Keanu, Denzel Or Liam: Who is the King of…

This  year has been a big year in a growing trend in movies – the resurgence of the Angry Homicidal Loner Hero.  Throughout the Clinton and Bush 2.0 years it seemed action movies became more about collaboration and wits and mismatched pairs.  And the individual action hero began to die a slow death. Gone were the days of Reagan when action heroes could show that one American could destroy all the forces of evil in the world, even if that solitary American action hero sounded a lot like an Austrian.  But with the election of Barack Obama there was a rise in two types of films – scared white people being hunted/murdered/threatened in their homes and having to fight back or die and the Angry Homicidal Loner Hero.  Just as the War on Drugs and the Cold War gave America two reasons to crave heroic, angry white dudes in the 1980s, so too did the election of Barack Obama give rise to the need for new heroes to battle frightening scenarios (yes this is all anecdotal evidence).  If a black man is in the White House, just imagine who could be invading YOUR house?!

The undisputed godfather of this new movement is Liam Neeson.  In real life his wife died months before Taken arrived in theaters and with life imitating art he attacked his career with a vengeance after the loss of his wife. Taken set the new standard for action movies.  As I have said recently, not every movie has to be great, but it should try to be great at what it is trying to do.  Taken was a very linear action movie – daughter is kidnapped. Former CIA-type goes on rampage to get daughter back. The End.  It had great action and never tried to be better than it was. It just tried to be great at what it was doing.  From there Neeson has made this his new brand.  Gone are the days of rescuing Jews or fencing with Tim Roth. He is now an action star.  None have reached as high as Taken, though I actually enjoyed The Grey a lot as it was a little higher degree of difficulty than Taken and still delivered a solid film.  But with Taken 3 coming out in 2015, 7 years after Liam Neeson took over has his time as the King of the AHLHs already passed?  In a word… yes.

That is because other movie stars have taken notice and are simply doing it better – like Samsung ripping off Apple and making bigger and better phones. Now perhaps Liam has an Apple 6 movie equivalent in the works, but without it he is already being left behind.  First person to pass him? Denzel Washington.

The Equalizer was a tremendous AHLH movie.  First off Denzel broke the mold by being black.  In an age of Obama you would expect all the loners fighting for our happiness and way of life to be white, but with a black, female republican in Utah being elected to the House, anything is possible (the role was originally considered for Russel Crowe though so I am still sort of right)!  What Denzel does in The Equalizer is just show that he is better than Liam Neeson. No knock on Neeson, but Denzel conveys a lot more with a dead-eyed stare than almost any actor. And for an AHLH silence is key and what you convey with a look is huge.  Plus, The Equalizer was directed by Antoine Fuqua who did a killer job stylizing the action scenes (that last scene in the hardware store is a visual treat).  And they made Denzel’s character more deadly and efficient than Liam Neeson’s.  Lastly, they opened up The Equalizer to more sensible sequels.  A friend of mine once said to me, upon seeing Taken 2 arrive (paraphrasing) “That’s dumb – they shouldn’t have his family being kidnapped again (which is happening in 3 as well). Instead his reputation should get him other jobs around the world helping people.”  And that is precisely what The Equalizer set up with its ending. New plots with new character give you new chances for new stars or big stars to join the franchise.  When Denzel said he should be the new Bond I chuckled. Then I saw The Equalizer and stopped chuckling.

But alas, like George Lazenby’s reign as Bond, it appears Denzel’s reign as King of the AHLHs is short lived because Keanu Reeves just one-upped him in John Wick.  First off it needs to be said that the phrase “Black Don’t Crack” needs to be amended to “Black and Keanu Don’t Crack.” Dude is 50 and along with Tom Cruise clearly has found the way to appear as a 35 year old white man for life (though Keanu has Asian blood, which helps explain his tremendous black hair).  But like Cruise, Keanu has the ability to do physical action still and that sets him apart from Denzel and Liam.  And John Wick is the most straight forward, simple and excellent of the new batch of AHLHs.  The hand to hand combat/MMA style fighting from Keanu is stuff that the other two are incapable of. I found myself very impressed with it on its own merits.  Also, Wick is the most brutally efficient killer of them all.  Everything is finished with a headshot.  Keanu was also born to play these roles.  Liam and Denzel have chops and range, but Keanu appears perfectly suited for a guy whose single minded purpose lurks just beneath the surface of a relatively pleasant, ordinary guy.  He goes into cyborg mode with just a few angry lines and it is perfect.  He wears a suit well and shoots a gun better – why mess with a whole lot else?  To prove the point, Wick is hell bent on revenge because of the death of his beagle puppy.  To give him a greater purpose would render him complicated. Instead he is willing to execute dozens of people to avenge his puppy (to some of you that makes perfect sense and you are scary).  Lastly, the movie is basically filmed like a montage of violence and cool stories about John Wick. When Wick is digging up his old reserves of weapons spliced with his old Russian mob boss explaining why Wick is so dangerous I was getting goosebumps.  If Rocky IV is the greatest sports montage music video then John Wick is maybe the greatest action montage posing as a movie.

So who knows what 2016 will bring? Perhaps a Chris Christie presidency will lead to a spate of fat heroes or villains (Jonah Hill’s agent will be busy either way) or a Hillary Clinton presidency could lead to horror movies about menstrual blood causing a pandemic across America.  But whatever the future holds for action and horror cinema let’s enjoy the AHLHs and see if Keanu can retain the title for the rest of Obama’s presidency.

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The Top Ten Movies of 2009 (and the decade)

I thought this year was a really good year for movies, despite the garbage that was listed on this site yesterday.  Before getting to the top 10 movies of 2009 (and the decade) here are some special (mostly positive) awards for movies in 2009.


Most Surprisingly Good Movies (in no particular order)

1) This Is it– Thoroughly enjoyed the concert (rehearsal) documentary about Michael Jackson.  Great music and a worthy tribute to the fallen icon and aficionado of play dates with tweens.

2) Taken– The Liam Neeson film is a perfect example of how a movie that has no ambition, only one star and a simple plot can still deliver if it just tries to do the simple things well.  And the scene where he shoots his friend’s wife to show that he means business was one of the best this year.

3) Crank 2– Either the most ingenious quasi-spoof of action movies ever or just a ridiculously entertaining goof.  Either way I had no idea that I would enjoy this movie as much as I did.  It now validates Jason Statham’s work visa to me, though his films have only grossed slightly more than my YouTube videos.

4) Drag Me To Hell – This Movie almost made the top 10.  Funny, creepy, gross, and all on purpose.  A good, but not great movie.  However, there were very few movies I enjoyed more than this one.

Take My Wife, please.
Take My Wife, please.

The Any Given Sunday Award For Most Disappointing Movie Based On Awesome Trailer

Watchmen.  Blue genitals and a waste of time is all I remember from this movie.  The trailer, however, was perfection.

The Two Towers Award For Great Trailer That Delivered Great Movie

Nothing.  But The Men Who Stare At Goats was my favorite trailer of the year and the movie was solid, but still did not meet expectations.

2009 Honorable Mention (A/K/A The Unpaid Guestspot of Movie Awards)

Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Two Lovers, Food Inc., State of Play

2009 Top Ten Movies

10) (tie) Sugar, The Messenger

Sugar is the story of a Dominican immigrant seeking to become a baseball star.  Came out early this year to rave reviews, but has long been forgotten.  Anyone who is a baseball fan or interested in the immigrant experience should see this.  Or just hang out by Yankee Stadium.

The Messenger is the best war movie this year.  It is about two soldiers who report to next of kin of the loss of loved ones.  The things people do for work in this economy.  Really strong and simple movie.

9)Capitalism: A Love Story.

This movie is a reminder that America used to be a place where a middle class person could thrive (middle class meaning one blue collar job with could salary and benefits, not $5 million dollars or less like John McCain seemed to think).  Now thanks to a selfish, never too rich mindset the wealth is more concentrated at the top than ever before.  Sadly for working Americans and Michael Moore, America is one big casino and the house always wins.

8) 500 Days of Summer

The fact that Music and Lyrics was my favorite romantic comedy before this movie came out (yes I have seen Love Actually, but have not seen When Harry Met Sally yet – gasp!) may diminish my credibility in this genre,  but I am probably not the only person telling you how great this movie is.  Funny, heartfelt and thoroughly enjoyable.  And the lesson of the film couldn’t be more optimistic: if you find yourself in a relationship with a cu-t, don’t worry because eventually you may go out with Derek Jeter’s girlfriend.

7) Bruno

The selection most likely to anger people.  First, yes I thought it was funnier than Borat.  Second, the best opening of any film since The Dark Knight.  As the techno music began blaring and the words “black guys” and “taint” flashed on screen I could not stop laughing.  For many the film was too crude.  Other complaints I heard was that Borat had a point in showing some ignorance in funny ways, whereas this just went for cheap laughs.  Probably true.  Perhaps it was easier to embrace a character who was exposing racism and sexism and, most flagrantly, anti-Semitism in Borat and feel good about laughing than in Bruno, where you are just laughing at the absurdity of a gay character’s libido on steroids.  My advice to the self-righteous – take the champagne bottle out of your ass and watch Bruno pour some champagne out of his boyfriend’s.

6) Precious Based On The Novel Push By Sapphire

Fat, pregnant by her father (again – fool me once shame on him, fool you twice… shame on him again in this rare exception to that saying), illiterate and Mariah Carey as your social worker.  And I thought being a comedian was tough.  This movie is a powerhouse and Mo’nique’s performance is one of my three favorite this year (Christopher Waltz in Inglorious Basterds and Paul Rudd in I Love You Man being the other two).  And I would like this movie to win Best Adapted Screenplay so that Sapphire, who probably negotiated the self-indulgent title has to hear the dumbest phrase ever uttered at an awards show: The winner is Precious Based on The Novel Push By Sapphire Based On The Novel Push By Sapphire.

5) Up

The opening to this movie may be the most touching sequence in movies this year.  It is just another great movie from Pixar.  Normally stories of old men hanging out with young fat kids is awkward (think Herbert the Pervert and Chris Griffin from Family Guy as one such pairing), but this movie is nothing of the sort.  Plus it has a talking golden retriever, which will always get support from me.

4) Inglorious Basterds

Christopher Waltz was amazing, but surprising to me was how good Brad Pitt was.  A funny, intense, enjoyable movie about Nazis and the Jews that hunted them.  It was also a welcome relief from the usual parade of mediocre, maudlin films about the Holocaust that are raised to critical praise because of the subject matter.  After Schindler’s List I think Hollywood could have just waited for this one .  After all slavery has had what, Roots and Amistad?  I think 6 Holocaust movies come out last year alone.  But I digress.  Basterds is awesome (and my favorite Tarantino film – that is what I think, but I am also writing it because I want to anger those who worship at the altar of Pulp Fiction).

3) Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs

Even more than Bruno, this choice is likely to bring on some WTFs.  I did not even want to see this movie, but then reviews kept talking about how much fun it was.  The biggest shock of the year for me was this movie.  It was hysterical from start to finish.  It was like the humor of Family Guy, but not as crude or easy.  I flirted with putting this #1, but the last two choices, upon reflection, were the two best movies of the year.

2) Up In The Air

 I am tired of the “this is the movie that defines our times” type quotes, but besides that this is a great movie.  George Clooney’s best (unlike his win for Syriana, no complaints if he gets Best Actor) and a movie that is so good that I cannot exactly explain why it is so good.  Perhaps it is because it is a movie that defines our times… oops.

1) District 9

The most original movie I have seen in a long time.  The biggest crime of the Oscars could be if Avatar gets a best picture nomination and this does not (if they only feel like honoring once sci-fi-ish film).  Since it is #1 I don’t think it needs any explaining, other than the fact that it comes out on DVD today so you should rent it if you have not seen it.


10) School Of Rock – Along with The Wrestler, no movie has matched an actor better this decade than Jack Black and SOR.

9) The Departed – I hate the Boston accent, but that was the only thing I hated about this movie.

8) Eastern Promises– Russian mob in London and the best fight scene in any movie ever.  Sorry Bourne Ultimatum.  You were second.

7) Million Dollar Baby – The only movie that made me cry this decade (joining E.T., Glory and Dead Poets’ Society on the career list).  Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and Hilary Swank all at their best.

6) Traffic – A decade later the violence in Mexico is worse and the liberal pot smokers who abhor the violence of war or the treatment of chickens that are not free-range, but still help fund the cartels that propagate massive bloodshed in and around the border.  This movie would go under the category of wake up calls unheeded.  Great movie.

5) Finding Nemo– My favorite movie from the most consistently great movie studio.

4) 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days – I am not a big foreign film guy, but this was so intense and so good I regretted not speaking (Romanian if my recollection is correct) the language because even checking the subtitles was too much attention away from the acting.

3) The Dark Knight – I have never seen a movie in the theaters more than this one.  And it’s not even close.  Die Hard, The Matrix and The Dark Knight are the three films that changed and elevated action movies higher than any others in the last 20 years.  To me, it was even more impressive to take action, the way Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger did, and turn it into art.

2) The Lord Of The Rings – Because of The Godfather III’s mediocrity this is the greatest trilogy of all time.  Shut up Star Wars people. (and if I had to pick just one – The Two Towers).

1) United 93 – I have only seen two perfect movies in my lifetime.  One was Amadeus, my favorite movie of all time.  The other was United 93.  I am not saying it is my favorite movie of all time; it would be hard to make that claim about a film focused on 9/11.  But the realism, the intensity, the respectful rendering of an incredibly sensitive subject and the overall product was second to none this decade for me.  In a sad way I guess it is fitting that the decade’s defining event yielded the decade’s best movie. Besides, a movie about our collective self-indulgence and self absorption called Twitter v. 3.05 would not be nearly as riveting.