Three thrillers: 'Non-Stop,' 'Jack Ryan,' 'RoboCop'
Owls Head — Non-Stop (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 107 min.). This is the most entertaining of the top three films reviewed today. However, it is a pure popcorn movie, one of those films that bears little examination afterwards, because logic rips apart the plot. It is a very enjoyable thrill ride, if you just accept what is presented onscreen.
Star Liam Neeson continues his second-half career ride as action hero, very much in the vein of "Unknown" and the first two "Taken" films (yes, a third is on the way). Here he plays U.S. Air Marshal Bill Marks, who not only is an alcoholic, but he hates flying. Aboard a flight to London, he starts receiving texts -- on a secure system, no less -- that tells him that unless the sender is given $150 million, someone on the plane will die every 20 minutes. And the deaths do come, despite the seemingly limited opportunity to commit murder and get away with it in an airplane. How the first death occurs is actually quite clever. Director Jaume Collet-Serra seems to gradually lose control of the script in equal measure of Marks' more and more frantic attempts to find the murderer. Meanwhile, thanks to the age of social media, Marks is portrayed as a man out of control and the hijacker of the plane. One part of the film is informed by actions taken on Flight 93 during 9/11.
Along for the thrill ride are Julianne Moore as Marks' seat companion, and one of the few people he can trust, and Michelle Dockery and Lupita Nyong as stewardesses. The two extras are minimal, with Blu-ray have an exclusive discussion of the action sequences by the filmmakers. Grade: film 3 stars; extras 1.25 stars
Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Paramount, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 105 min.). Director Kenneth Branagh used to be known mostly for his work with Shakespeare, but he made a decent action movie in "Thor." In this attempt to restart the Jack Ryan franchise, based on Tom Clancy's engrossing novels, Branagh basically uses a frenetic closing pace to keep the audience watching. Much of the film does not work well for three reasons: I never bought Chris Pine as macho enough for Clancy's brainy hero; much of the plot has to do with manipulating the U.S. dollar in the stock market (not very exciting visually); and Branagh has miscast himself as the villain, Russian financier Viktor Cherevin.
Overall, the film serves as an origin film for Ryan, even though it leaves out his equally famous father altogether. The film opens with Ryan learning of the 9/11 attacks while a student at the London School of Economics. Instead of finishing his doctorate, he enlists and 18 months later is on a mission in Afghanistan. The helicopter is shot down, but Ryan, despite two broken vertebrae, manages to save the other two Marines in the helicopter. During his lengthy rehabilitation his therapist is future girlfriend Cathy Mueller (Keira Knightley; one of the pluses is she and Pine work well together). Ryan also comes to the attention of Navy Cmdr. Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), who works for the CIA and soon recruits Ryan.
Ryan is ordered to finish his doctorate and work undercover on Wall Street, looking for any terrorist funding. When he finds some hidden accounts of Cherevin's (he is a partner with the firm for which Ryan works), Ryan flies to Moscow to examine the books. He tells Harper he is convinced enemies of the United States are propping up the dollar, when it actually should be falling, so they can quickly dump all of it, creating a new depression in the American economy. Worse, he feels that dump will only come after a terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
Things get a bit complicated when Cathy, fearing Ryan might be having an affair, goes to Moscow to surprise him. Ryan is tasked to find the prepared sell date for the dollar holdings, and by implication, when the terrorist attack will occur. From then on, it is full pedal-to-the-medal, including an insane mad driving dash through Moscow (on streets he has never used, with dozens of collisions, but yet no notice by police nor responsibility taken). From the books, we know Ryan is a near-genius, but the quick identification of the terrorists and their target, seems to simple, despite numerous steps.
Extras are more plentiful, including audio commentary by Branagh and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura; deleted and extended scenes, also with optional commentary; and four short features that include two looks at Ryan (both about the character's intelligence), Branagh as director and "Old Enemies Reborn." Grade: film 2.5 stars; extras 3 stars
RoboCop (MGM, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 118 min.). This is a decently made movie, albeit an unnecessary one, because it adds nothing to Paul Verhoeven's classic 1987 original (which was rated R). This time Joel Kinnaman (TV's "The Killing") plays Detroit policeman Alex Murphy, who is so grievously injured in a car bombing that most of his body is replaced by robot tech (the film's creepiest scene shows Kinnaman conversing with just his head, lungs and heart -- most of the metal parts removed).
Michael Keaton plays Raymond Sellars, head of Omnicorp, which wants to open the lucrative U.S. market to robot policemen, which have been used successfully overseas for several years. In the United States, the Dreyfus Act prohibits robot policemen; however, Sellars comes up with the idea of putting a man inside the robot, even though his weapons advisor (Jackie Earle Haley) feels it creates an inferior product. Less driven by profit is Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), who has been researching methods to restore amputees' lost functions with artificial limbs that respond to neural commands. Sellars asks Norton to create a full-fledged cyborg. One of the main differences in the two films is that Murphy retains his memories, including those of his wife and young son. That brings a more human element to the story. When Murphy investigates his own attempted murder, it leads to the only poor section of the film, a warehouse firefight that is more like a video game, even to the colorization. Better is the closing fight against a couple of the military ED-209, larger robots.
Instead of the local TV news with jokey commercials of the original film, here we get a cable TV commentator, host of "The Novak Report" (amusingly played by Samuel L. Jackson in excellent voice), who really is a paid shill for Omnicorp. There are not a lot of extras, however. There are five deleted scenes; 10 Omnicorp product announcements; and a three-part look at RoboCop's weapons, suit and the differences between Verhoeven's film and this one directed by Jose Padiha of Brazil. Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 2.25 stars
Eastern Bandits (China, Well Go USA, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 106 min.). This Chinese Western is also a black comedy, and is set during the World War II hostilities between China and invading Japan. An agent (Zhang Yi as Gao) tasked with killing the Japanese prince (the emperor's brother) during an upcoming visit to accept a stolen giant statue of Buddha, infiltrates a bandit gang run by Fang Youwang (Huang Xiaoming) by pretending to be a victim. In time, he hopes to sway the bandits into accomplishing his mission. Much of the film's structure is in flashbacks, which only help confuse the viewer. The individual vignettes are interesting -- especially the bank robbery that goes wrong -- but they break up the flow of the main narrative too much. There are no extras. Grade: film 2.5 stars
Saving Grace B. Jones (2009, Arc DVD, R, 115 min.). This is another film of uneven tone, but eventually it is a real downer. It was co-written by first-time director Connie Stevens (the TV actress and singer) and apparently is based on her-real life experience in the summer of 1951. It seems the character of Carrie (who really is unnecessary to the over-stuffed plot) represents Stevens. Michael Biehn plays Landy, who runs a bakery and hosts Carrie for the summer in Boonville, Mo (population 317), after Carrie witnesses a man stabbed to death in Brooklyn. The summer is eventful for two main reasons: the Great Flood of 1951; and Landy's decision to bring home his sister Grace (a strong performance by Tatum O'Neal), who has been in an asylum for 17 years, after being involved in a serious car-truck accident on her wedding day at age 17. Complicating her fitting in with normal life again is the fact that her groom (Joel Gretsch as Dan Jones), still lives across the street from Landy, but now is married with a very pregnant wife.
Landy tries hard to work his sister back into the community, but it obviously was a mistake to take her from the asylum (Piper Laurie has a good bit as the asylum's director). Despite the film being packed with too much detail, nothing really happens for 70 minutes, and by its end, the film has turned into a thriller. There are no extras. Grade: film 2.5 stars
Axel: The Biggest Little Hero (Arc DVD, PG, 80 min.). In this animated film, Axel is a little boy who pulls pranks, until the day he has a vision of a mystical grove of cactuses that could feed his people for years. So, Axel and his best friend Jono begin a search that has them fly through magnetic valleys, escape an evil robotic lizard king and put up with a brave, but headstrong young princess. The film features the voice talents of Ed Asner, Tim Curry, Matthew Lillard and George Takei. The film has been given the Dove Foundation's family-approved for all ages seal. There are no extras.