Army of Darkness (1992)
by Steve Habrat
In 1987, director Sam Raimi remade his 1981 horror classic The Evil Dead, dropping the simple stone-faced terror that turned the original into such a hit and planting the tongue of the series firmly into its bloody cheek. This slapstick remake, Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn, would go on to become even more wildly popular than the terrifying ’81 original. Personally, I’ve never cared for Evil Dead II nearly as much as the original film and I was never convinced the film struck the proper balance of Three Stooges comedy and hair-raising terror. Hey, that’s just me! In 1992, Raimi and his ever-game star Bruce Campbell brought the series to a close with the even sillier Army of Darkness, a medieval epic that, at least to this guy, was infinitely more entertaining than Evil Dead II (I can just hear some of you horror fans now). Dropping almost all of the scares and embracing more action and adventure, Army of Darkness wins the viewer over almost instantly with its ever-quotable one-liners and its never-ending string of comic book gags. Yet while Army of Darkness does keep your eyes glued to the pulpy thrills, the jokes and the plot end up getting stretched to the breaking point, causing this brief eighty minute romp to wear out its welcome near the climax. Luckily, Raimi has the good sense to wrap everything up before Army of Darkness really falls to pieces.
After briefly flashing back to the events of Evil Dead II, which concluded with Ash (Played by Bruce Campbell) getting sucked into a portal opened by the Book of the Dead and spit out in medieval England. After tumbling out of the sky, Ash is immediately confronted by Lord Arthur (Played by Marcus Gilbert) and his men, who instantly accuse Ash of working with Duke Henry (Played by Richard Grove), Arthur’s sworn enemy. Ash is taken, along with the captured Henry, to a nearby castle where he is forced into a pit, which houses a snarling Deadite waiting to rip souls to pieces. Ash dispatches the ghoul and in return, he wins the trust of the terrified villagers, the beautiful Sheila (Played by Embeth Davidtz) and the castle’s Wiseman (Played by Ian Abercrombie), who bargains that if Ash is to venture into the haunted countryside and retrieve the mysterious Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, he can return to present day. Ash reluctantly accepts the offer, but after goofing the magic words he was supposed to say upon retrieving the book, he inadvertently awakens an army of the dead. To make matters worse, this army is led by a demonic twin of Ash. After Sheila is captured by a flying Deadite, Ash decides to align himself with the medieval soldiers and destroy the advancing demonic army.
Leaving most of the toe-curling thrills and chills in that legendary cabin, Army of Darkness quickly opts for Three Stooges style humor and heaping doses of fantasy action. For those who love blood and guts, the only carnage to be found is at the beginning, when one poor sap is shoved into the pit with a Deadite and a geyser of gore sprays into the heavens. It is absolutely hilarious and almost like Raimi is purging all of the gore from his system before launching headfirst into seventy minutes of solid belly laughs and action. Most of the time, it feels like Army of Darkness is poking fun at the action genre, from the tough-as-nails hero Ash and his bottomless pit of one-liners (“Give me some sugar, baby!” “Name’s Ash. Housewares.”), to the gratuitous explosions that rain down on the final showdown. Never once does it feel as if Raimi is taking all the action and adventure too seriously and he launches it at us at breakneck speeds. While this certainly keeps Army of Darkness very interesting, it also exhausts the film by the grand finale. It appeared that Raimi was moving at such a furious rate that he almost wore himself out and lost his grip on the entire project. Luckily, Mr. Campbell and his glorious lantern jaw comes to the rescue.
The true success of Army of Darkness rests on the chain saw of Mr. Bruce Campbell, who seems to be having an absolute blast jumping and throwing himself around like a madman. Right from the get-go, Campbell’s Ash chews right through Raimi’s dialogue and he does it with plenty of fiery confidence. Just wait for the scene where he has to recite the magic words before retrieving the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis (cinema buffs will remember those magic words from The Day the Earth Stood Still). When he isn’t muttering a classic one-liner (trust me, it is LOADED with them), he is busy socking, slapping, and poking himself in the face or busy battling a handful of feisty miniature versions of himself. His enthusiasm for the role is infectious and it is an absolute blast watching him throw himself into every scene with such gusto. In a way, it is almost a shame he is so good because every other actor or actress in the film is caught in his shadow. As for everyone else, Gilbert and Grove are largely forgettable as Lord Arthur and Duke Henry. Davidtz is just a pretty face until she gets to unleash her dark side near the end of the film, but most of her sinister vibe comes from the prosthetics applied to her face. Abercrombie checks in a fine performance as the Wiseman who believes that Ash is the savior that they have been waiting for. Keep an eye out for George A. Romero alum Patricia Tallman as an evil witch, Sam Raimi’s brother Ted in a number of different roles, and Bridget Fonda as Ash’s gal Linda.
To me, the fact that Army of Darkness isn’t simultaneously trying to be funny and scary is why it works better than Evil Dead II. I understand that many will not agree with me, but I just never thought that Evil Dead II was as funny or scary as it thought it was (I was left longing for the slow build and straight faced terror of the original). Army of Darkness is well aware that it is just a roller coaster ride and it makes absolutely no apologies about it. There are small tastes of the horror that Raimi unleashed in 1981, but for the most part, this is strictly an action comedy ripped from the pages of a comic book you have never heard of. And while the medieval action does wear thin, Raimi picks it up for one last boomstick blast of demonic action in the aisles of present day S-Mart. Overall, as a gonzo send-up of the action and fantasy genre, Army of Darkness is about as giddy and playful as they come. The action may start to slip from Raimi’s grasp, but this is Campbell’s show from the first frame all the way to the last. He may very well be the grooviest action hero of all time, and his shotgun never runs out of ammo. Gotta problem with that?
Army of Darkness is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Jackie Brown (1997)
by Steve Habrat
After the massive success of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, the hype around Quentin Tarantino was through the roof. He put a creative spin on the gangster movie with Reservoir Dogs, made Pulp Fiction, which was labeled a modern day masterpiece, and then turned around and nabbed a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for it. Everyone was wondering what this exploitation-obsessed film guru would do next. Rather than writing another original screenplay, Tarantino chose to pen an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch. Reworking the title as Jackie Brown and swapping the heroine’s race from white to black, Tarantino makes a modern day blaxploitation film that actually turns out to be his most mature work in his catalogue. Leaving behind the countless pop culture references and dialing back on the knee-jerk violence, Jackie Brown is a slow moving drama that lacks the instantly iconic characters and razor sharp humor that peppered his first two films. In true Tarantino fashion, he has gathered an ensemble cast and even found a way to revitalize the careers of blaxploitation queen Pam Grier and B-movie actor Robert Forster, who went on to earn a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role. Despite being more mature, Jackie Brown does sag a little under its weight and lengthy run time, but I’ll be damned if Tarantino doesn’t put up a fight to keep the film off the ground.
Jackie Brown (Played by Pam Grier) is a beautiful but lonely flight attendant for a small Mexican airline called Cabalas Airlines. On the side, Jackie, whose career has hit a snag, smuggles money from Mexico to the United States for charismatic gunrunner Ordell Robbie (Played by Samuel L. Jackson). It turns out that Ordell is under surveillance by the ATF. After one of his employees, Beaumont Livingston (Played by Chris Tucker), is arrested, Ordell visits bail bondsman Max Cherry (Played by Robert Forster) and arranges for a $10,000 bail to spring Livingston out of fear that he may become an informant. It turns out that Livingston already blabbed to ATF agent Ray Nicolette (Played by Michael Keaton) and LAPD detective Mark Dargus (Played by Michael Bowen) while in custody and the two men intercept Jackie while she is arriving at the airport. Fearing that Jackie may also become an informant, Ordell once again visits Max and arranges her bail. After meeting Jackie, the mild mannered Max begins developing feelings for the tough flight attendant. Meanwhile, Ordell plans to murder Jackie but instead, she negotiates a deal to smuggle $550,000 of Ordell’s money out of Mexico, enough cash for him to retire. Ordell agrees, unaware that Jackie may be helping out the ATF agents. To make sure he ends up with the money, Ordell hires a stoner beach bunny named Melanie Ralston (Played by Bridget Fonda) and former cellmate Louis Gara (Played by Robert DeNiro) to help out with the job. With this much money involved, all the thugs begin devising way to make off with the cash for themselves but Jackie has other plans.
At two and a half hours, Jackie Brown certainly has its fair share of backstabbing, double crosses, and scheming going on. While it seemed appropriate in Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown seems to just be rambling on and sometimes not in a good way. The first hour of the film is fun, a little sexy, and funny in spurts, but after a while, I was left wishing that Tarantino would pop the cork on crazy and get the party started. He never really does and it is slightly disappointing. However, you can’t really blame Tarantino for toning it down a bit after his rambunctious behavior in Pulp Fiction (Who could forget the Gimp?). And then there is the trademark dialogue, something we really look forward to when going into his movies. In Jackie Brown, you feel as though Tarantino is blending his dialogue with Leonard’s and the results are mixed. There are a few funny lines here and there and only a few moments where it is truly memorable, but none of it comes close to what was in his first two films. Despite lacking the shock and crazy of his first two films, Jackie Brown does prove that Tarantino can pile on the emotion and really hook us with a touching love story. You really root for the romance between Jackie and Max, a love that is really the heart and soul of the movie. It is like Tarantino revealing his softer side, something he doesn’t really seem to enjoy too much (just watch an interview with him). Dare I say that Jackie Brown makes us feel a little warm and fuzzy inside?
If the bloated plot of Jackie Brown begins to wear on you, you may find some relief in the performances, mostly the ones from Grier and Forster. Grier is in fine form as the sensitive but fierce Jackie, one tough mama who doesn’t put up with any of the torment dished out by Ordell. Age seems to be holding Grier back from really kicking ass and taking names but she is as sharp as a tack when it comes to staying one step ahead of everyone but Max. Forster is measured, gentle, and subtle as Max Cherry, the kindly bail bondsman who develops a crush on the curvy Jackie. You can’t help but love him as he jams out to crooning R&B classics in his car, music he heard from our badass heroine. Together, the form an unlikely romance but I suppose that opposites attract. Plus, you feel like Max really deserves this romance. Jackson tones down the intensity he brought to Pulp Fiction and brings a menacing cool to Ordell. Watching him manipulate the thugs around him will have your knuckles whitening, especially when he shows up at Jackie’s apartment to settle some business. DeNiro is quiet fun as the loose cannon Louis, a slouchy thug who never can resist the bong in front of him. He gets some great moments with Fonda’s Melanie, a perpetually stoned and horny beach bunny who is always taking too long to get ready. Keaton is on point as the hotshot ATF agent who is always chewing on a piece of gum. We also get a funny and jumpy performance from the rarely seen but always welcome Chris Tucker as Livingston. Tucker isn’t here long but you’ll certainly remember his character.
Even if things are a little too drawn out, Jackie Brown still manages to entertain you even in its slower moments. I really enjoyed the scenes where Louis and Ordell sat around and discussed firearms over beer and weed as Melanie rolls her eyes in boredom. These scenes crackled with Tarantino’s punchy dialogue and humor, his usual trademarks. I also enjoyed the way Tarantino laid out the climax of the film, dropping all of his characters into a busy shopping mall and letting them try to outsmart each other while the money bops around in a shopping bag. Then there is the final confrontation, which does flirt with Tarantino’s unpredictable flashes of violence and bloodshed. Overall, I do like Jackie Brown and I have to say that I did fall head over heels for Grier and Forster. I also love the idea that the film is a big fat valentine to Grier and her feisty roles from years past. Yet as a tribute to blaxploitation cinema, Jackie Brown is a little clunky. It seems to lack the sass of the blaxploitation subgenre. I give Tarantino credit for breaking away from his usual formula but Jackie Brown left me starving for his crazy side.
Jackie Brown is available on Blu-ray and DVD.