For some reason, the thriller/action/adventure genre just doesn’t get the same respect as the dour drama or the high minded epic. It seems like, the minute you introduce violence and mayhem into the mix, people assume that everything involved has been reduced down to the lowest of all the common denominators. In some cases, that’s more than true. Not a single installment of the Saw franchise can pass by a Cineplex without accenting its atrocities with endless reams of routines slash and burn nu-metal. Similarly, anything featuring cops, criminals, bullets, and the slo-mo battle between all three has to rely on faux electronica to amplify the already cheap and clichéd thrills. Perhaps that’s why the entire entertainment category gets a bad rap - not only do the storylines follow a set stack of studio-stated strategies, but the backdrop has to be equally derivative as well.
In this installment of Surround Sound, SE&L will look at three new soundtracks, each one hoping to break out of the sonic stereotyping inherent in their creation. Luckily, all but one actually makes it out alive. The take on James Cameron’s Terminator series might seem like insignificant, small screen stuff, but Bear McCreary really delivers on the sci-fi thriller dynamics. Sadly, the approach taken by Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, is a lot like how the filmmakers addressed the lack of leading lady Kate Beckinsdale in this second sequel. They just substituted in something - or in this case, someone - else. Finally, an oldie but a goodie arrives in the form of The Dead Pool, the soundtrack to Clint Eastwood’s last appearance as “Dirty” Harry Callahan (that is, if you don’t count Gran Torino). Like any product of its time, it evokes the best and worst of the era it was created in.
In each case, we aren’t looking at something sonically significant or aurally outstanding. Instead, each score settles in with the rest of its connected entertainment’s low rent sentiments and adds what it can, beginning with:
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles - Original Television Soundtrack [rating: 8]
With a name like Bear McCreary, you’re destined for a lot of things: professional wrestler; bounty hunter; TV adventure host, cutting room floor character from John Carpenter’s The Thing. Scoring hour long network series wouldn’t necessarily be high on the list. Yet the man with a bruin for a moniker has been setting sci-fi TV straight since he took the reigns of Battlestar Galactica back in 2006. As a result, the in-demand composer has handled other speculative series like Eureka! and genre efforts like Rest Stop and Wrong Turn 2. With such a resume, it’s no surprise then that he currently helms the backdrop for Fox’s Terminator take, The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Unlike most big to small screen translations, critics have been fairly impressed with the way in which the weekly serial handles the well known Cameron classic - and some of that praise has been passed on to McCreary. One listen to the soundtrack CD confirms his abilities.
Things start out rockin’ - literally - as Garbage’s Shirley Manson shows up to belt out the slow burn stomp “Sampson and Delilah”. While not written by McCreary, his arrangement fits the show’s sentiments perfectly. We also get a track from BrEadan’s Band called “Ain’t We Famous”. It too is a lot of fun. From there on, it’s all Bear, and it’s all wildly entertaining and evocative. “Sarah Connor’s Theme” does a nice job of complementing the character, while “The Hand of God”, “Atomic Al’s Merry Melody”, and “There’s a Storm Coming” are all standout tracks. Sure, there are times when Brad Fiedel’s original melodies for The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day make an appearance, and entries like “Highway Battle”, “Central America” and “Motorcycle Robot Chase” all have the standard banal style suggested by their title. But as an example of large scope sound on a small scale budget, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is very good indeed.
The Dead Pool - The Original Score [rating: 6]
In 1988, Clint Eastwood was only 58. Still, many had written him off as a one note aging action hero whose better days lay a big steamy plate of spaghetti westerns away from his ‘current’ craggy persona. Now, 20 years after the fact, he’s one of our most respected actors and filmmakers. Funny what a series of stellar directorial jobs will do, along with a few supplementary Oscars. Still, The Dead Pool was viewed as a kind of career swan song, the end to Eastwood’s iconic Dirty Harry character and a franchise that hadn’t been viable since Sudden Impact, five years earlier. Yet the story of a secret list of celebrity targets, and the killer trying to complete the catalog, served Eastwood and his persona well. It was a nominal hit, and reminded Hollywood that older men could indeed carry off thrillers just as capably as younger ones. It’s a lesson Tinsel Town has taken to heart as of late, right Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis?
As a score, Lalo Schifrin’s work on The Dead Pool is highly reminiscent of the mid to late ‘80s. There’s faux “Axel F” (“Main Title”), a jazzy synth look at the city by the Bay (“San Francisco Night”), and lots of divergent, sonic cues. Both “The Rules and “The Car” offer up standard crime drama dynamics, while “The Last Autograph” is like a symphonic hodgepodge of conflicting cinematic emotions. Knowing Eastwood’s penchant for the original American artform, there are a couple of nifty combo workouts (“Something in Return”, “The Pool”) and there’s a haunting reprise of “Night” at the end (“The Pier, The Bridge, and the Bay”). All throughout, Schifrin keeps things tense and arcane, mixing melody lines with atonal intervals and occasional twists to keep the listener - and one presumes, the viewer of the film - off kilter and alert. While it won’t match some of Eastwood’s earlier or later works, at least the score for The Dead Pool was a winner.
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 4]
That’s right - Kate Beckinsdale is out. It may look like her in the trailers and coming soon materials for this tepid terror action film, but that’s remarkable lookalike (and DOOMSDAY lead) Rhona Mitra taking over for the absent Selene. Sure, our new heroine is actually returning in the role of Sonja, but it’s obvious she’s acting like a comely Kate substitute. As a matter of fact, much of this unnecessary sequel seems unoriginal and redundant. We get more of the standard story about vampires vs. werewolves, lots of hyper stylized violence, and a couple of English actors who should know better - Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy - cashing outrageously large paychecks. It would be nice to say that the soundtrack to this Gothic goof was filled with the kind of compositional cheese that lifts everything up a few kitschy camp notches. Instead, producers have gone the nauseating NIN route, recycling Reznor-esque material from 15 years ago and considering it original movie macabre fodder.
Almost everything here is a remix (and a ‘Renholder’ remix at that). With band names like Puscifer, Alkaline Trio, Genghis Tron, and Combichrist, you get an instant idea of the kind of sonic situation you’re dealing with. All the material here meshes metal with electronica, attempting to make the call and response chaos sound melodic and meaningful. Instead, it plays like Gary Numan having a conniption fit. Not everything here is awful - “Hole in the Earth” by the Deftones has some power, and “Tick Tick Tomorrow” by From First to Last offers up a wonderfully weird experience. But material like “Broken Lungs” by Thrice and “Miss Murder” by AFI is imitative, noisy, and unsettling. Maybe this is good for a film where monsters battle each other in overly choreographed examples of CGI carnage, but only 14 year olds with open iPod space need apply. Rock has sure come a long way from Zeppelin, Maiden, Crue, Priest, and GnR. While this bleak Bauhaus bombast may be someone’s sonic cup of tea, it doesn’t make for a meaningful film score.