Face/Off (1997) – John Woo

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Hong Kong action meets big budget Hollywood in this entry on the 101 Action Movies list as John Woo fills the screens with stand-offs, explosions, and his signature balletic gunplay.

John Travolta and Nicolas Cage play interchangeable roles as FBI agent Sean Archer and terrorist Castor Troy.

Travolta as Archer is desperate, and obsessed with running down Cage’s Troy after in a botched attempt to kill Archer, his son Mikey was killed instead. He’s shut out his wife Eve (Joan Allen) and daughter Jamie (Dominique Swain) in his all-consuming passion.

Finally he gets a chance to capture Troy in an explosive shoot out involving a plane, a helicopter and a jet engine. We learn though that Troy and his brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola) have planted a bomb loaded with a biological agent somewhere in Los Angeles.

With Pollux unwilling to talk, and Castor in a coma, Hollis Miller (Cch Pounder) comes to him with an unnerving but possible answer. Under the hands of Dr. Malcolm Walsh (Colm Feore), Archer will go under an extreme surgery, as he has his face removed, and has it replaced, literally with Troy’s. A device to alter his voice, hair plugs, and minor surgery and Archer becomes Castor, and is promptly dropped into prison to chat with Pollux to find out the location of the bomb. (Watch for a barely recognizable Thomas Jane!)

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While in prison, Troy wakes from his coma, and discovering his situation forces Walsh to give him Archer’s appearance, and takes over his life, sleeping with Eve, influencing Jamie, and releasing Pollux, after a visit to Archer as Troy in prison.

Archer has to escape from prison and stop Troy, and save his family, and hopefully get his own face back.

Yes, the idea is a little extreme, but it allows both actors to play both sides of the law, and if one thinks about it, as apparently Archer as Troy does, it can push one to the psychological edge.

Filled with Woo’s signature style gun battles, doves, and people diving with two handguns firing, it never loses its emotional touchstones, Archer still mourning the loss of his own son, worries over Troy’s lover Sasha’s (Gina Gershon) son, and in a fantastic sequence while a gun battle rages around him, puts headphones on the young child to muffle out the sounds. While Olivia Newton-John croons out Somewhere Over the Rainbow, the suite is ripped apart by gunfire with this small child wandering through it…

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The ending ventures into The Killer territory with a shoot out starting in a church, spilling out onto the grounds, and then a huge boat chase towards a literally explosive climax.

I’ve always liked how Woo is able to balance his action with a healthy dose of emotions, and this one does that very well, as Archer as Troy tries to survive in Castor’s world while wearing the face of the man who ruined his life, knowing Troy is out there with his wife, and his job…

This one is good fun, and while not my favourite Woo film, it’s up there.

How about you?

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Desperado (1995) – Robert Rodriguez

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101 Action Movies brings Robert Rodriguez into the fold with this sequel/remake/self-homage follow-up to his shoestring budget independent action film, El Mariachi. Desperado has a two ridiculously good-looking leads amongst an all-star cast. Antonio Banderas takes over the role of the Mariachi, and Salma Hayek is Carolina. The first time I saw this movie was the first time I had ever seen Hayek and I was gobsmacked, this woman is absolutely stunning in this movie.

Preceded by Buscemi (played by Steve Buscemi), who gets the lay of the land for him, the Mariachi arrives in town to hunt down and kill Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida) the man who ruined his life by having the woman he loves killed, and ruined his livelihood as a guitar player by shooting him through the left hand.

Vowing revenge, the Mariachi rolls into town and stirs it up, with a guitar case filled with guns and weapons, he takes on all comers as he seeks his foe, and the bodies begin to pile up. When he’s wounded he tumbles into Carolina’s care, who runs the town’s only book shop, where no one ever comes, because no one in town reads. But she has a secret as well…

The chemistry between the two of them is intense, and they have a wonderful onscreen relationship, serving as a nice counterpoint to all the gunfights going on.

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Having said that, the gunfights are pretty awesome, my favorite is in a bar run by Short Bartender (Cheech Marin), while a Pick-Up Guy (Quentin Tarantino) is in the back, the Mariachi comes in, and once his weapons cache is discovered turns the bar into a John Woo-esque battle ground as bullets fly, and there is diving, sliding and rolling aplenty.

When Buscemi warns him off of following his path of vengeance, as he won’t like what he’ll find, the Mariachi ignores him, and comes to a stunning conclusion as the film races into its final act, which sees him joined by the other two members of his band, Campa (Carlos Gallardo) and Quino (Albert Michel Jr.).

The action is loud, explosive, and a little over-the-top, and makes for a helluva ride. The film is fast, slick, has a kick ass soundtrack featuring Los Lobos, and doesn’t pause for breath.

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Rodriguez not only shot the film as its director, he also wrote, produced it and edited it, something he has done on pretty much all of his films. Now that is creative control!

Although basically a remake of El Mariachi with a bigger budget, this film let Rodriguez play with more toys, and it’s all there on the screen whether in his casting, his production or his action sequences, the man does not squander his budget.

This one is a personal favorite for many reasons, not the least of which was because it introduced me to Salma. Everything just combines to make a fun action picture.

Of his Mariachi trilogy, which also includes Once Upon A Time In Mexico, this one is definitely my fave of the three, and it was a lot of fun to revisit it. It also features fan favorite Danny Trejo!

What’s your favorite Rodriguez film?

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The Killer (1989) – John Woo

the-Killer-001An assassin with a conscience, a cop who doesn’t care about collateral damage and a lounge singer suffering from blindness due to being caught in a crossfire.

These three characters are the center of this entry on the 101 Action Movies list, and John Woo’s first appearance on it.

Chow Yun-Fat plays Ah Jong, an assassin who works by a strict moral code, so when he accidentally blinds singer Jennie (Sally Yeh), he feels responsible for her, and takes on one last job to use the money to afford the operation to restore her sight.

In hot pursuit is Inspector Li Ying (Danny Lee), who is a bit of a loose cannon, but is smart enough to suss out the connection between Jennie and Ah Jong.

When Ah Jong’s identity is exposed, the crime boss who hired him feels he is too much of a loose end, and orders his termination. Now on the run from the cops and the criminals, he is relying on his manager Fung Sei (Chu Kong) to retrieve his money so he can make his escape with Jennie.

chow-yun-fatEverything you would expect from a John Woo movie is here, a slick fast-moving plot, fun characters, and a ballet of bullets and guns, two-fisted of course.

Hong Kong serves as the backdrop to some amazing sequences, a boat chase that ends with a shoot-out on a beach, the final showdown in and around the dove-filled church…

Woo has a knack for turning his action sequences into a dance, making for balletic and acrobatic scenes, and it is all on display here, as Ah Jong and Li Ying take on each other and all comers as they end up in the center of a hailstorm of bullets, blood and violence.

I love a good John Woo movie, my personal fave is Hard-Boiled, but The Killer is definitely up there, and Chow Yun-Fat is fantastic despite not being a fan of violence.

killerLike most Woo action films, the film is completely over the top by the start of the film, and does nothing but ratched everything higher and higher as the story progresses. Despite that the core of the story is Ah Jong and Li Ying’s growing respect for one another, if not outright friendship, and the orbit they form around Jennie in their now shared desire to get her away and have her cornea repaired before she goes completely blind.

No matter what you think of the stories that populate his films, some of them are rather shallow, you can’t deny that the man, using his love of musicals, can craft an action sequence. It brought a whole new look to action movie violence, as the styles and actions were often imitated but never equaled.

The editing, and styling of the film are decidedly Eastern, and add a perfect flavor to it, and of course, when viewing it, make sure you’re watching the subtitled version (and make sure your subtitles are right referring to the characters by their correct names and not Jeff or John).

What John Woo film would you recommend?

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Good Morning, Mr. Hunt

Good morning, Mr. Hunt… You’re mission should you choose to accept it…

I settled down to watch my copies of the Mission: Impossible films this weekend, and I will say this, this is a film series that undeniably gets better as they go along. Though if I was chosen to rank them, I think I would go Ghost Protocol, III, I and II.

It’s through these films though that one can separate the art from the artist, and can admit that Tom Cruise is a consummate performer in these films. He does as many of the physical stunts as he can, and those moments inevitably end up on screen. The mountain climbing sequence in II, the exploding aquarium restaurant in I, the building climb in Protocol. The man does like to push his own limits.

Then there’s the directors, Brian DePalma who directed Carrie, and The Untouchables, John Woo, who helmed Hard Boiled and Face/Off, first time director J.J. Abrams who went on to give us the Star Trek reboot and Super 8, and Brad Bird’s first live action film after showing he could make an actioner with The Incredibles.

The first film, under DePalma established the universe, reintroduced us to updated versions of the tech which Bruce Geller’s original show, and the remake introduced us to. Of the four films, this one could be most able to define as a spy thriller. Ethan must unearth a mole within the IMF and clear the names of himself and his dead team members, working outside of the IMF as he has been disavowed. Yes, there are is an action sequence, the train/chopper fight at the end of the film, but the rest of it plays as a thriller, using misdirection and deception to keep the story rolling. Of course it does have the tightly paced breaking into the CIA to steal the NOC list sequence.

I know that when I originally saw it I was a little upset that it wasn’t more of an action film, but it really has grown on me, and has a great cast featuring Jean Reno, Emmanuelle Beart, Jon Voight, Vanessa Redgrave, Ving Rhames, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Henry Czerny.

It featured a script and story by David Koepp, Steven Zaillian and Robert Towne.

When I head John Woo was taking over the director’s chair for II, I knew exactly what I was getting, choreographed gun battles, sweet stunts, and the loosest of all the Mission: Impossible stories. Ethan must work to recover a super-virus and its cure before an ex-agent can sell it to the highest bidder.

But that’s ok, it’s set against the backdrop of Australia, and has some fun action sequences, and I love the opening climbing sequence. There’s the infiltration off Biocyte and the ensuing gun battle, the fight on Bare Island followed by the moving battle on motorcycles, culminating in the duel on the beach.

It has a pounding score by Hans Zimmer, and a screenplay by Brannon Braga Ronald D. Moore, and Robert Towne.

This time out the film featured Dougray Scott as the baddie, the sexy Thandie Newton as the love interest, Brendan Gleeson and Anthony Hopkins.

Then the films took a rest, but came back bigger and better, actually molding the film series into a stronger reflection of the tv series, and one of the concepts of the first movie… that Ethan Hunt may be the leader, but he’s a member of a team.

This time first time director J.J. Abrams was taking over the center seat, but before that he’d already brought us Lost, and the spy series Alias.

With J.J. and Cruise, the cast seemed to get bigger and better.

This time out, Ethan, who is now an instructor is brought back into the field to rescue one of his trainees and unearths a huge weapons deal, including a device referred to by one of the techs, Benji as an anti-god.

Following along with J.J.. Abrams is his seemingly personal composer, Michael Giacchino as well as his writing partners Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman.

The story is much more epic in scope, this time spilling over into Ethan’s personal life and his impending nuptials.

Joining Cruise onscreen are Maggie Q, Keri Russell, Billy Crudup, Laurence Fishburne, Michelle Monaghan, Simon Pegg, and menacing the IMF this time around, Philip Seymour Hoffman.

This film sees the film breaking into the Vatican, a helicopter chase, battling drones and soldiers on a bridge in the Keys, an infiltration and parachute escape in Shanghai as well as tense face-offs between Cruise’s Hunt and Hoffman’s Davian.

This one climbed right into position of my favorite and best of the series as soon as I saw it. Abrams first film knocked it out of the park as far as I was concerned. And it saw Ethan working in a team format, something that the original show was always all about – each member has their specialty, and they can’t pull it off unless they solve it together.

With the success of three, there was no doubt that a fourth wouldn’t be too far off…

And Ghost Protocol came along with Abrams took a back seat to directing, settling into the role of producer, Brad Bird, who brought us Iron Giant in addition to The Incredibles settled in to make his first live action film… and it kicks ass!

Giacchino returns in the music department as Ethan and his team seek to stop a madman from starting a nuclear war with stolen Russian launch codes in a story penned by Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec.

Bird handles the film deftly, and I can’t wait to see what he does next. He oversees Hunt’s ascent on the outside of the world’s tallest building, the sandstorm chase, a prison escape, a break-in of the Kremlin – with some great tech, and a climactic fight in an automated car park.

This time, the Impossible casting continues it’s awesome run as Pegg returns, and is joined by Paula Patton, Jeremy Renner, Josh Holloway, Lea Seydoux, Michael Nyqvist and Tom Wilkinson.

There’s definitely a sense of handing over the reins to Renner and his fellows by the end of the film, so one wonders if Cruise will make another one.

Of course Renner is quickly becoming a very busy man, he’s got a recurring role in the Marvel Universe movies as Hawkeye, and is taking over the Bourne films from Matt Damon, so one wonders if the M:I films will continue now or not.

I certainly hope so, they are a lot of fun so far, and I’d be very curious what director, writers and stars will be involved in the next film.

Do you need to see all the films to appreciate the most recent effort? No, but there are little pay-offs, you get to enjoy the world that’s been created by the series, and you get to see four amazing directors giving their take on this techno-spy action series. It’s easy to write them off as summer blockbusters, but the series really is a solid collection of entertaining films.

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