Monday, July 27, 2015

Tell Me a Question: Paul Mormando & Double Fist

Welcome back to Tell Me a Question, where we chat with fascinating individuals living lives in the movie, martial arts and comic book worlds. Today we're joined by New York based martial artist and actor Paul Mormando. Born in Brooklyn, Mormando took up combat sports at a young age, eventually becoming a grandmaster and earning the nickname "Mr. Karate". Mormando is the creator of the Real Life Defense course, has performed in over 150 martial arts demonstrations and featured in over 200 magazines and newspapers. After bit parts on television and in film, Mormando was preparing for his leading man vehicle Double Fist with a young Mark Wahlberg lined up to co-star. Unfortunately Mormando was struck by a drunk driver and suffered terrible injuries. Like the best comeback and underdog stories; Mormando never lost hope, persevered and after much rehabilitation, is back on the road to action movie nirvana. We caught up over e-mail:

How did you get into martial arts? What lead you to creating your own style?

When I was young I was extremely small in stature, a perfect target for bullies...then it happened, I was 7 and I watched this little Chinese man beat up people twice his size. Bruce Lee provided hope for me and I begged my parents into letting me take lessons to protect myself. Eventually I enrolled in my first art, Tae Kwon Do. After getting into a street fight I realized TKD's limitations. What I had practiced in the dojo wasn't going to work on the street. So I experimented with many arts and used Bruce Lee's Jeet Kune Do philosophy fused with different styles. Lee was an inspiration but his style of teaching seemed too abstract for the average person. I experimented with different arts and ranges but wanted a more systematic approach. That's how I came up with the Cha Ki Do system.

You've been active your whole life, what's your approach to staying fit today?

At the moment I'm getting back into shape for some film projects. I lift weights and love Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Boxing constitutes much of my current regimen.

After countless demonstrations, being featured on television and appearing in numerous publications, what lead you to acting?

I never even thought about it, as a matter of fact, I never even did a school acting was far from my mind. One day I was doing a martial arts demo and I decided to do a dive roll over a bunch of swords as the finale. That got the attention of the local newspaper editor who put me on the front page. The legendary entertainment agent Ruben Malaret contacted me and wanted to make me the next Chuck Norris. Once I got a taste of the acting bug, I became passionate. Ironically enough I ended up guest starring on Broadway in Tony n' Tina's Wedding. That was a thrill, being the first martial artist on such a big stage.

Who are some of your favorite actors? Favorite films? 

Of course I love Bruce Lee, he is my idol. Jean-Claude Van Damme really inspired and motivated me. His kicking ability is unsurpassed. Jason Statham is really good, great screen presence. My favorite films are Enter the Dragon, the Rocky Franchise and No Retreat, No Surrender.

You were involved in a terrible car accident, how did you stay positive and keep moving forward?

That was at the beginning of my film career, I had just performed a demo at Shea stadium in front of nearly 20,000 people. And a few nights later it all got taken away from me. I was hit by a drunk driver. As hurt as I was, there were people around me even worse off. That kept me positive. The martial arts taught me discipline and gave me an indomitable spirit that helped me bounce back. During rehab I was inspired by those less fortunate; people who couldn't walk because their legs were amputated. If they can stay positive, I wasn't going to let a few injured disks set me back.

What's the key to staying hungry? What's next on your list? 

I continue to set goals and higher standards for myself. My last goal is to become the next action star. My 7 year old daughter motivates and inspires me. I'm making it happen. Twenty years ago after the accident I thought my career was over. Now I'm booked through 2016. I'll be in Ohio shooting a film with director William Lee, sharing the screen with Mel Novak (Enter the Dragon) and Joe Estevez. I'll play the villain in Andre Joseph's Vendetta Games and then there's sci-fi web series Sons of God with my friend Leonard Sanderson.

Many thanks to Mr. Mormando for taking the time to chat with Dammaged Goods. Keep up with Double Fist on Facebook.

Summer Cinema: Mission:Impossible Rogue Nation

It was a lovely Monday night with an early screening of Paramount's 5th chapter in their successful spy franchise Mission:Impossible. The globe trotting espionage thrillers have dealt with classified lists, world threatening viruses, arms dealers and bombing of the Kremlin. This time out, Rogue Nation deals with The Syndicate, an anti-IMF or the Impossible Missions Force, Ethan Hunt's (Tom Cruise) gang of world saving super spies that now includes computer whiz Benji (Simon Pegg), hacker Luther (Ving Rhames) and younger agent Brandt (Jeremy Renner). Spies thought dead from all over the world have seemingly banded together to fight the authorities and governments that created them. Hunt keeps running into Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), a mysterious woman running in the same dangerous circles.

Written and directed by The Way of the Gun and Jack Reacher's Christopher McQuarrie with a script assist from Drew Pearce, it's unsurprising that Rogue plays things pretty straight in a surprisingly character and simple plot driven piece. While the story takes place in Vienna, London and Morroco, things are far from the slick and shiny previous chapters. The action is limited to a few giant set pieces that are more for showing off some harrowing and incredibly well executed stunts involving planes, motorcycles, cars and crashes than showing off explosions. Cruise gets to mix it up a bit in a few tactical meets near unbelievable ninja jumping fights and does more than a couple standing drop kicks. There's bits of humor sprinkled throughout and the supporting cast is terrific. Alec Baldwin shows up as a CIA official in a bit of a throwback to his role as Jack Ryan from The Hunt From Red October. Cruise is his usual dependable self, the guy doesn't give shabby performances or turn up in bad movies. Newcomer to me Ferguson was an excellent mix of beauty and strength while I was left trying to remember if Renner did any action in Ghost Protocol because he doesn't do anything physical here.

While Rogue Nation played out low key, I was a little thrown off by the poor quality of some of the digital shots looking very fuzzy, dusty and blurry. There was less action than I expected but the film keeps you interested as twists, turns and reveals are made in the slow burning summer thriller that seems more oriented for adults than teens on a Friday night. It's like the Jack Reacher version of Mission: Impossible. Now I feel like going back and rewatching the series...put on some coffee.

Summer Cinema: Jian Bing Man aka Pancake Man

Please help me welcome author and #ActionMovieBro david j. moore to Dammaged Goods as he reviews Jian Bing Man, the Chinese superhero comedy that features one Jean-Claude Van Damme in a cameo role as the villain. Translated to Pancake Man, Jian Bing has grossed an astounding $125 million dollars in China and The Middle Kingdom. It's currently playing in AMC's across America so check your local listings. Moore and I met at San Diego Comic-Con last year and have been working together since. His first book, World Gone Wild: A Survivor's Guide to Post-Apocalyptic Movies has been a hit around the world with over 800 reviews and over 60 exclusive interviews with cast and crew. Moore's next work, the action film focused The Good, The Tough & The Deadly: Action Movies & Stars 1960's - Present hits shelves this holiday season. Yours truly is featured briefly with a couple of reviews and the Carl Weathers interview. Take it away David:

Let's just get this out of the way: Despite being heavily featured in the trailers, marketing, and posters, Jean-Claude Van Damme is neither the star nor the co-star of the new Chinese megabomb known as Jian Bing Man (English translation: Pancake Man). His name is spoken once early on in the film as a teaser that he might show up at some point, and you're sitting there waiting for your favorite action star to show his face in some capacity, and in the last five minutes he at last appears to add the only star quality this hopelessly immature and lost in translation motion picture has going for it. He does the splits (why wouldn't he since that's what he was paid for?), throws a butterfly kick, gets thrown on his face by the star who's wearing a yellow cape, and in the last seconds of the film before the credits roll Van Damme gets the last line: "Iron Man didn't kick my ass!" as if that's supposed to validate The Pancake Man's awesomeness. I'm telling you, guys, I really hope Van Damme got a million bucks for this garbage because if he didn't then there's no justice.

A quick backstory of my appreciation and devotion to Van Damme's work: The first time I saw one of his films in a theater was Timecop in 1994. I've been a fan ever since, seeing all of his theatrical releases any time he's been given one. I was there for everything from Maximum Risk (twice) to Knock Off and Universal Soldier: The Return, and I've sought out every screening of his latest film at every nook and cranny festival if it was playing in a theater within a hundred mile radius. I saw JCVD in a theater, I went out of my way to go see Welcome to the Jungle, Swelter, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, Dragon Eyes, Enemies Closer, Pound of Flesh, and I even went to see Kung Fu Panda 2 because he did the voice of an alligator in it. If the powers that be decide that Van Damme gets a theatrical release, I make sure I'm there no matter what. So when I found out that Jian Bing Man was getting a theatrical release - playing at the Puente Hills Mall AMC Theater, I made sure I was there for the preview night on Thursday at 7:00 PM before opening night. I figured I'd be the only guy in the theater (same as I was when I saw Universal Soldier: DoR, Dragon Eyes, and Enemies Closer), but I was absolutely floored when I entered the auditorium - it was packed! Almost every single seat had been taken by a crowd of young Asians (Chinese, I'm guessing educationally), and I had to find a seat in the last row in the back. After four or five trailers for exclusively Asian films, Jian Bing Man started.

The crowd went wild for this garbage, including the guy sitting next to me who kept looking over to me, wondering why I wasn't as thrilled as he was. From the first frames, the audience laughed uncontrollably, clapped, cheered, and had a great time. The guy next to me kept ribbing me, trying to get a response out of me, but it just wasn't happening. I almost wanted to run to the foot of the auditorium to take a photo of everyone in the theater having a such a good time because not only was I the only gweilo in the place, but I was also the only person not laughing. As in Chinese opera and theater, almost everything in these modern films from that region takes great pains to oversimplify drama, mystery, and comedy to the point of nullifying any sense of personal gratification for going on a cinematic journey along with characters you're supposed to care about. Silly characters are ridiculously broad, with massively broad strokes coloring their temperature when they're in comedic situations. Gay characters (forget subtlety) are parodies of gay characters, and romantic, leading characters are hopeless romantics with melodramatic subplots who are sometimes allowed long, drawn-out (and in slow motion, no less) flashbacks to childhood for no good reason. To top off all of this cinematic ineptitude, the main character (played by the film's director Da Peng, who is just cute enough to play the lead, but just nerdy enough to have everyone in the film consider him a loser) dreams of becoming a superhero known as Pancake Man, whose sole superpower is to throw raw eggs at bad guys. We get slow-mo shots of eggs crashing on grimacing faces, and Pancake Man (who sort of looks like Cyclone from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe) flips around and zooms off into the ether from whence he came. For me, this was not a superhero movie, a comedy, or a spoof of any sort. It is a sad and confounding state affairs to realize that this is what millions of Chinese people are eating up, and to know that this has made over a hundred million dollars and broke every record in its native country just bewilders me.  

As for Jean-Claude Van Damme, he plays himself playing a nameless villain Pancake Man fights at the very end of the film. The fight lasts maybe two or three minutes at most. If you saw and were disappointed by Van Damme's appearances in Welcome to the Jungle and Swelter, you'll be glad (I guess) to hear that he kicks more and does more of what you're hoping he'll do in this thing. It's just over so quickly. It's not worth the price of admission, frankly, unless you're a diehard fan (like I've always been). A funny thing about the film is that a Chinese pop band (four dudes with ultra stylish hair and make-up) shows up immediately after Van Damme gets knocked out by Pancake Man, and their purpose in the film was simply to upstage him for the bigger-and-better cameo (at least to the Chinese audience, who cheered when these guys came into the picture), and one of their songs plays on the soundtrack to highlight their gorgeousness. When Pancake Man greets them (they have no purpose in the film other than to simply appear and disappear), they smile and chat with him for a second, and that's when I noticed their teeth. The true mark of Communism is bad teeth, and that's when the film got my first and only laugh. I dunno, guys. This movie's the pits, but if you feel you need to go there, then go there. I did. And I'll never forget the experience.  

Workout of the Day: Rocky Edition

Amped up from seeing Sylvester Stallone, Carl Weathers, Mr. T. and Dolph Lundgren being so 80's yoked, of course I had to hit the gym and break a good sweat. Over the weekend I went all over the map with one work out utilizing body weight exercises and cardio, a straight weight session then a morning swim. I figure if I'm going out to eat and drank a three or four nights a week, I have to keep up the workouts. That and I recently had some blood work done for work and while my blood sugar, cholesterol, triglycerides and whatnot were all good to excellent, my blood pressure was a touch high. Probably from my Got Damme Ohio-Vietnamese Passion Temper.

On Saturday it was a morning session of:
- Chin Ups or Face Pulls or Rows on a Smith Machine
- Incline Push Ups or Dips or Bench Dips
- Jump Rope for 300 skips
- Battling Ropes for 30 seconds
- Versa Climber for 90 seconds

Doing two sets each of body weight upper body, I repeated the circuit 6 times and called it a day after some leg raises, ab wheel rollouts and trunk twists.

That evening after a Happy Hour meal of moonshine, chicken fingers, sliders and fries I got in an 8:00 PM workout for Shoulders and Arms:
- Shoulder Press/Rear Delt Raise/Cable Upright Rows
Done in a giant set with no rest to torch my delts followed by some Vince Gironda style 8x8 so I wouldn't have to change weights between sets:
- EZ bar bent over curl superset with Rope Pushdown
After 8 sets my arms were mildly screaming so I went ahead and did 5x8 of:
- Dumbbell Hammer Curls superset with DB Kickbacks
Now my arms felt good and pumped so I finished off with 5 sets of standing calf raises. 3 miles on the recumbent bike and I felt a little better about the heavy meals the weekend had entailed.

Sunday I was a bit sore so I opted to take a rest day. But I was back at it this morning, arising at 5:00 AM for a nice swim workout at the gym. Like Rocky in III, I'm a pretty not great swammer but managed to get in 10 lengths in their lap pool along with a few trips worth of running down and back through the water. Until next time, keep punching!

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Rocky Weekend: III & IV

New boxing flick Southpaw opened to decent reviews and a solid $16.5 million bucks based on a $25 million budget this weekend. The flick isn't bad but just smacks of trying to be a grittier version of the Rocky series. While for someone like my lady who hadn't seen the trailer or a single underdog tale featuring the Italian Stallion it was fine but for me it had all just been done before. With my appetite for gloved fisticuffs whetted, I bypassed the Blu-Ray collection and let Netflix take me on a journey of glory, failure, belief and personal happiness with Rocky III, IV and V.

I've sadly never seen a Rocky film on the big screen but they've always been a staple of my movie viewing diet. 1982's Rocky III sees Sylvester Stallone writing and directing as well as showcasing his more familiar, ripped and vascular condition after being more of a hulking bruiser in Rocky and it's sequel. On top of the world with 10 title defenses to his name, Rocky runs into the menacing, hungry and formidable wrecking machine that is Mr. T's Clubber Lang. A worthy contender with a big mouth, Lang isn't shy to confront Rocky but trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith, View In Peace) is having none of it. When Rocky and Clubber finally meet, it's bad news as Mickey dies backstage during the match then Rock gets pummeled and Knocked Out. After struggling and taking his million to one shot, boxer Rocky did the worst thing for a fighter, he got civilized and soft with endorsement deals, a big house, stylish treads and shiny cars. Wanting to retire and wallow in his realization that he held the title too long, former rival and champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) comes knocking with a proposition. On one hand Creed wants to help Rocky get his edge back, or The Eye of the Tiger as well as sell the rematch into one of the biggest fights of all time against the disrespectful Lang. Traveling to the ghetto of Los Angeles, Rocky finds his guts with the help of wife Adrian (Talia Shire), confronting his fear of losing what he has and trains old school, regaining the edge and hunger necessary to defeat Lang in the rematch.

While Rocky is a straight classic, it's also one of a kind. A low budget, cheap looking near documentary that's much more about life and characters than it is boxing. The sequels get bigger, slicker, shorter and more far fetched with each outing. III walks an excellent line of providing drama and sports thrills. Rocky and Apollo both get solid arcs here with the champion needing to overcome self doubt while the former champ transitions from rival to ally in order to stay relevant. Then you get a great and random scene of Rocky fighting Hulk Hogan's professional wrestler Thunder Lips ("The ultimate male, in the flesh, baby!") in a charity match gone wrong along with some great training montages set to the fantastic soundtrack anchored by Survivor's Eye of the Tiger. Some of the era's fashion is laughable like Stallone and Weathers in cropped top sweat shirts but if you had a body like either of theirs, you'd do the same thing. In an era before bromance you have two men working towards a common goal together, appreciating the other then jumping into the ocean and hugging to celebrate. It's beautiful but people today gotta make it weird. Stallone is at his most handsome here while Weathers delivers a passionate yet cool performance as Rocky's new mentor. The final bout with Lang is actually the only full fight we see in a Rocky film as it lasts just 3 rounds and is arguably the most effective. Rocky starts strong, receives some hard shots, realizes he can take it, gets mad and knocks out the champ. The boxing action is non-stop with combos, close ups, slow motion and sound effects used to really relay the impact and violence.

With a budget 16x the original, Rocky III opened on May 28th, 1982 and pulled $12 million dollars on opening weekend on it's way to a $124 million total. Good enough for 4th place on the years highest earners. A stint in the director's chair for Saturday Night Fever sequel Staying Alive and a role opposite Dolly Parton in the musical comedy Rhinestone followed before 1985's Rocky IV. Taking place directly after the events of III we find Rocky and Apollo being the best of friends before being introduced to the Soviet Union's Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), a giant, freakishly strong amateur boxer looking to challenge Rocky and show the world what Communist training looks like. Never one to be upstaged, Apollo challenges the untested Drago to an exhibition match to show that it's us (the U.S.) against them. What starts as a joke becomes tragedy when the over strong Drago kills the cocky and over the hill Creed in the ring. Feeling responsible for his friend's death after not throwing in the towel at Creed's insistence, Rocky gives up the title and agrees to fight Drago in Russia. Training in snow covered isolation with the help of Apollo's former trainer Duke (Tony Burton) and brother in law Paulie (Burt Young), Rocky finds the inner warrior and prepares to die in his fight against Drago. But it's Adrian once again who takes it over the top by telling Rocky he can do it, providing that final mental boost our guy needs.

Rocky IV is arguably the most enjoyable and weirdest of the series. You have a housekeeping robot, new age training equipment, the Cold War, steroids and an incredible fighter entrance featuring a ring rising from the floor, dancers, singers, brass band, James Brown performing and Carl Weathers dancing in an American flag outfit consisting of a vest with coattails and top hat. While some might not appreciate the simple story: Apollo gets killed, Rocky trains, fights Drago, wins Cold War, I find it all to be incredibly entertaining and inspiring. Once again Stallone writes and directs with heart and style as Apollo questions what happens to the warrior class when there's no fight or challenge, Drago has to figure out being a propaganda tool while fighting for himself, Rocky realizing he can win because he's willing to die and his poor wife Adrian who suffers through all of this. While Weathers was a great corner man in III, Tony Burton's Duke edges him out here by being paternal and an incredibly great screamer. "Take it to him, no pain!" "This is your whole life!" "You see?! He's not a machine, he's a man!" "Punch, punch until you can't punch no more!" Then you have the awesome training sequences with Rocky out in the wilderness with no real equipment, just running in the snow, carrying logs, lifting carriages and doing chins while Dolph has a whole team of scientists and equipment around like treadmills, versa climbers and the juice. All set to Vince DiCola's incredible synth score, the only Rocky film not to have orchestral music by Bill Conti. Watching it again I was surprised at how brutal Apollo's death scene was and how heart string pulling Rocky's driving around remembering his life up until that point is constructed. Of course Dolph is perfectly cast as the seemingly unstoppable specimen of a man but is given just enough humanity and free will so you don't hate him. After Weathers' fast talking, big idea, cocky and funny Creed followed by T's grunting and straight mean barking, Dolph plays it near silent, stoic and intimidating.

Costing an estimated $30 million bucks, Rocky IV opened up in time for Thanksgiving on November 27th with a whopping $19 million dollars, bested only by Stallone's own Rambo: First Blood Part II. It would be a banner year for Sly as Rambo and Rocky would be the 2nd and 3rd highest grossing films of 1985 behind Back to the Future. The film also lives on as songs by DiCola, Survivor, James Brown and Robert Tepper have become work out tracklist staples and at the time were part of a platinum selling soundtrack that yielded three top singles.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Summer Cinema: Southpaw

Holy crap, it's almost August! That means the Summer Movie Season is nearly over! This weekend sees the release of Adam Sandler vs 80's video games Pixels as well as the adult drama with boxing, Southpaw. The Shield writer and Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter gets his first feature handled by one of my favorite current directors in the action-drama field, Antoine Fuqua, of Training Day, King Arthur, Shooter and The Equalizer fame. Nightcrawler's Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Billy Hope, an orphan from Hell's Kitchen, New York that grows up to be a boxing champion due to his aggressive, no defense style. By his side is fellow orphan and long time love Maureen (Rachel McAdams) who acts as his unofficial manager and only wants the best for Billy and young daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). After a particularly brutal victory, Hope is thinking of taking a break to the chagrin of manager Jordan Mains (50 Cent). Up and coming title contender Miguel "Magic" Escobar (Miguel Gomez) dogs Billy every chance he gets which leads to a public brawl and a tragic event. If you've seen the trailer, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, it adds a nice layer of surprise, shock and emotion to the flick...

In a downward spiral, Billy loses his house, money and daughter before realizing he needs to be a father. After his training staff, management and entourage essentially abandon him, Billy seeks out Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), the coach of the only fighter Hope feels beat him. Inner city and orphanage hardships, grieving, child services, court ordered mandates, derailed vigilantism,  swallowing your pride and making a comeback via Eminem soundtracked training montage drama ensues. Of course with the cast and story involved, performances are raw and gritty but not particularly captivating. Producer Harvey Weinstein thinks this will get Jake G. his Oscar nod after being overlooked for last year's stellar Nightcrawler but I just don't see it. Gyllenhaal plays a punk from the streets who isn't too smart to a T but you're not exactly rooting for him and are only interested in his story because that's what the movie is about. McAdams plays a spunky yet protective Jersey wife quite well and Whitaker is his usual dependable self as the coach with his own demons. While Gyllenhaal is ripped and looks the part, for a film with boxing, the pugilism scenes lack a certain impact but do show you a few things about the sport and technique involved.

All in, Southpaw is fine matinee counter programming to big, noisy blockbusters that contains some drama and heart along with solid performances. But in the end, there isn't anything you won't see coming and would probably play a lot better if you've never seen Rocky, Rocky II, Rocky III, Rocky IV, Rocky IV or Rocky Balboa. A quick tribute to recently deceased film composer extraordinaire James Horner ends the film which elicited more emotion than the film could.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Gotta Hear! Piece of the Action Podcast

This past weekend I sat down over Skype with my #ActionMovieBro Eoin from The Action Elite. This time out we discussed San Diego Comic-Con, July birthday boys Wesley Snipes, Michael Biehn and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Navy Seals, summer movies and all things The Terminator! So sit back and let us talk you through traffic, your ride home or lying in the middle of the floor.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

(Not)Love Actually: The Hunted

I remember seeing the trailer for 2003's The Hunted in a theater back in the early 2000's. The story of a special forces operator having trouble dealing with society and going on a surprise violent rampage elicited an immediate "Rambo for the new millennium" from someone in the crowd. A few Sunday's ago I found myself inexplicably watching the William Friedkin directed, somewhat forgotten man to man, hand to hand mini-classic starring Benicio Del Toro and Tommy Lee Jones . When I first saw the flick, I was semi-obsessed with it and devoured the DVD special features and commentary. Tweeting to the director that it was underrated, Friedkin and several dozen others agreed.

The film opens in Kosovo where Special Forces soldier Aaron Hallam (Del Toro) is knee deep into a violent mission to take out some bad guys. Years later we find him challenging two hunters in the woods of Oregon and killing them with a knife. Hallam's teacher and deep woods tracker L.T. Bonham (Jones) is called in to assist with the investigation. Being trained in the arts of stealth, self sufficiency in nature and the production and use of edged weapons, Hallam makes for an excellent soldier. But the stress of battle has him seemingly coming off the hinges and unable to hold a job or maintain healthy relationships back in the world. With the threat of confidential military affairs going public, Hallam is targeted for assassination by some of his former teammates turned government agents. But Hallam escapes and the chase is on with Bonham, agent Abby Durrell (Connie Nielsen) and half the city's police in pursuit. It all leads to a final confrontation between former teacher and student where only one will leave alive.

Based on a script by David and Peter Griffiths along with Art Monterastelli, at face value The Hunted treads familiar ground as Stallone's 1984 breakout hit First Blood where a returning Vietnam veteran butts heads with a small town sheriff and wreaks havoc when they won't leave him alone. But The Hunted tells it's own story in a very unique way in a fast paced, educational and violent style as we see flashes of Hallam's intense training designed to take a person's life quickly and efficiently. Then we have Tommy Lee Jones' Bonham feeling partially responsible for Hallam's actions and stepping up to deal with the issue and save civilian lives. At a brisk and simple 94 minutes, The Hunted is a genre film elevated by it's cast and crew. Director Friedkin films everything practically so we get expansive woods, chases through crowded streets, cars crashing, trucks flipping, high falls and impressive hand to hand and knife to knife fights with a brutal showdown on the side of a waterfall. The amount of research displayed is great from Hallam's training to each using their tracking prowess to find the other and the final confrontation where one makes a knife out of scrap metal and the other chisels an over sized arrowhead from a piece of rock. Del Toro is calm, cool and reserved here with a hint of instability while Jones is his usual solid, strong and weary self.

Released in March of 2003, The Hunted was meant to be Benicio Del Toro's leading man follow up to his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 2000's Traffic. Jones was coming off consecutive hits like Men in Black II, Space Cowboys, Double Jeopardy and Friedkin collaboration Rules of Engagement. While the director had boffo box office success with The Exorcist and The French Connection in the 70's, Friedkin struggled in the 80's and 90's, giving us among others the awesomely stylistic secret service saga and Dammaged Goods favorite To Live and Die In L.A. and long delayed death penalty drama Rampage starring Michael Biehn. Both films are high on my list but along with the likes of Cruising, The Guardian and Blue Chips failed to find a wide audience. Some would argue that his hiring for 1995's big budget thriller Jade came from being married to the head of Paramount. After Jade flopped, Friedkin was entrusted with another expensive film there, 2000's military themed Rules of Engagement starring Samuel L. Jackson and Jones. The financial success of Engagement lead to The Hunted but during shooting, star Del Toro broke his wrist and delayed filming for four months.

Once finished, The Hunted opened on March 14th to a so-so $13.4 million bucks and weak reviews. Although Roger Ebert did give it a glowing 3.5 out of 4 stars, commending it's simple story but superb execution of a chase movie. Going on to gross $34.2 million in the states at a supposed $55 million budget, The Hunted could hardly be called a hit and would rank 85th for the year. Friedkin would follow up with 2006's Bug, an independent horror film with 1/10th the budget of Hunted before bouncing back critically with 2011's offbeat Killer Joe. Del Toro's leading man career would never take off as supporting roles in Sin City and 21 Grams would be lauded while the big budget, two part bio-pic Che barely saw theatrical release. 2010's enjoyable if uneven passion project The Wolfman would lose it's original director shortly before filming and suffer cost overruns before disappointing at the box office. Still in high demand, Del Toro was sought out for the villain role in 2009's Star Trek, ended up in 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy and is rumored to be up for a baddie in an upcoming Star Wars spin-off. Jones would continue to work in films big and small like The Missing and Lincoln, directing The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada while popping up in Oscar winner No Country For Old Men along with the crowd pleasing, money making Captain America and Men in Black 3.

While The Hunted remains a film few have seen, it still holds up as an exciting, violent, educational and strangely hypnotic entry in the rare one on one, hand to hand combat, knife fighting, chase thriller genre. A decade plus removed and it's safe to say they don't make'em like that anymore.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Summer Cinema: Ant-Man

Marvel's Ant-Man opens today and is expected to gross a healthy if not record breaking $60 million bucks at the box office. It's been a long road to the big screen with Edgar Wright's surprise exit after working on the flick for nearly a decade. Apparently the helmer of Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim VS The World and The World's End just didn't want to fit his story into the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe. Peyton Reed, a director known for comedies like Bring It On, The Break Up and an unmade Fantastic Four film stepped in last minute, revised the script and got production underway. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, many were expecting Ant-Man to be Marvel's first film folly but just might be a prime example of what their films should be given their track record. It's a light, fun and entertaining affair with a simple, straight ahead story, a terrific cast, clever set pieces and consistent laughs.

We open back in the 80's where Dr. Hank Pym, brilliant scientist and creator of the Pym Particles (make you big or small, super strong, etc) is telling SHIELD to kiss his ass. Played by a de-aged Michael Douglas, Pym doesn't want his scientific creation to become a weapon. Cut to today where burglar with a cause Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is getting out of prison and trying to stay out of trouble but his former cellmate Luis (a scene stealing Michael Pena) keeps hearing about lucrative job opportunities. Wanting to provide for his separated daughter and be a good dad, Lang agrees to a job that's actually a test put together by Douglas's Pym. Pym wants Lang to pick up the mantle of Ant-Man (small like one, controls armies of them) in order to stop his former protege Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) who has replicated Pym's work and is ready to sell it to the highest bidder. Hank and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) then help train Lang to use the suit and lead his insect army to break into Cross' complex and destroy his work.

While it's been 15 years since X-Men kick started a new wave in cinema, I think Ant-Man has finally gotten things right when it comes to the comic book movie. At least in the Marvel movie tradition. I've always thought their approach was a little too jokey as any dramatic scene is instantly dispelled by humor so there's never any tension. But it's perfect for Ant-Man's lighter vibe and simple origin story mixed with the light drama of two fathers trying to care for their daughters with some action, comedy and spectacle. While origin tales in Spider-Man, Hulk and The Punisher movies lead to some near mind numbing character development and non-action, Ant moves fast and benefits from Hank Pym's having already played the character offscreen and passing on the mantle. Scenes where Scott shrinks down and learns to use his abilities are well done and show mundane activities like taking a shower or dancing being deadly obstacle courses. While his four types of ant army help him build, fly or attack their way through San Francisco. Fight scenes are quick and big as in his miniature form, Ant-Man can lift 50 times his body weight leading to some real rock'em, sock'em moments were grown men look like they're being attacked by an invisible man. There's Marvel cameos galore but used very tactfully so I'm wondering where Wright drew the line of telling his own story and not furthering the big picture.

Reed keeps things moving and it was nice to see the revised script by Wright, Joe Cornish, Reed and Rudd focusing on the family dynamics and a one on one confrontation. Rudd is excellent as Lang in his usual likable, put upon persona while showing off his abs. Douglas is always The Man and is starting to look a lot like awesome dad Kirk. Lilly isn't your typical love interest or damsel in distress with plenty of fight and anger while Stoll just wants Hank's approval while going crazy from his Pym Particle knock off. Michael Pena steals nearly every scene he's in as the excited but dim witted buddy and there's a funny couple of "telephone"/"my friend told me" stories he narrates.

With no real expectations, Ant-Man proved to be a great time at the summer cinema for two hours. Be sure to stay after the credits as there are two stingers that actually add to the future films versus just playing for laughs.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Tell Me A Question: Vladimir Kulich & The 30 Day Challenge

After meeting actor Vladimir Kulich at the Pound of Flesh premiere, I had the chance to sit down with the imposing blonde figure from The 13th Warrior, Vikings, Ironclad, Smokin' Aces, The X-Files, Angel and much more. Unlike his cinematic image of stoic vikings and menacing assassins, Kulich in person is warm, affable, intelligent, candid and funny. We talked about a multitude of topics so I'm going to break it down into two parts. In this first chapter we'll focus on how Kulich got his start in the business and his journey through the Hollywood maze.

Although he's played many an Eastern European or Russian, Vladimir Kulich hails from a small border town near Slovakia. During the summers and holidays his parents would ship him off to his grandparents who in turn would send him to his uncle's. Kulich's uncle ran a theater company where he was introduced to acting via holding props and serving pitchers of beer during intermission. During this era all things western were outlawed but Kulich's uncle smuggled in a print of John Sturges' classic men on a mission flick The Magnificent Seven. We bonded over our mutual appreciation of the likes of Steve McQueen, Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson. "Steve McQueen was the guy that we all want to be." Like his favorite line from Hamlet, "this above all to thine own self be true", Kulich felt McQueen had that individual quality which many actors today don't. Kulich and I also share the same favorite movie, the John Sturges directed, McQueen starring The Great Escape which he's seen probably 10,000 times. Later in life, Kulich nearly bought McQueen's final home and rode up on his motorcycle to check out the "funky vibe".

When the Soviets invaded Slovakia, Kulich's family escaped to a small town in Canada outside Montreal where art and theater were not well regarded but hockey was. Being a physical youth, Kulich excelled on the ice and turned professional in 1976. After a short stint for the Rangers, in the minors and the International League, Kulich realized his career would not be a long one. During this period of introspection, he ended up working at a yacht club and was invited to crew at the World Championships being held in Long Beach. While in California on a 3 day break, the crew traveled to the Grand Canyon, hiking down to the bottom and rafting the rapids. Kulich fell in love with river rafting and after finishing the race, headed to British Columbia where many a great rivers resided.

Kulich started and ran a successful white water rafting business for 12 years. In the late 80's the cast and crew of hit TV show 21 Jump Street showed up wanting to rent some rafts for an episode. One of the producers suggested Vladimir come in for an audition and he started booking roles on Vancouver filmed shows like MacGuyver, Highlander, The X-Files and a series of low budget films including Crackerjack with Nastassja Kinski and Christopher Plummer, Red Scorpion 2 with Matt McColm and John Savage, Decoy with Peter Weller and Robert Patrick and Breach of Trust with Michael Biehn and Matt Craven. Reflecting on the time: "There was lots of work in Vancouver in those days, I did the circuit of Stephen Cannell shows, a bunch of cheap movies I don't even know what to say about." Craving juicier roles, Kulich made the decision to move to Los Angeles, his Canadian agent was not supportive, thinking he should be happy with what he was getting and that he would be back.

Moving to Los Angeles, Kulich gave himself 30 days to land an agent. After receiving 20 some query responses and landing one, Kulich gave himself another 30 days to book a part. On the 28th day, Kulich auditioned for a mini-epic TV series, The Big One: The Great Los Angeles Earthquake. The part: a hitman attempting to assassinate Nelson Mandela. Feeling he presented himself well, the phone didn't ring for 2 days and Kulich headed back to Vancouver and picked up his river rafting business. Kulich's agent called saying they'd been trying to find him for a week as he got the part. When asked if playing vikings and assassins worried him professionally, Kulich responded: "I'm in this for the long run. I can play the dad now that I'm older. In my 30's and 40's, you want me to be a killer? I'll be a killer. It's just energy." One thing that did annoy the 6'5", blonde giant was being cast as an Eastern European. His name Vladimir didn't help and Kulich considered changing it but never went through with it. Surprised at his lack of Russian accent, Kulich is often asked to lay it on thick, as he did in 2013's Antoine Fuqua/Denzel Washington hit, The Equalizer where he plays a gangster. "Half my friends didn't know it was me, I had a beard, I was tatted out and was speaking with that thick, thick accent."

While Kulich had theater and acting in the family, auditions weren't always so smooth. Going in for an unknown casting call that ended up being Joe Carnahan's 2006 gonzo, assassins on parade romp Smokin' Aces, Kulich had just broken up with a lady and flubbed his lines, telling the casting director: "Look, I just broke up with the love of my life and you're more than gracious for letting me stumble through this. Sorry for wasting your time." With that Kulich took himself out of the running but received a call that he'd been hired. Shocked, Kulich was told that Carnahan simply loved The 13th Warrior. While Kulich's appearance as the mysterious Swede in Aces came as quite the welcome surprise for familiar audiences, the actor wishes the role was expanded to give him more of an arc. In the film you're tricked into thinking The Swede is the king of all hitmen but ends up being a surgeon hired to extract the heart of one Jeremy Piven.

Growing up, Kulich's favorite actors were Klaus Kinski, Christopher Plummer and Max Von Sydow.  On 1994's Crackerjack, Kulich would find himself next to his idol turned co-star Plummer in the make up trailer. Running late one day after hitting the gym, Plummer instilled the following advice: "Darling, if you want to look big, act big." Kulich took it to heart and realized: "At the end of the day, it's here (the eyes and face), an actor can seem ten and a half feet tall but he's only five feet five, that's the power of film". On Sydow's inspiration: "I want to grow up to be an old fart in my 90's still acting like Sydow. He has that great voice." Kulich thought he had an interesting voice, cut a demo and landed an agent leading to the role of Ulfric Stormcloak on 2011's video game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. From his experience, video games is the most secretive business out there so when they showed him an edited clip, he was thrilled and shocked to hear his voice opposite idols Plummer and Von Sydow. Asked about the difference between acting in a booth versus on set: "It's the same. It's all imagination. If I'm physically doing the scene with you, I'm taking what you're giving me plus I'm adding to you even more. I respond. That's what I do in the movies, I do the same thing in front of a microphone. Only difference is I can be in a tee shirt and relax."

Many thanks to Mr. Kulich for taking the time to chat and in a bit of cosmic coincidence, today happens to be his birthday! Hope it's a great one and in our next chapter we'll focus on his most recognizable and iconic role, as viking leader Buliwyf in the John McTiernan and Michael Crichton medieval epic turned cult hit The 13th Warrior. "Lo there do I see..."