Friday, January 2, 2009


"Naked Youth" (*1/2 out of ****) generates a modicum of suspense as it intertwines two stories about criminals on the lam in the dusty southwestern United States. First, a couple of youths at a State Honor Farm--Switch (Steve Rowland)and Frankie (Robert Arthur)decide to escape and rendezvous with Frankie's cute girlfriend who has a car waiting for them nearby under a bridge to make their getaway. Second, Rivas (John Goddard) is a drug smuggler in suit and tie who kills a Mexican dope buyer with a knife at a deserted bullfighting arena and then flees Mexico with his own girlfriend Madge (Carol Ohmart)carrying a doll packed with smack in the nick of time before the authorities lock down the border.

Meanwhile, tension between Switch--he wields a switchblade but appears to be all gab and no guts--and Frankie develop over his girlfriend. This tension grows after their getaway car overheats and forces them to walk the rest of the way on foot in the hot, arid desert. Goddard and his girlfriend pick them up in their station wagon so that they will look like one big happy family and fool the cops. Goddard spots a roadblock, loses his nerve, and swerves off onto a back road. Eventually, the kids and he tangle. Frankie slugs him from behind, and they rip out the distributor cap from their car and force the adults afoot, too. It seems that Switch--nicknamed for his reliance on an illegal switchblade knife--and Rivas are both edgy about blade fanatics. The chief difference is that Rivas is ready, willing, and able to stab at the least provocation.

Robert Hutton, once a popular character actor in Warner Brothers' World War II movies such as "Destination Tokyo" and "Hollywood Canteen," plays a Federal agent named Maddo who tails these reprobates. This low budget juvenile delinquent/narcotics exploitation drive-in feature maintains a fast enough with okay performances and authentic on-the-road realism. Nothing in the way of memorable lines of dialogue make up for their predictable shennagians, but none of it is idiotic either. In fact, "Naked Youth" doesn't qualify as one of those "so bad it's good" thrillers with hundreds of gaffes.

This represented director John F. Schreyer's only directorial outing; he was better known for editing westerns and war movies, such as "Hostile Guns," "More Dead Than Alive," and "Ambush Bay." Nevertheless, he knows when to cut back and forth between the pursued and the pursuers. You can tell that the Production Code Administration was still enforcing some of its self-censorship rules because when Carol Ohmart injects herself with heroin in the forearm, we get to see the reaction shots of those watching her shoot up. Ironically, Ohmart's character is the most sympathetic of the bunch. She guns down her dastardly boyfriend rather than see him murder a Maddo.

The worst thing about this exploitation meller is that the music is a blatant rip-off of Elmer Bernstein's "The Man With The Golden Arm" and Bernard Herrman's "Vertigo." Otherwise, "Naked Youth," which boasts neither nude scenes nor sex scenes to speak of and refrains from preaching its crime does not pay message, is passable.


"Raiders of Tomahawk Creek" director Fred F. Sears' "The Nebraskan" (** out of ****) attests to the popularity of westerns during the Eisenhower era. This standard cavalry versus the redskins horse opera set in Nebraska packs plenty of action as white men trapped in an isolated way station battle bloodthirsty savages.

Predictable as the stock characters that inhabit it, "The Nebraskan" contains a couple of narrative revelations as well as good, solid performances from Phil Carey, Richard Webb, Jay Silverheels, but veteran screen heavy Lee Van Cleef takes top honors as a thoroughly evil cavalry deserter who has no qualms about killing in cold blood.

You will no doubt notice all those wonderful images of objects, arrows, knives, and flaming ceiling posts thrust toward the camera. "The Nebraskan" was one of Columbia's entries in the 3-D sweepstakes in the year 1953 right after United Artists released "Bwana Devil" as the first example of 3-D. Many of the effects here appear to be inserted just as some stock footage of Indians on the warpath look like they were re-photographed with rocks laid into the foreground to enhance the 3-D look. "The Nebraskan" isn't the best nor is it the worst 3-D movie, just as it is neither the best nor the worst western.

The action unfolds with Wade Harper (Phil Carey of "Return to Warbow") and Indian scout Wingfoot (Maurice Jara of "Take the High Ground") riding hell-bent-for-leather across rugged scenery with Spotted Bear (Jay Silverheels of "The Lone Ranger") and his Sioux warriors hot on their heels. Our hero and his prisoner barely make it inside Fort Carney before the rampaging Indians pull up outside the gates. Colonel Markham (Regis Toomey of "The High and the Mighty") warns Spotted Bear that Nebraska has just become a state and that both whites and Indians must obey the law. Wingfoot and Harper, it seems, were sent to conclude a peace pact with the Sioux, but Spotted Bear discovered Chief Thundercloud with a knife in his back dead not long after Wingfoot had left the chief's tent. Harper brought Wingfoot back as his prisoner so that the Sioux wouldn't use the occasion as a pretext to violence. Spotted Bear isn't happy with this arrangement, but he accepts it.

The Army locks Wingfoot up in the guard house with notorious Private Reno Benton (Lee Van Cleef, who wears his cavalry hat like he did years later in "The Big Gundown"). The villainous Reno strangles an inept guard (Robert Williams) who gets too close to the barred cell door, and then he relieves him of his keys. Reno forces Wingfoot to join him so that the Indian lead him to safety amidst all the irate Indians. Reno isn't content with killing one sentry. He stabs another in the back before the bugler sounds the alarm and Wingfoot and he high tail it out of Fort Carney. Markham assigns Harper and a handful of men, led by Captain De Witt (a barely recognizable Dennis Weaver of "McCloud") to pursue the escaped prisoners. Four days later, a tired, irritable De Witt rejects Harper's suggestion about taking the long way instead of a short cut in their pursuit of Reno and Wingfoot, and everybody but Harper survives a cleverly laid ambush by Reno. No sooner has Reno and Wingfoot taken off than they run into another cavalry patrol on the way to Fort Carney. Reno cannot argue his way out of this predicament so Wingfoot and he ride along until the cavalry patrol ride to the rescue of a stagecoach being chased by whooping Indians in war paint. The stagecoach overturns but the cavalry arrives in time to save two passengers, Ace Elliot (Richard Webb of "Prince Valiant") and his wife Paris (Roberta Haynes of "Hell Ship Mutiny"), and the commander allows Reno and Wingfoot to escort them to a nearby watering hole called MacBride's.

No sooner have the cavalry ridden away than Reno turns his carbine on the Elliots and robs them. Unfortunately, for Reno, the resilient Wade Harper makes a convenient appearance and turns the tables on the murdering cavalryman. Our heroes, heroine, and the prisoners ride off to McBride's way station, run by a crusty old-timer 'Mac' McBride (Wallace Ford of "Freaks"). About that time, Spotted Bear and his Sioux warriors descend on the way station with all their guns blazing and lay siege to our heroes.

Phil Carey portrays buckskin clad cavalry scout Wade Harper as an omniscient expert in all things Indian, but his character isn't very comfortable around women. It seems that Paris and he had a thing going once that didn't pan out because Harper wasn't very good with words. Paris, on the rebound, wound up getting hitched so-to-speak to the duded-up city-slicker Ace who reveals his true colors later after the Indians besiege them in Mac's stone cabin. Richard Webb does a better-than-average job as the cowardly Ace. Veteran western scenarist David Lang of "The Last Outpost" and "Ambush at Tomahawk Gap" co-wrote this passable oater with Martin Berkeley of "Red Sundown" and "Revenge of the Creature." According to IMDb.COM, Berkeley gained a notoriety by naming more Hollywood directors, actors, and writers at the infamous HUAC hearings in the 1950s than anybody else. Lang and Berkeley wrap up everything, even the mystery behind Chief Thundercloud's death, in a finale that leaves the dust settled. Appropriately enough, Lee Van Cleef dies with an Indian knife in his back.

"The Nebraskan" is nothing special, certainly not a memorable cavalry oater of John Ford quality. Nevertheless, it reminds us how many hundreds of westerns like it were produced in the 1950s when moviegoers couldn't get enough of the Old West. Picture's saving grace is its trim 68-minute running time.


"My Dog Skip" (*** out of ****)is pretty feisty.

Although Hollywood has hyperbolized this autobiographical account of late author Willie Morris' youth in Yazoo City in the summer of 1942 and the canine who changed his life, "My Dog Skip" measures up as an endearing, tail-wagging, Alpo epic aimed more at nostalgia-minded adults than adolescents. This pretentious but picturesque parable about a pooch (albeit one with more pedigree than most) and his famous young master strives for the poignancy of "To Kill A Mockingbird: but lacks the complexity of the Harper Lee classic. "Mockingbird" explored racism, while "Skip" only nods at it. Nevertheless, sophomore director Jay Russell has freshman scribe Gail Gilchriest have spun a superficial but entertaining saga about a boy and his dog that quenches your emotions without insulting your intelligence.

Life for nine-year old Willie Morris (Frankie Muniz of TV's "Malcolm in the Middle") is no picnic. Not only is Willie small for his age, but he also doesn't fit in with everybody else. Being different at his age poses huge problems. Willie prefers reading rather than romping around with a football, so the school bullies regularly prey on him. They corner him after class, knock his books out of his arms, rip up a letter,and call him names. Willie's next door neighbor, Dink Jenkins (Luke Wilson of "Home Fries"),the most celebrated jock in Yazoo City, becomes his friend. The bullies cannot understand why Dink pays Willie any attention. When Dink enlists in the U.S. Army for duty overseas in Europe, Willie is saddened because he is losing his only friend.

Although his father loves him, Jake Morris (Kevin Bacon of "Sleepers") is so embittered by the loss of a leg in the Spanish Civil War that he doesn't give Willie much room to frolic. Ironically, Jack tries to shield Willie from the pain of life as he struggles to deal with his own loss. Meanwhile, Willie's resourceful mom, Ellen (Diane Lane of "Untraceable"), awakens the Tom Sawyer in her son. She gives Willie a puppy for his ninth birthday. Jack hates the idea. "Dogs are just a heartbreak waiting to happen," he insists. Willie's heart will break, he fears, if anything tragic happens to the animal. Despite Jack's objections, Ellen puts her foot down. Willie gets to keep the puppy!

Skip becomes Willie's best friend. Willie's circle of friends widens. Eventually, the school bullies accept him, especially after Willie spends a stormy night in a spooky graveyard without turning chickening out. This is where Skip and Willie run afoul of two scummy bootleggers. Skip acts as matchmaker, too. He arranges Willie's first date with sweet little Rivers Applewhite(Caitlin Wachs of "Thirteen Days"). They go to a movie and share popcorn with Skip. As Willie's confidence swells, he takes Skip for granted. At a baseball field, where Willie is playing finally instead of watching, Skip delays the game. An enraged Willie clobbers him, and Skip skedaddles. Later, pair of villainous bootleggers traps Skip, beat him with a shovel, and leave him for dead.

"My Dog Skip" unfolds as a fairly ordinary sequence of vignettes which feature either Willie undergoing his rites of passage or the mischievous Skip in an adventure of his own. For example, when Jack and Skip are collecting blackberries, they cross paths with a couple of hunters. Willie watches as a deer dies from a rifle shot. He touches the blood with his fingers and examines the blood as the animal takes its dying gasps of air. Russell and Gilchriest have taken a formulaic plot and embroidered it with several ironic lessons about life. Luke Wilson's ill-fated jock, Dink Jenkins, serves as a contrivance to show that not all cowards are alike, especially when they hail from championship stock.

Frankie Muniz refuses to be upstaged by the six adorable Jack Russell terriers alternating in the lead role. Two of them, Moose and Enzo, appear on NBC-TV's "Frasier." Luke ("Blue Streak") Wilson rounds out a sympathetic cast as Willie's next door neighbor who fights the Nazis and experiences the horrors of combat and the shame of cowardice. Ken Bacon brings surprising depth and compassion to what essentially constitutes a cameo as Willie's wounded father. Jack Morris displays a dour Hemingway quality. Although he won a medal for losing his leg in the war, Jack assures Willie,"I'd rather have the leg."

Only kids that have not been weaned on Ritalin, PlayStation, and MTV will appreciate this tear-jerking tale about a terrier with its refreshingly authentic depiction of rural Mississippi. "My Dog Skip" shuns the slobbering slapstick of "Beethoven" for the heartfelt sincerity of "Old Yeller." Above all, despite his scene-stealing antics, Skip balks at performing far-fetched feats of the Rin-Tin-Tin variety! Willie Morris saw "My Dog Skip" three days before he died of a heart attack at age 64and gave the movie his blessing.


You know that a science fiction film, like the new Steven Spielberg movie "Minority Report" starring Tom Cruise and Colin Farrell, is in trouble when the background elements are more interesting than the foreground elements. Based on a sci-fi short story by legendary author Philip K. Dick, whose writings have inspired Gary Felder's "Impostor" (2001), Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" (1982), and Paul Verhoven's "Total Recall" (1990), "Minority Report" (** out of ****) tops the inept "Impostor" but lacks the exciting agility of either "Total Recall" or "Blade Runner." While the 'what if' premise of the Philip K. Dick short story and the script by Scott ("Get Shorty") Frank and newcomer Jon Cohen provokes thought, director Steven Spielberg bungles both premise and promise. Not only does Spielberg wear out his welcome with an exhaustive epic that runs a half-hour too long, but also he botches what could have been the equal of any of his action-packed "Raiders" trilogy or "The Lost World." Quite simply, "Minority Report" degenerates into a shallow, derivative sci-fi saga that bogs down too often in its own pseudo-technical gibberish and never delivers the hallowing hair-raising heroics that it promises.

"Minority Report" unfolds in Washington, D.C., in the year 2054. Over the past six years, nobody has murdered anybody, thanks to a pioneering crime-prevention program called 'Pre-Crime' that can predict a homicide before it happens. Inventors Lamar Burgess (Max Von Sydow of "The Exorcist") and Iris Hineman (Lois Smith of "The Pledge") devised this system that relies on three psychics (one woman and two men) called "Pre-Cogs" buoyed in a wading pool who have visions of future crimes. The Justice Department dispatches Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell of "American Outlaws") to check out the system before they adopt it for nation-wide use. Witwer suspects the system is flawed, no matter what Pre-Crime Chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise of "Vanilla Sky") claims to the contrary. Suddenly, Anderton finds himself in a predicament when the Pre-Cogs say he has murder on his mind. Anderton is supposed to kill somebody that he has never met in the next 36 hours. Predictably, Anderton runs. Not only does he resist arrest, but also he kidnaps one of the Pre-Cogs, former crack-baby Agatha (Samantha Morton), who insists that he would kill and run. Along the way, we learn Anderton lost his son; uses illegal drugs, and is divorced.

Spielberg blows it from the beginning with an action scene that wanders in circles. Things grow worse as the plot thickens, and we learn how the lottery style 'Pre-Crime System' works. At least ten continuity errors crop up, but what is worst is Spielberg never lets the action scenes off the leash. Instead, peripheral elements, such as the Magnetic Levitation traffic system that prevents traffic jams and the 'sick stick' that the cops use to incapacitate wrongdoers by making them instantly vomit, are more interesting than the contrived, drawn- out, convoluted story. Tom Cruise makes a convincingly vulnerable hero, but nothing about "Minority Report" is as convincing or insightful as his performance.


The new Brad Pitt & Angelina Jolie romantic thriller comedy "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" (**1/2 out of ****) blends bits and pieces from the 1994 Arnold Schwarzenegger shoot'em up "True Lies" and the 1989 Michael Douglas & Kathleen Turner domestic black comedy "The War of the Roses" to tell the often amusing but sometimes violent saga about an alienated married couple who try to knock each other off. Director Doug Liman, who helmed "The Bourne Identity," "Swingers," and "Go," doesn't break any new ground with this mindless kiss-kiss/bang-bang potboiler, but he keeps the far-fetched action moving at a moderately fast enough pace that you don't think about the weaknesses in Simon Kinberg's hopelessly outlandish screenplay. Neither the explosive firefight sequences can compare with Liman's earlier spy thriller "The Bourne Identity" nor does the humor rival either of his previous comedies "Swingers" and "Go." Nevertheless, the sexy on-screen chemistry between Pitt and Jolie as well as Vince Vaughn's hilarious scene-stealing antics as a hit-man who lives with his mom make "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" worth watching once, even when everybody isn't trying to blow more holes in each other than a wedge of Swiss cheese. Incidentally, for the record, aside from its title, Liman's "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" shares nothing in common with Alfred Hitchcock's one and only screwball comedy "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" (1941) that toplined Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery.

"Mr. & Mrs. Smith" opens with Jane (Angelina Jolie of "Alexander") and John Smith (Brad Pitt of "Troy") seated in separate chairs as they answer a variety of questions from an anonymous, off-screen marriage counselor (voice of William Fichtner of "The Longest Yard) about the length of their wedlock, where they met, and how often they have sex. During their martial therapy sessions, Jane and John break the fourth wall. In other words, they address all their responses to us—the audience--as if we were the therapist. You cannot watch these scenes—all action occurs in flashbacks--without thinking about the infamous, off-screen meltdown of Brad Pitt's own marriage to actress Jennifer Aniston. Unless you've lived in a cave for the last year or kept your eyes shut while standing in the check out lanes at Walmart where the tabloids proclaim that Pitt cheated with Jolie, you know what I'm talking about. Director Doug Liman relies on this clever framing gimmick to tell us that neither Jane nor John is happily married. John claims that they have been married for five years, but Jane contradicts him they have been hitched for six years. We learn that our heroes met in Bogotá, Columbia, where they had carried out respective assassinations, then paired up to throw the local constabulary off the scent. The law is out to round up all singles, so our heroes lie and say they are a couple. What difference should it make whether assassins are single or come in pairs is never explained? Furthermore, we learn that they spend more time apart from each other than with each other. Their time together isn't any rosier. They quarrel about the new curtains that Jane has brought for their luxurious home in suburbia. Jane works for a Wall Street firm, while John runs an engineering business with best buddy, wisecracking Eddie (an unshaven Vince Vaughn of "Swingers"). In reality, Jane and John work for different assassination agencies. She stashes her arsenal of automatic weapons and throwing knives in a compartment inside and beneath the oven, while he hides his hardware underneath the garage. Neither has the faintest clue what the other does, because neither intrudes on each other at their respective workplaces. Eventually, the competing agencies that hire them to make hits accidentally double-book a hit. The target escapes their gun sites, because Jane and John wind up shooting at each other. When our protagonists discover that they have been exchanging shots, they start blasting away at each other in what constitutes the most unusual way to remodel their home.

Absurd as it may seem, scenarist Simon Kinberg penned his exercise in weapons-toting, one-upmanship as part of his thesis for his Masters of Fine Arts degree at Columbia University. Naturally, a squad of uncredited scribes rewrote it for the big-screen, but the problem is that neither Liman nor his writers can make up their minds about what kind of movie that they wanted to make. Some of the action gets pretty brutal for the PG-13 rating, while at other times the gunfights resemble kung fu battles with our outnumbered heroes repulsing literally hundreds of expendable SWAT team clad assassins. If you've seen the trailer for "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," you have already caught a glimpse of the best scenes: the interior redecorating scene between Pitt and Jolie; the desert shoot'em up, and the hell-for-leather chase scene. "Mr.& Mrs. Smith" gets off to a slow start as Liman sets up their martial woes, but he never goes very deep into the action itself. Since we know that neither Jane nor John is going to kill each other, suspense takes a back seat. Moreover, we have no villain at which to vent our rage. The one-liners are witty in a James Bond sense. Jane blows up the elevator that she has John trapped in, and he accused her of giving him the shaft. Repeatedly, other characters ridicule their marriage. During the guidance counseling scenes, John describes their life together as " . . . a huge space filled with everything that we don't say to each other . . ." When John asks the therapist what he would call that, the therapist crisply replies: "marriage." "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" lacks any shred of either sentimentality or narrative depth. Guys should enjoy the over-the-top but unbelievable action scenes, while gals will find Jane's efforts to outsmart John in the kitchen, bedroom, and battlefield comical, too. Without the luminous presence of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" would qualify as just another mediocre matrimonial melodrama.


This standard-issue, made-for-cable, action thriller about hunky ATF agent Ethan Carter ("Lois & Clark's" Dean Cain) going undercover to root out right-wing radicals that want to assassinate the President of the United States at a World Summit Conference is strictly routine from fade-in to fade-out. The first fifteen minutes sets up the plot as Agent Anderson (John Beck of "The Other Side of Midnight") spearheads a helicopter raid on a rural-based militia compound where the bad guys have illegal weapons.The most interesting thing about the opening shoot-out is that neither side wants to fire the first shot, and the fire shot is fired accidentally when a child drops his rifle and it discharges. My only question is how do the ATF guys in the chopper hear the kid's weapon discharge over the rotor blades? Our sharp-shooting hero Carter wounds the chief antagonist, William Fain (Frederick Forrest of "Apocalypse Now") and Anderson takes this notorious evil doer into custody to serve a 25 year sentence behind bars. Two years pass, and Fain cuts a deal with Anderson that gets the militia mastermind out of maximum security and on the right side of the law with the ATF. Fain agrees to infiltrate Agent Carter (Cain), the very same man who wounded him, into a group of fanatics run by a well-known radio commentator (Stacy Keach of TV's "Mike Hammer'), so that they can foil his nefarious designs. Meanwhile, the bad guys steal a vial of deadly anthrax (it resembles a test tube of urine) from a federal laboratory. Prolific movie maker Jay Andrews of "Extreme Limits" supplements this scene of derring-do with footage from James Cameron's "Terminator 2," right down to the conspicuous Cyberdyne sign outside of the building. Later, the same two henchmen who swiped the anthrax occupy a government missile launching facility and load the anthrax into a cluster bomb rocket. Can we say "The Rock" with Sean Connery and Ed Harris?

The formulaic action follows the numbers without missing a cliché. "Flashdance's" Jennifer Beals makes an improbable ATF agent named Saunders who acts as Carter's liaison in the field. Early on, Carter and Saunders clash over her dire lack of experience and how her best efforts seem designed to incriminate him in the eyes of the opposition. Later, she gets to prove her own sharp-shooting skills in one scene where she ices an obnoxious villain. The best thing about her wooden performance is that she doesn't look like she has aged a day since "Flashdance."

Several familiar faces also flesh out the cast, notably Michael Cavanaugh of "The Enforcer," blubbery Alabama native Brett Butler of "Grace Under Fire," and portly Stacy Keach as a mealy-mouthed madman. Beefy cupcake Dean Cain doesn't get much to do during the middle section of "Militia" after he is taken captive by the bad guys. The surprise here isn't really much of a surprise. The fire-ball explosions look good, but like a lot of other things about this boilerplate melodrama, the producers lifted them from movies such as "American Ninja 2" and "Delta Force 2." Altogether, this highly far-fetched but tolerable shoot-em up isn't as bad as some say, but neither does "Militia" stand out from the crowd. Andrews directs with his customary impersonal style. If you're looking for blood, gore, and breasts, prepare to be disappointed. The superficial screenplay doesn't make much out of our Constitutional right to bear arms, but it does make our hero sympathetic, because he claims that guns are tools for him, not collector's items. Again, you could do a lot worse or a lot better.


The only thing worse than a sequel is a remake. Indeed, the odds against making a movie remake that tops the original are at best astronomical. At least, in a sequel, you have a fair idea what to expect, but a remake can alter everything. Anybody remember that awful 2003 remake of Tobe Hooper's scary "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?" How about Tim Burton's rehash of "Planet of the Apes?" The Marlon Brando remake of the 1935 Clark Gable classic "Mutiny on the Bounty" remains an all-time sinker of a remake.

Sometimes, however, lightning strikes. The 1959 Lana Turner version of the weepy "Imitation of Life" surpasses the 1934 Claudette Colbert original. The Mel Gibson thriller "Payback" held its own against the tough-minded Lee Marvin original "Point Blank" (1967). The 1925 silent film "Ben-Hur" remains a powerful movie in its own right, but the sound version with Charlton Heston overshadows it. Although it flopped at the box office, the recent remake of "Willard" is far more effective than the 1971 original. Similarly, frightening as George A. Romeo's "Dawn of the Dead" (1979) is, the grisly remake carved out a niche of its own, worthy of its predecessor.

French director Jean-Francois Richet's new crime thriller "Assault on Precinct 13" (*** out of ****) amounts to a hard-boiled, adrenalin-laced, high-octane remake of "Halloween" director John Carpenter's modest but imaginative 1976 original. Carpenter made his movie on an estimated $100-thousand budget without a celebrity cast, and the plot was straightforward but white-knuckled. Essentially, Carpenter's "Assault on Precinct 13" constituted an inner city spin on Howard Hawks' "Rio Bravo," the venerable John Wayne & Dean Martin western. Whereas Carpenter's "Assault" clocked in at 91 lean, mean, trim minutes, the $30-million "Assault" remake runs 109 minutes. The story is essentially the same in both epics, only the characters and the intensity of the fireworks have been changed to keep pace with today's standards.

As remakes go, "Assault on Precinct 13" outstrips the Carpenter film on virtually every count, except originality—which isn't saying much given its derivative predecessor. In his first English-language film, director Jean-Francois Richet has assembled a convincing cast featuring Oscar winning actor Ethan Hawke, "Matrix" superstar Laurence Fishburne, "The Usual Suspects'" Gabriel Byrne, Brian Dennehy of "Silverado," and John Leguizamo of "Executive Decision." The new "Assault on Precinct 13" ramps up the violence considerably, though no kids are shot in the face through an ice-cream cone as in the Carpenter original. When the gunplay erupts in this grim, claustrophobic thriller, you might have to stuff popcorn in your ears. Every shot registers like an artillery barrage. Of course, the script by James DeMonaco of "The Negotiator" consists of clichés and conventions with stereotypical characters in abundance. However, DeMonaco endows these cornered characters with far more depth than Carpenter did.

The action in the "Assault" remake unfolds in snowy Detroit instead of sunny Los Angeles. Ostensibly, Carpenter's "Assault" weighed in as an exercise in spartan suspense, while Richet's remake is a big-budget, no-holds-barred, blow-the-top-of-your-head-off, melodrama. Eight months after getting shot in the leg in a drug-bust-gone-bad that claims the lives of two other cops, Sergeant Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke of "Training Day") is popping painkillers and keeping a low profile as the desk sergeant at Precinct 13. As it turns out, the city is shutting down Precinct 13 for good, and Jake and a skeleton crew are stuck inside its dilapidated premises during a blinding snowstorm on New Year's Eve. Meanwhile, the Detroit police have arrested a notorious mobster, Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne), and an army of crooked cops led by the nefarious Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne) want to terminate him with extreme prejudice so that he cannot sing like a canary to the grand jury. In the Carpenter original, gang members with silencers on their guns besieged the cops. Here, every corrupt cop in Detroit shows up for sniper duty to for target practice. Indeed, these gimlet-eyed snipers have a bad habit of missing more often than hitting their marks. Unless you stand stock still in the "Assault" remake, you have a better-than-average chance of survival. Of course, the villains are always terrible marksmen; otherwise they'd mow down the heroes and ruin the ending. Nevertheless, if either the good guys or the bad guys have you covered within an arm's length, you can expect to see exploding brains in the tradition of "Pulp Fiction." If you cannot stand the sight of blood, avoid this blood drenched remake. DeMarco's script dawdles in the middle and doesn't spring any eye-opening surprises. The surprise ending, however, comes as quite a revelation, considering the guy that gets away is as amoral as they come. The least believable surprise gets our heroes out of danger long enough to land them right back into jeopardy. A suspenseful stalking scene in a nearby wooded area seems out of place, but Richet wrings every ounce of tension from it that he can. As a director, Richet is cut from the same cloth as his French compatriot Luc Besson who helmed the trigger-happy "Le Femme Nitika" and "Leon, The Professional." Richet pours on the fusillades of gunfire when the characters don't pause to discuss their next move. You've seen this movie a zillion times if you watch westerns. Basically, the dirty cops stand in for the screaming Apaches that ride circles around the wagon train. Richet achieves a frenetic, life-on-the-raw-edge quality with his shaky camera treatment of the opening scene. This guy definitely knows how to stage action scenes with energy and flair.

Reportedly, even Carpenter liked DeMarco's screenplay, and Richet consulted him about his bullet-blasting update. Altogether, "Assault on Precinct 13" emerges as a well-done remake that will make a reputation for itself without endangering the original's cult status.


Anybody that enjoyed the first Austin Powers epic should love the sequel. The gags in "Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me" (***1/2 out of ****) surpass the original not only in comic creativity but also in how much they make you cringe. The cosmic struggle between good and evil as embodied in Austin Powers' battle against Dr. Evil has never been funnier. Cheeky scatological humor permeates this derivative tale along with the usual bad puns, double-entendres, infantile innuendo, and farcical slapstick. Director Jay Roach and writer & star Mike Myers have boned-up their flaky-flashy formula, introduced new characters, embellished on-going subplots, and pulled out all stops to top the original. Naturally, the Austin Powers movies celebrate as much as poke fun at those hip 1960's spy sagas where James Bond, Matt Helm, and Derek Flint used their wits and ways with women to vanquish the villains.

Co-scripted by Mike Myers and Michael McCullers, "AP2" picks up where the original left off. Opening with a campy nod to "Star Wars," they recap the original adventure with their own prologue scrolling into deep space. Not only has Austin Powers (Mike Myers) defeated his arch enemy Dr. Evil (Mike Myers) and exiled him to the dark recesses of space, but Powers also gotten his ugly teeth fixed and has married Vanessa Keningston (Elizabeth Hurley in a cameo).

While Austin and Vanessa shag away in the honeymoon suite, Dr. Evil's Big Boy rocket reappears on Norad Radar. An American astronaut working on the space shuttle looks up and finds the famous Shoney's Restaurant icon hovering ominously in an atmospheric "Armageddon' like rendezvous that sets the tone of hilarity in this facetious sequel. Whirling 180 degrees around the smiling Big Boy rocket, the camera focuses on the Big Boy's butt as a hinged compartment lowers, launching an egg which tumbles to the Earth. Indeed, the diabolical Dr. Evil is back! Meanwhile, Austin learns that Vanessa isn't really Vanessa. Instead, she is a fembot, a Terminator-like robot equipped with machine guns in her breasts which she deploys to gun down Austin. Predictably, he survives her barrage of bullets and rescue her Swedish, penis-enlarging machine while the deadly fembot obliterates everything in sight before she self-destructs.

Later, Austin learns from Basil Exposition (Michael York), chief of British Intelligence, that they knew all along that Vanessa was a fembot. Rejoicing at his new found freedom, Austin cavorts throughout the motel in his birthday suit while psychedelic screen credits carefully obscure his genitals. When the credits don't cover up his crotch, different objects resembling his genitals show up in a series of inventive sight gags cover them up. Basically, director Jay Roach has recycled the same joke from the first "AP" movie but has tripled the objects standing in for Austin's genitalia.

While the first "AP" movie gave its eponymous hero the lion's share of screen time, Dr. Evil dominates the sequel. Actually, between the two, Dr. Evil is far more interesting. Resembling Ernst Blofeld from "You Only Live Twice," Dr. Evil is the epitome of irony. Just as he did in "AP," Dr. Evil allows his vendetta to kill Powers overshadow his plans to enlarge his astronomically wealthy empire. The product placement here is clearly over-the-top as we find Dr. Evil in his high-rise headquarters in the Seattle space needle. Number Two (Robert Wagner in a cameo) reports that since they have acquired a minor coffee franchise, Starbucks, they have reaped a fortune. Acquiring a fortune takes a back seat to Dr. Evil's latest mad scheme. He intends to go back in time to 1969, two years before Austin Powers has been frozen cryogenically, to pinch our hero's mojo. Dr. Evil dispatches his most odious hoodlum, Fat Bastard (Myers in a third role), a baby-chomping, kilt-clad Scottish bagpipe blowing thug who weighs a ton.

Meanwhile, back in the future, Austin learns to his chagrin that he has lost his mojo. Essentially, the swinging secret agent no longer has his virility, leaving him impotent. Basil Exposition confirms it, and British Intelligence plans to send him back to the past in a time machine to 1969. Appropriately enough, a new Volkswagen Beetle with psychedelic colors serves as the time machine. Austin returns to swinging London and hooks up with fox CIA agent Felicity Shagwell (Heather Graham of "Boogie Nights"). They set out to recover his mojo and thwart Dr. Evil's fiendish plan to destroy Washington with a moon-based laser.

The Austin Powers movies synthesize the spy flicks of the 1960s along with the premise from the Sylvester Stallone thriller "Demolition Man." References to other movies creep into the action. When Dr. Evil's chair spins out of control, he invokes the chant from "The Exorcist." Incidentally, we learn in "AP2" that Austin's favorite movie is "In Like Flint." Nothing more than a loosely aligned jumble of "Saturday Night Live" skits like the original, "AP2" happily acknowledges its own absurdity in a couple of self-depreciating asides. Boldly, the filmmakers tell audiences in one scene to ignore the loopholes in the plot and enjoy the show. During a ride along a scenic stretch of road, Austin observes, "Amazing how England looks in no way like southern California." Director Jay Roach, who helmed the first "AP" movie, returns for the sequel. Clocking in at a trim 95 minutes, "AP2" rarely slows down, so if you watch it with a rowdy audience, you may miss some of the punch lines. The dancing interludes are flavorful and flashy, and the film's energy never wanes. Roach keeps the story rolling and the jokes flying as thick as bullets. One of the funniest scenes has Dr. Evil flying a spaceship shaped like erect male genitalia. Quick cuts from different people reacting to the object fuel the comedy.

"AP2" boasts beefed up production values that approximate the films that it sends up. Some of the funniest scenes involve Dr. Evil's relationship with his son Scott Evil (Seth Green). You'll die laughing at "AP2."