Technically, this movie should have added an S to its Australian release title (in the States it was known as The Assignment) because there are really three revenge stories going on here. Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez with a fake beard and a pretty impressive prosthetic male body suit for the obligatory full frontal scene) is a low-life hitman who carries out a hit on spendthrift art collector and pinball aficionado, Sebastian Jane (Adrian Hough) who owed money to the mob. Unfortunately, Sebastian had a loving sister, Dr Rachel Jane (Sigourney Weaver) who is a disgraced and de-registered plastic surgeon now running an illegal surgery providing medical procedures for homeless people who can’t afford them. But her services are not entirely altruistic, given she dabbles in a bit of ‘mad-scientist’ experimentation on the side.
The homeless people are supplied to her by Honest John (Anthony LaPaglia) a small-time hood who, himself, has an axe to grind with Frank Kitchen due to another hit that happened to be on his cousin. So Honest John who is seeking revenge on Frank, delivers him to Dr Jane, who is also seeking revenge on Frank. Her revenge takes the form of an enforced gender reassignment for the spurious and generally ridiculous reason that he’ll become less violent if he’s no longer a man. So now Frank is a woman (say goodbye to the prosthetic and the fake beard) who, of course, is seeking revenge on whoever did this to her... or him.
Before going any further, I feel I should make the comment that in a time when sensitivities around the trans community are very present in the public mind and transphobia is a real issue, a story like this seems pretty tone deaf in the flippant way the subject of gender reassignment is treated. This isn’t the same as Humphrey Bogart unveiling a surgically altered face in Dark Passage (1947) or Nicholas Cage and John Travolta actually swapping faces in Face/Off (1997) and despite the inclusion of a token scene where post-surgery Frank consults a real doctor about reversing the procedure, seemingly in order for us to be told the strict protocols that exist around legitimate forms of gender reassignment, the screenwriters seem happy to assume that lip service (excuse the pun) to the issue is sufficient to allow them to use this idea more as a narrative gimmick than a crucial plot point.
Those screenwriters are Denis Hamil (Turk 182, 1985) and veteran writer, producer, director Walter Hill (The Warriors, 1979 - 48Hrs, 1982 – Alien 3, 1992). Hill, who’s also the director, is well known for his sharp, gritty and often violent take on the crime genre, going all the way back to his seminal work as a screenwriter for Sam Peckinpah on the 1972 Steve McQueen classic The Getaway. Sadly, that grit is nowhere to be seen in this blunt return to the genre. Even the violence is gratuitous and oddly without much gore. It’s such a waste of talent, not just Hill’s but also his excellent cast. Not even a score by composer Giorgio Moroder (remember him from Cat People, Flashdance and Scarface in the 80s?) can lift the film.
But REVENGER has more problems than just its dubious use of the trans subject. The story is a bit of a mishmash of convoluted storylines and flashbacks, told from both the perspective of Frank (whose narration starts the film) as well as from the perspective of Dr Jane who delivers the bulk of the backstory. We meet her in a psychiatric facility, bound in a straight jacket and sitting across the table from Dr Ralph Galen (Tony Shalhoub) whose job, it seems, is to share the clumsy delivery of exposition with her. There’s not a lot of logic at play here. Dr Jane, it seems, is a remarkably skilled plastic surgeon whose work is faultless and leaves no scarring (so she says). It also seems to require next to no recovery as the narrative timeline suggests that only a couple of weeks have passed since the surgery on Frank and yet here he/she is with no visible marks on the body, running around town shooting people and entering into a relationship of sorts with Johnnie (Caitlin Gerrard) who pre-surgery-Frank met as a hooker but who now seems to be a nurse who’s quite willing to provide shelter and more, whilst Frank puts her revenge plan together.
Despite the poor screenplay, some of Hill’s skill as a director still manages to shine through with stylish camerawork by James Liston and the use of screen wipes to shift timeframes in the storytelling. There’s also some nice use of ‘comic book’ style graphics to break up the scenes (a nod to the graphic novel version of this story that Hill produced with adapter Matz and illustrator Jeff). But none of that helps the story, nor does the restrictive way Shalhoub and Weaver are directed, spending almost the entire movie sitting at tables, which is far from conducive to good acting. In the end, it’s left to Rodriguez to do the heavy lifting and, for the most part, she’s enjoyable on-screen even if the film isn’t. But she’s got such a distinctive look that the gender shift doesn’t really work. For me, at least, it’s hard to buy her as a male character in the first part of the film. She just looks like she’s wearing a bad disguise. The impact of the change would have been much more effective if we’d really been able to believe the character of Frank as a man in the first act.
Overall, this film just doesn’t work on a number of different levels. It’s such a shame to see a great old-school writer/director of the calibre of Walter Hill turning out something that feels more like a movie-of-the-week. And not a very good one at that. Here’s hoping that he still has the creative juices somewhere in there to give us one more great, intelligently violent crime thriller to cap off his career... ‘cause this one certainly ain’t it.
‘Stranger Danger’ is the generation-spanning phrase children are all too familiar with, ingrained into their minds by worrisome adults. Never go anywhere with a stranger, never take a ride from a stranger, never accept gifts from a stranger - and so on.
Director Scott Derrickson, whose work ranges from terrifying scarefest Sinister to superhero outing Doctor Strange, essentially takes this sentiment and turns it up to an eleven with THE BLACK PHONE. The result is an unabashed old-school horror that also feels refreshing because of its simplicity.
It’s 1978 in New Denver and children are mysteriously disappearing, supposedly taken by a person only known as The Grabber (Ethan Hawke). He poses as a magician, complete with white face paint, but instead of bunny rabbits and hats, black balloons fill the back of his van. 13-year-old Finney (Mason Thames) is constantly bullied at school and never has the courage to stand up for himself, unlike his fiery little sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), who always has his back. Their father is an abusive alcoholic, who whips his daughter at any mention of her potential psychic abilities. It’s only a matter of time before Finney is abducted by the sadistic killer and trapped in a soundproof basement. On the wall is a black phone with a disconnected line, which strangely starts ringing. When Finney answers, he hears the voices of The Grabber’s previous victims, who are also Finney’s best chance at getting out alive.
THE BLACK PHONE is the latest to join shows and films like Stranger Things in paying homage to the period in which it is set and the popular culture of that time (it’s interesting to note the film is based on a short story by Stephen King’s son Joe Hill, and the It parallels are certainly evident). Not particularly elevated or metaphorical, the movie draws upon the time-honoured elements of traditional horror from the 70s and 80s - a small town, kids, ghosts, a psychotic killer and good old-fashioned scares.
Derrickson absolutely nails his nostalgic 70s setting, thanks to authentic production design, costuming (one word: flares), story elements (kidnappers, child psychics) and a solid amount of needle drops. While the film falls more into the thriller category, and may not disturb in the same way Sinister did, the director knows how to fashion a solid fright. A lot of this is thanks to Ethan Hawke’s unhinged performance as The Grabber - a mysterious figure who is unnerving in both appearance and presence, whether it’s his Joker-smile-inspired mask or unpredictable nature. Derrickson has fun with the supernatural elements and manages to throw in some effective jump scares that don’t feel cheap.
While Hawke is the big bad looming over the film, it’s the child performers that steal the show. Mason Thames plays young Finney with maturity and sensitivity, creating earnest vulnerability and garnering the audience’s emotional investment in his survival. Madeleine McGraw as Gwen is a firecracker of a presence on screen. She is the heart of the film, along with her relationship with Finney.
While the film gives audiences plenty to chew on, one can’t help but feel left wanting more, especially when it comes to Hawke’s Grabber. Sure, he’s a scary guy with a few screws loose, but the story never quite delves into why he does what he does. Some form of backstory or motive would have been a nice touch here. When the Grabber’s brother Max (James Ransone) is introduced, it seems like the perfect opportunity to flesh out and give context to the antagonist, but instead, Max feels out of place and doesn’t add any new ground to the story.
Nevertheless, THE BLACK PHONE is a thrilling ride that manages to inject new life into an arguably tired genre. This is thanks to Scott’s suspenseful direction, confident child performances, Hawke’s presence and an emotionally compelling story.
You can read Glenn's review of The Black Phone here.
Mixing science fiction into traditionally non-science fiction genres can be a tricky thing to make work as Jon Favreau discovered with Cowboys & Aliens (2011) and even Steven Spielberg discovered with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). So, kudos to the writing and directing partnership of Lexie Findarle Trivundza and Nick Trivundza (The West and the Ruthless, 2017) for giving it a red hot go by mashing together the 80’s action-adventure genre with a good dose of sci-fi-time-travel tropes in their second film, the comically titled Danger! Danger!. It may not be an entirely successful effort, but it’s a lot of fun watching them try to pull it off.
The film begins with a killer opening shot. We’re looking at a wide-angle of a rugged landscape on an island that a title card tells us is twenty miles off the coast of Africa in the year 1985. Suddenly, BAM! our hero, Jonathan (Benedict Mazurak) sits up into the tight foreground of the frame with a look of astonishment on his face. He seems as confused as we are as to what he’s doing here and why. He’s even more confused (as are we) about how and why he’s been skewered by a tree branch. The camera pulls back to reveal his rumpled parachute and the branch at least, if nothing else, now makes sense.
So, why has he parachuted onto this seemingly deserted island? Well, for a start, it’s not all that deserted. It’s occupied by Russian forces led, inexplicably, by Ella Fritz (Alexandra Keller) a throwback German Nazi who never got over the Third Reich losing the war (even though the war ended forty years ago and she’s clearly not that old). Jonathan stumbles into their camp where he spots a crate stencilled with the words Danger! Danger!. We never find out what’s in the crate, but this gives Jonathan the prompt, when interrogated by Ella, to invent his cover name – now he’s Jonathan Danger!
And then, in a flash (as they used to say in the classics) he escapes the clutches of the Soviet-cum-Nazi villains, only to run into Jade Calloway (Angela Smeraldi) and her kooky brother Jungle Jim (Paul Haapaniemi) who is convinced that our hero is a Russian spy. Seems as though everyone here is looking for the same thing – an ancient temple that, in reality (if you can use that word for a story like this) might just be a hidden time machine from the future. By now, you’re probably getting the idea that this movie has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek and that being set in 1985 is no accident – the 80’s is the era of movies it wants to pay homage to; Back to the Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Goonies and all the rest of those action adventures that both thrilled us and tickled our funny bones at the same time.
The problem is that after such a terrific set up, the action stalls and the characters tend to talk about these movies rather than referencing them in more physical and visual ways. There are too many scenes of characters sitting or standing around talking to each other in exposition and backstory rather than getting on with it by doing stuff. You know what they say, show don’t tell. Well, after such a showy start, the film settles into too much telling.
It’s ironic, then, that there are some key bits of information we’re not told. We know that Jonathan is here to find the time machine and travel three years into the past to avert a tragic event that happened to him. But we never find out who he really is, nor do we find out how he knows about the time machine or how he managed to get here in the first place. The same goes for Jade and Jungle Jim. There’s a flimsy explanation about having five years' worth of Lotto numbers and going into the past to make their fortune, but how do they know about the time machine and the local tribes who created the temple that hides it and the religion it inspired? It’s not even clear how the bad guys know about it, other than a suggestion that the time machine was (or will be) a joint Soviet- American project... but that’s all in the future so it still doesn’t quite gel. Ella does try and explain that she’s hoping to go back and prevent the Soviets from dividing her city with the Berlin Wall. (If she’d just wait another four years the thing would come down anyway).
Of course, in funny, silly movies like this, you can get away with the occasional plot hole big enough to drive a Panza tank through, but the basics of the story, the motivations of the characters and the film’s internal logic about the existence of time travel are fundamentals that we should be freed from wondering about so that we can enjoy the ride.
Nevertheless, there are some strong performances here. Mazurek is perfectly cast as our adventure hero who is just doofussy enough to make us laugh (and sometimes cheer) and Smeraldi works well as both his possible rival and potential love interest. Keller, on the other hand, is not quite evil enough in her villainy and Haapeniemi is a little too over the top in his role as the jokey, third wheel brother (think John Hannah in the 1999 version of The Mummy, but dialled up to eleven).
There are other great elements like the cinematography by Santiago Bahti which makes the most the visual potential of the film’s location in the beautiful Vasquez Rocks north of Los Angeles in California (a bit more than twenty miles off the coast of Africa) and the film’s music has as much drama, if not more than the narrative itself – not so much a score written for the film, as music sourced from pre-existing works the majority of which are composed by Graham Plowman with fantastically evocative titles like Escape Through the Asteroid Field, Rebel Assault, Shadow of the Death Star and Space Wars. Despite its clear association, Plowman’s music is more redolent of the movie serials of the thirties and forties than with space operas like the Star Wars franchise, and that’s just perfect for this movie (another nod to Indiana Jones?).
Danger! Danger! Is a romp, and deliberately so. Despite its shortcomings, there’s a lot to enjoy about it, but it’s a frustration that those shortcomings weren’t addressed at the script level in order to elevate the whole venture into something that could prove you can mix sci-fi in with action-adventure and make it work.
P.S. Stick around after the credits for a behind-the-scenes look at some of what goes on during the making of a low-budget movie like this, hosted in selfie-mode by the star, Benedict Mazurek.
Danger, Danger! is available on DVD via Eagle Entertainment.