Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Actress Alicia Silverstone’s latest starring vehicle “Excess Baggage” (** OUT OF ****) opens amid a frenzy of activity like an inspired screwball comedy. Midway through the movie director Marco Brambilla and his scribes flagrantly shift gears from a sparkling comedy to a tedious kidnapping drama about an unhappy heiress and a woebegone car thief. Fans of the “Clueless” starlet may find “Excess Baggage” a puzzling departure for Silverstone who wielded ultimate creative authority over both script and casting. Perhaps she is more to blame for the muddled quality of “Excess Baggage” than either Brambilla or the writers. Never as entertaining as “Clueless” but better than “Batman & Robin,” “Excess Baggage" arrives as something of a letdown after Silverstone’s long screen absence.

Cast as Emily T. Hope, the moody daughter of a man richer than Donald Trump, Silverstone constantly struggles to elicit her icy hearted, corporate father’s affections. Australian actor Jack (“‘Breaker’ Morant”) Thompson plays the father who has grown weary of his daughter’s outlandish schemes to attract his attention. When he sent her away to a boarding school, Emily torched the place. As “Excess Baggage” unfolds, she has convinced not only her father but also the FBI that kidnappers are holding her for a million dollar ransom. Lamely, Emily hopes that her rescue from her bogus kidnappers will rekindle her papa’s love. So she gags, tapes and cuffs herself before she jumps into the trunk (not a stunt you should try) of her BMW.

Just as it looks as if everything is going Emily’s way, a car thief spots her Beamer in a parking garage and steals it as she lies helpless in the trunk. No sooner does Vincent (Benicio Del Toro) wheel his latest trophy onto the street than a swarm of police cars descends on him. A tire-screeching chase ensues, and Vincent manages to shake his pursuers. He pulls into a nondescript warehouse that conceals his stolen vehicles. Vincent is an expert car thief who boosts expensive sports cars. When he puts the car on the rack, he notices that it wobbles. Imagine his shock when he finds a babe chick inside bound and gagged. Vincent slams the trunk! Since he cannot think of anything else, he calls his partner-in-crime Greg (Harry Connick, Jr), a car salesman. So far the story has a little in common with the Elizabeth Shue comedy “Adventures in Babysitting.”

Meanwhile, Emily’s suspicious father calls in his right hand man, Uncle Ray (Christopher Walken) to find his daughter. After Emily breaks out of the car, she calls pop, but hangs up when Vincent returns. Eventually, Vincent decides to leave her on foot far out in the forest. That’s when he discovers her identity and that his car warehouse stands in a pile of smoking ashes. Now, the guys who paid Vincent to steal the cars (Nicholas Turturro & Michael Bowen) want their $200-thousand dollars back. Spotting Emily, they pull guns on Vincent and take Emily hostage with a million dollar ransom demand. It seems that “Excess Baggage” is a series of kidnappings and abductions.

The inventive but offbeat script hangs together by the most improbable threads. Of course, that’s the nature of Hollywood movies. The more unlikely the circumstances are, the more colossal the dramatic outcome appears. Anyway, whoever thought to demand realism out of an Alicia Silverstone comedy? Suddenly, “Excess Baggage” wanders off on other subplots that distract from Vincent and Emily. Not only that but the story slows down and a pall hovers over the characters. Realism tries to intrude on an Alicia Silverstone movie. Oh, no, not another Silverstone turkey like “The Crush!”

Screwball comedy dictates that Vincent heists the same car that Emily uses to stash her body. A smoldering cigarette that she tosses into a rag bin later engulfs Vincent’s neat hideout in flames. Neither Vincent nor Emily appreciate their predicament. Just when Vincent rids himself of Emily, he needs her and she needs him. Later, when Ray captures Vincent and confiscates his money, Emily comes to his rescue. Less than amused, the gruff Ray explains to Emily that she has committed a serious crime. They need to use Vincent as the fall guy to take her place.

“Clueless” it ain’t. Director Marco Brambilla, whose only previous directing credit is Sly Stallone’s “Demolition Man,” whips these disparate elements together with such verve and style until Emily and Vincent team up. The action stalls out along with the humor and movie goes in search of a genre. Is this still a comedy? Or is it a social problem film? About the same time that the story loses its momentum, we learn what an insensitive brute her father truly is. Jack Thompson’s stuck-up dad feels absolutely no sympathy for his daughter and finds a business appointment infinitely preferable to her attentions.

Writer Max D. Adams and comedy veterans Dick Clement and Ian Frenais fumble in their efforts to maintain a consistent feeling and atmosphere in the story. After Emily and Vincent fall for each other, Alicia Silverstone’s character spends several scenes off-camera. We get to follow the misadventures of poor Vincent who gets kidnapped not only by Ray but his criminal cronies. The focus shifts from the burgeoning relationship between Emily and Vincent and settles on the mechanics of a crime thriller. There’s even a shoot-out at the end, and Alicia drives a forklift with the front end of a car on it through a wall. The filmmakers clearly lose interest in their characters when they let the leads take a back seat to the crazy twists and turns of the plot. But the ending isn’t so neat. Emily’s father couldn’t care two bits for his daughter and wings it off to a business conference.

If anybody holds this uneven caper together it’s star and producer Alicia Silverstone. Although she is looking a little fleshy around the curves, Silverstone’s china-doll eyes and her crooked smile are all the charisma this movie should have needed. The amazing thing is that Silverstone allows her character to be shuttled off-camera, something that rarely happened in “Clueless.” Successful starlets on the rise in Hollywood usually hog the camera lens, but Silverstone doesn’t mind letting her co-stars carry entire scenes without her. As a motherless daughter, Emily enlists our sympathy. She’s a poor misguided girl, but at the same time a rather smart cookie with a black belt in karate. Silverstone brings his gorgeous physical presence to bear in the role without shedding her clothes. In fact, you can count her wardrobe changes on one hand and have leftover fingers.

Silverstone’s scenes with co-star Benicio Del Toro are the best thing about “Excess Baggage.” The wiry Del Toro creates a character so much Emily’s opposite that you know they will hook up. A gifted actor in his own right, Benicio Del Toro got his start as a Bond villain in 1989’s “License to Kill” and played one of Robert De Niro’s victims in “The Fan.” Del Toro never gives the same performance twice. He speaks with a raspy voice here and varies the pulse of his performance from his co-star. The comedy and chemistry that develop between them is so dry that it radiates humor. In one scene, while she yammers away at him, he observes that he once stole a car with a puppy in the back seat that made less noise.

Christopher Walken is cast as Emily’s lethal Uncle Ray. Walken’s performance brims with uncertainty. Like he needed the director to remind him how villainous he was allowed to be. For a while, the writers act like they aren’t sure whose side Ray in on in the story.

If you like Alicia Silverstone, you’ll probably buy “Excess Baggage” not matter how flakey its premise, execution, and outcome is.

A Comparison of the war movies "Tobruk" and "Raid on Rommel"

Neither Arthur Hiller’s “Tobruk” (1967), starring Rock Hudson and George Peppard, nor Henry Hathaway’s “Raid on Rommel” (1971), with Richard Burton, qualify as classic Hollywood war movies. Nevertheless, “Tobruk” (*** OUT OF ****) and “Raid on Rommel” (*** OUT OF ****) rank in the upper middle third of all W.W.II tough-guy actioneers. Each film depicts a desperate Allied commando strike against the Nazi-held, Mediterranean port of Tobruk in 1942. These two war movies have an interesting but not unusual relationship. Producer Harry Tatelman dug the “Tobruk” action footage out of the Universal Studios film vault and integrated it into “Raid on Rommel.” The use of stock footage is not unheard of, and film studios have relied on it to cut costs. The difference with “Raid on Rommel” is it relies almost entirely on “Tobruk” for its action scenes, so much so that certain characters had to match the apparel of their “Tobruk” counterparts. Unlike the more commercially successful “Tobruk,” “Raid on Rommel” suffered the fate of its title character. Six months after its theatrical debut, “Raid on Rommel” showed up on television.

“Tobruk” and “Raid on Rommel” share more than the same action footage. The plots are practically identical. As the more ambitious of the two, “Tobruk” sets higher sights for itself. Sadly, the pretentious commentary about Judaism and violence detracts from the film’s fireball momentum. Indeed, Leo Gordon’s “Tobruk” script weaves messages skillfully into the dialogue, but the characters spend more time snarling than shooting. Hiller and Gordon pile on the subplots as if they were sandbags. Their strategy is shrewd but futile. The filmmakers struggle to avoid telling a predictable story by introducing something new about every 20 minutes. Ultimately, Hiller and Gordon fail to exploit the squabbles among the heroes because the storyline brings in some new danger that sidetracks the drama. “Tobruk” lacks a villain, too, a terrible flaw for any action movie. Action pictures are measured by the villain’s audacity. Challenging villains compel the hero to scale greater heights to triumph over evil. Rock Hudson impersonates an inconsistently written hero. One minute he rejects heroics, and then the next minute he’s leading the fight!

In “Tobruk,” Captain Kurt Bergman (George Peppard of “The A-Team”) heads an elite band of German Jews fighting for the British. They rescue Major Donald Craig (Rock Hudson) from a French prison and fly the uncooperative Craig from Algiers to Libya. Craig meets old school British Colonel Harker. According to Harker, his commandos have eight days to link up with British naval assault troops to blast Rommel’s fuel bunkers in Tobruk. Before the commandos can rendezvous with the navy, Harker’s men have to spike the harbor guns. “Your primary responsibility,” Colonel Harker (Nigel Green) briefs Craig in “Tobruk,” “is to route our convoy through 800 miles of the worse desert that the Sahara has to offer to the back door of Tobruk.” Disguised as German Africa Korps troops, Bergman’s German Jews escort Colonel Harker’s men, posing as British P.O.W.s, into the port city. Once he hears the plan, Craig grimaces: “It’s suicide.” “It’s orders,” Harker snaps. Moreover, Harker informs Craig that the major’s knowledge of the terrain is the key to the success of the mission.

Commandeered against his wishes to participate in this suicidal mission, Craig shrugs and espouses an anti-heroic posture, “My mother didn’t raise any heroes, colonel.” Violence, bloodshed, explosions, and treachery pave the road to “Tobruk” with considerable excitement. Colonel Harker doesn’t trust Bergman and his German Jews. Six years in Palestine gave Harker a lifelong suspicion of the Jews. The salty colonel represents the old school of the stiff upper lip. Harker irritates Major Craig when Craig charges that the mission is “impossible.” The Gordon script huddles these unhappy characters and tests their mettle in several tight spots. Unfortunately, these episodes serve more to pad out the action than propel it forward.

Rock Hudson’s Major Craig sloughs off his anti-hero attitude not long after he makes his pledge. He helps shoot down an Allied fighter that mistakes the German convoy with the real thing. Craig guides the British through a dangerous minefield, and commandeers a tank with a dummy grenade. As the sacrificial Jew, George Peppard’s sardonic Bergman wears the doomed look of Siegfried. If “Tobruk” were filmed today, Peppard’s smoking would epitomize his brazen attitude about death and risk taking. Sadly, Peppard’s death scene lacks luster; he dies far too easily. Such is not the case with Harker. After surrendering to the Germans, the colonel discovers the identity of a traitor and shoots him. Naturally, the German execute Harker on the spot. Harker’s death scene bursts with old school gallantry.

As a shoot’em up war epic, “Tobruk” more than makes the grade. Director Arthur Hiller is better known for his comedy movies, but he manages to keep the action moving despite the loquacious interludes about violence and Judaism. Several incidents that occur on the way to Tobruk are fodder. The problem here is that only Colonel Harker’s schedule keeps them moving, a flimsy excuse for motivation. The climatic battle on the cliff above the beach near the coastal gun emplacements is first-class war stuff. Veteran movie director Joseph Kane staged these sequences, and they crackle with excitement. Finally, “Tobruk” is more ambitious, but the film’s pretentiousness interferes. The producers assembled too much plot for “Tobruk” and lost sight of the basic drama.

The people who made “Raid on Rommel” contented themselves with less plot and created situations of greater dramatic value. The more satisfying of the two movies, “Raid on Rommel” avoids sermons about Judaism. Every good war movie should deal with the theme of war and its impact on morality, but not to the extent that “Tobruk” spews the familiar cliches. Far more scaled down, “Raid” succeeds because veteran director Henry Hathaway knew how to convert a routine commando mission into an exciting, old-fashioned yarn with heroes and villains.

“Raid on Rommel” opens at dawn in the deserts of Libya. English troops riddle a British half-track with a machine gun. Captain Alec Foster (Richard Burton) disguises himself as a corporal. Watching Richard Burton scowl and snarl is half of the fun of “Raid on Rommel.” Foster watches while the medical staff loads the pale corpses of two British soldiers into the half-track. Foster climbs in and drives off into the desert.

Meanwhile, a German plane lands at a Nazi camp in the desert, and Captain Heinz Schroeder (Karl-Otto Alberty of "Kelly's Heroes") receives orders to evacuate to Tobruk. An incredulous Major Tarkington (Clinton Greyn), the medical officer, complains that moving wounded prisoners into an active war zone violates the Geneva Convention. Schroeder dismisses the objection. The Germans now occupy the port city, and Schroeder assures him that Tobruk is safe. Afterward, Schroeder deals with the obstreperous mistress of an Italian general, Vivi (Danielle DeMetz). She hates Schroeder, the Nazis, and the English, too. She has few romantic notions about men since her Italian general abandoned her. Although she appears distinctly out of place, director Henry Hathaway manages to integrate Vivi into the action in a useful way unlike the expendable civilian spies in “Tobruk.”

The Germans spot Foster’s half-track veering erratically through the desert. Foster is passed out on the steering wheel when the Germans capture him. Schroeder’s men drag him out of the half-track, and dump him unceremoniously in the sand. Foster acts as if he were unconscious. Tarkington plays along with Foster’s sham. He diagnoses him as suffering from shock and exposure. Later, Foster is furious when he learns that the Fifth Commandos have been afflicted with dysentery and shipped off to a concentration camp. The Fifth Commandos were the guys who he was supposed to lead. The plan called from them to take over the convoy before it reached Tobruk.
Reluctantly, he enlists the aid of the few remaining commandos and Tarkington’s hospital unit to spike the coastal guns at Tobruk. On the road to Tobruk, Foster and Sgt.Maj. Allen MacKenzie (John Colicos) whip these green troops into shape. They force them to jog alongside the transports, rappel off the sides of the trucks, and teach them how to use machine guns, mortars, and a flamethrower. Richard Burton’s presence bolsters this standard issue war movie. He looks cool in a German uniform, and his escapade in the tank at the fuel bunker is memorable.

As Nazi Captain Heinz Schroeder, Karl-Otto Alberty qualifies as the villain. He rubs everybody the wrong way. He takes particular delight at infuriating Vivi. He thrives on war and observes that desert warfare is pure warfare. No women, children, or civilians clutter things up, just soldiers fighting soldiers. Major Tarkington shakes his head in revulsion. He shares none of Schroeder’s sentiments about the glory of war. Finally, Schroeder confirms his villainy when he shoots a Quaker corpsman in the back as the man is nursing Foster’s wounds. Foster empties his pistol into Schroeder. Later, Tarkington crosses swords with Foster on similar incidents. They argue about warfare and its brute nature. Ironically, “Raid on Rommel” is the better of the two films because the filmmakers tell a better story. Director Henry Hathaway of “True Grit” fame streamlined everything in “Raid on Rommel” so that it appeared a part of the plot. No self-respecting W.W. II cinemaphile should deprive himself of the pleasure of watching these two movies. Happily, “Tobruk” and “Raid” are enjoying a second lease on video life.


Scriptwriter Graham Yost had been so busy churning out tough-guy actioneers that it seemed only a matter of time before his creativity curdled. His previous efforts included a pair of trigger-happy John Woo shoot’em-ups “Hard Target” and “Broken Arrow” along with Jan De Bont’s careening epic “Speed.” Yost’s uncredited contribution to the sloppy Howie Long potboiler “Firestorm” changed nothing, but the prolific scribe appears really to have deep-sixed himself with the weather-beaten Morgan Freeman & Christian Slater thriller “Hard Rain” (** OUT OF ****), director Michael Salomon’s half-drenched drama about an armored car heist. The bad scenes outnumber the good ones, and the filmmakers let their characters wander around in a moral morass far too long before they expose their villainous or heroic characteristics.

Originally scheduled by Paramount Pictures for a 1997 release under the generic title “Flood,” “Hard Rain” capitalized on the success of disaster movies such as “Daylight,” with Sylvester Stallone, “Dante’s Peak,” with Pierce Brosnan, and the Tommy Lee Jones lava fest “Volcano.” When those disaster movies went belly up, the producers of “Hard Rain” treaded water. Moreover, since its earlier release date, “Hard Rain” has undergone more than a title change. Not only have the credits been juggled, but the script also apparently has been rewritten. Morgan Freeman (fresh from his box office success in “Kiss the Girls”) acquired top billing over co-star & co-producer Christian Slater.

Basically, “Hard Rain” is virtually a disaster itself. Yost’s uneven script appears the chief culprit. He swamps it with too many unlikely situations and some characters get way out of line. The concept of staging a heist during a devastating deluge must have seemed enticing when the producers pitched the premise. Indeed, the Yost script opens with an interesting predicament. Before “Hard Rain” lets up, you’ll feel tired of wading through yet another undistinguished semi-disaster/semi-crime caper flick. Altogether, “Hard Rain” showers its audiences with a wishy washy saga, suspicious characters, and a muddled sense of morality that rivals the Wesley Snipes & Woody Harrelson opus “Money Train.”

A rookie armored car guard, Tom (Christian Slater), has resigned from his construction job to work with his Uncle Charlie (Ed Asner of TV’s “Lou Grant”). As the film unfolds, Tom and Charlie are hauling about $3-million dollars of cold, hard cash from a Midwestern bank that flood waters are about submerge. As they try to leave town, they get stuck, and the flood rises over their ankles in the cab. Charlie radios the National Guard, and the two of them sit on the loot.

About that time, a band of thieves led by Jim (Morgan Freeman) show up. One of the villains, Kenny (Michael Goorjian) cuts loose, and they shoot it out. The scene is effective as well as eerie, with creepy spotlights blazing white-hot holes in the night skies. Goorjian gives a terrific performance as an idiot henchman who Jim has brought along because Jim promised his father he’d care of Kenny. Anyway, Charlie dies from a bullet wound, but Tom manages to escape. Resourceful guy that he is, Tom drags off the bags of the loot. The villains are always several steps behind the heroes and heroines in “Hard Rain” in hot (or as the case is ‘wet’) pursuit.

Meanwhile, the sheriff (Randy Quaid) has been evacuating the flooded town. It seems that he is serving out his last two weeks. Everybody believes the mayor sabotaged his re-election bid, because the sheriff had been in office far too long, twenty years too long. The sheriff tries to persuade an elderly couple, Henry (Richard Dysart) and Doreen (Betty White), to clear out of town before they drown. They’re determined to safeguard their store, so they are laying out bear traps when the sheriff intervenes. Dysart and White dredge up the only humor in the film as an incredibly grumpy couple. The only time you hear the “f--k” word in “Hard Rain” is as Henry reprimands Doreen for her outrageously bitchy behavior. TV’s “Golden Girl” White steals every scene as the suspicious, unrelenting spouse.

After he’s hidden the loot, Tom seeks refuge. He stumbles into a sandbagged church, and Karen (Minnie Driver) mistakes him for a looter. She decks him with a huge crucifix. Eventually, Tom regains consciousness and finds himself in jail. When he explains his predicament, the sheriff and his deputies leave him locked-up and go out to investigate. About that time, the guy manning the dam--Hank (Wayne Duvall)--has to open the floodgates and inundate the city with more water.

“Hard Rain” broadly resembles “Broken Arrow.” Substitute the stealth jet with an armored car along with John Travolta’s thief of nukes with Uncle Charlie’s scheme to steal the loot, and you have a clever but contrived variation. Add to the formula a heroine along the lines of the Samantha Mathis park ranger character, and you get Minnie Driver. She’s cast as an expert who restores stained glass church windows. She is so committed to preserving her stain-glass handiwork that she is willing to risk death by drowning.

“Hard Rain” bristles with a motley crew of characters. Nobody seems to represent who they really are. Yost exploits the natural disaster to bring out either the good or the bad in everybody. Randy Quaid’s sheriff exemplifies this as a veteran lawman that crosses over the line after two decades of wearing a badge. Morgan Freeman presents even a better example. He gives a deep, soulful performance, too, in a role he is clearly above in what he brings to what it lacks. Freeman’s Jim is an honorable thief. He neither triggered the accidental shoot-out that cost Uncle Charlie his life nor did he abandon the cretinous Kenny whose welfare he had been entrusted, but to say more would ruin the resolution.

Former photographer Michael Salomon keeps the pace trim with several vigorous, full-throttled, hell-bent action sequences. Nevertheless, he cannot rinse a script soaked with cliches. Initially, “Hard Rain” qualifies as a modern day version of Sergio Leone’s classic Spaghetti western “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.” Tom hides the loot in a cemetery before Karen clobbers him and lands him in jail. The sheriff grows greedy and decides to split the $3-million booty among his deputies while Jim pursues Tom. Moreover, Jim and Tom form an uneasy alliance against the lawmen when it’s clear the sheriff has decided that they must die.

The best parts of “Hard Rain” are the action scenes. They rock. Literally, when guns are fired, the cameras shudder to heighten the violence. The gunshots (in a good sound system) burst in your ears like mortar shells. The jet-ski scene in the high school is fun. Obviously, the filmmakers are playing on the secret desire some moviegoers may harbor about a perverse wish to trash the halls of their high school. The sight of power boats crashing through stained glass windows and shattering them to hell and gone is rather exciting, too.

Sadly, the unpredictable characters undermine “Hard Rain.” When the characters decide which side of the law to support, you feel little sense of relief. The villains seem too sympathetic to truly hate. The entirely empathetic reasons for their actions make them sympathetic. “Hard Rain” exemplifies one of those rare movie misfires where the characters stimulate more interests than the plot.
If anybody in “Hard Rain” deserves kudos, production designer J. Michael Riva certainly does. Riva and his associates used a large, Palmdale, California, aircraft hanger where B-1 bombers were assembled to photograph the action. “Hard Rain” may whet your appetite. This slickly packaged, class-oriented disaster drifts too far from formula to qualify as an exemplary Christian Slater movie like “True Romance,” “Broken Arrow,” or “Kuffs.”


Writer-director James Mangold’s literate, old-fashioned crime saga “Copland,” (*** OUT OF ****) starring Sylvester Stallone, takes itself far too seriously to any fun. You should know by now that the Italian stallion gained some forty pounds for the role of the slow-witted but amiable small-town New Jersey sheriff. Indeed, watching “Copland” is like watching “Rocky” armed with a badge and a gun. Whereas “Rocky” brimmed with surprises, “Copland” springs few surprises. Mangold trots out his oddball characters, turns them loose on each other, and allows audiences to eavesdrop on the ensuing chaos. Moreover, Mangold has modeled his parable of justice clearly on the oft-told tale of the tortoise and the hare.
“Copland” takes its title from the sleepy New Jersey hamlet of Garrison just over the river from New York City. A precinct of N.Y.P.D. cops pulls duty as auxiliary transit police, so they can live outside the city. Ray (Harvey Keitel) and his fellow policemen take Mafia payoffs so they can afford to live out of state without attracting undue attention. Ray has set up a patsy to be the sheriff of Garrison. Freddy Heflin (Stallone) lost his hearing in one ear when he rescued a drowning woman. The car she was driving crashed off a bridge and sank to the bottom of a river. Freddie swam into the vehicle and lost his hearing getting her out of the car. Freddy had always dreamed of a career in the N.Y.P.D., but his deaf ear prevents him from joining the force. Along comes sneaky Ray who happily obliges, and makes Freddy a sheriff, the closest he can come to being a cop.

Ten years pass, and things take a turn for the worst. A young, highly decorated cop (Michael Rapaport) guns down two crack-smoking black youths. They side-swipe his car on the George Washington bridge. One of them pulls what appears to be a weapon on him, and the cop shoots them. Turns out that the weapon was a steering column lock. When the dirty cop Robert Patrick plants a gun on the dead kids, an irate EMT protests and hurls the machine gun into the river. The young cop freaks out and jumps off the bridge. At least, that’s the story that Ray manufactures. He smuggles the kid off the bridge in the trunk of his car, but Ray’s troubles have only just beginning.

When the dirty cops initially move the kid, Heflin and his patrol partner Cindy (Janeane Garofalo) stop them for speeding. Freddy lets them go, but catches a glimpse of the kid peering up over the backseat. The newspapers play up the young cop’s suicide, but his body never washes up. A lavish funeral is held, with his uniform buried in the casket. Later at Ray’s house that evening, the dirty cops toss the kid a send-off party. Ray’s frumpy wife (Cathy Moriarty) warns the kid before her husband and his cold-blooded pals can drown him in his backyard pool. Eventually, Freddy tracks down the kid to his clever hideout. Both of Freddy’s deputies bail out on him when he takes the kid into custody. Ray and his thugs show up, overpower Freddy, and grab the kid. They fire a gun near Freddy’s ear, and he grovels in pain while they careen off. Retrieving his shotgun, Freddy stumbles down to Ray’s house for a blood splattering shoot-out.

Writer-director James Mangold has penned a hard-hitting but ultimately routine morality play. You won’t find glamorous heroes, voluptuous heroines, multiple fireball explosions, death-defying stunts or awesome special effects here to dazzle you. “Copland” belongs to the lone-man-against-the-system genre, prominently featured in westerns from 1950s such as “High Noon” and “3:10 to Yuma.” Symbolically, Garrison, New Jersey lies across the river from New York, the same way the Rio Grande separates Texas from Mexico in westerns. A day doesn’t pass when Freddy Heflin doesn’t stare across the river at the promise that New York holds. Freddy will never realize his dreams, but that doesn’t keep him from dreaming. Hey, break out F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby if you prefer literary comparisons. Impassable barriers and borders and destinations that never materialize crisscross the moral universe of “Copland.” Everybody in “Copland” is trapped in a moral universe that makes no exceptions for looks, money, or power.

Sadly, the Mangold script trudges out the prefabricated regimen of those 1950s films. Although “Copland” has a storyline of considerable depth, Mangold directs it without generating any sense of either rhythm or hope. You don’t so much watch “Copland” as you witness its events with its oppressive “Silence of the Lambs” atmosphere. Of course, the block-headed Stallone sheriff will redeem himself before fadeout and vanquish the slimy villains, but his heroics will take a toll. “Copland” is about as straight-forward and inexorable as an episode of the classic TV series “Dragnet.” Nevertheless, “Copland” paints a bold portrait of an urban jungle of evil. Ray and his corrupt fellow cops will stoop to murder to protect their safety. The cabal that these cops form is worthy of a Shakespearian conspiracy. Suddenly, Ray’s hand-picked dupe of a sheriff awakes to a sense of law and order. Freddy realizes that if he cannot be a genuine cop, he can at least be an honest one, and he challenges Ray and his cronies.

The Freddy Heflin part is a long awaited and welcome change of pace for action hero Sylvester Stallone. The pot-belly he parades around with conspicuously parked on his gun belt resembles the shell that a turtle lugs around on his back. Sly wears a dazed expression throughout “Copland” that reminds you of a young Robert Mitchum. In any other movie, a character like Freddy would linger on the periphery and rarely attract attention. Although Stallone’s Freddy is the chief protagonist, he is the less ostentatious cop in the movie. Nothing about Freddy qualifies as cool. He is as out of date as his cloddish shoes, his white socks, and his vinyl records.

Director James Mangold and Stallone emphasize Freddy’s awkward physical nature. The first time we meet Freddy, he is drunk playing pin ball. After his coins run out, he stumbles outside and breaks into a parking meter. Later, as he drives home, a deer bursts across the road in front of him. Sluggishly, Freddy swerves off the asphalt and crashes his prowl car. He walks through the next couple of scenes looking pathetic with band aids stuck across his nose. During the final showdown at Ray’s house, Freddy handles his guns like a rookie instead of a nimble action hero.
Freddy is far from a genius, and he clumps along like the turtle. But like Rocky, Freddy is in the game for the long haul. When Internal Affairs throws in the towel and refuses to hear Freddy’s confession, the sheriff sets out to straighten things out himself. Stallone seems to enjoy re-establishing his gone to seed character every time he crosses in front of the cameras and positions his paunch near the lens. Unlike Rocky, Freddy is at a dead end. He has nowhere to go, and he doesn’t even have a girlfriend, not the kind of hero that Stallone has played in ages. Certainly not the kind of hero that impressionable audiences seek to imitate.

A fine supporting cast that includes actors Harvey (“Bad Lieutenant”) Keitel, Robert (“The Fan”) De Niro, and Ray (“Turbulence”) Liotta, Robert (“Terminator 2”) Patrick, and John (“The Rock”) Spencer bolsters “Copland.” You’re almost tempered to ignore the plot and enjoy their eloquent performances. Harvey Keitel brings a contemplative viciousness to his villainous cop. Keitel’s Ray is an organizer, a man who keeps the lid on, and makes sure nothing untoward happens. Ray is the hare of the story. Not only does he think of himself smarter that Freddy but also above the law. Meanwhile, Robert De Niro plays the frustrated Internal Affairs investigator who jogs Freddy’s memory about the meaning of the law. Ray Liotta is cast as Figgis, an undercover cop, who’s just collected a bundle of insurance money from a fire he set in his own house. He becomes Freddy’s closet friend and takes sides with Freddy when Ray’s henchmen get the drop on him. Patrick and Spencer are two of Ray’s corrupt minions who are willing to kill even one of their own if he threatens him. Michael Rapaport plays the young cop who finds himself hiding from the law.

Hypnotic performances, especially from Stallone, a solid but lugubrious story, and a sense of the inevitable make an offbeat policer like “Copland” worth watching despite its dreary pacing and predictable approach. Ironically, this is a Stallone picture where his performance is more interesting than the story.


Veteran Hollywood film producer Dore Schary once said actors prefer to play crippled characters because such unsavory roles afford them the opportunity to explore their thoughts about their own identity. Movie superstars love to indulge themselves in vanity projects that reflect this eccentric facet of their personalities. In the cinematically polished, but complicated amnesiac mystery-thriller “Conspiracy Theory” (*** OUT OF ****), Mel Gibson impersonates a flaky New York cabbie named Jerry Fletcher. Although he imitates the formula action hero he limned in the “Lethal Weapon” movies, “Conspiracy Theory” qualifies as a vanity project because Gibson plays an everyday citizen instead of a crusading cop. Moreover, Jerry is not tightly wrapped. Forrest Gump and he might have hit it off okay. Jerry’s prone to fits of anxiety and paranoia. Sometimes the least little thing will touch him off. As Jerry, Gibson acts perfectly rational one minute but totally loony tunes the next instant. If incarnating such a Bohemian character were not enough, Gibson models his hare-brained hack on the sarcastic Warner Brothers character Bugs Bunny. At one point, Jerry compares his antics to those of the Road Runner, but at heart he’s clearly a Bugs kind of guy. “Conspiracy Theory,” on closer inspection, emerges as a rather lengthy Merry Melody cartoon, with villainous Patrick Stewart sharing some characteristics of Elmer Fudd, Bug’s perennial adversary, while Julia Roberts appears as a Tweety Bird of sorts.

The cartoon comparison seems valid when you consider the outrageous elements in Brian (“Assassins”) Helgeland murky script, along with Mel Gibson’s self-depreciating humor. Jerry’s cluttered apartment resembles Bug’s hutch, and this cabbie has an escape hatch that Bugs would truly envy. Jerry loves to play pranks and he pulls one in the tradition of “American Graffiti on the spies who are supposed to track him. At other times, Jerry outsmarts himself like Bug’s often does and gets caught. Patrick Stewart’s first encounter with Jerry is straight out of “A Clockwork Orange.” Before the interrogation ends, Jerry has bitten Dr. Jonas’s nose and is careening about in a wheelchair screaming hilariously at the top of his voice. Gibson’s Jerry proves as much a Houdini as Bugs is in his escapades with Elmer.

As written by Helgeland, “Conspiracy Theory” is hard to follow because he throws out enough red herrings to pickle the plot. Is Jerry sane or looney? Is Dr. Jonas a good guy? Who are Jerry’s real enemies, and who are his friends? What really happened to Jerry? There is enough plot in “Conspiracy Theory” to keep you guessing hopelessly if you don’t pay close attention to the story. Jerry thinks that the conspirators are after him for something that he stumbled onto, but is that why they want him dead?

During the opening credits, we get to watch Jerry blitz his passengers with his crack pot conjectures. For example, he believes the metal pins in new hundred dollar bills are really tracking devices. He complains, too, that Benjamin Franklin on the new bills resembles the love child of Rosie O’Donnell and Fred Mertz, (“I Love Lucy’s” next door neighbor). Or that the fluoride in the water does not promote our dental health but is rather to break down our mental health. Jerry publishes a conspiracy theory newsletter, but only five people subscribe to it. “The good conspiracy is an unprovable one,” he tells Julia Roberts. Jerry scans the daily newspapers for any trace of a cover-up. Early in the film, Jerry is convinced that NASA is going to kill the president, so he visits Federal attorney Alice Sutton (Roberts) to warn her about the plot. At first, Sutton thinks Jerry is a polite wacko, until she starts to see some of his warning signs.

Enter Dr. Jonas (Patrick Stewart), an urbane, bespectacled Harvard shrink who desperately wants to lay his hands on Jerry. Patrick Stewart plays Dr. Jonas with a Borg in his eye. Stewart’s commanding presence lends credence to his villainy. Jerry, it seems, participated as a Jonas experiment in mind control program along the lines of the 1960’s paranoid thriller “The Manchurian Candidate” where the Chinese brainwashed U.S. troops and turned them into assassins. Jonas tried to make Jerry into a killer, but his efforts proved futile. Somehow, somebody else grabbed Stewart’s subjects, and he has been trying to catch Jerry since to learn who stole his technology. Meanwhile, another super secret agency represented by Hatcher (Cylk Cozart) has been keeping tabs on Jerry to capture Dr. Jonas. In the middle stands federal prosecutor Alice Sutton who has just been told to stop investigating the murder of his father a federal judge. Although she reluctantly believes Jerry initially, later she comes to hate and fear him.

Director Richard Donner and Helgeland are careful to present Jerry as a mad as a March hare hero. Meanwhile, they construct Alice Sutton as the paragon of intelligence and sanity. The character that Julia Roberts plays is indispensable. She proves that Jerry is paranoid, but she realizes eventually that his paranoia is justified. “Conspiracy Theory” is really two stories woven into one. Jerry Fletcher searches as much for his own sanity as Alice Sutton does the murderers of his father. That’s the other plot. Alice Sutton’s father, a federal judge, has been murdered and she refuses to give up the investigation. Integrating these two apparently unrelated plots together into a smooth, unobtrusive way forces scenarist Helgeland and director Donner to add about a half-hour’s worth of story to the film.

Since the filmmakers dump all this convoluted narrative onto you with as little exposition as possible, you may find “Conspiracy Theory” more than a little overwhelming. “Conspiracy Theory” struggles to be “North by Northwest” with a sprinkling of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.” Although the writing falters toward the end, the uniformly excellent cast gives first-rate performances, and director Richard Donner conjures up every neat trick to promote the suspense and the excitement. Perhaps the worst thing about the story is the profusion of hush-hush secret agencies that participate in this derring do. When Donner and Helgeland run out of initials, they compare spy networks to relatives.

Since actor Mel Gibson teamed up with his favorite movie director Richard Donner, who called the shots in the exhilarating “Lethal Weapon” trilogy, he has gravitated more and more to the kind of screwball hysterics emblematic of the Warner Brothers cartoons of Bugs Bunny. Mel Gibson has probably been dying to play someone like Jerry Fletcher ever since he did his “Lethal Weapon” movies. Riggs and Fletcher share similarities. Both characters were assassins before they became either cop or cabbie. Although Fletcher qualifies as a quasi-action hero, he is also somebody prone to bouts of uncertainty. Although Gibson’s Riggs character in his “Lethal Weapon” actioneers hovered near schizophrenia, Mel’s cabbie Jerry Fletcher in “Conspiracy Theory” emerges as a full-blown schizophrenic. Jerry Fletcher experiences episodes of wise-cracking sanity and insightful clarity before the schizophrenia buried deep inside his disturbed psyche shatters his self-control and leaves him helpless and vulnerable.

Actress Julia Roberts has more to do than just stand around and look like a pretty woman in “Conspiracy Theory.” As a hard nosed Federal prosecutor, she gets to shoot guns, ride horses, and talk her way out of tight-spots with the FBI. Gibson and she develop real chemistry when they go on the run. While Jerry gets to play hero in the first part of the film, Alice Sutton gets to dominate the heroics in the second half.

John Schwartzman’s cinematography deserves special praise. The opening credit sequence with its array of neat, weird, and cool camera angles is memorable. The various Dutch-tilted camera shots in the action scenes help generate excitement. If you want to see an example of textbook perfect cinematography and matchless editing, “Conspiracy Theory” boasts both, with an upbeat, atmospheric music score by Carter Burwell.

Richard Donner has been directing television shows and motion pictures since the late 1950s. “Conspiracy Theory” is so competently made that it glides along despite its inordinate length. Donner confines the action to warm offices, dark alleys, rain swept streets, dim apartments, and musty hospital rooms. Stealth helicopters in the whisper mode cruise the skies above Gibson’s Jerry Fletcher. To emphasize the theme of reality versus illusion, Donner aims Schwartzman’s cameras on reflective surfaces. One of the best is a chopper deploying four men reflected in the window where Jerry huddles to hide his face. Helgeland and Donner keep our hero and heroine hopping from one skillet to an even larger skillet. The explosive attack on Jerry’s apartment and their escape is a cinematic tour-de-force.

Ultimately, all it boils down to is Mel Gibson. He gets to play a resourceful hero and a sympathetic victim. We are rooting for him the entire time, because there is no way Mel Gibson can be a crook. As charismatic as Gibson is as Jerry Fletcher, you cannot mistake his insouciant wit as anything other than a Bugs Bunny gesture. Now, if Mel had only uttered: “What’s Up, Doc?”


If you’ve seen the trailer for the Tim Robbins & Martin Lawrence caper comedy “Nothing to Lose” (*1/2 out of ****) you’ve caught the best parts of the show. This asinine interracial comedy of errors about an odd couple who buddy up and resort to crime sparkles only when comic genius Martin Lawrence excretes his trademark scatological ghetto routines. “Nothing to Lose” runs low on laughs because writer & director Steve Oedekerk devotes greater effort to promoting it as a play on morality rather than an exercise in hilarity.

Oedekerk directed “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls” so the guy must have some idea about what tickles the funny bone. Sadly, he has warmed up a soupy script teeming with coincidental strokes of luck, mistaken identities, rabid improbabilities, and formula plot twists. “Nothing to Lose” uses the hackneyed story about the hero who thinks that he saw something that he never actually saw. Drawing the wrong set of conclusions, he brings disaster to a boil. The Tim Robbins character in “Nothing to Lose” follows this recipe for fiasco and finds himself in the soup. Eventually, Robbins learns that everything is not always quite what it seems. By this time, the Robbins character is chin deep in excrement. Miraculously, the movie formula itself dictates some cornball reversal to restore the status quo without any dire consequences for the hero.

Advertising executive Nick Beam (Tim Robbins) has a fun job, a loyal wife, and a flaky boss who collects erotic pottery. Nick and wife Ann (Kelly Preston) play games where they tease each other about divorce and extramarital sex. One day Nick gets home early and finds Ann in bed with his boss Philip Barrow (Michael McKean). Too stunned to interrupt them, Nick backs out the door. He cruises through a four-way stop sign without braking, stalls out freeway traffic, and then exits on an off-ramp into a dangerous African-American neighborhood. You know you’re in danger in a black neighborhood in a movie when you hear gangsta rap music on the soundtrack. When Nick isn’t paying attention, Terrence Davidson (Martin Lawrence of “Bad Boys”) tries to carjack him. “You picked the wrong guy on the wrong day,” Nick smirks. Not even the gun shoved in his nose can deter the now reckless Nick. Locking the doors, he subjects Terry to a careening, suicidal rampage through the city. Along the way, Nick pitches his wallet so Terry cannot steal it. Ultimately, they wind up in Arizona.

After a scuffle at a desert restaurant, Nick agrees to drive Terry home. At an isolated gas station, Nick pumps while Terry pays. Nick looks up and realizes to his horror that Terry is holding up the gas station. When Nick tries to flee, he discovers that Terry has taken the keys. The irritated redneck armed with a shotgun chases our tainted heroic duo in his wrecker. Our heroes miraculously escape not only the redneck but also a state trooper. That part appears in the trailer, too. Nick lectures Terry about the immorality of crime and then suggests that he wear a mask for his robberies. The gun that Terry brandished on Nick, as it turns out, was empty. Nick also advises Terry to go for the big haul. Inspiration ignites Nick’s memory. His boss has a safe crammed with big bucks. Nick knows how to get into it. Reluctantly, Nick takes Terry on as his partner in crime to buy his silence.

At the next gas station, Terry pumps and Nick pays. The paranoid gas station clerk gets the drop on Nick when he spots Terry’s gun tucked into his belt. Nick pulls a fast one, gets the drop on the clerk, pays for the gas, and they leave. Meanwhile, an unsavory pair of thugs, Lanlow (John C. McGinley of “The Rock”) and Charlie (Giancarlo Esposito of “Malcolm X”), spot Nick and Terry. These thugs think that Nick and Terry are trying to muscle in on their turf. After the state trooper had his collision with the redneck in the wrecker, he issues an APB for these guys, not our clueless protagonists. Lanlow and Charlie waylay our heroes. Nick and Terry manage to escape them and pinch every dollar out of Philip’s safe. Not content to settle for cash, Nick breaks Philip’s favorite fertility statue. To savor his revenge, Nick stands in front of the surveillance camera and removes his mask.

Believe it or not, everything in “Nothing to Lose” resolves itself happily at fadeout. Indeed, this comedy belongs in the happy endings category. Steve Oedekerk’s script rewards good behavior and punishes bad behavior. The problem is that everything in “Nothing to Lose” is so unlikely and outlandish that it is stupid! If these characters didn’t act dumb, there’d be no “Nothing to Lose.” First, if Nick and Ann always play jokes on each other, why wouldn’t Nick crash their party? Oedekerk sets up a premise and then knocks it down. Later, Nick decides to pursue a life of crime because his wife dumped him. Terry and he rob a couple of stores, but nobody gets hurt. The hardware store robbery for a bag and two flashlights is pretty funny. Neither Nick nor Terry assails innocent bystanders. They are the heroes. Terry’s wife considers Nick a good role model for her errant and unemployed husband. But it’s Terry’s criminal response to life’s dislocations that Nick imitates until he recovers his senses. Nevertheless, in the long run, our heroes suffer not for their crimes.

Oedekerk sets up the hapless pair of thugs who try to thwart our heroes. Guess who gets stuck with their crimes? So what’s the difference between these guys? Hollywood movies give the benefit of the doubt to characters with families, but they don’t give an inch to individuals. Lanlow and Charlie are career criminals while Nick and Terry are exceptions to the rule, the Hollywood rule for happy endings and good role models. Although “Nothing to Lose” condones Nick and Terry’s criminal behavior, the movie discourages Lanlow and Charlie’s criminal behavior. Moreover, since Nick and Terry cannot be held accountable for their crimes, Hollywood dictates the heroes must be absolved or else nobody would be like them. Giving back the dough exempts Nick and Terry.

“Nothing to Lose” depends on coincidence. Nick’s gasoline sodden shoes are a typical example. When Nick drenches his shoes in gas, there is a scene where he dances in the road and steps on a conveniently placed book of matches. Now, Nick is dancing in the road because he felt a spider run across his face so he is dancing about when he scruffs those matches and torches his toes. Okay, Nick’s stomp the asphalt fiery dance routine is amusing, but it strains credibility. Incidentally, the gimmick with the alarm keyboard punch pad in Philip’s office doesn’t work that way in real life.

Tim Robbins appears to sleep walk through his yuppie, straight man role. He looks and acts a lot like Blondie’s Dagwood Bumstead from the newspaper funnies. Teaming up a tyke-sized Martin Lawrence with the tall, lanky Robbins might have seemed inspirational, but little of that inspiration pays off. Robbins and Lawrence have none of the chemistry that Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy conjured up in the “48 HRS” flicks. However, Lawrence provides “Nothing to Lose” with the best lines, far too profane to be repeated here. If you enjoy Lawrence’s antics, “Nothing to Lose” isn’t a total waste of time. Since he cannot find a job, Terry turns to crime. “Nothing to Lose” spends some of its 97-minutes with Lawrence’s Terry character complaining about the class structure of our society that discriminates against African-Americans. To ameliorate Terry’s rhetoric, the filmmakers give him a wife, two kids, and a mean mother who likes to slap him.

John C. McGinley and Giancarlo Esposito register well as the bad guys who are mistaken for our heroes. The scene in their battered car where Giancarlo lectures McGinley about the essence of classical music is a hoot! Unfortunately, “Nothing to Lose” erupts with only sporadic humor. Our heroes spend a lot of time snapping at each other. They don’t have the time to be funny because the story is too busy shuffling them around the game board of movie morality where they can commit crimes without being classified criminals, much less punished. The scene where a security cop discos to the strobe lights could have been left on the editing room floor as well as Nick’s ill-fated fling with Danielle (Rebecca Gayheart), an office worker who worships him from afar. You’ll have “Nothing to Lose” if you skip this lame comedy.


No, “Star Trek: Insurrection” (*** OUT OF ****) is not as good as “Star Trek: First Contact.” Nevertheless, the ninth entry in the long-lived but prosperous space odysseys of Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of the Starship Enterprise still has what it takes to boldly go. Director Jonathan Frakes, who helmed “First Contact,” shifts the emphasis away from the usual swashbuckling heroics in this otherwise predictable but entertaining installment. Instead, Frakes focuses on the camaraderie among the Enterprise crew. Character dominates action in “Insurrection.” Although younger “Star Trek” fans may complain about the scarcity of photon torpedo dogfights, the old guard will applaud “Insurrection” because the entire crew rather than Picard alone influences the outcome.

The Rick Berman & Michael Piller scenario has the Enterprise thwarting the forced relocation of 600 helpless colonists from their Eden-like planet whose properties make it a fountain of youth. Picard (Patrick Stewart) and crew find themselves drawn into an interstellar blood feud when android Cmdr. Data (Brent Spiner) runs amok while participating in a Federation mission on the Shangri-La home planet of a gentle people called the Ba'ku. The Ba'ku live simple, uncomplicated lives comparable to the Quakers and the Amish. Shunning technology, these self-sufficient folks grow their own food and produce by hand their own clothes, tools, and art. According to the Ba’ku, when you create a machine to do a Manos work, you take something away from the man. Over 300 years have passed since the Ba’ku encamped on this unique planet in an unstable quadrant of space designated 'the Briar Patch.' Moreover, this Caucasian race of humans has weathered the ravages of centuries. The 'metaphasic radiation' emanating from the planet’s rings has given them perpetual youth.

Meanwhile, suffering a dire reversal of fortune, the Federation has grown weak. The Borg and other enemy aliens have taken their toll, and the Federation has formed an uneasy alliance with the Son'a, a dying but technologically advanced race of fascists who dress like a cross-between of the Mummy and Marvel Comics' Dr. Strange. You know the Son’a are the bad guys the moment you see them because they look hideous. The Son’a endure constant face-lifts, like the cosmetic surgery in the Terry Gilliam movie “Brazil,” because they cannot keep their wrinkled and rotting skins wrapped tightly enough. These devious dastards have teamed up with the Federation, and they are observing the unsuspecting Ba’ku before they pack them off the planet.

Dressed in orange outfits which enable them to pass sight unseen among the inhabitants, Son’a and Federation scientists both study the planet and plan for the removal of the Ba'ki. When the Son’a fire without provocation on Data, the pale-faced android short-circuits and destroys the cloaking device concealing the expedition from the Ba’ku. Suddenly, the Ba’ku find themselves surrounded by intruders. Hijacking a starship, Data opens fire on the Son’a flagship from which the Son’a chieftain, Ru'afo (F. Murray Abraham, who played the evil Salieri in “Amadeus”), and Star fleet Admiral Dougherty (Anthony “License to Kill” Zerbe), coordinate the mission.

Dougherty contacts Picard during a diplomatic ceremony and requests Data’s schematics. When Picard offers to help, Dougherty politely declines. Pointing out that the Enterprise has been assigned elsewhere, Dougherty assures the inquisitive captain that Ru'afo and he can handle Data. An incredulous Picard decides to check things out for himself; he cannot believe that Data would turn rogue without a good reason. As they chart a course for the far side of the galaxy, Picard invites Worf on “Deep Space Nine” to accompany them. When Picard's navigator indicates that the Ba’ku planet is in the opposite direction of what they have been ordered, Picard shrugs it off as if it were nothing.

When the Enterprise enters the 'Briar Patch,' the age reversal harmonics of the Ba’ku planet affect the crew. Cmdr. Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Lt. Cmdr. Troi (Marina Sirtis) rekindle a long-dormant romance. Soaking by candle-light in a tubful of bubbles, Troi shaves off Riker's beard. Not only does Cmdr. La Forge (“Roots” LeVar Burton) regain his sight without the aid of technology, but also he experiences his first sunrise. Lt. Cmdr. Worf (Michael Dorn) suffers an outbreak of Klingon acne as well as a blood lust for combat. Finally, Picard himself dances to mambo music in his own quarters. When he beams down to the planet, Picard falls in love with the sensuous Anij (Donna Murphy), a 350 year old Ba’ku dame who doesn’t look a day over 40 thanks to the regenerative particles in the planet’s rings. Sadly, Frakes and his writers leave Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) hanging without a mini-subplot of her own.

Nevertheless, “Insurrection” qualifies as an ensemble effort with everybody getting into the act, even if they don’t have a subplot to distract their actions.
Admiral Dougherty isn’t happy when Picard arrives and requests clearance to deal with Data. “Insurrection” gets off to rip-snorting start as Picard and Worf pursue Data on a hair-raising chase and try to transport him out of his spacecraft. When aggression fails, Picard opens the audio channels between ships and warbles a Gilbert & Sullivan tune from a play that Data was rehearsing before he left for the Ba’ku mission. Before Data realizes Picard’s subterfuge, the Captain docks with Data’s ship, Worf sneaks on-board and incapacitates the mutinous android. Beaming down to the planet, Picard frees the expedition who had been taken hostage, and learns first hand about the Ba’ku. Admiral Dougherty has trouble concealing his rage; he acts as the liaison between the evil Ru’afo and virtuous Picard. While Picard noses around on the planet, La Forge discovers the truth behind Data’s inexplicable demeanor. Geordi explains his theory that the Son’a fired first on Data, and Picard takes Data back to the planet to reconstruct the incident. Their investigation, with Anij and the Ba’ku leaders in tow, reveals the presence of a half-built holodeck that resembles their village. Gradually, a conspiracy rears its ugly head, and an angry Picard demands an explanation from Dougherty.
An uncomfortable Admiral Dougherty reveals that the Ba’ku are going to be relocated, so that the Son’a can harvest the 'metaphasic' particles in the planet that constitute a fountain of youth. Picard protests in the name of the Primary Directive, which prohibits the Federation from interfering with other alien cultures. “The darkest chapters in my world can be traced to the forced relocation of a small group in order to satisfy the demands of a large group,” Picard comments, dredging up memories of the Jewish Holocaust, African-American slavery, and Native American Indians.

Dougherty retorts that the Federation has endorsed the mission and that the Ba’ku do not fit the Prime Directive because they are not indigenous to the planet. Naturally, Capt. Picard doesn’t like it and refuses to stand by while a helpless race of people are abused. Picard’s insubordinate behavior recalls Capt. Kirk’s equally insubordinate attitude in previous “Star Trek” escapades.
The Rick Berman & Michael Pillar script hearkens back to those venerable 1930s’ Lone Star westerns with John Wayne where the city slicker bad guys try to steal the mineral rich ranch lands from under the naive pilgrims who don’t realize the wealth that lies beneath their lands. Like John Wayne, Capt. Picard decides to intervene. Already deeply in love with Amij, who has shown him the eternal beauty of a single moment in time, Picard disobeys Admiral Dougherty’s orders to clear out. Amij reciprocates and supports Picard when he reveals that the Son’a are going to destroy their way of life.
Shucking his insignia, Picard gathers an arsenal of weaponry and tries to sneak off the Enterprise, but the crew catches him as he is loading up the captain’s yacht. When Picard explains his intentions to help the Ba’ku, his loyal crew join sides with him. “Saddle up,” says Data in his best John Wayne impersonation as he shoulders a phaser rifle, “Lock and load.” Meanwhile, the impatient Ru’afo has grown as weary of Picard’s meddling as he has of Dougherty’s dawdling. Ru’afo wants to obliterate the Enterprise and harvest the rings. The mining process will also wipe out the Ba’ku and turn their planet into a wasteland. Ru’afo, it seems, doesn’t have long to live, and nothing can quell the blood lust boiling in his toxic veins.

F. Murray Abraham wears an occupational sneer throughout as the despicable Ru’afo. Unfairly, Abraham shoulders the burden of villainy. Surrounded as he is by an army of aliens, Ru’afo never assumes the kind of villainy of a Darth Vader. The Son’a never mount a wholesale attack like the Storm Troopers from “Star Wars.” Instead, the Son’s prefer to deploy technological devices, so that “Insurrection” never lingers long on battle-scarred action sequences. Despite all of the fireworks, only a handful of characters actually die. “Insurrection” lacks the massacre and mutilation of “Starship Troopers.” Although he proves his murderous aims when he kills Dougherty on a skin-stretching rack, Ru’afo is really the only character who suffers a horrible death that he deserves for this fiendish forays.

As cheery and good-natured as “Insurrection” is, this “Star Trek” has its share of problems. Although “Insurrection” generates warp-speed momentum in story-telling, too many things are left unexplained. Director Jonathan Frakes along with Berman and Pillar jettisoned a lot of exposition that would have shed more light on the blood-hate between the Son’a and the Ba’ku. Rarely do you find a movie that needs to exceed its running. “Insurrection” could have gone on a good 45 minutes without wearing out its welcome. The filmmakers rely on the yucky looks of the Saran-wrap-skinned villains who bleed when they become enraged, but Frakes never explains why the Son’a resemble burglars with pantyhose stretched across their faces.
Happily, Frakes and his writers reveal enough to keep the action going at full-tilt. Although the first hour or so is largely devoted to talk, the last half-hour provides an exciting dogfight in space and Picard’s showdown with Ru’afo on board a satellite that will mine the planet’s rings. Jerry Goldsmith’s familiar “Star Trek” tune livens up this last reel confrontation between hero and villain. The trick that Picard and crew pull on Ru’afo to spoil his plans is foreshadowed early in the plot but so well integrated into the story that you only realize it in retrospect.
No, you neither have to be a Trekkie nor a Trekker to appreciate “Insurrection,” but it wouldn’t hurt. History will record “Insurrection” as more of a more crew intensive adventure.


Mutated cockroaches that stand as tall as Zulu warriors menace Mira Sorvino, Jeremy Northam, and Charles S. Dutton in director Guillermo Del Toro’s claustrophobic horror opus “Mimic” (* OUT OF ****), a verminously boring piece of skullbuggery, that takes itself too seriously to have any camp value much less scare merit. While the bugs look convincing enough when you can see them, they don’t make the skin at the back of your neck crawl. Only somebody whose never screamed at a horror movie would have to sleep with their lights on with a can of Reid insecticide under their pillow after suffering through “Mimic.”

A pestilent epidemic spread by cockroaches is killing children by the hundreds in New York city when a group of scientists led by entomologist Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino) create a genetic mutant called the Judas Breed. They have manufactured a super cockroach in their labs that can kill other cockroaches, but these little buggers cannot reproduce themselves and have a life expectancy of six months. At least, that’s what Susan Tyler and Peter Mann (Jeremy Northam of “The Net”) thought. The Judas Breed eradicates the cockroach plague and spares a generation of children. Everybody breathes a sight of relief, while deep within those abandoned New York subway tunnels, a specimen has somehow managed to survive and breed. Three years later, out it comes to feed and its favorite lunch morsel is human.

Mann tracks these vicious critters into the subway catacombs with the help of Leonard, a grumpy subway cop (the ever reliable Charles S. Dutton), who doesn’t have a clue (like most characters in horror movies) what he’s gotten himself into as the scientist’s tour guide. Meanwhile, Susan finds herself alone in a subway when a bug snatches her up and flies off with her. Miraculously, the critter doesn’t chomp her like it does its previous victims. In fact, other than flying off with her, the bug leaves her intact, dumping her in its slime. Eventually, Susan scrambles through the maze of tunnels and finds Peter. So do a swarm of the bugs. Our heroes hole up in a subway car. Just as the bugs are about to tear their way inside and eat these human sardines, Susan figures out that the bugs can smell their blood. She gets everybody to smear themselves with dead bug guts, and they leave them momentarily alone. Talk about repellent!

The premise that “Mimic” neglects to explain is how these mutants found a way to replicate themselves and take the general shape and appearance of a man huddled up in a trench coat. Gifted scenarists such as John (“Lone Star”) Sayles, Matthew (“Dragonslayer”) Robbins, and Steven (“Kafka”) Soderbergh contributed to writer-director Guillermo (“Cronos”) Del Toro’s heavily derivative script, but none of them seems to have worked the bugs out of their roachy script. “Mimic” appears to mimic “The Lost World” in two respects. The “Mimic” scientists overlook the possibility that their genetic deviants could survive in the wild like “The Lost World” dinosaurs, and one of the film’s better set-pieces shamelessly rips-off the RV scene in “Lost World,” but with considerably less suspense or tension. The only sweat that you will break in “Mimic” is waiting for director Del Toro and his writers to scare you.

Despite this surfeit of talent, “Mimic” stinks because the filmmakers wait too long to flush out the bugs. They waste over forty-five minutes setting up the story before our heroes descend into the subway tunnels. Of course, you can guess when who is going to die, so predictability paralyzes the story. Worse than that is that director Guillermo Del Toro rarely conjures up anything that remotely terrifies. There are too few instances when you want to jump because something on screen shocked you. The scene where the huge roach scoops up Mira Sorvino and swoops off with her is hilarious. It’s like those silent movies where the eagle carries the hero off to its nest. Del Toro is good at showing us lots of yucky bug slime and the bugs themselves. Most of the movie is shot in darkness so that you cannot see the bugs until the movie is half-way over. As for the bugs, the cockroaches in “Joe’s Apartment” were more fun. “Mimic’s” villainous bugs simply don’t look as murderous as either an alien or as creepy as an anaconda, even when one crawls over one of our heroes. When these buggers run, they resemble the raptors from “The Lost World,” but they are far less tenacious or terrifying.

Nothing in this handsomely produced insect epic will peg your blood pressure. A good cast is wasted, especially F. Murray Abraham, and we care so little about these one dimensional characters that when they begin to drop like flies, who cares. The filmmakers ignore whatever potential that they might have stirred up by having bodacious Mira Sorvino strip-tease a la Sigourney Weaver and lure the roaches to their demise. Charles Dutton’s subway cop comes closest to enlisting our sympathies because he gets to curse loudly and bug out his own eyes when he sees the giant insects. There’s an expendable subplot, too, about a small boy who gets lost in the tunnels and befriends the bugs. Skip this bugger. Mexican writer-director Guillermo Del Toro may have breathed new life into the vampire genre with his 1992 masterpiece “Cronos,” but “Mimic” is nothing but a load of bull!


The idea for “Men In Black” (**1/2 OUT OF ****), the latest alien opus about cracking down on extraterrestrials hiding out on earth, has a galaxy of surreal comic potential. If you’re looking for a moderately entertaining, mega-budgeted, far-sided farce that vapor locks just shy of “Ghostbusters,” then “Men In Black” is your ticket. Even if this uneven outer limits comedy doesn’t beam you up, its alleged million-dollar-per-minute special effects that infest the plot with a spawn of dorky aliens should impress you. Despite its abundant sight-gags and eye-popping aliens, “Men In Black” frizzles because it relies on the familiar oxidize the earth plot. “Men-In-Black” is a great looking movie hampered by a lame plot. The film is based on Lowell Cunningham’s obscure but sensational Marvel comic from the early 1990s. The story sounds like “Dragnet” meets “Ghostbusters.” The subversive but inventive Ed Solomon script struggles to keep a deadpan lid on its diabolical lunacy so that its gags will appear twice as funny. Basically, it’s the old idea of getting more mileage out of a joke by telling it as if you weren’t aware of the humor. The irreverent humor in “Men In Black” is so dry and sporadic that it sometimes fails to enthrall. You know that you’re watching a comedy, and you even laugh at what you see. After all, you know that these guys are straining to be hilarious. But they’re not funny enough all of the time to make you forget that they’re struggling so hard to make you laugh. Writer Ed Solomon wastes too much time integrating Will Smith’s character into the action and not enough time incorporating Linda Fiorentino’s character. The story never generates any suspense, just a lot of pastel slime. The ending is outrageously implausible even by this wacky elastic standards of this fantasy. Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith impersonate a couple of laced-strait Federal agents who work for a ultra-hush, hush agency known only as INS Division 6. Headquartered out of sight in Manhattan, INS 6 licenses, monitors, and polices all alien activity on Earth. According to the movie, about fifteen-hundred aliens reside on the planet in a state of apolitical harmony. Any alien critter that goes AWOL gets busted by these INS 6 dudes. When we first meet J, played by Smith, he is a New York cop whose been close-encountered. INS 6 recruits him because he nearly caught the alien. (If Will Smith doesn’t watch out, he is going to be type-cast as the John Wayne of alien butt kickers.) INS 6 chief Zed (Rip Torn) teams J with veteran alien buster K (Tommy Lee Jones). Even if you can tolerate the long expository build up, the story suffers again because these characters never develop the camaraderie of the “Ghostbusters.” After a UFO crashes into his pick-up truck, a creepy redneck farmer named Edgar (Vincent D’Onofrio) goes gunning for the aliens. They’re a bunch of murderously mutant cockroaches. They zap Edgar instead and take control of his body. (This scene recalls the Stephen King episode in the 1982 movie “Creepshow.”) Edgar stumbles through the rest of the movie like a zombie. He’s on a weird quest to kill two Arkillian aliens disguised as human and pinch a trinket hanging around a cat’s neck that contains the galaxy. When he gets it, the Arkillian threat to atomize the planet unless our heroes can recover the bauble. What we don’t learn about the aliens, the filmmakers are happy to show us. There are aliens galore in “Men In Black.” They resemble mutants sprung island of Dr. Suess. None of them are particularly threatening, but some are ugly and squid-like. The scene where J (Smith) assists a mother alien in birth is pretty funny, but it doesn’t match the impact of the Billy Crystal calf delivery in “City Slickers.” Juveniles will drool over the flashy gadgets. One device called a “neuralizer” resembles a tire gauge crossed with a pin-light. Our heroes use it to erase the short term memory of any spectators that they encounter in the line of duty. Remember, we’re not supposed to know that the aliens walk among us. Our heroes don their cool looking Ray Bans to dampen the effect on them. The Ray Bans are already available in stores, but you’ll probably have to wait for the chrome plated guns. Judging from its opening weekend haul of $50 million plus dollars, “Men In Black” should at least inspire a sequel as well as merchandising out the universe. There’s a cartoon series already in the works. Director Barry Sonnenfeld pulls out all stops. The hokey dragon-fly in the opening scene sets the smart aleck tone for the movie. One of the best scenes is the jewelry store confrontation which the moviemakers have already given up in the previews of “Men In Black.” The witty use of tabloid newspaper to tell the real truth is ironic, and the real story behind the New York’s World Fair is a hoot! Sonnenfeld keeps the light weight action moving at light speed. Sometimes the movie zips by so quickly they you have trouble keeping up with it. But “Men In Black” lacks the bizarre finesse of Sonnenfeld’s two “Adams Family” movies. No complaints about the casting. Tom Lee Jones of “The Fugitive” delivers the kind of stoic performance that would put Jack Webb to shame. Jones’s grim-faced, buttoned-down expressions would be the envy of Detective Sergeant Friday. Jones proves himself a master comedian with impeccable timing again and again in “Men In Black.” He never lets the zaniness of the last joke, special effects, or plot-twist get in his way to his next gag. William Smith of “Independence Day” blends his streetwise, ebonic, home boy charm with the sartorial elegance of his character as an interesting contrast to Jones’ tight-lipped stooge. These co-stars work well together, except that their cardboard characters never evolve in the two frantic days covered in the movie. You may remember actor Vincent D’Onofrio for his brilliant performance as a psychotic military recruit in “Full Metal Jacket.” He manages to be vicious, brutal, and stupid as ghoulish Edgar. The villain here mutates into an extremely upset bug whose the size of a dragon. Linda Fiorentino of “Jade” is cast as a sexy medical examiner whose seen one too alien corpses. Veteran character actor Rip Torn lends capable support as their gruff boss Zed. “Men In Black” misfires more often than it hits. The exam scene is as irritable as Edgar’s cockroaches are genuinely disgusting. You exit the movie theatre dazzled by the seamless special effects, but you may find that the dry, off-beat humor as memorable as a flash of light from a neutralizer.


This above-average distaff martial arts actioneer about a daughter’s revenge for the murder of her long-suffering father boasts Geoff Boyle’s spectacular cinematography and a sturdy cast, particularly with charismatic Neal McDonough as the dastardly chief villain and Michael Clarke Duncan as his right-hand man. Martial arts fight choreographer Dion Lam of “Exit Wounds” and “The Matrix Reloaded” stages several exceptional hand-to-hand combat scenes involving wire work. As the heroine Kristia Kreuk is convincing here as Chin-Li and handles herself well in the fight sequences. She possesses an expressive countenance,and this gives "Streetfighter: The Legend of Chun-Li" (*** out of ****) its heart and drive. Moreover, as Chin-Li, our heroine changes over the course of the story so that she emerges as a round rather than a flat character. “Exit Wounds” director Andrej Bartkowiak never lets the action stall out during its trim 96 minutes. Of course, the Justin Marks screenplay contains nothing but formula with the usual expository scenes for an origins story. A heroic heroine, ruthless villains, scenic locales, and a by-the-numbers crime empire building plot keep thing warm but rarely sizzling. Ostensibly, “Streetfighter” is a sequel to the Jean Claude Van Damme original.

The movie begins as an origins story with Chun-Li (Kristia Kreuk) talking about her youth in San Francisco. Her international businessman father Xiang (Edmund Chen of “Saigon Eclipse”) wants her to become a concert pianist. Eventually, the family relocates to Hong Kong, and her father teaches her Wushu while she practices the piano. Suddenly, one evening, criminals invade her house, and Xiang battles them until Balrog seizes young Chun-Lie and threatens to kill her. Bison (Neal McDonough of “Walking Tall”) and his men abduct Xiang. Later, Bison appropriates the Shadaloo Empire, the biggest crime syndicate in Asia. He has acquired his power and authority by having his assassin, Vega (Jaime Luis Gomez) decapitated the heads of all the crime lords in Bangkok. Bison has a grand scheme to lower property values in the Bangkok slums, buy up as much as he can, tear it down, and then rebuild it with luxurious housing for the affluent. Bison has no qualms about killing. He abducted Chin-Li’s father years ago and when she comes to Bangkok to straighten things out, Bison murders her father in front of her eyes. Previously, Bison had held Chun-Li's father captive for years and forced against his will to help develop his infamous plan.

Meanwhile, Interpol agent Charlie Nash (Chris Klein of “American Pie”) has pursued the elusive Bison through eleven major cities on four continents and only now comes close to catching him. He teams up with Bangkok Police Detective Maya Sunee (Moon Bloodgood of “Terminator: Salvation”) in the Gang & Homicide Division. While this is going on, Chun Lin is building a reputation as a successful concert pianist when she learns that her mother is ill. Eventually, Chun Li’s mother dies. The mother was an American and her father was Asian. Chun discovers a scroll in ancient Chinese. She looks for help in translating the document which she suspects will have something to do with her life. Our heroine takes the scroll with her and checks it out with her. The old lady observes, “This is not a letter, it is a light shining only upon you.” She advises Chun Li to travel to Bangkok and search for a man named Gen. Before she locates (Robin Shou of “Mortal Combat”) who gives her a brush course in defying gravity while decimating the dastards, Chun-Li lives in the streets, observes the crime-ridden slums first hand, and later interferes with a gang intent on beating up a helpless man. Principally, Gen shows Chun how to control her rage in a fight.

Not only does “Streetfighter: The Legend of Chun-Li” relate the story of our heroine’s humble beginnings, but the film also details the origins of the cruel villain. Son of Irish missionaries, Bison grew up as an orphan and stole fish from people in Thailand. Just to emphasize his evil, Bartkowiak and Marks show how Bison jettisoned his conscience. He does this by removing his infant daughter from his wife’s womb prematurely, killing his wife. This transferred his conscience into his daughter. Again, Bison is a first-rate bastard. Later, Bison’s thugs attack Gen while Chun-Li is away buying groceries and Balrog destroys Gen’s house with a RPG. Bison orders Vega to finish off Chun-Li, but he is surprised when Chun-Li whips Vega in a knock down, drag out fight, leaves the assassin hanging upside down over the side of a building. Chun-Li heads out to deal with Bison. She learns about a secret delivery of White Rose and determines to help Charlie Nash and Detective Sunee get Bison. Bison’s tentacles stretch to the police and Sunee is told to drop the case. Consequently, Charlie and Chun-Li take on Bison. The fight between Bison and Chun-Li is energetic and the outcome is nothing if not impressive.

Indeed, the producers tampered with the video game when they adapted it to the big-screen. For example, they removed the gloves that Balrog wore. Furthermore, they changed Chun-Li from strictly Chinese to Chinese-American. Producer Ashok Amritraj wanted the film “to stand on its own, not just for the gaming audience, but also as a movie.” “Streetfighter: The Legion of Chun-Li” with its formulaic plot doesn’t rank as a great martial arts film, but it is a good, exciting, action-packed saga with a surprise or two to keep you on your toes. As much as I like Jean Claude Van Damme’s “Streetfighter” (1994), “Streetfighter: The Legion of Chun-Li” tops the JCVD movie in every respect.