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by Bill Gibron

11 Jul 2009


What does it say about today’s modern woman that fashion has taken the place of feminism. Is the battle for equality and professional recognition really over when the more mature members of the gender flaunt their fading sexuality and call themselves “cougars”? Or what about the younger generation who views a sex tape as success or materialism as a Master’s Degree. Where did it all go wrong? When did Gloria Steinam turn into Carrie Bradshaw? These questions and many, many more instantly come to mind the minute you settle into Touchstone/Disney’s ditzy RomCom Confessions of a Shopaholic. Unfortunately, this feather light comedy fails to provide a single insight.

Based on Sophie Kinsella’s popular series, this particular story centers on Rebecca Bloomwood, a spoiled suburban drama queen who longs for the days when she can tear up the typeface as a member of Alette, the world’s biggest fashion rag. Named after its renowned owner, the magazine is the answer to all of Rebecca’s dreams - and the solution to a few nightmares as well. Deep in debt and continually piling up the financial obligations, she just can’t stop shopping. She shops instead of paying her rent. She stops instead of buying food. She shops instead of sleeping. Of course, with such an addiction comes a few minor annoyances - like a collection agent named Derek Smeath who has a tendency to stalk her like a lovelorn ex-boyfriend.

Naturally, Rebecca loses her job, and seeing it as her opportunity to win over potential employer Alette Naylor, she puts her best foot forward for the interview. Instead, she is rejected, and must settle for a gig working for humble British hunk Luke Brandon and his financial report Successful Saving. Rebecca seems lost at first, unable to grasp the complicated elements and intricate theories involved. But with her personal penury looming large, she applies her theories of shopping to the situation and - BINGO! - she’s a big fat industry smash. With Smeath hot on her name brand high heels, however, and Luke showing more than a passing interest, it’s going to take a miracle to get Rebecca’s life straightened out.

There’s a fine line between likeable and lightweight, a blurry border that Confessions of a Shopaholic crosses early and often. Unfortunately released near the apex of America’s current economic meltdown, the tale of a shallow city slicked stick figure who can’t understand the concept of fiscal moderation became more mean spirited then high spirited. Watching a person - fictional or not - fret over not having a $500 pair of shoes seemed self-consciously self-indulgent on the part of producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director PJ Hogan. While amiable actress Isla Fisher finds numerous ways to keep us forgiving and engaged, the cruel consumerist context drives a nail directly into our far more fidgety common sense.

Without a keen eye behind the lens, this would be unbearable. It would reek of the kind of wanton wish fulfillment that gets little girls to dream of white knights in shining armor instead of long nights studying for exams. This is the kind of flawed fairy tale that, through no real fault of its own, ushers in a misplaced mindset that sees success measured in dollar signs and designer outfits, not personal growth and individual actualization. Thanks to Hogan, whose resume includes the equally adept Muriel’s Wedding and a magical adaptation of Peter Pan, a pink candy patina is draped over this otherwise ill-conceived message. Without him in the director’s chair, we’d be mired in unbearable pro-Prada announcements.

And Fisher is fine as well, working both the physical and personality aspect of Rebecca in an energetic, endearing manner. Sure, the slapstick doesn’t succeed at all, but that’s not her fault. Few filmmakers working within the last 50 years understand the basics of a perfect pratfall. There are also Ms. Kinsella’s claims to consider. By moving the story to America (the original story is set in London) and amplifying the whimsy, what might have worked across the pond comes across as tired and trying as a third rate sitcom. Even the excellent supporting work of seasoned veterans like John Goodman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Hugh Dancy, John Lithgow, and Joan Cusak can’t completely salvage this silliness.

Yet for some odd reason, Confessions of a Shopaholic still manages to endear…kind of, sort of. The script does find an interesting way of explaining Rebecca’s obsession - that is when it’s not giving the character a series of whiny tantrums to trip over - and we grow to care for this otherwise one-dimensional gal. Since her struggles with money and mounting bills hit so close to home, there’s an inherent compassion for her clearly self-made traumas and since she’s true to herself (no matter how flawed that conceit really is) we rally around her desire to change. In fact, the best thing about this movie is that Rebecca never really relishes her obvious problem. The joy is momentary, as fleeting as the balance in her bank account.

Still, there is something intrinsically wrong about a narrative that tells its audience to value things over thoughts. Rebeeca eventually wins, not because she is smarter or more sensible than those around her. No, as in any good fable, she finds a man to defend her honor while lucking into a solution that more or less solves her problems. It’s a mangled message for sure, an adolescent’s daydream retrofitted for a time when such skylarking should be cast aside. As a mainstream entertainment trying to do little more than entertain and please, Confessions of a Shopaholic is fine. It proves that Isla Fisher and PJ Hogan can elevate even the lamest source material. But if you come here looking for something deeper, you’ll de disappointed. The only real point is one of “more”, not meaning.

by Bill Gibron

11 Jul 2009


No other deceased superstar has as sketchy a legacy as kung fu king Bruce Lee. Part of it comes from the fact that he was a charismatic Asian actor in an industry where such performers were consistently reduced to playing ridiculous, repugnant stereotypes. The other aspect comes from his decision to travel abroad to expand his career horizons. Unlike the West, which views film as a combination commercial and artistic medium, the East sees cinema somewhat differently. There, it’s disposable and direct, providing an entertainment service and then fading away to make room for the next interchangeable offering. Even though films like Fists of Fury, The Chinese Connection, and Enter the Dragon managed to crossover, his untimely death at age 33 locked his celebrity into a single unswerving ideal.

Perhaps this is why most fans have long since forgotten his posthumous labor of love entitled The Silent Flute. Originally conceived with pal James Coburn as a cool co-starring vehicle, and polished with the help of Oscar winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, it had everything that was dear to Lee’s heart. Renamed Circle of Iron and released five yeas after his passing, this exploration of Zen and the art of bountiful butt kicking is by far the most personal movie the man never made. Hoping to include as much of his own spiritual philosophy as possible while simultaneously showing off the various unique forms of martial artistry, this almost epic would have – along with Game of Death – propelled the actor deep into legitimacy’s limelight. Instead, it’s now an anomaly, a project of near mythic proportions eventually half realized by friends, well wishers and determined disciples.

In this simple quest narrative, a rebellious fighter named Cord (an off kilter Jeff Cooper) heads out to seek the Book of All Knowledge. It’s supposedly held by a great sorcerer/villain named Zetan (Christopher Lee in an extended cameo). Along the way, he must face several trials, each one determining his worthiness to reach his destination. In addition, he constantly runs into a blind master (a cool, collected David Carradine) who hopes to teach him humility and focus. After battling a deranged monkey man, a panther-like shadow of Death, and a nasty nomadic flesh merchant, Cord finally reaches the final stage of his journey. But there is not another fistfight in the offing. Instead, the stubborn warrior must learn that there is more to life than aggression, and that the answers to the great mysteries of the universe lie not with a single volume, but in another ‘vessel’ all together.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see why devotees both past and present have shunned this otherwise excellent veiled vanity project. Containing more mysticism than martial arts, and an incredibly awkward turn by Cooper (Lee originally pegged Coburn for the lead), what could have been unique and quite unparalleled in the burgeoning world of international action filmmaking ends up an endearing but often incomplete voyage. Part of the problem lies directly in the casting. While exceedingly buff and talented in the ways of personal fighting, Cooper’s Cord is too contemporary in his mannerisms. He just can’t play period. He speaks like a guy down the street, not a meditative wanderer looking to purify his soul. Even in moments where he’s not required to deliver dialogue, there is just something about his actor that screams mid 1970s.

Luckily, the late, great Carradine is much, much better. While still slightly too modern for his characters (he plays several roles here, including the blind sage and all the bad guys), he projects a kind of inner consciousness that flows directly into what Lee was after. Indeed, as a substitute for the late artist – Bruce created this collection of roles as his own personalized tour de force – the Kung Fu star is stellar. Even the supporting roles are better than our ab-addled lead. Eli Wallach is intriguing as a doctor trying to temper his own biological urges by dissolving the lower half of his body in oil, and Roddy McDowall is nicely disconnected as the organizer of the competition which starts the film. As for Christopher Lee, his is a very minor turn as the notorious Zetan. But one shouldn’t expect a Count Dooku preview here. In keeping with Lee’s original idea, nothing happens the way it’s supposed to in this obviously allegorical world.

Apparently, it was an approach that many in the cast and crew found confusing. As part of a new stunning Blu-ray release from Blue Underground, Circle of Iron gets a collection of telling supplemental material that try to explain this ersatz epic. Director Richard Moore is on hand, and he’s helped by company commentator David Gregory. Together they explore the film’s rocky origins and offer up speculation on where, in Lee’s overall canon, this movie would rate. Star David Carradine also adds his introspective two cents worth, and he’s not ashamed of labeling Lee an arrogant, self-important man. Producer Paul Maslansky complains about the difficulty in finding financing for a marital arts movie in the Me Decade, and fight coordinator Joe Lewis admits that, because of a certain actor’s inexperience with fake fighting (cough – Carradine – cough), the film’s tête-à-tête’s are not quite up to snuff.

All agree on one thing, however – Lee was obsessed with this project – and if you can remove yourself from all the mindblowing Matrix-like fisticuffs of recent years, you will recognize the passion at the center of this story. Lee was devoted to the karmic elements of his craft, the yin and yang of being a man of peace who made his living pretending to abuse and even kill people. He wanted to prove that age old adage that the reason you learn a technique like karate is to be taught how and when NOT to use it. The simplistic philosophizing peppered throughout the film (“two bird tied together may have four wings, but still cannot fly”) is meant as baby steps to understanding the basics of the Zen conceit. By downplaying the physical and emphasizing the cerebral (or in some cases, the spiritual) Lee was looking to take the genre to another level. For that alone, the film is very important.

However, Circle of Iron will definitely rise or fall based on the expectations you bring to it. If you’re expecting a rollicking nonstop spectacle of flying fists, roundhouse kicks, and expertly wielded weaponry, you’ll be disappointed, and maybe even a little disgusted. This is not Hero, or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Instead, it’s more like a loincloth version of Five Easy Pieces with throwing stars. We are supposed to respond to both the introspection and the arm breaking, the parable-like approach to life and its lessons, and the ludicrous love scene between Cooper and newcomer Erica Creer. When cobbled together like this, it can seem quite silly. But when given the added perspective of Bruce Lee and his devotion to the project, obvious flaws become almost invisible.

Granted, in an ADD hampered cinematic society which thinks films like Crank and The Transporter are too restrained, The Silent Flute/Circle of Iron will appear almost comatose. But if you get into the mellow mood being presented, and actually listen to the many maxims offered up, you will definitely be engaged both visually and metaphysically. While Bruce Lee continues to be batted back and forth, marginalized and sanctified by critics on both sides of the conversations, it’s clear that his impact on martial arts in the movies remains as strong as ever. No film featuring kung fu, karate, or any other form of Eastern training can make it into theaters without bowing to the man who more or less formed their commercial viability. While Circle of Iron won’t diminish his earnest reputation, it also won’t amplify it. Instead, it remains an individualized endeavor lacking its true inspiration.

by Bill Gibron

5 Jul 2009


There are literally dozens of fanboy feuds in the realm of MST3K, fights as futile as Joel vs. Mike, Sci-Fi vs. Comedy Central, Crow T. Robot Mach 1 vs. Crow 2.0 - heck, even Rifftrax vs. Cinematic Titanic gets the cowtown puppet show geek juices flowing. Yet the one subject that seems almost lost in the entire compare and contrast dynamic is the participation of one Josh “Elvis” Weinstein. Perhaps it’s because he was gone before the series went mainstream - meaning he was around for the KTMA and Comedy Channel years, but left before the rest of the media made the show into a cult phenomenon. As a participant in the founding days of what remains one of the funniest things ever to grace an analog television screen, he seems misguidedly ill-considered. Of course, new fans haven’t had much of a chance to monitor Weinstein’s skills…until now.

That’s right - as part of their continuing desire to bring as much Mystery Science Theater 3000 to the digital age as possible, Shout! Factory is releasing Volume XV of their bravura box sets. This time around we are treated to surefire classics like The Girl in Lovers Lane (two drifters land in a small town and stir up some powerful hormones), Zombie Nightmare (voodoo and body building meet the living dead) and the immortal Racket Girls (spinsters put on unflattering togs and grapple like your grandma). Also included is one of the best episodes from the first season of the series - The Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy. As Mexican macabre goes, it’s all flashbacks and K. Gordon Murray mandated exposition. But as an example of what Weinstein contributed to the mix, it’s eye-opening, especially when you toss in the Scrapbook bonus features which trace the show’s seminal UHF roots.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that the original parameters of MST have been available on DVD. Rhino released a volume (#9) which offered up episode 104 - Women of the Prehistoric Planet, and last time around, Volume XIV presented the oddball offering Mad Monster (episode 103). But with Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy, we get one of the greatest between-movie skit selections ever - the arrival of the menacing (and poorly house trained) demon dogs. Riffing on everything from Land of the Lost (the main “intelligent” pup is known as Enoch) and Star Trek (the cosmic cur suggests a toast of “Tranya” as a symbol of friendship) there is a whole Alien/Aliens vibe going on which transcends the trip into easy toilet humor (remember, these bow-wows have squirrel like space bladders).

As for the movie - well, that’s another story entirely. It seems that whatever original director Rafael Portillo was trying to accomplish with all the slipshod science and ersatz folklore in this scary movie, the Americanization of such falderal created an even more incomprehensible mess. What many fans don’t realize is that this particular goofiness was actually part of an ongoing series featuring the title terror, the villain known as The Bat, and the attempts by both to thwart the good people of Mexico. Perhaps that’s why this material is so reliant on flashback and explanations. Instead of action, we get inert explanations of things that happened so many years ago that the characters should have heard of them by now. By the time we’ve reached the 60 minute mark, we are still waiting for the automaton part of the mix to make its appearance. It’s not worth it.

As for the remaining features, Girl provides the kind of Joel-based cracks that made his eventual retirement (three episodes later, with Mitchell) all the more meaningful. He is excellent here, leading compatriots Trace Beaulieu (Crow) and Kevin Murphy (Servo) through a plethora of exquisite gags, including takes on actors Brett Halsey, Joyce Meadows, and, best of all, Jack Elam (“what is that ODOR???”). The skits are sensational as well, especially the cracking train ditty “What a Pleasant Journey”. It matches perfectly with the maudlin melodrama of the film, a potboiler filled with homoerotic ridiculousness, rampant brotheling, and enough pie-eyed puppy love to give those notorious demon dogs a run for their interstellar kibble. Between the fey father figure who immediately warms to the concept of vigilante justice and the bare-assed babe casting entendres from a sitting room bathtub (?), there’s enough strange surreality to keep the rather limp premise at bay.


Similarly, Zombie Nightmare lingers long in the memory for reasons that have very little to do with the faux frights onscreen. The actors are so incredibly arch, everyone from nice newcomer Frank Dietz to the media-hardened hilarity of Adam West and rocker Jon Mikl Thor, that it’s hard not to fall into this movie’s misguided machinations. Perhaps more memorable is Shawn Levy - yes, THAT Shawn Levy. The future director of such unbridled dreck as the Pink Panther remake and those two nauseating Nights at the Museum shows why he’s a wholesale hack with his turn as the freewheeling Id-case, Jim. With hair that would make New Jersey mall rats blush and a build that suggests one too many Slim-Jim dinners, he’s anti-sex personified. That he is considered a menace in this movie says something about the script’s overall ineffectualness. As for the MST material - it’s aces, as usual.

But neither of these nuggets can match the matron-on-matron gag reflexing of Racket Girls. Originally entitled Pin Down Girls, we are treated to a proposed inside look at the tumultuous and tantalizing world of female wrestling, highlighting the potential criminal element hiding within. In actuality, the only thing revealed is the spastic anti-athleticism of the thick-thighed models passing as competitors populating Scalli’s gymnasium as jiggle show. And that includes the immortal Peachy Page, whose R. Crumb carriage becomes the main cinematic focus as she tumbles, tousles, and teases the audience with her various “skills”. Mike and the ‘bots have a field day with this dreary dames as doormats exposé, especially when real life wrastlin’ champs Clara Mortensen and Rita Martinez show up to prove that Ms. Page isn’t the only one with limited ‘thespian’ tendencies. 


As for the added content included with these titles, Shout! Factory has gone all out. Both The Aztec Mummy and Girl feature material lifted from the MST Scrapbook (an old compilation of behind the scenes and early KTMA clips). Zombie Nightmare has actual cast members Frank Dietz and Jon Mikl Thor traveling down memory lane in updated - and very funny - interviews. There is also an odd “sneak peek” at something called Hamlet A.D.D. The animated material, featuring Trace, Kevin, and Majel Barrett Roddenberry is quite peculiar…and quite entertaining. Along with a few promos and a collection of MST mini-movie posters, Shout! certainly signals their intentions of keeping their announced commitment to all this amazing in-theater spoofing.

And in the process, here’s hoping that Weinsten gets the recognition he so richly deserves. Granted, Kevin Murphy did make Tom Servo solely his, so much so that any other version of the character seems simplistic and half-hearted. In addition, Frank Conniff’s turn as Beaulieu’s beleaguered sidekick, TV’s Frank, is such a sublime supporting effort that Weinstein’s Erhardt does pale in comparison. But you can’t have comic greatness without a foundation of funny business, and those in the know argue that there was more to this teenage whiz kid that bad glasses and false bravado. J. Elvis is an important part of the MST3K legacy. The more exposure he can get (and Season One definitely deserves it), the sooner fans will see what purists have known for all these years. 

by Bill Gibron

5 Jul 2009


Consider the short film. Actually, consider the concept of the short film first. When people hear the label, they automatically think of a couple of completely different and competing conceits. The main one is the surreal student project where creative dreams and aesthetic leaps are captured on celluloid for all the insular intelligentsia to see - and for the most part, they’re right. Gone are the days when mini-movies actually attempted things like narrative, character, or theme (the other ideal, by the way). Instead, they tend to represent the very fringes of filmic art - visual collages that challenge and chuckle at the very mandates of the medium. That is not to say that such approaches are wrong. Indeed, some of our greatest auteurs (David Lynch, Martin Scorsese) got their start fashioning big, brassy ideas into tiny formats.

But if the recent compilation from Cinemad is any indication, very little has changed in the land of the self-indulgent (and deluded) cinematic short. In 1998, the Xeroxed ‘zine by Mike Plante was dedicated to discovering new and unusual talents in the world of outsider filmmaking. Published intermittently and now found almost exclusively online, this waystation for the experimental and the avant-garde has championed some of the most earnest and unusual talents in the entire field of underground art. Now, with the help of DVD distributor Microcinema, Cinemad celebrates its recent 10th anniversary with an “almanac” - an anthology of titles chosen to represent the best, the brightest, and the most mindboggling of the many filmmakers featured - and it truly is an odd bunch.

Along with an accompanying 60 page booklet covering the individuals represented, Cinemad starts out with the amiable Edge-TV with Animal Charm by Animal Charm. It then moves on to Above Below by Cam Archer, Letters, Notes by Stephanie Barber, Valse Triste by Bruce Conner, Pictures from Dorothy by Kevin Jerome Everson, and The Sun by James Fotopoulos. One of the longest pieces in the collection, the startling Lot 63, Grave C by Sam Green is next, with three efforts by Jake Mahaffy - War (trailer), Wellness (trailer) and Motion Studies #3: Gravity - putting in an appearance. We are then treated to Light is Calling by Bill Morrison, Viscera by Leighton Pierce, and The Time We Killed by Jennifer Reeves before a final triptych from Deborah Stratman - How Among the Frozen Words, It Will Die Out in the Mind and The Magician’s House.

As stated before, the term “film” should be used loosely - or perhaps only literally - when dealing with these often frustrating fragments. Granted, they are all the product of some very powerful and strong-willed individuals, creators with clear visions of what they think they are doing and how it comes across visually. Sadly, only a few offerings here make a real lasting impression. Letters, Notes offers nothing more than a series of sentences animated over the top of some iconic images. But Stephanie Barber’s approach provides the kind of depth and determination that other entries here lack. Similarly, Jake Mahaffy gets three chances to shine, but only War manages to maintain our interest. In fact, Motion Studies #3 is an example of gallows’ humor so obvious it seems almost juvenile. The same could be said for the shock value silliness of Edge-TV.

In fact, almost every wannabe cineaste here could take a lesson from Sam Green. His memorable and moving Lot 63, Grave C takes a well known subject (the death of Meredith Hunter at the Rolling Stone’s Altamonte Free Concert in 1969) and mixes in some investigative journalism and filmed flashback perspective (from the seminal documentary Gimme Shelter) to try and locate where the man is now buried. Though it skips over much of the behind the scenes seriousness of what happened that fateful December night - Hunter did brandish a gun before being stabbed to death by a member of the Hell’s Angels - there is a poignancy to following the fate of one of history’s many cultural footnotes. This makes Lot hard to shake. Indeed, by the end of the 10 minute exposé, we are convinced that the Maysles should contact Green about companion piece status to their own amazing movie.

It’s just too bad then that few of the remaining films leave a similar impact. Many, like The Time We Killed are thwarted by a simple creative choice (a nearly whispered voice-over narration) or a failed concept (Bill Morrison’s failed Decasia redux Light is Calling). Others, like Viscera, struggle to get their message across due to an oblique, almost insular perspective. The overlapping of images and editing styles may seem like a solid way of illustrating your optical ideas, but not every cut and paste production yields some manner of universal truth. More times than not, art is like beauty - totally in the eye of the beholder and wholly reliant on some decent lighting.  No one is questioning the talent of the individuals celebrated by Cinemad. Perhaps this is a case where the ability can’t find its way into reality, or visa versa.

Frankly, the enclosed booklet is far more fascinating. Given an opportunity to speak, these filmmakers find ways of coalescing their thoughts in intelligent and insightful ways. They don’t doddle over shot selections or budgetary constraints. They frequently uncover ways of working out the issues seemingly lost in their films. Of course, there are the occasional glimpses of outright arrogance, examples of ambition far outweighing a sense of skill set proportion. Yet even in the most annoying cases, some clear information comes across. For everyone involved in Cinemad - both behind the scenes and in the actual pages of the publication - movies are a labor of love. They represent dreams deferred and sometimes realized, an entire lifetime filtered into a single roll of film stock.

As a result, Microcinema should be praised for picking such an obscure and profoundly idiosyncratic subject to commemorate. There are literally dozens of short film compilations floating around the DVD format and this one contains some of the most difficult and dense material of the lot - and maybe that’s the point. After all, all art is not freely recognized in its era. Sometimes, it takes preservation, and a latter reconsideration, before someone’s work manifests into an iconic tableau of talent. Anyone looking for material far outside the mainstream knows that Cinemad is a tag to trust. Others will need to come at this compendium with the requisite amount of skepticism. Being alternative and underground doesn’t automatically make you cool. For all its ambitions, this Almanac is rather inconsistent - just like most so-called examples of art.

by Bill Gibron

4 Jul 2009


What, exactly, happened to Renny Harlin? How did he go from hotshot newbie with an entire career before him to a cinematic afterthought left to helm horrid hackjobs like The Covenant and Cleaner? After three films in Finland, the foreign visionary landed on our shores and immediately made his mark with the excellent convict creepshow Prison. In quick succession, he then delivered one of the best Nightmare on Elm Street sequels and the definitive Die Hard installment. But then came the craptacular Ford Fairlane, the attempted comeback of Cliffhanger, and one of the biggest of all box office bombs, the pale pirate movie Cutthroat Island. Such a cruel career rollercoaster is not unusual in Tinsel Town, but with solid follow-up features like The Long Kiss Goodnight and the silly shark romp Deep Blue Sea, one assumes a little artistic amnesty is long overdue.

Yet now here we sit, in 2009, with Harlin helming the latest Vince McMahon tax dodge, 12 Rounds. With star wrestler John Cena in the lead, a capable cast surrounding him, and a script by first timer Daniel Kunka, it would seem like the former A-lister is still doing time for some manner of motion picture crime. And that’s too bad - because this is actually a perfectly acceptable, quite accomplished action film. Sure, Harlin’s $1.50 budget shows through now and again, and the entire clockwork plot tends to implode around the 90 minute mark, but what remains is a perfect example of a rehabilitative resume builder. Still, the star vehicle stink for a less than noted athlete and the additional b-movie vibe will leave many thinking that, in terms of slumming, it’s the rest of the company that’s catering to Harlin’s dwindling reputation.

During an FBI sting of an Irish arms dealer named Miles Jackson, police officer Danny Fisher steps in and saves the day. Sadly, he also causes the accidental death of the criminal’s beloved gal pal. One year later, Jackson escapes from prison and kidnaps Fisher’s girlfriend. He intends to play a game, engaging the recently promoted detective to 12 rounds of cat and mouse comeuppance. Our hero must do everything the villain says or lose the chance of ever seeing his woman alive again. Luckily, Fisher has best friend Hank Carver and two nosy government agents, Aiken and Santiago along for the ride. All he has to do is complete Jackson’s tasks and he will avoid the vengeance the talented terrorist seeks. Of course, payback may not be the only thing Jackson is interested in. A big payday might be another.

With its wonderful post-Katrina NOLA setting and the standard stunt spectacle as only Harlin can deliver, 12 Rounds is actually quite good. It’s no masterpiece, but then again, few post-millennial adrenaline rushes have been. Instead, when viewed inside its maker’s inconsistent canon, it falls somewhere between Stallone’s rock climbing cheesiness and Bruce Willis’ airport bad-assery. Sure, there is a superficial quality to what it going on, a “don’t go over budget” border that Harlin never crosses, and the quality of talent both in front of and behind the lens leads to sequences that don’t really pay off like they should (the trolley chase, the helicopter finale). Yet with what he had to work with, and how he managed to maneuver and manipulate same, Harlin is clearly doing some definite work. It may not be enough to bolster him back into the big time, but it’s clearly a motion picture means of rebuilding his sodden celluloid character.

As for Cena, he doesn’t have to be good. He just has to show up, and he does so admirably. He lacks a certain magnetism that makes his obviously pumped up responses feel a little less than intimidating, and his devil may care attitude toward danger (one he clearly picked up in the ring) undermines the basic needs of an edge of your seat thriller. Still, he’s a lot better than many athletes turned ‘actors’ and along with The Marine, he shows real promise as a part-time steely man of action. As for his support, The Wire‘s Aiden Gillen is good, if not very menacing, as Jackson. He’s more of a ‘toy with his target’ kind of criminal than an outright horror. And Tyler Perry regulars Steve Harris and Brian J. White are amiable as African American lawmen with different agendas regarding the situation.

Granted, at 108 minutes (closer to 110 in the “extreme” Blu-ray cut), it’s overlong and under-stuffed. There’s not enough set-up with Cena and his babe before things go kinetic, and when we do see some attempt at flashback feeling, the movie steps in and dispenses with it pronto. There are times when we wish Harlin would pull out all the stops, when he would offer up the inventive, in your face sequences that characterized Die Hard 2 and The Long Kiss Goodnight. There’s also the lack of a truly memorable presence, someone like Samuel L. Jackson who can carry a set of sequences through on the strength of his star power personality only. Still, you can’t deny that this is an above-average effort from a man who, until now, has been chided as existing somewhere far below the favored Tinsel Town talent.

Perhaps this new Blu-ray release from Fox will help. The amazing image and sensational sound surely can’t hurt. This is one of the best looking and best sounding home video releases - especially when you consider the source. The movie is mastered in a 1080p MPEG-4 AVC transfer the captures the theatrical feel of this film flawlessly. There is an incredible amount of detail and a real scope to some of the sequences. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is also stellar, delivering the kind of sonic panache a picture like this requires. This is especially true of the numerous chase scenes. The speakers spark into overdrive as the vehicular mayhem travels around from channel to channel.

As for added content, Fox really delivers. Aside from the now mandatory digital copy of the film (on a separate disc), there are two excellent audio commentaries (one from Harlin, one from Kunka and Cena), a pair of alternate endings (minor, not mandatory), a trio of featurettes, including a Making-of and a look at the various stunt work involved, and a Cena gag reel. Toss in the two versions of the film (original and slightly longer edit), a pair of viral videos, and a look at the musical score (with composer Trevor Rabin), and you’ve got a solid, must own title - at least from a technical point of view.

And believe it or not, the movie’s not bad either. While it won’t win any awards (Oscar or Razzie) it certainly is a step up from the so-called thrillers making the direct-to-digital rounds nowadays. Maybe Harlin will finally get the reevaluation and respect he so richly deserves - all Jolly Roger ridiculousness aside. What’s clear is that, in a business which often rewards outright mediocrity as long as it doesn’t diddle with the bottom line, a movie like 12 Rounds will be a likely non-issue. It was not a big hit when it played in theaters and even those who usually champion anything the WWE does put this squarely in See No Evil territory. Actually, both commercial and critical evaluations are rather harsh. Just like its maker, 12 Rounds deserves reconsideration. Ignore the flaws and you’ll find a rather entertaining film - and filmmaker. 

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