The Films of Simon West
Con Air (June 3/06)
At a running time of over two hours, Con Air is clearly much, much longer than it has any right to be. Director Simon West and screenwriter Scott Rosenberg have crammed the film with more than enough quirky characters and needless subplots to fill several other movies, when all one really requires out of a film like this are a few good action scenes, a compelling hero, and a reprehensible villain. Nicolas Cage stars as Cameron Poe, a convict just coming to the end of his sentence when he finds himself smack dab in the middle of an escape attempt aboard a plane full of career criminals - led by the charismatic Cyrus "The Virus" Grissom (John Malkovich). Con Air benefits from the presence of periphery actors such as Mykelti Williamson, Ving Rhames, and Colm Meaney, though they're generally not given a whole lot to do (Cage, Malkovich, and John Cusack - playing a federal agent on the trail of the runaway plane - dominate the proceedings). Rosenberg peppers the movie with a whole host of oddball moments, but fails to deliver a thoroughly compelling storyline; despite the fact that we're rooting for Cage's character to emerge victorious, there's never really anything at stake for the guy (his family is safe on the ground and we just know he's going to be reunited with them). Still, it's difficult not to embrace a film that features Steve Buscemi as a Dahmer-esque serial killer - though one can't help but wish that the movie had been about a half-hour shorter (were that many explosions really necessary?)
The General's Daughter
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
When a Stranger Calls (May 7/06)
The original 1979 version of When a Stranger Calls kicked off with an electrifying 11-minute sequence featuring the ongoing harassment of a teenaged babysitter, though the remainder of the film was utterly unable to live up to that opening. This remake, written by Jake Wade Wall, focuses entirely on the cat-and-mouse game between the babysitter and her would-be assailant, a seriously questionable choice that results in a lot of superfluous moments and a cavalcade of false scares (ie it was just the cat, wind, refrigerator, etc). Camilla Belle stars as Jill Johnson, a typical teenager who is forced into a babysitting gig after spending an inordinate amount of time on her cell phone. After arriving at the Mandrakis' unusually-designed estate, Jill starts receiving unusual calls from an apparent heavy breather - though it's not long before said communications become threatening, particularly in reference to the two children sleeping upstairs. Featuring expectedly grandiose directorial choices from filmmaker Simon West (Con Air, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, etc), When a Stranger Calls has the feel of an expensive, super-slick Hollywood production right from the get-go. That West and Wall have geared the film almost exclusively towards teenaged girls certainly doesn't help matters, although Belle does deliver an unusually compelling performance (unlike some of her horror-movie contemporaries, Belle can actually act). But there's no overlooking the feeling that much of When a Stranger Calls is just filler; Jill's tormentor doesn't even utter that famous line - "have you checked the children?" - until about halfway through. And while the film isn't even remotely as terrible as it could've been, there's no denying that it's just as needless a remake as one might've expected.
A substantial improvement over its impossibly dull predecessor, The Mechanic follows professional assassin Arthur Bishop (Jason Statham) as he reluctantly kills his beloved mentor (Donald Sutherland's Harry) and subsequently, in an effort at atoning for the murder, takes on the man's adult son (Ben Foster's Steve) as his apprentice. It's an admittedly thin premise that's initially employed to less-than-enthralling effect, as the movie, which kicks off with an exciting assassination, boasts a repetitive and uneventful midsection that ultimately proves a test to the viewer's patience (ie one can't help but wish the filmmakers would just get on with it already). The ensuing atmosphere of benign watchability is due almost entirely to the efforts of the film's two stars, with Statham's stiff-lipped yet compelling performance matched by Foster's comparatively over-the-top turn as Arthur's moody protégé The movie's transformation from passable thriller to exciting actioner, then, is triggered by Steve's first job, as the sequence effectively paves the way for a violent and propulsive final half hour that boasts one surprisingly gripping set piece after another. (It is, as a result, fairly easy to overlook Simon West's annoyingly modern visual choices, with the director's use of shaky camerawork and rapid-fire editing as needless as one might've expected.) The end result is a better-than-average action flick that fits comfortably within Statham's impressively mindless filmography, although it's clear that the movie would've benefited from another couple of passes through the editing bay.
The Expendables 2
Click here for review.
Stolen (January 10/13)
Directed by Simon West, Stolen follows Nicolas Cage's Will Montgomery as he attempts to start his life over after serving an eight-year stretch for armed robbery - with complications ensuing as an old cohort (Josh Lucas' Vincent) resurfaces with a kidnapping plot involving Will's teenage daughter (Sami Gayle's Alison). For the most part, Stolen comes off as an almost astonishingly generic thriller that's rife with familiar, hackneyed elements - with the movie's less-than-engrossing feel exacerbated by a palpable lack of thrills or excitement. It's worth noting, however, that West does manage to pepper the proceedings with a handful of engaging moments (eg Will dislocates his thumb to get out of handcuffs), which ensures that Stolen generally remains watchable for the duration of its brisk running time (ie as far as contemporary Cage thrillers go, one could certainly do a whole lot worse than this). There's little doubt, too, that the supporting performances inject a fair amount of color into the otherwise drab proceedings, with, especially, Lucas' gleefully over-the-top and hilariously larger-than-life turn standing as one of the movie's few clear (and consistent) highlights. (Lucas' work stands in sharp contrast to Cage's disappointingly subdued performance, as the material seems to be crying out for the actor's typically unhinged persona.) By the time the absurdly broad finale rolls around (ie it feels as though it belongs in an '80s slasher movie), Stolen has certainly established itself as an erratic endeavor that is, for the most part, just barely passable - with the film's limited theatrical release, as a result, hardly surprising.
Wild Card (November 24/15)
An adaptation of William Goldman's novel Heat, Wild Card follows Jason Statham's Nick Wild, a Las Vegas bodyguard with a gambling problem, as he agrees to help a friend (Dominik García-Lorido's Holly) get revenge on the man (Milo Ventimiglia's Danny) who brutalized and raped her - with problems naturally ensuing after said man and his goons return for vengeance of their own. Though billed as just another mindless Statham actioner, Wild Card ultimately comes off as more of a slow-paced character study than anything else - as filmmaker Simon West, working from Goldman's screenplay, offers up a surprisingly uneventful first half lacking in elements designed to lure the viewer into the lackadaisical narrative. It doesn't help, either, that Goldman's episodic structure prevents the movie from working up any real momentum, with this reflected prominently in the film's general tendency to lurch from one barely-engrossing sequence to the next (eg there's far too much emphasis on Nick's efforts to protect a less-than-macho gambler). The far-from riveting atmosphere persists right up until Nick confronts Ventimiglia's brash, thoroughly villainous character, with the inevitable confrontation that ensues injecting the proceedings with a much-needed jolt of energy and electricity. And although West throws in a couple more equally enthralling fight sequences - there is, for example, a fantastic skirmish late towards the end that's nothing short of riveting - Wild Card is, even in its second half, dominated by sequences in which Nick attempts to battle his gambling and drinking addictions. A late-in-the-game, scene-stealing appearance by Stanley Tucci as a feared mob boss ensures, at the very least, that the movie ends on a positive note, and yet it's difficult not to have expected something more given the strength of West and Statham's first collaboration (2011's The Mechanic).