Monday, February 12, 2018


An audacious, white-knuckled, adrenaline-laced, cops and robbers’ crime thriller with a twist ending, writer & director Christian Gudegast’s “Den of Thieves” (***1/2 OUT OF ****) pits a loose cannon L.A. County Sheriff’s Department detective against a crackerjack team of gunmen shaped in the crucible of combat while serving as soldiers in the Middle East.  These nonconformist warriors came home, clashed with the law, and survived the purgatory of prison to emerge as an elite gang angling for the big score before they retreat into obscurity.  The lead in “300” and “Olympus Has Fallen,” Gerard Butler turns in a strong performance as an obsessive cop struggling with marital woes. Pablo Schreiber of “13 Hours” commands the villains.  He matches wits with Butler in a lively cat and mouse game where survival is the prize and a cold slab in a morgue is the penalty for those who stray from the straight and the narrow.  50 Cent fans may not recognize a buffed-up Curtis James Jackson III.

“Den of Thieves” reminded me of Michael Mann’s superb bank robbery movie “Heat” (1995) where Al Pacino’s rugged cop tangled with Robert De Niro’s hard-nosed bank robber in a high stakes showdown.  The difference between “Den of Thieves” and “Heat” is Butler displays little respect for his adversaries.  Meantime, the villains have a few tricks up their sleeves that nobody, especially armchair detectives, may be prepared for at fadeout.  Although he makes his debut as a director, Christian Gudegast has already established his bonafides as a genre specialist with not only the Vin Diesel thriller “A Man Apart,” but also Butler’s “London Has Fallen,” the gung-ho sequel to “Olympus Has Fallen.”  Butler is at his best as a tough-guy protagonist, and his gritty performance compares strongly with Gene Hackman’s Oscar-winning portrayal of an unorthodox, hard-as-nails, NYPD detective in the 1972 Best Picture “The French Connection.”  A wry sense of humor pervades this 140-minute, R-rated opus, but it never undercuts the gravity of the action.  Mind you, a fourth quarter glitch in credibility threatens to unravel the plausibility of plot.  Nevertheless, Gudegast and “Prison Break” creator and co-scribe Paul Scheuring have worked out meticulously the logistics of this far-fetched caper. They conclude it with an out-of-left-field finale like Bryan Singer’s “The Usual Suspects” (1995) that wowed everybody.  If you like your heist thrillers served up with lots of testosterone, tense ‘snap, crackle, pop’ firefights, and obstinate adversaries who refuse to flee, “Den of Thieves” is your ticket.

Nick Flanagan (Gerard Butler of “London Has Fallen”) runs a squad tasked with bank robberies.  His guys could be mistaken for stone-cold, Russian mafia gunsels.  They are unkempt, and their arms are engraved with tattoos.  They have no qualms about violating rules.  Everything is fair once they “click” off their safeties.  Nick’s free-for-all lifestyle doesn’t harmonize with his wife, Debbie (Dawn Olivieri of “The Wolverine”), and her dreams of middle-class domesticity with their two elementary school age daughters.  Naturally, they don’t understand why she walks out on their father.  As the film unfolds, “Den of Thieves” presents statistics that classify Los Angeles as “the bank robbery capital of the world” with a hold-up every 48 minutes.  Basically, Gudegast’s epic is a West coast version of Ben Affleck’s “The Town” (2005), where Boston boasted more bank robbers per capita than any other city.  Meanwhile, Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber) has assembled a posse of heavily-armed, former Marines, who have matriculated through prison after returning stateside.  They carry out their crimes with a military precision. Those plans hit a snag when they approach an armored car after dark outside a donut shop.  A hail of bullets erupts like Armageddon descending.  An innocent bystander lives to tell the authorities that he saw masked shooters lay down a barrage on the guards.  Later, after he arrives at the scene, Nick plunders a sprinkled donut from a box that one of the guard’s dropped during the massacre.
Gudegast doesn’t give the audience a chance to get comfortable.  Upfront without any delay, he stages a violent, night-time attack on an armored car as if he were imitating “Black Hawk Down.” The villains mow down the off-duty guards, steal their armored car, and then stash it safely out of sight. They send somebody back to photograph the various law enforcement personnel at the crime scene.  Merrimen isn’t happy one of their own lies sprawled dead in it.  Eventually, Nick suspects Merrimen may be the ringleader.  Unfortunately, the police don’t have enough evidence to arrest him.  They stake Merriman out and search for accomplices. They abduct an African-American, Donnie (O'Shea Jackson Jr. of “Straight Outta Compton”), who tends bar where Merrimen drinks. The two show up in surveillance snaps.  Nick interrogates Donnie in a motel where his deputies are having a party.  Primarily, Nick is interested in Merrimen, and Donnie confesses he serves just as a getaway driver.  Merrimen confides nothing in him.  Donnie heaves a sigh of relief when Nick turns him loose.  Meantime, Donnie doesn’t share the incident with Merrimen.  Merrimen unveils their master plan.  They have decided to liberate $30-million in clean currency from the fortress-like branch of the L.A. Federal Reserve Bank!  The gauntlet of security checkpoints and surveillance cameras that they must contend with makes “Den of Thieves” look like a Tom Cruise “Mission Impossible” cliffhanger.

Apart from a domestic strife scene when Nick fails to reason with his wife, “Den of Thieves” shifts back and forth between the sheriffs and the robbers.  Gudegast emphasizes the professionalism on both sides.  Merrimen’s gunmen shoot only those who shoot at them.  Furthermore, the bad guys orchestrate a multifaceted heist that involves them infiltrating the Federal Reserve and looting it smack under the nose of the guards.  Suddenly, brazen Nick blows his cover and approaches Donnie and Merrimen in a restaurant and lets them know about him.  This is Nick’s way of going off the reservation that spikes the suspense.  Surprises and revelations ensue. “Den of Thieves” is “Heat”/”The Town” laced with “The Usual Suspects.”


Good westerns are few and far between nowadays.  “Black Mass” writer & director Stuart Cooper’s cavalry vs. the Indians western “Hostiles” (**/12 OUT OF ****), co-starring Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike, ranks as above-average.  Not only does “Hostiles” resemble John Ford’s greatest western, “The Searchers” (1956), starring John Wayne, but it also pays tribute to Ford’s farewell film, “Cheyenne Autumn” (1964), with its revisionist sentiments about the ghastly treatment of Native Americans. Ford enjoyed a rewarding career in Hollywood depicting the wholesale slaughter of Native Americans in his popular John Wayne cavalry epics: “Fort Apache” (1948), “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949), and “Rio Grande” (1950).  Ultimately, Ford performed an about-face where Indians were concerned with “Cheyenne Autumn.”  Similarly, critics are comparing “Hostiles” to Clint Eastwood’s final oater “Unforgiven” (1992), and its sentiments about killing. Eastwood’s western image evolved from his portrayal of an amiable cowboy in television’s “Rawhide” (1959-1965) to a ruthless bounty hunter in Sergio Leone’s bloodthirsty Spaghetti westerns before the actor made his characters contemplative in “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976), “Pale Rider” (1985), and “Unforgiven” (1992). “Unforgiven” constituted a meditation on violence where it is depicted as anything but glamorous.  Director Stuart Cooper wastes too time on these two themes: the annihilation of Native Americans and the repulsion for bloodshed.  Unfortunately, “Hostiles” ponders these profound themes rather than entertaining us with unforgettable action.  Nothing happens for long stretches as the cavalry ushers a notorious Indian chief from New Mexico to Montana, where the government has decided that he may die in honor.  During that long trek, the cavalry encounters other murderous Native Americans as well as some wholly despicable Caucasians.  Clocking in at a dreary 135 minutes, this scenic horse opera seems as apologetic as it is saddle-sore. 

“Hostiles” unfolds on the frontier in 1892 with a sudden, suspenseful Indian attack on peaceful New Mexican homesteaders.  Murderous Comanche raiders wearing war paint descend upon Wesley Quaid (Scott Shepherd of “Side Effects”), his wife Rosalee (Rosamund Pike of “Die Another Day”), and their teenage daughters with little warning.  Not only do these ferocious savages kill Wesley without difficulty, but they also gun down Wesley’s two daughters, Lucy (Ava Cooper) and Sylvie (Stella Cooper), as they flee behind their mother into the woods.  Miraculously, Rosalee evades the hostiles, even though she has her newborn cradled in her arms.  She hides in the woods while the Indians burn their house down and then ride away.  Tragically, Rosalee realizes afterward the baby in her arms is dead, too.  She bundles the bodies back to the burnt house and covers them up as if they were asleep.  The scene shifts to a faraway U.S. Cavalry fort.   “3:10 to Yuma” actor Christian Bale plays Captain Joseph Blocker, an unrepentant, Indian-hating cavalry officer.  He shares the sentiments of Civil War-era General Phil Sheridan, who said: “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead."  Colonel Abraham Biggs (Stephen Lang of “Avatar”) summons Blocker with orders for him to take a dying Cheyenne, Indian Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi of “Last of the Mohicans”), and his family back to Montana.  According to Colonel Biggs, Yellow Hawk is dying from cancer, and President Harrison has granted the chief’s wish to die in his ancestral lands.  

Initially, Blocker is not ecstatic with those orders, and he refuses to accommodate the colonel because he abhors Indians generally and Chief Yellow Hawk specifically.  We learn throughout “Hostiles” that Blocker has been slaughtering Indians for twenty years.  He has taken part in atrocities galore, and he has no qualms about killing Native Americans.  Nevertheless, Biggs points out, if Blocker doesn’t carry out the Presidential order to resettle Yellow Hawk that he will have to convene a court-martial.  Moreover, Blocker will lose his Government pension.  Miserably, Blocker agrees to shepherd Yellow Hawk to Montana.  No sooner has Blocker’s small patrol left the fort than he orders his sergeant to shackle Yellow Hawk.  He doesn’t trust him.  Eventually, they encounter the grief-stricken, traumatized Rosalee, and Blocker’s troopers bury her dead for her.  Afterward, Rosalee accompanies the escort.  Before they reach Montana, Blocker and company will tangle not only with the same Comanches that wiped out Rosalee’s family, but also hostile white ranchers and trappers.  At first, Blocker doesn’t change his attitude toward Chief Yellow Hawk.  By the time they reach their destination, the cavalry captain experiences a change of attitude.  Yellow Hawk wins Blocker’s respect.  When a pugnacious white landowner demands that Blocker get off his sprawling acreage or he will kill them, presidential order notwithstanding, Blocker no longer has any qualms about killing his own kind.  Incredibly, Rosalee undergoes a similar change, and she sympathizes for the chief and his plight.  When the final showdown comes between Blocker and the rancher, Rosalee pitches in to help, demonstrating her accuracy with a repeating rifle.

Stuart Cooper, who also helmed “Crazy Heart” (2009) with Jeff Bridges and “Out of the Furnace” (2013) with Christian Bale, penned the “Hostiles” script from an unpublished story by the late writer Donald Stewart, best known for “The Hunt for Red October.”  Basically, “Hostiles” is an average oater, bolstered by a sterling cast.  Bale couldn’t be better, neither could his co-stars, especially Rosamund Pike, Rory Cochrane, and Stephen Lang. Ironically, despite its apologetic attitude to Native Americans, Cooper makes little use of Wes Studi and Adam Beach.  Whatever the reason, an interesting episode where Yellow Hawk and his son sneak out of camp to kill the Comanches harassing them has been confined to expository dialogue rather than an action scene.  Studi and Beach look noble, but they remain on the sidelines.  “Hostiles” is also predictable.  Inevitably, we know Captain Blocker is going to change his attitude, show grudging respect for the Indians, and then butcher whites for interfering with his mission.  “Hostiles” suffers too from dialogue mumbled, campfire scenes unnecessarily murky, and stretches where even the scenery doesn’t relieve the monotony.


Dwayne Johnson won’t win an Oscar for Jake Kasdan’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” (*** OUT OF ****), but he portrays a riotous character far from anything he has done before this body switch saga.  Basically, the Rock ridicules himself with a straight-face throughout this PG-13, 119-minute, action-adventure escapade that rarely takes itself seriously.  As captivating as the Rock is as a khaki-clad Indiana Jones fortune hunter, co-star Jack Black overshadows him with his own bizarre character.  Just as “Orange County” director Jake Kasdan lets Johnson poke fun at himself as a nerd cringing inside the physique of a bodybuilder, he has taken it a step farther with Jack Black who ends up in the body of female character.  Scratching your head yet?  These are examples of the sidesplitting shenanigans that underline this frivolous film.  Abetting Jack Black and the Rock in this superficial slapstick are comedian Kevin Hart and actress Karen Gillian.  They inhabit characters with whom they share zip.  These likable characters make the preposterous premise entertaining.  A mysterious videogame console uploads four high school teens and turns them into their gaming avatars.  Each comes equipped with skills designed to aid them in an epic scavenger hunt. The time frame of the hunt depends on the participants’ luck.  Not only do a quartet of writers--Chris McKenna, Jeff Pinker, Scott Rosenberg, and Erik Sommers--segue this sequel to director Joe Johnston's earlier “Jumanji” (1995), but they also have reimagined it for contemporary audiences with no patience for board games.  “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” amounts to sheer, harebrained hokum from fade-in to fadeout.  Everything about this farce is far-fetched. Nothing slows down the headlong momentum, however, during these madcap melodramatics.  Like the original Robin Williams movie, this “Jumanji” contains a similar frame story, but the writers spend more time on the subsequent story about the four high school kids. Superior computer-generated imagery in some truly outlandish scenes surpasses the primitive CGI in the 1995 film.  You’ll never forget the crocodile scene!  Moreover, a clever premise allows our heroes and heroines to cheat death like immortals! 

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” starts on the beach where the 1995 movie heroes buried the board game.  In the prologue, a teen digs it up and takes it home.  While he is asleep, the durable board game repurposes itself into a video game console.  When he plays it, the game hijacks him from his cozy bedroom to an alternate dimension.  Twenty years elapse, and the main characters are introduced.  Principal Bentley (Marc Evan Jackson of “Kong: Skull Island”) busts beanpole gamer and germaphobe Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff of “My Friend Dahmer”) for plagiarism.  Spencer wrote an academic paper for his friend, star football player Anthony 'Fridge' Johnson (Ser'Darius Blain of “Camp X-Ray”), that Spencer had earlier submitted as his own to his gimlet-eyed History teacher.  Meanwhile, an annoyed teacher catches self-absorbed, social media-addicted Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman of “Laid in America”) on her smart phone during an exam.  Finally, an introverted nobody, Martha Kaply (Morgan Turner of “Remember Me”), refuses to exercise during P.E., and she winds up in Bentley’s office.  Bentley lets them off the hook with detention.  Sounds like “The Breakfast Club?”  Not for long! They must clean up a room littered with trash.  Fridge stumbles onto that mysterious console.  The four students decide to play this mysterious “Mortal Combat” game.  Instead, they are morphed into it and emerge on the far side as their avatars.  Pusillanimous Spencer is now expedition leader Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson) with massive muscles.  Towering football champion Fridge finds himself shrunk drastically into pint-sized zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart of “Central Intelligence”) who dreads everything.  Much to her horror, sexy Bethany takes the form of obese, balding, middle-aged Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black of “King Kong”) whose expertise is maps.  Shy Martha becomes butt-kicking martial arts sensation Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan of “Guardians of the Galaxy”) with a flair for ‘dance fighting.’

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” doesn’t stray far from the vintage Robin Williams “Jumanji.”  In the original, the son of a shoe manufacturer played the haunted board game, and he vanished into it like so much paranormal dust into a board.  Unfortunately, he didn’t escape from the magic board game universe as easily as he wanted.  After he returned to reality, he contends with a big-game hunter from the past stalking him in his hometown.  The hunter traded in his antique rifle for a fully automatic assault rifle and lays waste to modern society as he searches for the hero.  Later, a stampede of enormous zoo animals trashed the town.  Nevertheless, the son triumphs over adversity.  The “Jumanji” sequel differs in some respects from its predecessor.  More characters play the game, and teamwork pays off as their best strategy.  They are dropped from the sky into the jungle “Predator” style and ponder the three hashtag tattoos on their wrists that indicate their number of lives. Indeed, our heroes and heroines can die a couple of times, heightening the suspense, when their heroics aren’t amusing us.  The best thing about the new “Jumanji” is its gallery of sympathetic heroes and heroines. Smolder Bravestone, Moose Finbar, Professor Shelly Oberon, and Ruby Roundhouse are as charismatic as the actors and actresses.  They are riddled from within by the guilt of their real-life counterparts.  For example, you’ll laugh at the Rock when he cowers before Kevin Hart. Remember, the man inside Smolder is Spencer, and Spencer is a medicating nerd. The scene where Bethany coaches Ruby about the rudiments of flirting is hysterical.  Happily, Kasdan and his writers have given everybody a scene or more to shine. Ultimately, the success of “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is such that Jake Kasdan’s comic cliffhanger may constitute more than a sequel but also a reboot!  “Jumanji” has coined $883 million plus worldwide from a $90 million budget.  No studio would dare produce such a blockbuster and sit on a franchise.