "Underworld" seem tame by comparison. Neither character has enough time to romance the other, because they find themselves constantly jumping through metaphorical flaming hoops in an unceasing battle with evil. If "Van Helsing" has a flaw, it is casting Richard Roxburgh as Dracula. He looks like Dudley Moore and he lacks menace. You have to wonder why Universal couldn't have attracted a bigger star to off-set the combined star power of Beckinsale and Jackman. Ultimately, while "Van Helsing" is never boring, the changes in these legendary horror characters probably won't bother younger audiences as much as older ones weaned on inflexible rules governing the behavior of vampires and werewolves. You'll get your money's worth out of "Van Helsing."