END OF THE ROAD (2022) – Netflix Action Thriller Doesn’t Go the Distance

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END OF THE ROAD (2022) opens with main character Brenda (Queen Latifah) having her credit card declined at the store, and then we see her moving her reluctant family, her teen daughter Kelly (Mychala Lee) and young son Cam (Shaun Dixon), out of their empty home, about to take a road trip with her brother Reggie (Ludacris) to the Southwest to stay with her mother. As the car pulls away from their home, the title credits emerge in bold letters, END OF THE ROAD.

It doesn’t take much imagination to understand what the title refers to, in terms of the lives of these characters.

The central premise of END OF THE ROAD, a new action thriller which just premiered on Netflix, I bought into and liked. Brenda, an ER nurse, is now broke because when her deceased husband took ill, all their money went towards his medical expenses. This plot point is very real, since it’s no secret that in the U.S. medical expenses are astronomical, and insurance plans are largely ineffective with ridiculously high deductibles. The angst she and her two children feel about having to leave their home is real and palpable, and since she’s the surviving parent, it makes sense that her kids kind of blame her.

Then there’s her loser brother Reggie, who can’t seem to do anything right, but he’s there for his sister and his niece and nephew, so at the end of the day, he’s not really a loser. So, I liked all these characters and their initial story, and as they travel through New Mexico, you know they are going to run into trouble, and they do.

In their motel room, they hear a fight in the room next door, and then a gun shot. Brenda and Reggie investigate, find a man who has been shot, and try but fail to save his life. They call the police, and after making statements, they continue on their way, and that is that. Except Brenda doesn’t realize that Reggie found a bag of money in the man’s bathroom, and he took it, thinking that it could solve all their problems, and Reggie doesn’t realize that the money is drug money which the local crime lord wants back badly.

Enter Sheriff Hammers (Beau Bridges) who is hot on the trail of this mysterious crime lord, and because the officers who first arrived at the crime scene allowed Brenda and her family to leave immediately, Hammers wasn’t able to question them, and so he’s also hot on their trail, guessing that they took the missing money and believing their lives to be in danger.

So far so good, and the first half of END OF THE ROAD is a pretty compelling drama, with a decent set-up for an action thriller. But then, in the second half of the movie, it all falls apart. Completely falls apart.

When forced to fight for her family against violent thugs and criminals, Brenda morphs into superwoman, making the action scenes in this one both ludicrous and far-fetched. This combined with an even more ridiculous plot twist involving one of the characters, and all the credibility which the first half of this movie owned, disappears like stolen money from a motel room.

END OF THE ROAD goes from being a compelling thriller to a laughable action flick in the blink of an eye, which is too bad, because the first half had a lot of potential.

It’s also a bit heavy-handed. Yes, race problems are real in the U.S., but the white folks in this movie are so over-the-top nasty they become cliche, and as a result, they simply don’t resonate. There’s nothing subtle about anything that happens in this movie.

The performances are fine at least. I enjoyed Queen Latifah in the lead role, and Mycala Lee and Shaun Dixon as her children, but most of all I enjoyed rapper Ludacris as Reggie, who’s the most interesting character in the movie, and also, sadly, the most underutilized. Ludacris gives the best performance in the movie.

Beau Bridges was fine for a while as Sheriff Hammers, at first playing a role similar to the one his brother Jeff Bridges played in the superior HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016). In that film, Jeff Bridges played a Texas Marshall hot on the trail of two bank robbers. Here, Beau Bridges plays a New Mexico sheriff hot on the trail of a drug lord. Both characters share a similar passion and drive. However, once the plot twist is revealed, Bridges’ performance goes out the window as it becomes part of a story which makes little sense and isn’t believable at all.

Millicent Shelton directed END OF THE ROAD, and technically there’s no problems here. The action scenes are all polished and slick. They’re just not very believable. I mean, Brenda is an ER nurse, not a law enforcement officer.

David Loughery wrote the screenplay, based on an original script by Christopher J. Moore. It’s a mixed bag, as it creates likable, sympathetic characters, and places them in a compelling situation, before it jettisons all believability as it deteriorates into a laughable action flick which by the time it ends no longer has any semblance of truth.

This one reaches the end of the road long before its end credits roll.

I give it two stars.

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DAY SHIFT (2022) – Horror/Action/Comedy at Its Worst

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The mindless action/comedy tour continues, and with DAY SHIFT (2022), you can throw horror into the mix.

In recent weeks, I’ve been writing about the plethora of mindless action comedies at the movies these days, films filled with clever rapid-fire banter between main characters but with stories so ridiculous and over-the-top that they possess no semblance of truth and are about as interesting as watching someone else play a video game. Yawn. These movies have become absolutely wearisome, but since they continue to make money, they aren’t going away anytime soon.

They run the gamut from generally entertaining and fairly well-written, like BULLET TRAIN (2022), to not-so-well written and too-ridiculous-to-be-believed-and-enjoyed, like THE GRAY MAN (2022), to the horribly dreadful and uber boring because not only is the action mindless but the characters as well, like UNCHARTED (2022).

DAY SHIFT, a new horror/action/comedy which premiered this weekend on Netflix, falls into the latter category. It’s pretty bad.

The movie opens with swimming pool cleaner Bud Jablonski (Jamie Foxx) entering a home and immediately being attacked by an old lady who in reality is…. a deadly vampire! We learn everything we need to know about the rest of this movie in this opening action sequence. It goes on for a while, the stunts and action are impeccably polished, and it’s generally entertaining for an opening scene of an action movie, and when it’s done, Bud wins, and he makes a wisecrack.

And that’s what DAY SHIFT is all about. See, Bud’s not really a pool cleaner. He’s a vampire hunter! And in this movie, Los Angeles is crawling with vampires, and so Bud is plenty busy! The gimmick here is that Bud’s ex-wife Jocelyn (Meagan Good) has threatened to move to Florida with their young daughter Paige (Zion Broadnax) because they can no longer afford her private school which costs $5,000, or her need for braces, which will cost $6,000, so in order to keep his family in L.A. with him, he has to come up with $11,000 real fast! So, he has to get extra aggressive with the vampire hunter gig. However, this plot point is a head-scratcher. Moving to Florida isn’t going to remove Paige’s need for braces or the expense that goes with it, and private schools in Florida are just as expensive as private schools in California, so Bud, if he took two minutes to think about things, should have realized he has other options for keeping his daughter with him in California. But that would suggest some intelligence here, which is something that the script lacks.

Bud is paired up with the dorky Seth (Dave Franco) who has been tasked with making sure that Bud follows all the rules of the vampire hunting company, something that Seth isn’t interested in doing because he likes his desk job and isn’t interested in working in the field. And the main villain here, a female vampire named Audrey (Karla Souza) is intent on two things, populating the city with vampires, and exacting revenge on Bud since the old lady he killed in the film’s opening was her daughter. Don’t ask. The explanation doesn’t make sense. So, eventually Audrey goes after Jocelyn and Paige, and it’s up to daddy Bud to save the day.

As stories go, this one is very lame.

DAY SHIFT reminded me somewhat of another Netflix action/horror/comedy movie, ARMY OF THE DEAD (2021), only in that movie, which was directed by Zach Snyder and starred Dave Bautista, the good guys were battling zombies, not vampires. This similarity comes as no surprise as screenwriter Shay Hatten wrote both movies. Here, Hatten shares screenwriting credit with Tyler Tice.

It’s a pretty ineffective screenplay. The dialogue and banter is neither funny or clever, and there’s nary a laugh to be found. There is one amusing conversation between Bud and Seth about the TWILIGHT series, but that’s about it. It tries to be clever and creative with the vampires, as Seth offers an explanation into the different types of vampires, but the movie never makes an effort to make this part of the film’s lore, and so it’s quickly forgotten. The characters are shallow, and the plot forgettable. Vampire Audrey has the upper hand once she captures Bud’s ex-wife and daughter, and the only reason she doesn’t succeed is she went to the Dr. Evil School of Villainy and talks about all her plans but never acts on them. It’s pretty stupid. And finally, the story embraces one of the worst plot contrivances in the movies, where after the dust settles, mommy realizes that her ex-husband and daddy of their child really isn’t so bad after all since he’s a vampire hunter hero, and they decide to get back together. Gag! That simply is not how people act. This plot point is almost as bad as the “it was just a dream” shtick.

DAY SHIFT was directed by stunt man J.J. Perry, and the result is what you would expect. The action sequences are really well done and slick, and they are the best part of the movie, but that’s pretty much all DAY SHIFT has to offer. The horror and comedy are pretty nonexistent.

Jamie Foxx is pretty much hit or miss with me. Sometimes I enjoy his work, and other times I don’t. I really enjoyed him in DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) and RAY (2004), but he did little for me in another recent Netlix actioner PROJECT POWER (2020), and he was rather ineffective in BABY DRIVER (2017). Here, he’s okay, but it’s a terribly written role.

But he fares much better than co-star Dave Franco who plays one of the most embarrassingly pathetic characters I’ve seen in a movie in years. Seth is a disaster. Let’s put it this way: the running gag in the movie is that every time Seth gets scared, he pees himself, and so after each action scene, we get to see Seth humiliate himself, and the other characters plus Seth himself make jokes about it. I can’t believe Franco would even play this role. It’s so bad. And then once you think he’s been put out of his misery, after he is turned into a vampire, and Bud beheads him, it turns out he can put his head back on to survive and become a “good” vampire.

Your guess is as good as mine.

One of the best performances in the movie belongs to Natasha Liu Bordizzo in a small role as Bud’s neighbor who also turns out to be a “good” vampire, and late in the film, she helps Bud and Seth. She’s fun to watch, and she makes for a better action hero than either Bud or Seth. We just saw Bordizzo play a very different character in the thriller THE VOYEURS (2021).

Also making an impact in a small role is Eric Lange, who plays a shady character who buys goods from Bud. It’s the kind of role Lange is good at, having played a similar shady type in the TV series NARCOS (2016-2017). He was also memorable in a dark role in the effective horror movie ANTEBELLUM (2020).

But Karla Souza is ineffective as the one-note vampire villain Audrey. She holds all the cards, yet she loses in pathetically stupid fashion.

Rapper Snoop Dogg is on hand as experienced vampire hunter Big John Elliott, but he, like everyone else in this movie, is let down by the script. He has nary a memorable line.

DAY SHIFT is not only the most recent example of the action/horror/comedy movie trope that is already passe and cliche, it’s also one of the worst examples.

If I were you, I’d request the night shift instead.

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THE GRAY MAN (2022) – Emphasis on Action over Story Hinders Netflix Pairing of Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans

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Too much action. Not enough story.

That’s how I felt after watching THE GRAY MAN (2022), a new action thriller from Netflix, which is also playing in theaters. In spite of an impressive cast and a pair of talented directors, at the end of the day, this one was all about the action, which admittedly was very good, but in terms of story, sadly, there simply wasn’t much there.

In THE GRAY MAN, a shadowy CIA assassin known as Six (Ryan Gosling), uncovers a plot by his superiors Carmichael (Rege-Jean Page) and Suzanne Brewer (Jessica Henwick) to assassinate a fellow agent who had learned of their illegal activities, and once Six learns this information, he also becomes a target. To take down Six, Carmichael hires their most ruthless and unpredictable assassin, Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) who immediately abducts Six’s former handler FItzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) and his young daughter Claire (Julia Butters) for leverage.

Six ends up teaming with fellow agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas) who is also targeted by Carmichael and Lloyd, who seem to want to take out every other CIA assassin on the planet. And that’s it for plot, as the rest of the movie is simply a set up for one action scene after another as Lloyd and Six go after each other. And it’s not a very original plot either, as it’s right out of a Jason Bourne movie.

THE GRAY MAN was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, the guys who directed AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018), AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019), and CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVL WAR (2016). They know how to make blockbuster action movies. The action sequences in THE GRAY MAN are excellent, and I’m not going to lie, I had fun watching them, but without an exciting story or fun characters, the action scenes on their own weren’t enough for me to really enjoy this movie.

There’s an exciting sequence on a plane, which hearkens back to two old James Bond movies, THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (1987) when Six is tangling with assassins on the plane which has a big hole in it, and MOONRAKER (1979) when Six falls out of the plane without a parachute and then fights a bad guy in midair, two sequences which were both done better in those aforementioned James Bond movies. There are slick car chases, lots of loud shoot-outs and explosions, and some nifty hand-to-hand combat scenes, all professionally executed, but without a story or memorable characters, none of them truly resonate.

Joe Russo wrote the screenplay, along with Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley, and all three of these guys have lots of screenwriting credits, but it didn’t really help them here. The plot, as I said, is right out of a Jason Bourne movie, and the characters are cardboard and dull, with the exception of Chris Evans’ character, Lloyd.

I’m a fan of the work of Ryan Gosling, and he’s enjoyable here as Six, and he’s also believable in the role of super assassin. But, Six is kind of a one note character, and ultimately, he doesn’t really give Gosling a lot to do other than to look unstoppable and heroic. And he is heroic. Unlike Jason Bourne, who in spite of always wanting to clear his name, still operated with a sense of uncertainty and explosiveness about him, Six is a good guy to his core, which kinda makes him boring.

Chris Evans has more fun and more success playing against type as the over-the-top villain, Lloyd Hansen. This guy is not Captain America! He’s the complete opposite of Six in that he is all villain. Strangely, at the end of the day, he’s also on the boring side. And that’s because even though this movie is called THE GRAY MAN, neither main character has gray areas, and that’s just not that interesting. Characters with more balance in general are more captivating. So, it’s kinda sorta fun watching Evans ham it up as a bad guy, but it’s not completely satisfying because it turns out Lloyd is nothing more than a glorified assh*le.

I’m also a huge fan of the work of Ana de Armas, and her performance as super tough assassin Dani was probably my favorite of the movie. She just starred in the latest James Bond movie NO TIME TO DIE (2021), a film I enjoyed much more than THE GRAY MAN, but it was a very small role, and basically, she just got to strut her stuff in one brief sequence. She’s in THE GRAY MAN a whole lot more, and the movie is that much better for it. She’s believable in her action scenes, and unlike Gosling or Evans, she holds back on letting us know who Dani is exactly, and if there’s one character in the movie with a gray area, it’s Dani.

THE GRAY MAN reunites Ana de Armas with Ryan Gosling, as the two co-starred in BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), and they work well together, as in both movies they generated some decent on-screen chemistry.

Rege-Jean Page and Jessica Henwick are okay as the main villains in the movie who are constantly pulling strings behind the scenes, but neither of them is terribly exciting. Neither is Billy Bob Thornton as Six’s former handler Fitzroy. It’s a rather thankless role without any depth.

I did enjoy the work of Dhanush, who plays yet another super assassin Avik San who’s called in late in the game to take down Six. Avik, in his brief time on screen, benefits from some gray areas in his personality. If only the two leads had benefitted from the same.

Also in the cast are Alfre Woodard as another CIA handler, an unrecognizable Wagner Moura as a shady character who provides new identities, and in a blink-if-you miss him cameo, Shea Whigham plays Six’s abusive father in a flashback. This is the third movie in as many weeks in which the plot involved an abusive dad, following WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING (2022) and THE BLACK PHONE (2022). It’s also the third time that Wagner Moura has co-starred with Ana de Armas, as they previously starred together in SERGIO (2020) and WASP NETWORK (2019).

THE GRAY MAN was okay. With its talented cast, directors, and writers, it should have been better. And while I enjoyed its action scenes, even those weren’t fantastic. Another recent Netflix actioner EXTRACTION (2020) starring Chris Hemsworth had superior action sequences. But what ultimately drags THE GRAY MAN down is its unoriginal blah story, and characters who in spite of the film’s title, just don’t possess many gray areas.

All action and no plot make THE GRAY MAN a dull man.

—END—

SPIDERHEAD (2022) -Mild Science Fiction Thriller Can’t Take Advantage of Good Script and Solid Acting

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SPIDERHEAD (2022), a new science fiction action thriller now available on Netflix, is a mishmash of these three genres, never really developing into anything special, yet remaining generally entertaining throughout.

It stars Chris Hemsworth, who must have a deal with Netflix, because he keeps showing up in their original movies. He starred in the superior Netflix action movie EXTRACTION (2020), one of the streaming network’s best movies to date, and appeared unbilled in the recent INTERCEPTOR (2022).

In SPIDERHEAD, Hemsworth plays Steve Abnesti, a scientist who runs a special prison program in which he accepts volunteer inmates to be guinea pigs for drugs he is working on that he hopes will help curb humans’ criminal personality traits, in the hope of keeping more people out of prison. While generally safe, the drugs can be dangerous, and so in exchange for taking the risk, the inmates are housed in a rather fancy minimum-security prison, complete with some pretty nice living conditions and freedoms. These drugs are administered in packs which connect to the body, and the dosages are all controlled virtually with the help of Steve’s trusted assistant Verlaine (Mark Paguio).

Enter inmate Jeff (Miles Teller) who agrees to help and is one of Steve’s most cooperative test subjects, mostly because Jeff feels terribly low and worthless, due to the crime he committed which got him sent to prison in the first place. When he’s not being tested, he’s friends with fellow inmate Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), who’s harboring a dark secret from her past as well.

Everything is hunky-dory until Steve begins to ask Jeff and some other inmates to do some weird things, like having sex with another inmate Heather (Tess Haubrich) while Steve controls how attracted or unattracted they are to each other. And when things grow even more bizarre and dangerous, Jeff begins to question Steve’s motives, and so he does a little snooping and what he finds out is— of course— that things aren’t as they seem!

No surprise there.

SPIDERHEAD pretty much remains mediocre throughout. Its story is mildly interesting, mildly disturbing, but not overly exciting or mind-blowing. Honestly, throughout most of the movie I had a “so, what?” vibe going on. I was never all that invested in what was happening to the characters or their stories. While I understood Jeff’s plight, I never really cared for him all that much, and Steve is pretty much a one-note character without any real motivation other than to be the villain in this one by film’s end.

The screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, based on the short story “Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders, is a mixed bag. The dialogue is really good, and there are some memorable exchanges between Jeff and Steve, but the story never becomes more than a standard melodrama. When we finally find out what is really going on, it’s not that explosive a revelation. And the characters, while fleshed out well enough are all kind of— boring. This comes as a surprise because Reese and Wernick are the guys who wrote the DEADPOOL movies and the ZOMBIELAND movies. Go figure!

Visually, SPIDERHEAD is impressive to look at, but like a lot of other Netflix films, it suffers from not being all that cinematic. It plays like a TV movie. It was directed by Joseph Kosinski, who is receiving high praise these days for his work at the helm of TOP GUN: MAVERICK (2022).

Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller do work well together, and their scenes together are the best in the movie. However, overall, Hemsworth plays Steve as a one-note guy, and even with the charismatic Hemsworth playing the role, at the end of the day, Steve’s boring.

Miles Teller fares better as Jeff, and while I have not been a Teller fan over the years, he gives the best performance in the movie. He makes Jeff a real person, and his story arc is the most interesting and emotional in the film. Sadly, it’s a story we’ve seen countless times before, where a character hasn’t meant to, but his reckless actions led to someone else’s tragedy, and he’s beating himself up over it because he can’t get over the guilt.

Jurnee Smollett is also solid as Jeff’s friend and possible girlfriend Lizzy, another character with a tragic past.

Themes of loneliness, abandonment, and letting down those you love, permeate the proceedings, but the film never rises to the level in terms of plot where these themes can take center stage. They’re there, but in the background of a tale that struggles to come to life.

I wouldn’t rush home to see SPIDERHEAD, but on a rainy summer night, when there’s not much else going on, it might be worth a look.

And for Chris Hemsworth fans, it’s something to watch before his highly anticipated Marvel movie THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (2022) opens in theaters on July 8.

SPIDERHEAD is a minor diversion, a mild science fiction thriller that possesses a good script and solid acting, but remains low-key and muted throughout, mostly due to plot points that fail to resonate because they have been done before and done better.

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INTERCEPTOR (2022) – Netflix’ Latest Action-Adventure Entertaining in Spite of Uneven Script

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After watching INTERCEPTOR (2022), a new action-adventure movie which just premiered on Netflix this past week, I couldn’t shake the feeling that had this movie been in different hands, and had it been a major theatrical release, it could have been so much better.

Instead, this tale of one woman’s stand against a band of terrorists as they try to disarm and destroy the last of the United States’ interceptor missiles, so that the Russian nuclear warheads they stole could be used to nuke a bunch of cities in the U.S., all in the name of burning a country to the ground which they had lost faith in, so they could build it back up the way they wanted, plays out like a “B” movie of old. Everything about it is decent and watchable, but none of it is amazing or first-rate.

Then again, even in the right hands, this tale may have been too convoluted to actually work. There’s a lot to swallow here.

INTERCEPTOR tells the story of Captain J.J. Collins (Elsa Pataky), an army officer who has been dealing with the backlash of calling out a superior officer for sexual harassment. As such, she receives threats and vulgar sexual slurs, as well as being assigned to a post in the middle of nowhere, a rig in the middle of the Pacific Ocean housing the U.S. interceptor rockets. J.J. barely has time to unpack her bags when the station is attacked by terrorists.

The terrorists, who infiltrated the station by posing as janitors, are led by the dashing Alexander Kessel (Luke Bracey) who in the spirit of movie supervillains everywhere, takes the time to explain to J.J. his plans. They’re there to destroy the interceptor missiles, which are the United States’ only defense against nuclear attack, and they want to knock out this defense so they can use the Russian nuclear warheads they stole to bomb major cities in the U.S. Everything has gone according to plan, except J.J. was assigned to the base at the last minute, and so they were not prepared for her, and she lets them know that she is more than up to the task of stopping them, even if it means taking them on single-handedly.

Kessel is assisted by army officer Beaver Baker (Aaron Glenane), a traitorous type who represents the far-right presence in the movie, as he constantly talks about minorities trying to take over the country, and that this is his way of “cleansing” the nation of these impurities. So as not to alienate one side of the political spectrum, Kessel holds another view, that basically the entire country needs a “re-do” because it’s the government and the elites who are ruining it for everybody, and he speaks about racial disparities and how people of color have it so bad and how nobody is doing anything to help. So, he’s there to do something.

But not if J.J. has anything to say about it.

Yup, INTERCEPTOR is pretty much a DIE HARD movie, with the Bruce Willis role changed to a female character. It’s the same formula, but not as well-done.

This is no fault of the actors who all do commendable jobs. I really enjoyed Elsa Pataky in the lead role as J.J., who she makes a believable action hero as well as a woman pained by constant attacks because she spoke out against a male superior officer who sexually assaulted her and basically got away with it. Pataky plays Elena in the FAST AND THE FURIOUS movies.

Likewise, Luke Bracey makes for a polished, handsome, and trying-to-be-charming terrorist Alexander Kessel. As I said, he would be right at home in a DIE HARD movie. The only knock against him is he went to the “Dr. Evil school of villainy” and talks too much about his diabolical plans of terror.

Aaron Glenane uses a thick Southern drawl to be that character you wouldn’t want to meet if you were hiking alone in the wilderness. Can anyone say DELIVERANCE (1972)? Actually, he plays Beaver Baker less like a hillbilly and more like a character who might cross paths with the heroes in SUPERGIRL (2015-21). In fact, I can almost hear Melissa Benoist’s Supergirl lecturing him now.

The biggest knock against INTERCEPTOR is its screenplay by director Matthew Reilly and Stuart Beattie. The dialogue is particularly bad throughout, and the plot is definitely convoluted and not all that believable. Since this is an action movie, the convoluted part didn’t bother me all that much, but the often-laughable dialogue was a major distraction. The script tries to cover both sides of the political spectrum in its plot to “cleanse” the United States, and to this end largely succeeds.

Stuart Beattie has written lots of movies. He’s worked on the scripts for some of the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies, and co-wrote 30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007), an intense horror movie I really enjoyed. But he also co-wrote the screenplay for G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF THE COBRA (2009) and I, FRANKENSTEIN (2014), two rather dreadful movies.

Matthew Reilly’s direction is okay. None of the action scenes are all that impressive, and the fight scenes definitely seem slower and less intense than some of the hand-to-hand combat sequences we’ve seen in other movies of late, action films like EXTRACTION (2020) and ATOMIC BLONDE (2017).

All of this being said, I have to say I enjoyed watching INTERCEPTOR. It held my interest for its one hour and forty-minute running time, and while the dialogue could have been better, I bought into J.J.’s plight and was certainly rooting for her to take down the bad guys in this one. It’s an enjoyable ride even if it’s not all that believable.

So, as long as your expectations aren’t too high, you might have fun watching Netflix’ latest action adventure.

I did.

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OPERATION MINCEMEAT (2022) – World War II Period Piece Tells Fascinating Story of Deception

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OPERATION MINCEMEAT (2022) may sound like a horror movie about cannibals, but it’s not.

It’s a World War II period piece based on the true story of a top-secret espionage plot by British Intelligence which aimed at duping Hitler and the Nazis into believing the Allies were going to invade Greece rather than their intended target of Sicily.

Now available on Netflix, OPERATION MINCEMEAT tells the story of two intelligence officers, Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) who face the arduous task of having to create a false narrative to make the Nazis believe something that they have no business believing, because conventional wisdom has it that the most strategic spot for the Allies to attack next is Sicily. They come up with the idea of having a corpse wash up on the shore of Spain where they believe the contents of the false plan which will be in the corpse’s possession will make its way to the Nazi leaders there who in turn will forward the information to Hitler.

Their superior officer Admiral John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs) thinks the plan is absolutely ridiculous and obvious, and that the Nazis would never fall for it, but Churchill (Simon Russell Beale) believes it is so obvious that the Nazis wouldn’t think the British would try something so blatantly foolish, and hence would then suspect the information as being real, and so he greenlights the project.

Ewen and Charles face complications from the get-go. For starters, their search for a suitable corpse proves nearly impossible, to which Ewen quips that he can’t believe they are in the middle of a war and they can’t find corpse for their needs anywhere in the country! Their attempts to photograph the corpse prove fruitless, as no matter how hard they try, they can’t make him look alive, and so they decide to then search for a live person who resembles the dead man and take pictures of him instead.

They have to create an entire back story for this man to make everything as realistic as possible, including creating an entire love story complete with love letters, and to this end they receive help from a key member of their team, Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald). Jean’s involvement eventually complicates matters as she and the married Ewen begin to share a chemistry together, while the single Charles also has eyes for her. Further complicating matters is Admiral Godfrey suspects Ewen’s brother of being a communist spy for the Soviets and orders Charles to spy on Ewen. Through all this, they do eventually create an entire back story for their corpse and do get him to the shores of Spain where the information is then picked up by the local authorities. From there, the plans must get to the Nazis in the hope that Hitler will believe the ruse and send his troops to Greece rather than Sicily.

OPERATION MINCEMEAT tells a fascinating story that if it weren’t true would be difficult to believe. I mean, no spoilers since this is history, but the ploy worked, and as meticulously mapped out in this movie by screenwriter Michelle Ashford, it was an incredibly tall order to pull off. So many things had to go right, and they did. Of course, a lot of it was because of the careful and relentless planning by Ewen and Charles. They prepared for everything, including inserting an eyelash inside the closed letter, so that when eventually the materials were returned and the letter unopened, when they opened it they saw the eyelash was gone, to which Admiral Godfrey laments that he wasn’t going to send British soldiers to their deaths based on one missing eyelash! The detailed screenplay was based on a book by Ben Macintyre.

OPERATION MINCEMEAT reminded me somewhat of another recent World War II espionage movie, MUNICH: THE EDGE OF WAR (2021). I actually enjoyed MUNICH somewhat more than OPERATION MINCEMEAT. As fascinating a story told in OPERATION MINCEMEAT, it often falls short in the emotion department. The film works more on an intellectual level. Also, while there are moments of dramatic tension, in terms of suspense, it’s a little more subdued than it could have been.

Director John Madden has made a handsome production that firmly fits the period, but in terms of driving the film forward to a riveting climax he tends to coast rather than speed.

Colin Firth is excellent as Ewen, and his personality kind of sets the tone for the entire movie, as he is dealing with all sorts of stress, both professional and personal, and he deals with it all subtly and politely.

Matthew Macfadyen is equally as strong as Charles, who is much more straightforward than Ewen and far less complicated. The two don’t always see eye to eye, but they put aside their differences and work well together.

Kelly Macdonald is very enjoyable as Jean, the widower who grows attached to Ewen even as she knows she shouldn’t.

Jason Isaacs is pompous and cranky as Admiral Godfrey. It’s another topnotch performance by Isaacs. And Simon Russell Beale is fun to watch as an irascible yet imaginative Winston Churchill. Isaacs and Beale also both co-starred in THE DEATH OF STALIN (2017), a film that gave both of them far meatier roles than here in OPERATION MINCEMEAT.

I also really enjoyed Penelope Wilton as Hester, Ewen’s exceedingly loyal secretary and valued member of the Mincemeat team. Johnny Flynn is also really good as a young cool and confident Ian Fleming who is also a member of the team. The film even provides some fun insights into the future James Bond author’s writing.

OPERATION MINCEMEAT is a polished World War II period piece drama that tells the unlikely yet true story of one of the greatest ruses pulled off during the war, a deception that fooled the Nazis into defending the wrong nation and enabled the British to successfully take over the strategic location at Sicily. While the movie sometimes lacks emotion and tension, it does feature topnotch performances and tells a fascinating story of a side of the war not always told, the intelligence side.

And in this case, intelligence means deception.

—END—

SILVERTON SIEGE (2022) – Compelling Historical Drama Recounts Event Which Began “Free Nelson Mandela” Movement

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I first learned about apartheid when I was in college in the early 1980s. My professors at Boston University were talking about it, and I had several teaching assistants who were from South Africa and who shared firsthand knowledge of the brutal system of racism in that country.

Then came the movies, films like Richard Attenborough’s CRY FREEDOM (1987), which was the first time I saw Denzel Washington in a movie, and A WORLD APART (1988), which dramatized what was happening in South Africa, and at the time, it looked like apartheid was a present-day evil that wasn’t going away any time soon. But miraculously, it did, and Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and became president of that nation!

SILVERTON SIEGE (2022), a new Netflix movie, takes place ten years before Mandela’s release, in 1980, and tells the story, based on real events, of three freedom fighters who fled the police and took refuge inside a bank where not knowing what else to do, took hostages and demanded to be released. When they realized this wasn’t going to happen, they decided to raise the stakes, and they instead demanded the release of Nelson Mandela.

The movie depicts the tense events inside the bank, where the freedom fighters contend with the hostages, explaining to them that they are not there to rob the bank, and outside, where police captain Johan Langerman (Arnold Vosloo) is facing increasing pressure from his superiors to stop negotiating and simply storm the bank.

SILVERTON SIEGE is an excellent historical drama, anchored by two solid performances. The best belongs to Thabo Rametsi as Calvin, the leader of the three freedom fighters. He makes it clear that Calvin is not there to kill anyone. They are there to start a movement to free Nelson Mandela. Of course, this isn’t how it started, but once Calvin realized their own lives weren’t worth anything in the eyes of the government, he decided to wage their freedom on someone much bigger, the imprisoned Nelson Mandela. Rametsi makes Calvin a convincing character, a sincere man who most of the hostages come to believe and support.

Arnold Vosloo is also excellent as police captain Langerman. He wants to stamp out the “terrorists” as much as anyone, but he doesn’t want a bloodbath or any international incidents, as one of the hostages is an American, and so he desperately wants the negotiations to win out, but that’s not how his superiors view things. Vosloo has been around for a long time, making movies since the 1980s, and horror fans know him for playing Imhotep the Mummy in the Brendan Fraser remake of THE MUMMY (1999) and in its sequel THE MUMMY RETURNS (2001).

The rest of the cast is also solid, including Noxolo Dlamini as Terra, the lone woman of the three freedom fighters, who also happens to be the most brazen and probably the toughest.

SILVERTON SIEGE was directed by Mandla Dube who grew up in apartheid in South Africa. Dube has made an efficient movie that pulls no punches and does everything right in pointing out the ugliness that once was apartheid.

The drama here is pretty intense throughout, although if you know your history, you kinda know what is going to happen, because Mandela wasn’t released from prison until ten years later in 1990. But still, the story holds up and works well.

The screenplay by Sabelo Mgidi allows the audience to get to know the characters, especially the three freedom fighters and the police captain, and even some of the hostages. The tension remains high throughout and knowing that the efforts of these three fighters will ultimately fail, actually works to the film’s advantage, as for the most part they are depicted as people who just want freedom for everyone, and the audience definitely empathizes with their plight.

That being said, since this event is often credited as the beginning of the Free Nelson Mandela movement, even though the events of the day ended badly, in the long run, they were successful, as Mandela was eventually freed from prison in 1990.

SILVERTON SIEGE is a compelling historical drama that is highly recommended, and it also serves as a reminder that while there is still more work to do… apartheid may be over, but racism isn’t… the lives lost for the cause of freedom have not been lost in vain.

It makes sure that at least in this case, these lives will be remembered.

—END–

CHOOSE OR DIE (2022) – Horror Movie About Cursed Video Game Has no Basis in Reality

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It’s been a while since I’ve watched a movie that just hasn’t worked for me. 2022 has so far been a good year for movies. I feel as if I have watched one movie after another that I’ve liked.

Well, that streak has come to an end with CHOOSE OR DIE (2022), a new horror movie on Netflix that is pretty much the first “bad” movie I’ve seen this year.

CHOOSE OR DIE actually has a fairly interesting premise, as it’s about an old 1980s video game discovered in the here and now, and when it’s dusted off and played, it has more than just fun and games in store for its players.

The movie even gets off to an exhilarating start when we meet disgruntled Hal (Eddie Marsan) being a hermit in his home, hiding from his arguing wife and son. Hal is something of a 1980s connoisseur, collecting odds and ends from the decade and obviously still wishing he were living in the age of big hair and Stallone and Schwarzenegger movies. Hal recently added the forgotten video game “Choose or Die” to his collection, and when he plays it, he finds that bizarre things start happening in real time. When asked the question, “Her ear or his tongue?”— choose or die!— he sees images on the screen which calls to mind his wife and son. As he runs to check on them, he discovers his wife with a knife and his son bleeding profusely from his mouth.

The action then switches to friends Kayla (Iola Evans) and Isaac (Asa Butterfield). Kayla lives in a rundown apartment with her ailing mother, depressed over the drowning death of her son and Kayla’s brother, and Kayla rather than pursuing her college education is working odd jobs to support her mother. She also finds and brings old computer components to Isaac who refurbishes them and pays her for her troubles. Of course, among the stuff which Kayla brings Isaac is a copy of Choose or Die, and when they activate it, yes, strange things begin to happen. It seems this cursed video game has the ability to affect reality and maim and kill people in the process. How does it do this? Well, it’s a cursed video game, silly! The movie offers nothing more in explanation than that.

As Kayla and Isaac attempt to survive and figure out how to defeat the game, they eventually find Hal and learn from him that as part of the deal to save his family, he had to make copies of the game and send them out into the world. So watch out! Choose or Die could be coming to a yard sale near you!

I enjoyed the premise of this one, but the movie does absolutely nothing with it other than provide an upbeat electronic 80s music score by Liam Howlett, which for me, was the best part of the movie.

The screenplay by Simon Allen, Matthew James Wilkinson, and director Toby Meakins introduces the cursed video game idea and then struggles to make sense of it and worse, take full advantage of it. No explanation is given other than the game is cursed. How it can affect reality is never explained. You just have to suspend disbelief. I would be willing to do this if everything else about this one was firing on all cylinders, but that isn’t the case.

The story also suffers from “it was just a dream syndrome.” Not that anything that happens here is just a dream, but the end effect is the same. For instance, when Kayla sits in a lonely diner, and the game takes over reality, awful things begin to happen to the waitress, as she begins to chew on broken glass and can’t stop, but before we see how this scene ultimately plays out, the action cuts away, and we find Kayla in bed waking up. No, it wasn’t a dream, but we never learn what really happens to that waitress other than she was “injured.” In short, the film sets up some gruesome scenes but never goes for the jugular. And I’m not talking about not showing us graphic scenes of violence, but rather, not allowing the audience to feel the pain of the moment. A lot of emotion is lost in this one as scenes end before they should, and the audience is spared, akin to waking up from a nightmare.

The characters really aren’t developed, other than Kayla, and her story isn’t all that interesting. Yes, she is supporting her ill mother, and this is commendable, but there’s just not much there.

The explanation regarding the origin of the curse behind Choose or Die is ambiguous, not that exciting, and ultimately unsatisfying.

Iola Evans is okay in the lead role as Kayla, but she doesn’t have a lot to work with as she’s pretty much a one note character. The same can be said for Asa Butterfield as Isaac, who’s looking all grown up here. I still picture him as the young lead in Martin Scorsese’s HUGO (2011).

The best performance in the movie belongs to Eddie Marsan with his brief stint as Hal, the man who is in love with the 1980s, but it’s not much more than a cameo. Marsan is a terrific actor who has been memorable in such films as THEIR FINEST (2016) and ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) to name just a couple.

And in the most inspired bit of casting, Robert Englund, Freddy Krueger himself, plays himself here, as Englund provides a promo voice for the game. Sadly, Englund never actually appears in the movie.

Director Toby Meakins sets up some frightening scenes, but none of them go for the throat. A couple come close, like the chewing on glass sequence, but for the most part the scares just don’t come through as frighteningly as one would expect.

The biggest knock against this one though is its video game curse just doesn’t hold water. The game may be able to change reality, but as a plot point, it has no basis in reality.

Compared to the subtle and superior MASTER (2022) which I saw earlier this year, CHOOSE OR DIE is an inferior and ineffective horror movie that doesn’t even work as a 1980s’ homage, as the story takes place in the here and now.

When it comes to CHOOSE OR DIE, the choice is easy.

Choose.

A different movie.

—END—

THE BUBBLE (2022) – New Netflix Comedy Amusing but Uneven

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What happens when a group of actors filming the sixth installment of a popular action movie series are forced to quarantine together at the outset of a pandemic?

Mayhem. Pure mayhem.

And hopefully some hilarity.

That’s the high concept in THE BUBBLE (2022), a new Netflix movie comedy by writer/director Judd Apatow, the man who gave us THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN (2005) and TRAINWRECK (2015).

And while there is indeed plenty of mayhem throughout, there’s not all that much hilarity, as the crazy shenanigans don’t always translate into laughs. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t, and so THE BUBBLE, while not a laugh fest, isn’t a total misfire either.

The screenplay by Apatow and Pam Brady struggles because it too often overplays its hand and goes over the top when it doesn’t need to. Many of the situations, while grounded in the reality of a pandemic, which is fresh in our minds since it is still ongoing, don’t stay real for long and many of the situations deteriorate into unfunny goofiness. That being said, the script throws a ton of gags and jokes at the audience. Most don’t work, but the bits that do are often very funny. So, you have mixed bag of a comedy that is more amusing than it is laugh-inducing.

It also has a fun cast who do their best with roles that aren’t exactly fleshed out, but the talent here makes the most of the material.

Karen Gillan plays Carol Cobb, the actress in the series who left the previous installment to make a different movie, and so when she returns to the set of this latest flick she faces the ire of some of her castmates who are upset that she abandoned them. If there’s a main character here, it’s Cobb, as she gets ample screentime. The ongoing gag of her reasons for quitting the previous movie goes on too long, but the flashback sequence where we see the movie she did make is good for a laugh, which is how THE BUBBLE plays out. You have to get through lots of unfunny bits before you enjoy a payoff.

Gillan is fine here, although I enjoyed her much more in the lead role of last year’s GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE (2021). Probably my favorite bit here for Gillan is having Cobb, a character in her 20s, having to argue that she’s not old to the young TikTok star in the cast.

Leslie Mann and David Duchovny play formerly married actors who get back together during the quarantining. Their fiery on-again-off-again relationship is good for a few laughs, but more often than not misfires. Duchovny’s better bits are when his character, who sees himself as the protector of the series, constantly fights with the director over re-writing the script. Mann is a wonderfully comic actor, memorable in such films as THE OTHER WOMAN (2014), for example, but the material here doesn’t give her a lot to do.

Pedro Pascal, the Mandalorian himself, gets one of the best lines of the movie, late in the game when the actors are all at their wits end, and Pascal’s actor Dieter Bravo says, “There are no answers. But there are drugs.” Which sets up one of the funniest scenes in the movie, one of the few where I actually laughed out loud, where they all get high, which is kind of a low brow way to get a laugh, but the sequence is rather creative and definitely funny.

Pascal currently plays the lead character on Disney’s STAR WARS TV show THE MANDALORIAN (2019-2022), where he’s terrific. He was equally as good as DEA Agent Javier Pena on the Netflix TV show NARCOS (2015-17), which goes a long way to helping us forget his less than stellar performance as the main villain in the dreadful Wonder Woman sequel WONDER WOMAN 1984 (2020).

Guz Khan plays Howie, a sex-starved high-strung actor who gets some laughs in his brief screen time. Keegan-Michael Key plays Sean, an actor who is constantly positive, trying to get his fellow actors on board with his quasi-religious beliefs of positive thinking, until he reveals himself to be a fraud. The gag where he only learns to fly a helicopter to go up and not forward is about as unfunny as it sounds.

Peter Serafinowicz is very good as the onsite producer who is tasked with keeping everything together. His cool, calm collected persona makes him the perfect straight man to all the insanity. Fred Armisen makes his mark as the inexperienced director who shot his previous movie while working at Home Depot.

Iris Apatow, the daughter of Leslie Mann and Judd Apatow, is on point as the young TikTok star Krystal Kris.

And Kate McKinnon delivers a scene-stealing albeit brief performance as Paula the Studio Head, the icy cold venomous studio boss who is so cutthroat she hires a security detail that actually shoots any of the actors who try to leave the bubble.

The cast his huge. There are a ton of characters I haven’t mentioned, which is part of the problem with THE BUBBLE. There are so many characters here, each enjoying a small moment or two, but no one really carries this one. There are also many cameos, including Daisy Ridley, John Cena, and James McAvoy, but none really have much of an impact.

One of the funnier parts of THE BUBBLE is when we get to see the actors actually filming their movie, CLIFF BEASTS 6. Their series, CLIFF BEASTS, is about our heroes taking on these mammoth flying monsters. The dialogue is spot on here. It’s awful and sounds a lot like dialogue we’ve heard over the years in the types of action flicks this movie is spoofing.

I had some fun watching THE BUBBLE, but not as much as I had hoped for. The film runs just over two hours, which is a long time for a movie that doesn’t fire on all cylinders. It’s the type of movie where you have to sit through four or five unfunny gags before you get to one that works. A 90-minute version would have been more welcome.

While I found THE BUBBLE amusing, there were just too many misfires in this one for it to be a successful comedy.

I had high hopes, but you might say, it burst my bubble.

—END—

BLACK CRAB (2022) – War Action Thriller Exciting and Cinematic

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BLACK CRAB (2022), a new Netflix original movie which hails from Sweden, is a slick, stylized war action thriller about a secret mission in which a small group of soldiers must make their way behind enemy lines across a frozen body of salt water to get top secret materials to their base on the other side.

The story takes place in the near future, but its bleak scenes of war violence amid an unnamed European landscape and its story of the brutality of war, definitely benefits from the real-life current war in Ukraine which is playing out each night on news stations across the world. The film’s points, even though the story is set in the future, resonate that much louder in this current setting of an unprovoked brutal attack on a sovereign nation.

While the plot often borders on the ridiculous, it makes for grand cinema and some truly exciting and suspenseful film sequences,

The film opens with a woman Caroline Edh (Noomi Rapace) in a car with her daughter when the road is attacked by an unnamed military force. Vehicles are blown up, and soldiers on the ground abduct Edh’s daughter. The story then jumps ahead in time, and we see that Edh is now a rebel soldier in an unnamed country fighting the unnamed invading enemy.

Edh is selected for a top-secret mission. Her side is losing the war, and unless they can get some top-secret materials to their base on the other side of a body of salt water, they will ultimately lose the conflict. Fortunately, this body of water is now frozen. Unfortunately, it’s too thin for vehicles to drive over, and too thick for boats to get through. The solution? A group of soldiers will ice skate— yup, you heard that right, ice skate across the thin ice under the cover of darkness, braving both the elements and their enemies in helicopters who will be flying above trying to shoot them dead. Edh and her fellow soldiers have been chosen for this mission because of their ability to ice skate quickly.

Edh correctly calls this a suicide mission, but the superior officer takes her aside and tells her that they have found her missing daughter, and that she is at the base across the frozen water. If Edh gets there with the secret information, she will be reunited with her daughter, hence giving Edh more motivation than anyone else to make it across the ice.

And that’s the story told in BLACK CRAB. As I said, some of it is ridiculous. Ice skating across a frozen body of salt water? Yeah, it sounds like a suicide mission. More importantly, it sounds like a failed mission! But I guess desperate times call for desperate measures. I just wasn’t completely convinced that this wasn’t anything more than a plot contrivance to film some cool scenes.

And that by far is the best part of BLACK CRAB. Writer/director Adam Berg fills this one with lots of cool visuals and exciting action sequences. There’s one moment where Edh and her fellow soldiers suddenly find themselves skating over a graveyard of frozen human corpses just underneath the ice, either from a capsized lifeboat or some other brazen attack, that makes for a particularly creepy sequence.

The action scenes are topnotch. Helicopters zoom by trying to pick off the skaters, there are several hard-hitting explosive firefights, and more than one thrilling sequence involving hand grenades.

The screenplay by Berg and Pelle Radstrom, based on a novel by Jerker Virdborg, definitely sets the stage for lots of excitement, even if not all of it makes the most sense. The plot thickens and gets better when the skaters discover just what it is they are bringing to their base across the ice. The overall theme of the movie besides war is hell, is that you can’t trust anyone on either side. Indeed, the skaters do not trust each other at all, but as their situation grows more dire, and as the body count among them grows, they throw all that suspicion aside and trust each other in order to survive. This part of the story works well.

The skaters all have different personalities, yet we don’t really get to know any of them all that well, other than Edh.

I like Noomi Rapace a lot. She is intense here as Caroline Edh and very believable as the relentless soldier who will do anything to get across that ice to be reunited with her abducted daughter. I first saw Rapace in the original THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATOO (2009). She has also starred in PROMETHEUS (2012) and the underrated thriller DEAD MAN DOWN (2013). Her performance here in BLACK CRAB goes a long way towards making this movie a watchable thriller.

The rest of the cast is commendable. Jakob Oftebro who plays Nylund, one of the characters Edh trusts the least at first, until circumstances bring them together, does have a Brad Pitt-type vibe going on throughout this movie.

I really enjoyed BLACK CRAB. As I said, its wartime plot and images of bombed European cities benefits from the current war in Ukraine, as points the film makes resonate deeper than they might have otherwise. It comes off less as futuristic fiction and more like real life drama. It has the style and grittiness of an action thriller like ATOMIC BLONDE (2017), only it takes place in the near future rather than during the Cold War.

It also joins a recent set of movies with plots about traveling over ice. We just saw the historical adventure AGAINST THE ICE (2022) which told the true story of a treacherous expedition into Greenland. And last year Liam Neeson and some friends traversed THE ICE ROAD (2021) in northern Canada in tractor trailers as part of a rescue mission to free trapped miners. Of the three, I enjoyed BLACK CRAB the most.

And it features an effective electronic music score by Dead People. It’s the type of score that would have been right at home in a John Carpenter film of yesteryear.

As I said, the film is available on Netflix, in both its original Swedish language with English subtitles, or dubbed in English. I prefer the original Swedish language version with subtitles.

BLACK CRAB is an intense and surprisingly cinematic adventure that not only provides its audience with a hard-hitting thrill ride but also has a few things to say about the futility of war. In any age.

—END—