Driven (April 26/01)
After 26 years, Sylvester Stallone returns to the world of screenwriting with Driven, a movie that excels with pure visceral thrills but merely toddles by with its story and characters. Stallone stars as Joe Tanto, an experienced veteran of the CART racing scene. He's living the retired life on a farm, when team-owner Carl Henry (played by Burt Reynolds, who now resembles a lizard) calls him back into service. Tanto assumes it's to race again, but quickly discovers he's there to mentor a struggling young driver named Jimmy Blye (rising star Kip Pardue). Also in the mix are a competing driver (Til Schweiger) and his girlfriend (Estella Warren), who Blye finds himself falling for. Director Renny Harlin employs his notoriously over-the-top sensibilities within the confines of Driven's plethora of racing sequences, as the filmmaker takes each race and turns it into an eye-popping exercise in close-up voyeurism. Harlin's camera goes everywhere. We get a driver POV as their powerful machines make the perilous jaunt around corners, we watch as tires are replaced in a pit stop from the view of the car and we get to see, in slow-motion, as a driver helplessly watches himself go flying into the air after a crash and land right in the path of other speeding racers. This is not a film to watch on the small screen. It has to be experienced in a movie theater, preferably fitted with a lot of big speakers. The movie falters, though, with it's lackluster storyline and stereotypical characters. Stallone's script runs the gamut from cliched to just plain silly, such as in the guise of Tanto's ex-wife. As played by Gina Gershon, she's the ultimate trailer trash bitch, consistently armed with a snarky (and usually unnecessarily harsh) rejoinder. The actors are all game, though, particularly Schweiger as Blye's rival. He takes a character that could have wound up as over-the-top as that French guy from Cheers and turns him into a genuinely charismatic figure. But the real reason to see Driven is not because of the stars or the story; it's because of the exhilarating racing scenes. All that other stuff would have just been the icing on the cake, but as it is, the cake is delicious.
Exorcist: The Beginning (August 19/04)
There's been a tremendous struggle to bring Exorcist: The Beginning to theaters, and having seen the end result, it's hardly been worth it. John Frankenheimer was originally set to direct the film, but after he passed away, Paul Schrader got the gig instead. He reportedly turned in a final product that too was slow and cerebral for movie executives, who promptly shelved his version and commissioned Renny Harlin to helm an entirely new film. Not having seen Schrader's version, it's impossible to know for sure which movie is better - but it's awfully hard to imagine that it could be worse than this. As the title implies, Exorcist: The Beginning is a prequel to the original Exorcist - with Max von Sydow's Father Merrin now played by Stellan Skarsgard. When we first meet Merrin, he's a faithless drunk content to spend his days boozing it up at the local pub. He's wrestled out of his stupor by an offer to investigate a buried church in the middle of Egypt, but once there, weird things start to happen. And that's exactly the problem. There's no real story here; once Merrin arrives in Egypt, the movie becomes painfully repetitive. There's a tangible sense of desperation on the part of screenwriter Alexi Hawley, who pads out the running time with absolutely pointless sequences and an abundance of "suspenseful" moments. Harlin proves to be a terrible choice for this material, as his idea of creating an ambiance of terror consists solely of inundating the viewer with one cheap scare after another (ie "oh, it was just a radio!" and other hackneyed staples of the horror genre). Of course, the whole thing builds to an exorcism that's admittedly far more visceral than the one in the original, with the possessed figure climbing on walls and literally bending over backwards (the filthy mouth remains a highlight). Skarsgard even gets to utter those famous words ("the power of Christ compels you!"), but there's just something campy about the whole thing. A sequence in which the possessed character charges at Merrin like a bull is downright laughable, thanks primarily to some extremely shoddy special effects. On the positive side of things, Skarsgard delivers an expectedly stellar performance - effectively channeling von Sydow's distinct persona. It's highly unlikely he had as little to do in Schrader's version, which presumably focused more on Merrin's struggle to regain his faith. Harlin instead places the emphasis on interminable sequences that feature various characters creeping around impossibly dark locations (Merrin is particularly guilty of this, traipsing about as though he were an idiotic teenager in a slasher film). Here's hoping Schrader's version eventually sees some kind of release, because there's nowhere left to go but up.
The Covenant is yet another brainless, utterly disposable thriller geared exclusively towards teenagers, as evidenced by the headache-inducing soundtrack and mind-numbingly simplistic storyline. Featuring an expectedly sloppy screenplay written by noted B-movie hack J.S. Cardone, the film follows four modern-day warlocks as they're confronted by a fellow conjurer with overtly megalomaniacal tendencies. Though directed by Renny Harlin, The Covenant possesses precisely the sort of generic visuals that have come to be associated with films of this ilk - a problem that's exacerbated by the overuse of egregiously shoddy computer effects. The inclusion of a romantic subplot that feels as though it'd be more at home in a Harlequin novel doesn't do the movie any favors, nor does the presence of charisma-free actors Steven Strait and Laura Ramsey in leading roles (both of whom were clearly hired based solely on their looks). In the end, it's easy enough to envision The Covenant appealing to viewers with exceedingly indiscriminating demands - as there's virtually nothing here that we haven't seen countless times before.
Click here for review.
12 Rounds (June 23/09)
John Cena's second cinematic outing, 12 Rounds casts the burly wrestler as Danny Fisher - a New Orleans cop who must complete a series of increasingly perilous challenges after his girlfriend (Ashley Scott's Molly Porter) is kidnapped by a psychotic terrorist (Aidan Gillen's Miles Jackson) bent on revenge. It's an unapologetically tongue-in-cheek premise that's squandered by director Renny Harlin, as the filmmaker's consistent use of needlessly distracting visual tricks - eg the shaky camerawork is just exhausting - ultimately transforms what should've been a solid thriller into a hopelessly overcranked piece of work. This is despite an opening hour that's as mindlessly watchable as one might've hoped, with the inclusion of several admittedly enthralling sequences - ie Danny must assist a rotund security guard out of a precariously perched elevator - initially compensating for the film's myriad of deficiencies (Cena's less-than-stellar performance, for one). There reaches a point, however, at which the movie can't help but run out of steam, and while it's impossible not to derive some enjoyment out of spotting the film's various similarities to 1994's Speed (eg the arc of Danny's doomed partner is awfully similar to that of Jeff Daniels' Harry Temple), 12 Rounds inevitably wears the viewer down with an almost relentlessly bland atmosphere that's exacerbated by the film's lamentable PG-13 rating (ie there are plenty of explosions and over-the-top set pieces, certainly, but instances of actual violence are virtually non-existent). The end result is a decent action movie that could've been a great one, although even the most competent filmmaker would've had problems breathing life into the movie's seriously underwhelming climax.