Back in the ’80s and ’90s, films about unconventional heroes taking on the criminal element were everywhere. To make your film stand out, you had to have a gimmick. It wasn’t enough to just toss in a high-kicking, kung fu-fightin’ cop into the standard “loose cannon who doesn’t play by the rules” genre. Van Damme, Seagal, Schwarzenegger, and Stallone were already stomping those roles into the ground, and doing it to big box office. So howzabout a good ol boy, backwoods hillbilly turned big city cop forced to take on gangsters in three-piece suits? Bingo! Of all the ’80s/’90s action stars, Patrick Swayze boasted easily the most impressive filmography of the bunch. Besides the ability to kick ass in films like “Steel Dawn”, “Road House”, and “Next of Kin”, he also had “Dirty Dancing” and “Ghost” on his resume in the same time period. How’s that for eclectic? Plus, the man can rock a mean mullet.
“Next of Kin” finds Swayze playing Truman Gates, a cop from “the hills” who has moved on up to the big city. He’s got a nice wife (Helen Hunt) and a good job. That is, until his hard-working little brother (Bill Paxton, not quite getting there with his own version of the mullet) is murdered by douchey mobster Adam Baldwin (“Firefly”), who has never met a hillbilly he didn’t want to mock mercilessly. This in turn brings Gates’ older brother (Ireland’s own Liam Neeson!) to seek vengeance. Unlike Gates, big bro ain’t long on patience, or all them fancy crime-solvin’ nonsense that takes lots of time. Will the big city cop put away his adopted big city ways and do his duty as “next of kin”? I’m sure you can probably figure out the answer to that one without me having to tell you, right?
Directed by John Irvin (who also directed Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1986’s “Raw Deal” a few years earlier), “Next of Kin” shows that it’s a different breed of genre film when it opens with an excellent sequence where Gates has to talk in one of his “people” before his colleagues make a mess of things, and continues admirably with its mix of charm, action, and strong characters. The film is probably not nearly as action-packed as audiences in the late ’80s were either expecting or needed in their “loose cannon who plays by his own rules” movie, but it’s an admirable drama with some nice action here and there. The film does pour on the violence in the Third Act, but that may have been too late for some. Liam Neeson actually takes over the film for much of its middle section, so if you love the idea of Neeson “hillbillying it up”, then you’ll love a large chunk of “Next of Kin”. Also, be on the look out for Ben Stiller in an early movie role as a fresh-faced wannabe gangster.
No special features. This is a “buy it for the Blu-ray” or don’t buy it at all deal. Fortunately the Blu-ray transfer has crisp visuals, though the sound is a bit wonky. I’m not sure if this is the fault of the transfer or the original track, but there are some really strange sounds coming from the movie at certain places.
1990’s “Hard to Kill” is pure Steven Seagal in his prime — busting bones and cracking heads in the mostly generic cop film fashion, and collecting a nice paycheck for it. The film does mark a rarity for a Seagal movie, in that his character was actually hurt in this one. I suppose that was inevitable, given that the entire plot hinges on him not being a Superman for once, so in that respect it probably wasn’t all that brave of a career move on his part. Of course, once our hero returns from his injuries, he’s essentially back to his invincible self again. It’s curious though that once Seagal began calling his shots in direct-to-DVD action movies, his characters were rarely touched by his opponents.
Seagal plays the awesomely named Mason Storm, one of those loose cannon cops who plays by his own rules. When Storm runs afoul of a corrupt politician (the always excellent William Sadler), he finds his life in danger. Bad guys bushwhack our hero, killing his wife and absconding with his son. Storm ends up in a coma, where the bad guys eventually discover him again 7 years (and a Fu Manchu beard) later. But thanks to the quick thinking of his plucky nurse (Kelly LeBrock, who was married to Seagal at the time), he narrowly escapes death … again. Eventually, our hero is nursed (ahem) back to health, and so begins a bloody campaign against those who wronged him. You don’t fuck with Mason Storm. I mean, the dude’s name is Mason Storm. That is the most “don’t fuck with this guy” name if there ever was one.
Seagal was on a major roll in the late ’80s and ’90s, “Hard to Kill” being his second major movie after 1988’s “Above the Law”, where he played, yes, a loose cannon cop who plays by his own rules. He would play the same role for, well, pretty much the entire ’90s, culminating with, quite possibly, the most vain Hollywood project of all time, 1997’s masterful “Fire Down Below”. (Seagal historians will tell you that the action star was never really the same after this stinker.) “Hard to Kill”, though, was classic Seagal. Twenty-two years later, the film still makes me grin like a dummy. It’s an absurd film, even by early ’90s action movie standards, and certainly it’s biggest (and only) draw is Seagal so completely in his heyday. Don’t watch “Hard to Kill” for the script or directing or acting, but do watch it for the action, gunplay, and Seagal just being, well, Seagal at his most Seagaliest.
Special features include a theatrical trailer and, uh, that’s it. This is another “buy it for the Blu-ray or don’t buy it” deals. The Blu-ray transfer is overly grainy, and is even worse during night scenes. The sound is clear, though, which is great because it allows me to hear award-winning lines like, “This is for my wife — fuck you and die!” with great clarity. This is one of those movies I would have loved to have gotten an audio commentary on, perhaps by the director Bruce Malmuth, who only directed one more movie, 1994’s “Pentathlon” after this gem. Oh, what stories he must have from the set?
Hey, remember when Chris Evans wasn’t Captain America yet, Jason Statham played a bad guy, and Kim Basinger still had a movie career? Ah, 2004. The time goes by so fast, doesn’t it? 2004’s “Cellular” was written by Larry Cohen, who also wrote “Phone Booth” in 2002, about a guy trapped in a phone booth by a sniper. He followed that up with 2004’s “Cellular”, which was co-written by Chris Morgan, who would go on to write later installments of the “Fast and Furious” franchise. For his part, director David R. Ellis was coming off “Final Destination 2”, with “Snakes on a Plane” still two years away. Ah, “Snakes on a Plane”…
“Cellular” finds Basinger playing Jessica Martin, a science teacher with a young son and loving husband who is abducted and tossed into the attic of a strange house by unknown assailants led by Jason Statham. The bad guys want something from her, but won’t say what. Jessica finds a lifeline — an old, smashed (but not completely dead) telephone that, after some prodding, connects her to the cellphone of beach bum Ryan (Evans), who we first see with his shirt off cruising the boardwalks with his buddy Chad (Eric Christian Olsen). Of course, getting a stranger to believe that you’ve been captured at gunpoint by bad guys with bad intentions takes some doing, but Jessica does just that, sending Ryan racing off to save her. Weak cellphone batteries, totally unhelpful sales people, nuisance traffic, and other assorted Tomfoolery collude to make Ryan’s Good Samaritan deed that much harder.
Much of “Cellular” is patently ridiculous, to be sure, but that probably won’t stop you from finding it to be one intense, suspenseful ride anyway. William H. Macy co-stars as a retiring cop (yes, that cliche) who reluctantly gets involved in Ryan’s quest to save Jessica despite his better judgement, and Statham is excellent as the bad guy. Jessica Biel has an early role as Ryan’s girlfriend, but this is really Evans and Basinger’s film, and they certainly carry the way with aplomb. Basinger is particularly good as the not-completely helpless damsel in distress. If you’ve never seen “Cellular”, give it a whirl, but it’s vital that you go along with the concept from the opening credits, otherwise there is no point.
It’s a 2004 film, so the Blu-ray transfer didn’t exactly have to work that hard. Special features include a full-length audio commentary track with director David R. Ellis, producer Tawny Ellis and stunt coordinator Annie Ellis. As you might have surmised, the Ellis trio are family (Tawny is David’s daughter, Annie his sister). Being the Alpha Male in the group, David Ellis of course dominates the track. In something of a movie-themed gag, the trio calls up other members of the film’s crew to get their input on the movie. It’s not always successful, but I suppose it’s an interesting twist on the usual commentary track. You’ll have to crank up the volume for these segments, though. In an interesting bit, because the track was recorded just after the film was released in 2004, at one point while talking about star Chris Evans, director David R. Ellis mentions that “he’s going to be a big star”. You weren’t kidding, David.
Other bonus content include about 6 minutes of deleted scenes (with optional commentary by director David R. Ellis) and a trio of featurettes related to the film’s cellphone themes that total over an hour. Interesting stuff, especially the one about the pervasiveness of cellphones in today’s society (well, 2004’s society, anyway), but otherwise not really mandatory viewing for fans of the movie.