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Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever review

Posted : 3 weeks, 4 days ago on 28 September 2017 03:37 (A review of Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever)

Calling something the “worst” isn’t often taken lightly. If it’s the worst video game ever made, for example, such claims causes sales to plummet and promise the title in question a future reduced to ironic Let’s Plays with daring YouTube personalities ripping it to pieces and cracking wise as they consume its every awful second. How about the worst movie ever made? Ballistic: Ecks vs Sever, according to review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, is easily the worst film in existence. It currently holds a 0% Fresh rating, that score based on a total of 116 reviews. What’s interesting about Ballistic’s shocking score is that it hasn’t led to more widespread attention. Movies like The Room and Manos: The Hands of Fate are considered bad movie gold and have gained huge followings over the years. You likely know someone who at the very least knows about these movies, perhaps even has seen them or, gulp, owns copies of them. Ballistic, however, is relatively obscure.

 

Thai filmmaker Wych Kaosayananda, or simply Kaos as he is credited here, makes his English language debut with Ballistic: Ecks vs Sever. I remember seeing the trailer for this when I was but a wee lad of 14 years.  I remember its opening weekend, and I remember wanting to see it its opening weekend. I also remember finding a secondhand copy at a local Hollywood Video just a few months later, buying it, and then watching it. I remember very little about this viewing. I don’t, however, remember thinking that it was particularly awful. It was… fine. It was OK. It was about what you’d expect from a $70 million ($95 million when adjusting for inflation) action movie following the immense success of The Matrix; techno soundtrack, cool stunts, slow-mo galore, and lots of slicked back hair and long, flowing coats.

 

I came across a cheap-as-dirt DVD on Amazon recently and thought, what the heck, let’s give it another shot. A rewatch 15 years later and my feelings are much the same. After seeing some truly heinous films over that 15-year span, I find myself more dumbfounded than ever at the claims that Ballistic was a cancerous wretch unleashed upon the filmgoing masses. If nothing else, Ballistic’s biggest flaws are that it’s staggeringly bland and its story is poorly written & told. Writer Alan McElroy (Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, 1997’s Spawn adaptation, and a spate of Wrong Turn sequels) has penned an inconsequential, utterly pointless script. I can’t imagine McElroy's treatment being more than a couple pages long. It wants to be a twisty turny spy thriller, but it hasn’t the faintest idea what its plot actually is or how to tell its incoherent story in any discernible fashion.

 

The back of the box says that Ballistic is about two rival spies working against each other until they realize they need to be working with each other to stop a common enemy. That’s only partially true. Agent Jeremiah Ecks (a scruffy and downtrodden Antonio Banderas) and Sever (Lucy Liu, clearly phoning it in) aren’t rivals. They aren’t even familiar with each other until about the middle of the movie. Ecks and Sever are only enemies because Sever fires a few shots Ecks’s way during an investigation and he proceeds to chase her down. Their real enemy is a man named Robert Gant (Gregg Henry, giving a far better performance than this movie deserved) who, as the movie progresses, the audience and our two protagonists realize is a very bad man who has used his own young son, Michael, to smuggle something back into the States undetected. Gant knows something about Ecks’s wife, Vinn (Talisa Soto), presumed dead years ago, and Sever is his only lead on Gant.

 

Believe me, that plot’s harder to describe than you can imagine provided how slapdash it’s presented. Much of it doesn’t make any sense, and it starts to become so contrived and so convoluted by the third act that I simply can’t imagine someone sitting at a desk and writing it and thinking they’ve got something worthy of a major studio’s backing. There were so many times during the movie that I felt like Kaos and the actors were making it up as they went along, trying their best to fill in the gaps that McElroy's flimsy script left out. It feels really unrehearsed and unrefined, like a first draft script that went straight into shooting.

 

It’s an action movie, I hear you say, and the story isn’t all that important. Usually, yes, I would agree with that. But with Ecks vs Sever, it spends a lot of time with the characters, giving them opportunity to explain their pasts, their motivations, and really wants you to care about them. According to Kaos, the plot IS important. It’s just so ineffectual and so rote and cliché. Thankfully, though, Kaos does live up to his name and delivers a whole lot of that: chaos. This is a movie released in 2002, and I was expecting it to look seriously dated by today’s standards. It doesn’t. Most of the action here is downright impressive, offering the same kind of over-the-top bombast we see so much of today.

 

One thing I was really surprised by was the lack of onscreen bloodshed in what the back of the box states is an action movie rated R for strong violence. Even by 2002 standards Ballistic is quite tame. The bullet impacts are all just off-screen or dust hits, necks are broken off-screen, and the one gratutious headshot in the film is a quick shot of a bloodless bullet hole in someone’s head. There’s no nudity either, and the profanity consists of only mild obscenities (not a single F bomb). In fact, I can’t imagine how this ever got an R rating. Warner Bros. must have submitted this on an off day for the MPAA because this is an easy PG-13. Even more so today.


 If you need one reason to see this movie and can live with a teeth-gnashingly silly plot, the action is all the excuse you need. The DVD sounds amazing, especially considering its age, and Kaos films a good bulk of the big action moments using stunt doubles, real cars, real fire, and the actors do seem to be performing a lot of their own stunts. The fight scenes also have a gritty realism to them, looking less like choreographed stuntmen and women fighting and more like two trained agents engaging in an actual hand-to-hand fight. As opposed to lots of blocked and countered punches and kicks, you end up with more grappling and struggling - more akin to how a real-life tete-a-tete takes place. There were many times that Banderas would pull off a huge jump or land a hard fall and he would lie on the ground writhing in pain. That's not something you'd expect to see in a flick like this. He felt like a real person who was in way over his head. He looked tired and beat up, and I bought it.

 

Kaos loves explosions. I mean, he absolutely loves them. Everything blows up. Cars crash into other cars and explode on impact. Sever shoots a prison bus with a grenade launcher and the prison bus splits open and goes careening down the street into oncoming traffic with Ecks laying on top of it, firing a shotgun at Sever as it destroys everything in its path. The entire third act of the film consists mostly of Ecks and Sever blowing up freight cars and shipping containers with rockets and C4. And all of the explosions are filmed in slo-mo and shot with multiple angles for maximum effect. Kaos’s action sequences are very John Woo-esque in that they feel laboriously detail-oriented, almost balletic, and everything happens with such exquisite timing. His action beats lack the finesse and grace of a John Woo shootout, but there’s certainly potential.

 

However, everything else is generally lackluster. The acting is painful save for Gregg Henry and Antonio Banderas. Both breathe some much needed life into the picture. Henry chews the scenery and Banderas lends to Ecks a real human credibility. Lucy Liu as Sever, though, is just flat. I’ve heard that she received very little direction and pretty much said her lines as written and stood on her cue. It looks like it. She’s stone faced 90% of the movie and has zero personality. She does look convincing firing weapons, though. We do learn more about her as the movie goes along, including her and Gant's past and why she's on this crusade to stop him, but it doesn’t change anything. I get the feeling Kaos wanted Sever to look unconflicted and emotionless. Instead, Liu comes off as bored. The material isn’t giving her much to work with either, but direction can go a long way.

 

Ray Park (best known for playing Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace) plays AJ Ross, head of Gant’s cleanup crew. Park gets an impressive showing at the end where he’s allowed to flex his extensive martial arts knowledge in a fight against Liu, but when he’s actually required to act, look out. The man couldn’t act his way out of a middle school play. Then again, Talisa Soto’s hammy, melodramatic showing isn’t exactly giving him a run for his money. I’m supposed to care that Vinn and Ecks think they’ve lost each other. I’m supposed to want to see them reunite, but the piss-poor script and shallow performances don’t allow me to get there.

 

Still, Ballistic isn’t the worst movie I’ve ever seen. The action sequences are handled well and Kaos gives the movie a really cool, appealing visual style. Again, if you’re OK with a movie that doesn’t mind not having a coherent narrative or much in the way of performances from its stars and you just want a decent 91-minute time killer with no reason to care after it’s over, Ballistic is your movie. Worst movie ever? Absolutely not. Painfully generic sans a few action sequences that are seriously impressive even today (all about that prison bus chase)? You bet. There was a seriously good action movie in here that could've been brought to life with a more experienced director at the helm and a richer, more polished script for that director to work from. Worst movie ever? Again, no way. Just exceedingly mediocre.



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Furious 7 (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD) (Extended Edition) review

Posted : 5 months, 2 weeks ago on 12 May 2017 03:23 (A review of Furious 7 (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD) (Extended Edition))

“I never feared death or dying. I only fear never trying.”

 

The above quote is from the song Wiz Khalifa and 2 Chainz recorded for Fast & Furious 6We Own It. It comes off a bit haunting now what with the death of star Paul Walker on that fateful November day in 2013. The song was recorded long before his death, but the subtext, unintentional as it is, exists nonetheless.

 

The success of the Fast and Furious franchise is the stuff of legend. It had a rough go of it some 16 years ago when the original film, directed by Rob Cohen (xXx,The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor), debuted to immediate interest from the youth market and general disdain from movie critics. Being released in 2001, this was a time when high school kids were chatting it with each other about spoilers, NOS tanks, tricked out exhaust, and suicide doors. The LA car culture phenomenon had grown from a local one to a national one, and The Fast and the Furious capitalized on it, weaving images of flashy cars, flashier girls, and white-knuckle racing sequences into what was essentially a low-rent Point Break rip-off. It was by no means a critical darling, but it made heaps of cash. And sequels there were.

 

2006’s Tokyo Drift was both Vin Diesel-less and Paul Walker-less, having nothing to do with the previous two films other than racing fast cars in exotic locales. It performed reasonably well at the box office, but the franchise was running on empty by this time. Cue the fourth film in the franchise, Fast & Furious, which reunited Walker and Diesel. Then, magic happened. Fast Five was a runaway success from the word go. Gone was the racing. Gone was the glitz. Fast Five ditched the cars for a heist, substituted street races for shootouts, and took a slew of past cast members and slapped them all together in one movie to form a “family,” a concept that would be revisited in every film after. Fast Five brought about the rebirth of the franchise. It was a big action epic, the most expensive of the films at the time, and successfully transitioned the series into a completely new genre. Fans loved it, critics loved it, and it too made oodles of cash. More sequels ensued.

 

Unfortunately, Paul Walker’s passing cast a huge cloud over the production of Furious 7. His death was and will always be the elephant in the room when discussions about this particular entry arises. So much of the script purportedly had to be torn out and rewritten to accommodate the horrible circumstances, cutting down on screen time for Walker’s character, Brian O’Connor, and trying to find a way to write him out of any future installments respectfully and in a way that the fans would accept. It might not have been so bad if there wasn’t still a good amount of filming left before Walker’s scenes were completed. You’ve heard the story by now: Paul's real-life brothers Cody and Caleb stepped in to assist with filming while CGI was utilized to superimpose Walker’s face onto their bodies.

 

Furious 7 suffered another loss, this one before shooting had even begun. Longtime series director Justin Lin decided to pursue other interests when it came time to sign new contracts, and in to replace him was James Wan. What an interesting choice. James Wan isn’t a name you’re probably very familiar with. His biggest claim to fame is as the director of the 2004 smash-hit horror film Saw, about as far away from a $200 million action blockbuster as you can get. God knows what Universal saw in him, but he’s the guy the studio ultimately went with to direct the movie, logic be damned. Replacing the guy who more or less patched up the sinking ship that was Fast & Furious was bound to cause a stir. Fitting yourself in with a group of people that have worked together for two movies now, in the process of a third, and having one of your key cast members die with only 30% or so of his scenes filmed isn’t a job I envy. Wan had to deal with directing his first big budget movie while dealing with an obviously grieving Vin Diesel. Troubled productions have a storied history of turning out lackluster results.

 

James Wan’s directing style is visually different from Lin’s in a number of vital areas. Wan’s horror roots aren’t as apparent as you’d think, but they are noticeable. The lens filters are a bit dirtier this time out. The blues are darker, the greens are harsher. His camerawork also suffers a bit. Lin actually had a pretty steady hand for a contemporary action filmmaker whereas Wan is shakier, favoring quick cuts over steady shots. Lin’s action was never hard to follow. It felt very old-school in that sense, like something out of the ‘80s or ‘90s where you always had a good grasp on what was happening on-screen and where characters were in conjunction with one another.  That flashy rapid edit style from the Saw movies is here in much smaller doses. Barring some harder to follow editing, some of Wan’s shots, however, are really inventive. During a fistfight at the very start of the film between Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and villain Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), there’s a bit in which Statham kicks Johnson over a sofa and the camera follows him from a side angle down to the floor, turning with his tumbling body.

 

Wan favors a lot of these unconventional shots and utilizes them to good effect throughout. They’re remarkably different than Lin’s, but they do fit this one’s tone.Furious 7 is, at its core, a revenge picture. The plot in a nutshell is that Diesel is after Shaw for killing one of his crew (no spoilers here). This sets up a series of events where Diesel’s character, Dominic Toretto, needs to find Shaw before he finds him. Cue Kurt Russell’s Mr. Nobody, a shadowy government agent who sees Dom’s team as an asset to his cause. If Toretto and company can get him something called God’s Eye - a device that would allow the government who owns it to find anyone at any time in any part of the world in mere seconds - he’ll give Toretto full access to it to track down Shaw. Shakespeare this isn’t, but it serves the purpose of giving Toretto and his guys another reason to pull themselves out of retirement and wreak the kind of havoc that only they can.

 

The plot of Furious 7 is ridiculous. It’s preposterous in every way. The other movies were beyond ridiculous, but taking a group of career criminals/street racers and turning them into government assets is ludicrous. This is the point in which I can’t take any of this seriously anymore. Furious 7 wants to tug at the heart strings by having those expected Fast & Furious moments where the characters engage in solemn conversation with each other about the value of family. These are human beings that we’re supposed to care about, and then two scenes later we’re asked to believe that they are capable of pulling off superhuman feats of strength and resiliency. This franchise jumped the shark in the sixth installment by having Toretto literally fly across a freeway to catch Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) in midair after she’d been tossed off a tank. Yeah, that happened. To its detriment and also its advantage, Furious 7 is a whole movie chockfull of this.

 

No one’s going to argue that Furious 7 is anything but pure absurdist antics. Everything it throws at you requires so much suspension of disbelief that you might as well pretend you’re taking in the latest Marvel vehicle. What makes this sort of thing work for Furious 7, though, is that it’s having fun with it. It smiles and winks at the audience, never taking itself too seriously. If nothing else can be said for James Wan’s involvement, his kinetic visual style pushes the action sequences into the next stratosphere. He understands how stupid this all is and he’s having a great time with it. You’ve got cars being dropped out of planes, cars being driven between buildings, cars evading attack drones in the middle of LA, cars being thrown down cliff sides, cars leaping each other, dodging each other, being tossed through the air, crushed, mangled, and exploded. If fiery automobile explosions were gore, this thing would be a bloodfest.

 

One of the film’s biggest action beats comes in the form of a mountainside chase that sees Dom and his crew attempting a high-speed rescue of a computer hacker named Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) who knows the location of the God’s Eye. They’re attacking a convoy of terrorists headed up by Jakande (Djimon Honsou), and in their possession is Ramsey. Do you get where this is going? Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson) comes up with a plan to drop their cars out of the back of a plane as he reasons it’s the last thing they would expect. What follows is one of the most bonkers car chases I’ve ever seen in a movie. The stunts are masterful and Wan films it exquisitely. The use of room-rattling LFE punctuates every boom, bang, and crash. My 12" Klipsch subwoofer got its clock cleaned. The cherry on top of this petrol-filled sundae is O'Connor running along the top of a bus as it slides down the side of a mountain.

 

Unfortunately, Walker’s death affects the story greatly. I couldn’t tell you what the initial script did or didn’t contain, but it’s obvious that writer Chris Morgan struggled to find a logical reason to write the O’Connor character out of the film. What we end up getting is implemented as organically as possible. If you haven’t seen the film and don’t want it spoiled, I can tell you that I’d guess this is how Walker’s character would’ve been written out of the movies eventually anyway. It feels like the last two movies were leading up to this. And it’s all done so tastefully to boot. Although Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6 had really big action set pieces, those movies never felt like they were wall-to-wall nonstop action. There were good amounts of downtime in between the set pieces where you spent some time with the characters. Because of the rewriting of the script, Furious 7 feels like the inverse of that. There’s more action here than anything else.

 

The action is jaw-dropping, at least, but the story suffers. At a moment’s notice we’re whisked away to the Caucasus Mountains, Abu Dhabi, and Los Angeles with phoned-in explanations as to why Dom and his team need to do so. A Saudi prince has a car with a chip they need, blah blah blah. It doesn’t really matter. Don’t give it too much thought and you’ll have a blast. Give the film more than two seconds to rattle around in your head and marinate and you’re going to end up at the same conclusion I did: none of this makes any sense. Walker definitely wasn’t the backbone of this franchise, but his death weighed heavily on the production. The biggest area it affected was the story. And because they had to strip away so much, you’re left with action scene after action scene with nary a second to breathe.

 

Securing Statham was also a really big deal and I was hoping he’d finally give this series the villain it’s so desperately needed. I’m a huge fan of him and his commanding screen presence is a huge asset, but Wan doesn’t do a lot with him. He feels like a video game boss, showing up at random intervals to attack the player until the end of the game where you get to finally defeat him. The team are going about their usual lunacy and Shaw will show up in an opposing vehicle or magically appearing in an elevator just to throw a wrench into their plan and disappear until he’s needed again. Hounsou’s Jakande gets more screen time than Statham does, sorry to say. Diesel and Statham do get a really bad-ass fistfight at the end of the film, though. Chemistry between characters is still as strong as ever with Ludacris and Tyrese’s banter respectively being a highlight. Wan continues with Lin’s tradition of letting the actors play to their individual strengths and partnering up key cast members with one another and just letting them take the helm.

 

Furious 7 has all the makings of a disaster. One of the principal cast members dies in the middle of production, the set is a crappy place to be with a very moody Vin Diesel skulking around, CGI has to be used to film unfilmed sequences, and an untested horror director is at the helm of a massive tent pole picture, working with a $200 million budget. It sounds like a nightmare scenario, something that could spell the death of a franchise. Amazingly, Furious 7 isn’t a disaster. It’s obvious when watching it that it was a troubled shoot and concessions had to be made to finish it provided all of the things that went wrong. It’s a gigantically entertaining film with the action being the biggest it’s ever going to be, and it’s a fitting tribute to star Paul Walker. It sends him off into the night admirably, and of the scenes of his that were able to be completed, it’s obvious that he was going to be much more front and center than he was in the previous film. Furious 7 is all so wonderfully absurd that you’re either going to love it or hate it. If you need any semblance of realism in your movies, skip this. Nothing about it makes any sense or should be anywhere near as enjoyable as it is, but the cast and crew have been beating the odds for three movies now.



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Homefront: The Revolution review

Posted : 1 year, 4 months ago on 27 May 2016 03:01 (A review of Homefront: The Revolution)

There’s always a sacrifice. Gaming journalism, or perhaps just journalism in general, is a strange beast. When titles are awarded unanimously high scores from just about every publication under the sun, you’re going to see the inevitable backlash where fans and non-fans alike all band together to decry the scores, citing payoffs and brand loyalty as the reason said title was given its glowing scores. What’s so interesting about this is, when a game isn't showered with gold and trinkets, but instead banished to the darkest corner of a room, those same people don’t all pipe up and defend it. Oh no; they’re going to jump in with both feet and join in the shit-slinging.


It’s one of life’s many enigmas. When something fails, we’re right there to jeer its existence and take a stab or two with pitchforks of our own.  If something succeeds, we think that there has to be something wrong, that somehow it’s rigged. You know what I’ve concluded? You’ve got to have your sacrifices. Deep Silver’s Homefront: The Revolution looks to be 2016’s sacrifice. It’s a sequel to the Kaos Studios-developed Homefront, a 2011 Call of Duty wannabe that attempted to differentiate itself from its competitors by pitting gamers against North Korean forces who had attacked and then occupied a vulnerable United States. It wanted to be a contemporary military shooter with shades of Red Dawn and America's everlasting fear of communist takeover as its two base inspirations. It wanted desperately to be the game that usurped Call of Duty's throne, but its generic campaign, mediocre graphics, shoddy voice acting, and utterly wasted concept meant it lost the race before it even got out of the gate. It had a strong multi-player component, but its hyped single-player campaign fell well short of what was promised.

 

THQ, the owners of the Homefront IP, went bankrupt not long after its release. Crytek bought the property, began work on it, and they too folded after their Xbox One launch title Ryse: Son of Rome didn’t produce the sales figures Microsoft were hoping for. Now solely developing free-to-play titles, Crytek sold the rights to Deep Silver who then formed Dambuster Studios, made up of mostly ex-Crytek employees, who resumed work on the title. Development schedules like that can cast a looming shadow over a project. I don’t think anyone was really clamoring for a sequel to Homefront, least of all me, but Dambuster certainly seemed to be taking it in the right direction.


The first thing to go was the heavily scripted linear campaign of the original. The Revolution goes the route of the recent Far Cry titles by opening the environments up to the player, giving them numerous tactical opportunities and ways in which to accomplish their objectives, strongholds to conquer, and equipment to purchase. Really, the best way I can describe The Revolution in a nutshell is that it's a combination of Far Cry’s open-endedness and Crysis' customization. One of the best things about The Revolution is the way in which you don't switch weapons in the traditional sense, but instead bring up a radial menu for each weapon class that allows you to swap out various parts of a gun to turn it into a grenade launcher, a heavy machine gun, a high-powered rifle, a combat rifle, etc... It's a great feature that further emphasizes Dambuster's aim to make The Revolution, in a sense, more tactically sound than its predecessor.


Next in line to go was the Unreal Engine 3. Being that the game was initially in development at Crytek, it utilizes the latest iteration of their lauded CryEngine technology. And damn is it pretty. Dambuster also ridding itself of the linearity of the first game proves to be a winning gamble for Homefront. It's got the same premise of the first but feels completely disconnected from it in every other way. The layouts of each of the individual areas are distinct enough to feel different, though just small enough that they aren’t overwhelming. The digitally recreated, post-invasion ruins of Philadelphia take the place of the first game’s Colorado-based setting, and it’s completely unsurprising that it feels like such a natural fit. Since the game is driving home that you’re a resistance fighter, not a soldier, the bombed out buildings, apartment complexes, and multi-story houses give way to a myriad of hit-and-run tactics the game encourages you to use. Your crafted pipe bombs, Molotov cocktails, and wide assortment of machine guns, shotguns, rifles, and rocket launchers feel sufficiently impactful. Going up to the third floor of a house, tossing a Molotov down onto a group of approaching KPA soldiers, and then blasting their armored escort with an RPG round and escaping via the rooftops nails the guerrilla warfare tactics that the first game's linear set pieces couldn't.

 

The first title was a bog standard run and gun shooter, so naturally I jumped into this one expecting much of the same. I died very quickly. Dambuster opts to give The Revolution a much more realistic sheen. Close quarters fighting is to be avoided as much as possible. Weapons aren’t terribly accurate and a few well-placed bullets will get you a dirt nap real fast. Your best bet is to use the environment to your advantage. Dambuster have incorporated something of a parkour mechanic into the game, although not as refined or as deep as, say, something like Dying Light. There’s a good amount of verticality on offer. Environments allow players to mantle over most waist-level structures and climb up a bulk of its structures. You’ve also got access to dirt bikes that’ll let you get from point A to point B quicker without taking nearly as much enemy fire as you would going by foot.

 

A lot of The Revolution’s core gameplay consists of liberating strongholds, outposts, and furthering the resistance’s influence in the game’s six districts. There are both yellow zones and red zones; yellow zones put you in the middle of populated areas where you have to complete objectives while maintaining your cover, and red zones are highly restricted areas where you'll be fire upon immediately if spotted by a KPA soldier. There are a handful of objectives to complete in each area – such as taking out a set number of snipers, tuning radios to the resistance’s frequency, and destroying enemy convoys – that will eventually lead to an uprising. Taking over enemy bases is done in much the same manner as games like the aforementioned Far Cry series. You can use stealth, such as close-range takedowns, silenced weapons like pistols and a crossbow, or you can just outright blast your way in. Quiet or loud, it’s your choice. There’s also a really cool mechanic where you can recruit up to four other resistance members to join you at any point in the game. Just approach one, hit the E key by default, and you’ve got yourself a hunting party. Their presence is invaluable. They do an admirable job of taking out enemy soldiers, distracting them as you make your way in and claim their base as your own.

 

There is a story here, albeit not a particularly strong one. The game’s narrative is more of an excuse to set the player up with an assortment of exciting, overall well-designed missions that see you doing all the revolution-y things you’d expect: sabotaging, sneaking, and destroying. The characters you encounter aren’t all that interesting, although the voice acting is definitely a notch above the original. The game’s story isn’t going for poignant or touching. It’s there as an overarching narrative to provide some level of context for what you’re doing, not just blowing shit up for the sake of blowing shit up (not that there’s anything wrong with that). The original game went for something a lot more emotional and relatable. The Revolution is first and foremost a sandbox game. Presenting players with a vast open world and a myriad of things to in it is its primary point of sale.

 

From the purely technical side of things, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with The Revolution. Sound design is excellent, the music is superb, and the graphics are gorgeous. The CryEngine-powered visuals left me gobsmacked. The most impressive thing about the CryEngine has always been its lighting capabilities, and The Revolution makes great use of them throughout. Most of the game looks positively beautiful with even the most minute of details being painstakingly rendered. The texture work isn’t always up to snuff with some jarringly low-res textures here and there, but I would imagine that has more to do with the give and take of game development. CryEngine is a powerful engine, one that has always required considerably high-end equipment in order to achieve playable frame rates at its highest settings, and the comparatively low-res textures are more than likely a sacrifice to keep the game’s visuals from requiring absolutely beastly specs to get it up and running.

 

Generally speaking, I think the The Revolution is a criminally underrated experience. It didn’t really stand a chance coming out a week after the excellent Uncharted 4: A Thief's End and the balls-out Doom, but the damning reviews really don’t give it credit for what it does. If nothing else, it’s a huge step over the original. The bulk of the negativity has been aimed at, you guessed it, the crazy amount of bugs and glitches this thing has. I understand that games today are more complex than they’ve ever been and that glitches are just part and parcel of most open-world games. That doesn't, however, make it any more acceptable. Graphics are approaching true photo-realism, the worlds these games take place in are so intricately detailed, and the amount of people It takes to produce even a mid-level title, let alone a AAA title, is astounding. Patching used to be a PC thing, but now that consoles have that capability it means that games are released before they’re totally ready to come out of the oven. They are eventually patched, but not before critics drag them through the mud. It hurts sales immensely.

 

As it stands, The Revolution is far from unplayable, but it isn’t all that playable, either. I’m rocking a pretty high-end PC here – an overclocked i7 4930k, 32 gigs of RAM, and a Titan X - and there are frame rate drops all over the place. I quickly gave up on even hoping to achieve a solid 60 frames per second and decided to lock my frame rate to 30 frames per second instead. There are still areas where the game will drop to the low 20s with absolutely nothing happening on-screen to warrant those drops. You’re also going to be dealing with frame rate hitching, micro stutters, some wonky, if not amusing, AI, and even sound and movement glitches. One particularly nasty bug I encountered involves taking over a stronghold. The problem? I can’t! The object I need to complete the mission simply refuses to spawn.

 

 If I’m having this sort of experience on what many would consider to be a pretty top tier PC, I truly pity the folks who have lesser hardware. I can’t imagine what they’re having to do to play it or if they’re even able to play it at all. Sadly, most of the game’s bad reviews are because of these bugs, not in lieu of them. The gameplay is there. It truly is. The Revolution is a lot more fun than I expected it to be. The tactical nature of its gameplay is refreshing, its concept feels a lot more fleshed out than it did in the last game, and the action overall feels nice and satisfying. It’s a single-player-focused experience, and I love that about it. There’s no multi-player here outside of a pretty decent co-op mode. The main attraction is its campaign, and it’s full of content that earn it its $60 price tag.

 

Like I said at the start: sacrifice. Publications handed out their high scores earlier this month to Uncharted 4: A Thief's End and Doom. The Revolution was never going to stand up to those two. I’m still scratching my head as to why Deep Silver decided to stack this up against two of this year’s most anticipated titles. It seems to me that a two-month delay could’ve been mutually beneficial to the game and the audience it’s being pitched to. Give some time for the dust to settle, fix the bugs before release, and put it on shelves during the notoriously dry summer months. What else would gamers have to play? Maybe they would’ve been kinder to it if the competition hadn’t been so stiff.

 

Homefront: The Revolution was exactly what I wanted it to be. I got what was promised to me: an open-world first-person shooter that lets me enact guerrilla warfare-style revenge on an invading enemy force like a boss. It’s leaps and bounds ahead of the first game. It’s everything the 2011 game should’ve been. It’s got the graphics, it’s got the fun factor, it’s got the gameplay, and it’s got a much better, far more satisfying use of the first’s promising setup. I see lots of potential for a future franchise if Dambuster just fleshes out the characters a bit more and gets themselves a more focused storyline. I don’t see any reason why gamers itching for more Far Cry-esque action after this year’s disappointing Far Cry: Primal took the guns out of the equation wouldn’t have a bunch of fun with this one. It’s a shame those poor scores will sway a bunch of people from giving this the unbiased look it deserves.


Specs played on:


Intel i7 4930k

32 GBs of RAM

GTX GeForce Titan X



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Dying Light review

Posted : 2 years, 7 months ago on 19 March 2015 04:46 (A review of Dying Light)

Techland, the developers of Dying Light, hit videogame legitimacy with their ambitious 2011 action-RPG Dead Island. They've been going strong for a number of years now, mainly sticking to oft-overlooked first-person shooters like the Halo-esque Chrome and the moderately successful Call of Juarez series. They weren't exactly setting the world on fire, but Dead Island changed that. What made it so appealing for me was how it took the player away from the confined corridors of zombie shoot 'em ups like Left 4 Dead and, instead, stuck them in the middle of a sprawling zombie outbreak set in an open-world tropical paradise. Cribbing countless influences from years of horror cinema, most obviously Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2 and George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, Dead Island felt like one big crazy love letter to the gore flicks of yesteryear and the expansive sandbox epics of today. Some loved it, some hated it. However you feel about it, there's no denying how important it's been to the evolution of the zombie sub-genre.

One of the things that separates Dying Light from other like-minded zombie titles is how pervasively somber it is. Games like Capcom's Dead Rising franchise are more social satire than horror, and Techland's own Dead Island was also heavier on the humor than the scare factor. Dying Light was initially conceived as Dead Island 2 before Deep Silver yanked development duties away from Techland and handed them over to Yager, so expecting more of the same from Techland isn't unreasonable. As far as core gameplay elements go, minus the heavily advertised free-running mechanic, Dying Light plays an awful lot like Dead Island. Loving Dead Island as much as I do, I was pretty OK with this. Don't like Dead Island? Go ahead and see your way out.




Generally speaking, Dying Light takes everything that made Dead Island fun and implements more of it to better effect. You've got the same smattering of deliciously macabre weaponry, upgrades that can turn said macabre weaponry into truly destructive weaponry, a strong emphasis on melee combat, and a huge open-world rife with side-quests, interesting characters to meet, and thousands of zombies to slaughter. What Dying Light doesn't have is Dead Island's tropical setting and dark humor. You play as a GRE agent named Kyle Crane who has been sent in to recover a confidential file from a vicious warlord known as Rais. The game takes you to a city in the Middle East called Harran where you, as Crane, are tasked with befriending the local survivors, finding information on Rais & the file, and ultimately recovering it from him. In typical videogame fashion things are never as easy they're said to be. Crane winds up being attacked & infected by a zombie and subsequently granted asylum by a local faction of survivors. From there are on, Crane is to keep himself alive while also unearthing a very sinister plot Rais is unknowingly a part of.

Surprisingly, Dying Light has a story and a damn intriguing one at that. Dead Island cooked up some half-baked bullcrap about a jungle tribe and a rogue agent being the reasons behind that game's viral outbreak; its "plot" was little more than an excuse to let players jump from one loosely connected location to the other, bash zombies' brains in with tricked out weapons, and loot everything in their path while doing it. Dying Light is virtually humorless in comparison, sports a pretty strong narrative the whole through, and serves up a fantastically evil villain in Rais. The problem most games like this would encounter is deciding who or what the villain is. The man? The virus? The government? Techland found a way to make all three equally dangerous and that's something of an accomplishment. Rais is the kind of character I'd fear most given the circumstances. When there are no more rules and one can do whatever they wish, men like Rais file out of the woodwork to take advantage of it. He's damn frightening because he's so unhinged. Rais doesn't care if the world burns, he's just going to enjoy watching it happen.

You've also got a great lead character in Kyle Crane. Things start off a bit dicey with Crane more or less coming off as a manipulative asshole who'll do anything to accomplish his task. As the game wears on, we get to see different shades of him, namely his remorsefulness and morality. There's a real sense of character development as the story progresses. Crane goes from undercover GRE agent who views the people as a "job" to genuinely understanding & caring for the Harran survivors. Crane makes their problems his problems. The first person Kyle is told to track down is Brecken, an out-of-town parkour instructor who has taken the reigns and chose to lead the group of survivors. You've also got Jade Aldemir, an expert MMA fighter that has joined Brecken's group along with her brother Rahim. The relationship Crane builds with these and other characters throughout the course of the story forms the meat of the game. Without it the character would be worthless as a lead; he'd have no real reason to continue. Crane's progression feels organic and you do genuinely come to care about the people you meet.




Much like Dead Island, you'll find both weapons and consumables scattered throughout Harran. A simple holding of the X button sends out a sonar-like ping that picks up any useful loot in the area and highlights it for your convenience. Since Dying Light carries over the RPG-esque looting & crafting ideas from Dead Island, you'll often come across blueprints on how to build bigger and better weapons as you progress through the game. A plain ol' machete is going to take a serious amount of physical effort to get the job done, but combining it with your immense collection of discarded wires & batteries turns it into a machete that electrocutes your enemies with every swing. Get a bunch of zombies together, start slashing away at them, and watch them fry each other. Or take a piece of Bolter flesh, a Bolter being a highly toxic zombie that runs away from you when spotted, combine it with any cutting weapon and... You get the picture. The crafting system isn't as deep as Dead Island's unfortunately, leaving most of that game's wacky machinations out of the picture.

Dying Light as a whole is going for a far grittier, more grounded presentation, and because of that you're going to be creating weapons that are effective but relatively mundane. Crafting exploding throwing stars, homemade grenades, and Molotov cocktails is great fun, but most of the weapons you find can't be pimped out any further than adding an electric element, a poison element, or a "bleeding" element (essentially just increasing damage), so the game obviously isn't encouraging all-out anarchy. That's part of Dying Light's overall aim, which is both good and bad. Techland do a great job of making you feel startlingly vulnerable during the early portions of the game. Before you've found even a merely serviceable means of protecting yourself, upgraded any of your attributes, and are likely still getting the hang of the parkour system, you'll be evading zombies a lot more often than fighting them. Dead Island encouraged fighting right from the start whereas Dying Light does not. Get surrounded by a group of undead and you're toast pretty quickly. You're given firecrackers as your first consumable item and you'll be using these little buggers more than anything else for a large stretch of the starting missions. Throw one and watch the zombies shamble over to it. While their distracted, take the opportunity to scrounge up anything you can get your hands on and eventually start crafting things that give you a fighting chance.

Melee combat is, as I said, the main focus of the game. You do come across guns later on, though you'll be inclined to use them as a last resort. They work remarkably well on human opposition, as well as indoors on groups of zombies, but in open areas they draw the attention of extremely dangerous zombies known as Virals. These suckers are recently infected humans that still retain many of their human advantages. They run, climb, and claw at you very quickly and should absolutely be avoided in packs. During confrontations with them I'd often hear them plead for mercy as they continued to run and lunge at me. It's infinitely creepy and does a great job of making you want to steer well clear of them whenever possible. Most of the time you'll be crafting both blunt & edged weapons with their own unique sets of attributes. If you prefer fast fighting you'll want to make use of smaller blades and knives, if you prefer more efficient cutting tools you'll want to focus on cleavers and machetes, and if you favor outright power you'll spend your time improvising various types of baseball bats and sledgehammers. During combat you can also pull off a handy dodge maneuver that I advise you to get acquainted with very quickly.




A majority of your hand-to-hand encounters will involve a combination of timing your attacks with an opponents' openings, dodging their attacks by studying their movement patterns, and learning to vary up your attacks to keep the AI from telegraphing you ahead of time. Zombies are pretty easy to kill off once you start leveling up your stats, but human enemies are an altogether different story. The AI is smart enough to learn your attacks during combat, so simply attacking with the same two moves repeatedly will find you being continuously blocked and countered. The only beef I have with these human encounters is the amount of punishment they can take before finally going down. You're also going to need to pay attention to your stamina gauge and how worn your weapons are becoming. Considering Techland's pedigree with first-person shooters (they did develop the Call of Juarez series, after all), the firefights end up feeling a touch underwhelming. Dead Island had perfectly satisfying gun combat and I was really looking forward to getting my first gun and taking out some of Rais's thugs. It isn't as visceral or satisfying as the melee combat, though I suppose that's the point. You aren't a soldier. You're a man that's learning and improvising as he goes along. In that respect it works, but it still doesn't make it much fun.

Dying Light is still very much an action-RPG title, and to that extent it's executed wonderfully. The main story quests will provide you a good 20 hours of playtime with additional side-quests and other activities padding it out further. As in most RPGs, it's in the player's best interest to split their time between story quests and side-quests in order to evenly level up as they go along. Completing side activities will provide you with quicker upgrades, better weapons, more health, more strength, and so on. Upgrading your skills is also far more crucial here than it was in Dead Island. So many of the abilities you'll be gaining make the game's sometimes brutal difficulty manageable. One ability will actually let you spring off of zombies while running, letting you jump over groups of them if you time it appropriately. Another ability allows you to kill a zombie, smear yourself in its blood, and go unnoticed for a length of time. This is useful when you're having to pick locks while surrounded by infected and need that extra few seconds to get it right. Other upgrades give you more fighting abilities, like being able to stomp on downed zombies heads, killing them instantly, or being able to run full-tilt at an enemy and dropkick the crap out of them WWE style. The first time you charge a zombie and unload on them, sending them flying off the roof to their (second?) death is just brilliant. The upgrades aren't only essential for survival but for having the most fun with the game.




Techland have continued to improve their design prowess game after game. To the extent at which their skills have progressed are downright staggering. Taking into consideration the breadth of its scope and the vast open-world in which it takes place, Dying Light is a relatively bug-free undertaking. What's more surprising is learning of Techland's original plan to release Dying Light as a cross-generation title. I can't fathom how the PS3 and 360's dated tech would have handled the game. Not well, apparently, as Techland went on to cancel both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 ports in order to focus all their efforts on the next-gen & PC versions. Does it benefit from it? Absolutely. Dying Light is a very good-looking game, no question. It betrays its cross-generation roots by way of beautiful lighting, incredible water physics, fantastic texture work, and gorgeous smoke & fire effects. Character models, however, look a bit rough with an obvious lack of motion capture for all but the cut scenes. That being said, the cut scenes are pretty impressive, but the shockingly poor in-game animations are downright jarring. Dying Light also comes equipped with one of the best day/night systems I've seen. The real-time advancement of in-game days looks spectacular; bright afternoons slowly fading to eerie sunsets look positively stunning. The lighting shifts accordingly, casting everything in a dim orange glow as the last few beams of sunlight cut through trees overhead. In any other game this would be mesmerizing, and in a way it still is, but it's not called Dying Light for nothing. The game evolves into one of the most tense, downright spookiest gaming experiences I've ever had during the nighttime sections, so much so that I did my best to have myself hunkered down in a safe house long before the Sun set.

Much like Dead Island before it, Dying Light isn't for everybody. I think Techland managed to capture more of what they wanted Dead Island to be sans the forced humor and nutty weapons. Dying Light is that game's successor in all the ways fans would want it to be, just tons scarier. It's got flaws that ultimately sour some of the fun, namely some poorly designed missions, shoddy facial animations, and frustrating difficulty spikes. Should that keep you from playing it? Absolutely not. Dying Light is everything a zombie game should be. It plays well, looks great, innovates in ways that make it feel fresh in lieu of its derivative tendencies, and offers a competently told narrative to boot. And that soundtrack! Pawel Blaszczak's original score sounds like it could have backed any number of 1980's era Italian zombie horror films. It's just fantastic. Fans of this genre and, more importantly, Techland's ongoing design sensibilities will see and enjoy this for exactly what it is: a damn well-made next-gen zombie title.


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Call of Duty: Ghosts review

Posted : 2 years, 8 months ago on 2 February 2015 01:58 (A review of Call of Duty: Ghosts)

*Review of the single-player campaign only.

Call of Duty, love it or hate it, is a sales juggernaut the likes of which the videogame industry has seldom seen. Your kids want it, you play it, and competing game companies wish Activision's money-maker had been their idea. Over the years Activision has emblazoned a financial strategy that Call of Duty quickly became the catalyst for: a game a year until sales no longer warrant it, quality be damned. No matter how good a game may be, it's intrinsically hard to rally behind a publisher that utilizes its most popular franchise purely for financial gain in the laziest, most rudimentary ways fathomable. 2007's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare painted a very different picture, a picture wherein the cinematic trappings of its 5-hour campaign and accessible multiplayer were considered good things.

Once the hype of 2009's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 faded, leaving nothing but empty wallets and discarded pre-order receipts in its wake, fans made up their minds that Call of Duty was no longer "good." Everything that goes up must come down as they say and the Call of Duty franchise came down like a meteor. Critical reviews remained favorable for the most part, but the fan response had only gotten more and more negative as the years progressed. Score aggregator Metacritic offers a visual representation of the disparity between professional opinion and public opinion. User reviews do nothing but decry the series, the people behind its creation, and the people that enjoy it. Are the Call of Duty games really that bad, and if so, what exactly makes them so reviled? Simplistic, casual-friendly first-person shooters are nothing new and certainly didn't start with this franchise, and the series' continual lack of innovation isn't exclusive to it either. I would argue that the original Doom and its endless barrage of sequels during the '90s had perfected the copying-and-pasting of assets long before it was hip.

Call of Duty: Ghosts was the first next-generation CoD title and had the utter misfortune of being released a mere week after EA's ambitious (not to mention visually stunning) Battlefield 4. Let that sink in. While Activision would have liked you to believe that the Infinity Ward-developed Ghosts was going to deliver on the promise of next-gen graphics, AI, and playability, it surprised absolutely no one to discover that Ghosts was the same CoD they had been playing for years, just a touch prettier. Standing next to a game as gorgeous as Battlefield 4 showed just how behind the curve Ghosts really was. Despite the samey-ness of the game and the disappointing graphics accompanying it, that's not what lets it down. Developer Infinity Ward were faced with the task of getting the game running & available on six (yes, six) different platforms and, as a result, suffers from a great many technical issues. Perhaps the most technical issues of any Call of Duty game to date. But even that isn't what makes Ghosts so lackluster.




Its biggest problem is very simple: the campaign. "But Call of Duty isn't about the campaign," I hear you say. Bullshit. It's true that they've never been 15-hour masterpieces but that doesn't mean the developers' only focus is multiplayer as one would likely argue. First-person shooters have been popular online battlegrounds since the days of Doom and Quake, and no one ever accused id Software of relegating the bulk of its concerns to the multiplayer side of things. The CoD campaigns are unusually polished experiences replete with fantastic voice acting, well-written (if eventually incoherent) stories, and a smorgasbord of exciting, Hollywood-inspired action sequences & shootouts. They displayed a level of quality and technical expertise unique to the genre at the time, that being when the original Modern Warfare single-handedly popularized summer blockbuster-esque military shooters. Nothing else delivered the nonstop intensity that the CoD franchise has been providing players for over 12 years now. In the series' defense its short but oh-so-enjoyable single-player offerings have been the core of this franchise from the beginning.

First things first, you can't fault Ghosts' cast. Brandon Routh, Brian Bloom, Kevin Gage, and Stephen Lang head up an impressive voice cast that is unfortunately sorely underutilized. Unlike other CoD titles, Ghosts' campaign doesn't have you body jumping from one character to another, experiencing the unfolding events from a myriad of different POVs. Throughout almost the entire campaign you play solely as Logan Walker, excepting a couple of flashback missions that serve as back-story on the titular Ghosts, a squad of elite soldiers. Logan is the typical voiceless, faceless protagonist but that's just something you come to expect from contemporary FPS's. Logan is the younger brother of David "Hesh" Walker (Brandon Routh) and second son of Elias Waker (Stephen Lang). The family element is a nice touch and the writers at Infinity Ward wring a good amount of emotional weight from it. Without giving away too much, Hesh, Logan, and Elias spend much of Ghosts hunting a man named Rorke (Kevin Gage). Rorke is systematically hunting Ghosts and as the campaign progresses you learn more about his connection to the Walker family and the Ghosts themselves.




The story certainly has potential. There's a really good script buried somewhere in that concept, it's just a shame Infinity Ward weren't up to the task of unearthing it. Voice acting is, for the most part, pretty standard stuff. Given the level of talent on-hand it's disheartening that I'm having to write that. Routh is wooden, Lang has nothing to do, and Gage is asked to play such a ham-fisted lead villain in Rorke that you've got nothing worth remembering outside of his solid performance. I have no idea how Infinity Ward dropped the ball so badly here. Their campaigns have never suffered from a shortage of memorable characters so I'm left wondering how Ghosts ends up so devoid of them. The base premise of several South American countries uniting and becoming a global superpower, eventually attacking & crippling the United States is nothing short of awesome. It's almost mind-blowing how much could have been accomplished from a conceptual standpoint alone. What we end up getting is a refreshing take on the one-country-versus-another motif which eventually devolves into yet another mundane manhunt mission akin to the Modern Warfare franchise. And for the love of everything that is holy, how many times can you definitively kill the bad guy before he's unable to make his "surprise" return at the end of the game? It's downright insulting!

So the general story structure is lackluster, the villain forgettable, and the characters rather generic; what about the action? Thankfully for Ghosts, it does have the distinction of being the most set piece-laden of the Infinity Ward titles. I'd wager that Ghosts holds the franchise record for most distinctive batch of locales visited in a single campaign. Over the span of five or so hours players will sneak their way through a Yucatan jungle, destroy an enemy submarine in a mission that takes place entirely underwater, invade a Federation facility disguised as an enemy soldier, gun their way through a desolate recreation of Las Vegas, scuttle a space station, and dash their way across an explosive set piece at the very start of the game that sees California literally falling to pieces around them. And that's just scratching the surface. One scenario has Logan, Hesh, and Ghost team member Keegan having to jump from a skyscraper as it's falling toward the streets below. This is really exciting stuff and the level design remains uniformly excellent throughout. Every mission has at least one exciting sequence like this, if not more, and I doubt you'll find yourself bored. Lots of variety in mission objectives and locations in which they're based means Infinity Ward aren't giving you much time to notice how inconsequential the story is.

Infinity Ward also cooked up the idea of the Walker family having a dog, Riley, that accompanies them during combat. This combat-ready German Sheppard was a big part of the pre-release blitz as Ghosts made its rounds from one major publication to the other. Knowing this you'd probably assume Riley to be an integral part of the story. No, not really. He acts as both a playable & non-playable character throughout, although Riley is only present for a small collection of missions. He simply follows Hesh and Logan through levels, attacking enemies that are closest to him or attacking enemies that the player orders him to. The ability to issue attack commands to Riley does indeed add a slight strategic element to the mix. As he lunges at enemies, using his teeth to latch onto their wrist or neck, it grants the player additional opportunities to flank or line up easier kill shots. Unfortunately, it doesn't amount to much more than that. The game would have played the same with or without Riley in tow. And maybe this is nitpicking but it bothers me to no end that Infinity Ward couldn't give me so much as a passing explanation as to how the Walker's managed to train their dog to do the things he does. How exactly is Logan able to take direct control of Riley through a satellite uplink? Is he some kind of genetically altered Skynet Termadog? I understand that Ghosts takes place in a near-future setting, but would it have killed them to preface this technology a bit?




The Call of Duty titles haven't been visually impressive since Modern Warfare 2, opting instead to play it safe by offering incremental upgrades to the engine's code little by little every year. Where competing developers, like DICE for example, have been using their own Frostbite engine for an equal length of time, they get away with it because their Battlefield franchise sees noticeable visual gains from game to game. In sharp contrast, Call of Duty's in-house IW engine only looks more and more dated because of the developer's refusal to dramatically alter any of its fundamentals. Ghosts promised next-gen graphics and, unsurprisingly, absolutely failed in that regard. It's not all bad news, though. Some missions really do benefit from the full DirectX 11 implementation this particular title has been graced with, namely the underwater sections. Character animations and facial renders are subpar but the overall lighting, texture, and shading qualities make up for that. Lighting has always been an area the IW engine excels in and the content of the campaign is up to the task of showing it off. Big explosions, massive fires, dense jungles with sunlight cutting through snarled tree branches, glistening rapids, and a superb use of dynamic shadows - suitably pretty stuff, this. The PC version also has an option to, for those with rigs powerful enough to handle it, enable PhysX-enhanced fur for Riley, effectively replacing the static skin the other versions of the game are stuck with. Lighting aside, it's the only thing about this game's visual aesthetic that looks remotely next-gen.

Longtime CoD players won't be tasked with doing anything too different from the usual assortment of running into rooms, mowing down bad guys, lobbing some grenades now and again, and marveling at the ridiculously over-the-top action sequences. Gameplay remains as dependable - not to mention as fast & fluid - as ever. A smattering of different gun & caliber types are available throughout each mission, swappable at any time, and still require very little skill to shoot. These games aren't about real-world accuracy or authenticity, they're about throwing you into the middle of frantic firefights with nary a learning curve in sight, pulling off knife kills and headshots like a pro. CoD lives and dies by its pick-up-and-play mentality and Ghosts really nails it. Infinity Ward have also implemented a brand-new lean feature which players can use to shoot around corners without having to step directly into an enemy's line of fire to do so. It's a nifty addition that I'd like to see more FPS's incorporate, including this franchise. The obvious lifting of gun sound effects from previous titles utterly reeks of cheapness, but Ghosts is still the same highly playable experience it's always been.




Typically for this series the sound design is second to none. Perfectly crisp 5.1 audio, fantastic directional audio, and loud, bassy explosions are what you'd expect from this game and it delivers in spades. It sounds incredible from the first gunshot to the last musical cue. On the surface this seems like a perfectly serviceable sequel that gives fans exactly what they want in exactly the ways they want it. In many ways it is. It doesn't set itself apart at all, not that we really expect it to, but it doesn't set itself apart from its own series and that's a problem. The problem is Ghosts doesn't feel at all progressive. Activision could have scrapped the subtitle and named it Modern Warfare 4 with no consequence. It's got so much working in its favor; a concept that bleeds potential, a talented cast, marvelous set pieces, and satisfying gun combat, and its squandered. Infinity Ward do absolutely nothing to separate this from their own catalogue of CoD titles. Make no mistake, I'm not comparing Ghosts to anything other than the series of games it belongs to, and in nearly every way it disappoints.

Call of Duty loves to think itself a playable summer blockbuster, so my following assessment is even more appropriate. Ghosts reminds me of that big action franchise that keeps churning out sequels, starts diluting its own formula, and becomes something of an imitation of itself. Hard to describe, I know, but Ghosts ever-satisfying, ever-patented formula feels more like imitation than the genuine article. Infinity Ward have still crafted an exciting, well-paced, and genuinely fun shooter in spite of this. Ghosts isn't a bad game by any stretch and if it didn't belong to the CoD franchise it wouldn't come saddled with these expectations. Not bad, just overtly soulless. In the end, Ghosts feels blatantly phoned-in. Do Infinity Ward even care anymore? It's getting hard to tell. Premise? Never used to its fullest potential. Action? Perhaps the most intense and ambitious of the entire series, but never serves any real purpose. The dog? Another brainstorm that could have been expounded by Infinity Ward that just ends up being a clever marketing gimmick. Ghosts is moderately enjoyable for what it is, but Infinity Ward seem content just going through the motions at this point.

Specs played on:

Intel i7 4930k
16 GB of RAM
Nvidia GTX 980


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The Expendables 3 (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD) (Unrated Edition) review

Posted : 2 years, 11 months ago on 17 November 2014 02:27 (A review of The Expendables 3 (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD) (Unrated Edition))

Director/screenwriter/producer/actor Sylvester Stallone got lucky when he was finally able to get his hotly anticipated Expendables film off the ground four years ago. The man had been running on fumes for years, able to jump-start his career again only by going back to characters that people loved him for. Rocky Balboa and Rambo, respectively, were well-made films that gave the fans exactly what they wanted. The public's rekindled interest in Stallone ultimately resulted in the birth of 2010's The Expendables. As of today the franchise is more or less Stallone's only remaining claim to fame and for good reason. With it he's proven himself a still relevant - as well as resilient - creative force in action cinema. A has-been '80s star who's creeping into his 70s scoring a major hit with a lead role not based on an already successful property? That's something of a small miracle. Stallone wanted and still wants The Expendables series to be his Fast & Furious, and with The Expendables 3 never has that desire been more blatant.

Here's the elephant in the room, of which I'm going to address head-on. Yes, the theatrical cut of The Expendables 3 was rated PG-13 much to the chagrin of the franchise's core fan base, present company included. As was expected, the home release features an unrated (read: R-rated) version that I personally anticipated with much fervor. The first two Expendables flicks were extremely violent, with the second film in particular featuring a bevy of big set pieces that saw the Expendables team literally blowing their foes to bits. A PG-13 rating - which Sly announced the film would receive this past May - won't allow for those extremes, so it comes as no surprise that The Expendables 3's bloodletting is minimal. Since the ill-fated rating was confirmed, I've been gung-ho with the assumption that The Expendables 3 must have been shot as a solid R and then edited down in post-production. Are those assumptions correct? Yes and no.




It's obvious from the outset that director Patrick Hughes, and to a larger extent Sylvester Stallone himself, were aiming for the PG-13 right out of the gate. Although Lionsgate's initial print did indeed earn itself an R, it was entirely unintended. Sly has been flirting with the rating since the first film, only backtracking and giving it an R after test screenings proved fruitless. The Expendables 2 was this close to forgoing the R for the more audience-friendly rating before, again, fans spoke up and let their grievances be known. I'm puzzled that after the sort of backlash Sly got hit with twice prior he'd still be so determined on getting at least one PG-13-rated Expendables out the door, especially when those two previous R-rated films performed very well at the box office. But I digress. The Expendables 3 hit theaters with the PG-13 rating in August, disappointed fans, and the box office reflected that disappointment. How does the unrated version fare?

I can see how the original cut would have gotten an R rating despite the disconcerting lack of gore, because the film is still excessively violent. You've got hundreds of people being shot on-screen, and it astounds me that filmmakers can get away with a PG-13 as long as there's no overt bloodshed or bullet impacts. The body count in this is massive. There are also two uses of "motherfucker" placed back into the audio with only one utterance of the word necessary to earn almost any film an immediate R by the MPAA. Hughes' unrated cut is more violent as a whole, showing longer takes of bullet hits (most bloodless, some not) and knife penetrations. Theatrically, these action sequences were choppy as shit, and while there's still little blood present it's just nice to see those segments without all the distracting cutaways. I was hoping for a bigger, bloodier Blu-ray release, but it appears the movie just wasn't filmed that way to begin with. There's still plenty of violence, plenty of shootouts, plenty of explosions, and plenty of fistfights for your money.




With that out of the way I'm free to talk about the movie's overall quality. Where the second film concerned itself with dipping its toes in the waters of self-awareness, the first was a downbeat and nihilistic affair. The third movie aims for somewhere in-between the two, by Stallone's own admission, and it generally works. Expendables 3 wants to be a legit movie, not just a movie cobbled together with a bunch of '80s has-beens dropping one-liners and making quips like, "Who's next? Rambo?" It's a commendable approach that will lead to more widespread acceptance than the campy Expendables 2 has. The self-reference is still there, though far subtler in nature. There's actually a decent story here about aging, being replaced, and being... ahem... expendable. It's a great extended metaphor for Hollywood and how it treats "washed up" actors, especially action stars, when audiences want new & fresh as opposed to old & reliable. Tonally The Expendables 3 has far more in common with the first than the second, just leaving all the half-baked "seriousness" by the wayside this time. I could have used more humor in spots though and the reason being I find material of this sort better digested when it doesn't want me to take it seriously. For the most part The Expendables 3 strikes a good balance between the two. Better than I expected it to, at least.

This flick is also sporting the best cast of the entire series, although it's disheartening that not everyone gets equal screen time. Jet Li, for example, has even less of a role here than in the previous movie. And what a disservice to Li that all he's given to do is fire a gun from a helicopter! Terry Crews has been one of the best things about the last two movies so it's unfortunate that his character gets sidelined early on and ends up MIA for 95% of this one. Crews has been a joy to watch throughout the series and his absence is felt. Purely by chance Stallone was able to cast Harrison Ford, replacing Bruce Willis after his money demands weren't met by the producers. Ford is a far better actor than Willis and he seems to be having a good time to boot. He puts in a perfectly serviceable performance, his inclusion just seems a bit out of place.

For the sake of the plot, Barney Ross (Stallone) decides that he doesn't want any of his friends killed by main baddie & ex-Expendable Conrad Stonebanks (an unbelievably good villainous turn by Mel Gibson) so he goes on the hunt with mercenary recruiter Bonaparte (a fine showing by Kelsey Grammer) to enlist a collection of suicidal cannon fodder. Ross wants revenge on Stonebanks for nearly killing fellow Expendable Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) and so doesn't expect to make it back. Ross certainly isn't hiding his feelings of indifference from his new group. Kellan Lutz (Smilee), Victor Ortiz (Mars), Ronda Rousey (Luna), and Glen Powell (Thorn) make up the new blood, and it should go without saying that they don't hold a candle to the originals. Specific mention goes to Rousey who gives by far the worst performance in the entire film, if not the entire franchise. If Sly wanted a capable MMA fighter for the part, why not just go with Gina Carrano? The group as whole are about as exciting as watching paint dry and as much fun as athlete's foot.




Truth be told, however, they take up a lot less screen time than I was led to believe. They're captured by Stonebanks not long after their introduction, making way for the movie's third act wherein Ross and his old team reunite to take out Conrad. We're then promptly introduced to Antonio Banderas' enjoyably funny Galgo as he assists Ross after his narrow escape from Stonebanks. Galgo acts as comic relief, played with full intent by Banderas to be grating. He's squirrely, energetic, talks a mile a minute, but is strangely likeable. Banderas is and has been an incredible actor for a very long time and successfully pulling off a character like this speaks volumes of his talent. Any other actor would have turned him into a complete disaster. Banderas also handles himself exquisitely during the film's last half hour - a half hour that is one big action sequence, by the way. He's jumping over tables, leaping out of windows, shooting fiercely and quickly, and on the list goes. He displayed a surprising physicality most actors his age just don't possess any longer.

Mel Gibson - who positively upstages everyone he's sharing the screen with - is undoubtedly the highlight of this movie. He makes for an intense, intimidating, downright scary villain and is easily the best actor this franchise has been able to secure. Gibson is obviously slumming it in a movie like this, but don't tell him that. He's so ruthless, so cold, and so menacing; he really bit into this character and he's giving him all he's got. In a fantastically acted scene where Ross and the younger Expendables "capture" Stonebanks during an arms deal (where Robert Davi puts in a surprise cameo as a Russian weapons buyer), it's the first time we really get to hear much from him. The hour beforehand shows us glimpses of him, mostly silent takes, and when we finally get to hear him go at Barney... Watch out. Gibson is downright chilling. Stallone steps his game up here too, obviously feeling a touch outclassed by Mel. While their characters are at odds with each other and meant to harbor a shared hatred between them, the two actors worked wonderfully together. They had great on-screen chemistry, in turn making their rivalry truly palpable.




You come to these for the action though and that's precisely what you're going to get. The unrated version of The Expendables 3 clocks in at a daunting 131 minutes, making it the longest Expendables flick yet. About 30 minutes too long by my calculations. The first and second films were each about an hour and 40 minutes; well-paced, taut, and just enough character development to keep things from devolving into complete mindlessness. There's a lot of plot in this one, and that can be an issue. Granted, it's a far better plot than it really needed to be - with some nice emotional moments & a dash of social commentary for good measure - it's still lugging around a grueling second act that drones on and on. And those 30 minutes I mentioned above belong mostly to Lutz, Rousey, Ortiz, and Powell, further proof that their characters could have been cut from the film entirely with no consequence.

A longer runtime also affords this one longer action sequences, and Hughes is up to the task. The first 30 minutes alone are two action bits back-to-back. A mission to rescue Doc (Wesley Snipes) from a prison transport train starts things off, followed up by Ross and his team running into Stonebanks for the first time. These are some of the most intense and well-shot action sequences of the entire franchise. Unfortunately, this one also has the misfortune of having what is possibly the worst CGI work I've seen in some time. From what I understand the budget is the same as the second film - around $100 million - so I'm not sure how it's such a step down from the prior film in this regard. The cardinal rule The Expendables 3 breaks as far as CGI is concerned is that they attempt to build entire structures with it. It should be used to enhance real objects and locations, not utilized to create the world around the actors. It looks far too fake, as if Ross and his team were superimposed into a random first-person shooter videogame. A scene with Stallone and Grammer in a car driving through the desert is particularly dreadful. Remember those scenes in older sitcoms where the actors are sitting in an obvious mock car as a screen behind them projects an image to simulate movement? Yeah, it looks that bad.

The most glaring flaw I see The Expendables 3 has is too much Stallone. I understand the complaints against the young Expendables, I understand the complaints against the PG-13 rating, and I understand the complaints against the underuse of a handful of cast members. What I don't hear much about is Stallone stealing so much of the runtime away from most everyone else. The two prior films mixed things up, gave everyone a standout scene or two, and let Stallone stick to the shadows when necessary. Here, he's front & center and it just gets tiresome.




What saves this movie from its negatives is by simply having fantastically orchestrated action from top to bottom. Hughes' firefights are lacking the blood & viscera you'd expect from so much gunfire, but I can easily overlook it as it's all so well-staged. I applaud his choice to use nice steady shots as well. Making out the action, at least in the unrated cut, is much easier than most modern action films. The camera stays in one central location and focuses where it needs to. There's a lot happening during these action sequences, lots of choreography, and lots of different camera angles. To Hughes' credit it's very easy to follow. He knows his way around an action sequence, I'll give him that. Cars crash, buildings crumble, thousands of rounds of ammunition are fired, and tanks are destroyed. You name it. The PG-13 doesn't affect the intensity of the action for the most part, which is a relief.

I'll admit it. I expected The Expendables 3 to be a mess. I suppose if you're looking for hardcore, R-rated action you're not going find the film's positives all that positive. Maybe I've just hit the age where I'll take a decently made action flick over a gratuitously violent one any day of the week. It's not without faults, however, and I'll probably always wonder what a truly R-rated Expendables 3 could have been, but it delivered where it needed to. You've got the best cast assembled so far and it comes so close to realizing the ambitions Stallone envisioned for this franchise four years ago. Easily the best acted in the bunch, not to mention sporting some of the best action beats as well, taken for what it is The Expendables 3 is thoroughly enjoyable and that's the biggest compliment I can give to a film like this. All Stallone wants these to be is nostalgic, escapist action flicks. At that, they succeed. The Expendables 3 is one big TNT box of fun.


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Ryse: Son of Rome review

Posted : 3 years, 1 month ago on 23 September 2014 09:21 (A review of Ryse: Son of Rome)

Gamers old enough to have been a part of developer Crytek's progression from 2003's Far Cry to their recent forays into the free-to-play world with Warface will agree that the their success has been polarizing. The firm's success is deserved, though it could be argued that their achievements didn't come without hefty compromises. Crytek were one of the most visible proponents of PC gaming during the 2000s, taking every opportunity to push high-end hardware as far & as often as possible. Their fan base adored them for it despite the company's games being all but unplayable on low-end builds. 2007's Crysis quickly gained recognition for its stunning graphics, graphics Crytek themselves admitted were a good three years ahead of their time. What other company could stake the claim that, yes, if you were playing their game on the highest settings possible the day of release then you really ought not to?

How quickly the cards toppled when Crysis's groundbreaking visuals didn't translate into groundbreaking sales. Its hyped sequel, Crysis 2, went from most-anticipated to most-reviled in the blink of an eye when the PC community caught wind of Crytek's decision to make it the company's console debut. Longtime players, specifically those that wanted a PC-only future for Crytek, were understandably disheartened by the revelation. Business is business and by that point being PC-exclusive wasn't bringing in the right figures, and not just for Crytek. That compromise, deciding to keep PC gamers in the loop while not alienating the console market, has thus far proven lucrative for them. Despite the PC versions of both Crysis 2 and Crysis 3 graphically surpassing their console counterparts by a large margin, PC gamers were and still aren't over the decision to go multi-platform.




With the recent launch of new consoles from Sony and Microsoft gamers aren't wrong to expect bigger and better graphics the second their system of choice finds its power cord into the nearest electrical outlet. Who better to answer that call than Crytek? These guys have built a reputation on delivering gorgeous high-end visuals for over a decade now and their latest, Ryse: Son of Rome, is everything you'd expect from them. Barring CEO Cevat Yerli, whose consistently off-the-cuff, candid, and outright disrespectful remarks do very little for the developer's public image, Crytek are the sort of game developer I love to see succeed. They are continually pushing technology forward, finding new ways to blur the line between game & reality, and making good on their promise to provide players with beautifully immersive game worlds to lose themselves in. The Crytek of 2014 are certainly not the Crytek of 2007, having now fully enveloped themselves in console development and undoubtedly sacrificing a set of loyal customers in the process.

Ryse: Son of Rome is a very interesting title, more so when you consider all Crytek have done up to this point are first-person shooters. What you've got here is a combination of God of War-style hack 'n ' slash, a stylish, 300-inspired presentation, and a revenge-fuelled story ripped straight from Ridley Scott's Gladiator. Ryse wants to be a Hollywood sword-and-sandals epic and I'll be damned if it doesn't give it all its got to achieve its ambitions. It's a fascinating concoction for several reasons, the biggest of which being its Greek setting and accompanying mythology. Ryse doesn't just borrow the cinematic hacking-and-slashing elements from Sony's famed God of War series but also its core concept: a tale of revenge set in ancient Greece. Comparisons should stop there, however, because Ryse's take on Greek myths & history couldn't be any more dissimilar to God of War from that point onward. Harpies, Gods, demons of the underworld, undead armies, and the brutal slayings of deities isn't what this game advertises. Ryse is comparatively grounded, only dabbling in mild fantasy elements when the line between fact and fiction is meant to be ambiguous. Gods are present in the forms of a female Spirit of Summer and a male Spirit of Winter. Do they even exist? Are they a figment of main character Marius Titus's (John Hopkins) fractured psyche? Crytek ain't tellin' and I prefer it that way.




All of the actors involved seemed very game (pardon the pun) and dug into their characters far more than was necessarily required. John Hopkins did a fine job as Marius, likeable & fearsome, and turning up the intensity during the last half of the game admirably. Outside of Hopkins, Tim Treloar as Commander Vitalion and Sebastian Abineri's Emperor Nero are further highlights. Treloar is excellent as Vitalion, a fearless Centurion who quickly befriends & mentors Marius, and Abineri makes the slimy, cowardly Nero a villain worth remembering. Ryse's plot makes bold statements about government corruption and the real victims of war. The character of Nero is the classic two-faced politician, unaware and uncaring of how his devious meddling and lust for power is sending the Roman Empire into oblivion.

Unfortunately in Ryse's case, if you've played one button-masher then you've played them all. Crytek are masters of visual fidelity but have been criticized over the years for placing more importance on graphics than gameplay. Ryse isn't any different in that regard and that revelation comes as something of a shock to me. When this game was originally announced at E3 2011 as a Kinect-only Xbox 360 exclusive I thought to myself, 'Self, that looks mind-numbingly awesome.' If anything at all, if it were to fall short in any category, I figured gameplay wouldn't be one of them. As a standard fare beat 'em up attached to the launch of Microsoft's Xbox One console, how ironic then that gameplay suffers most. That's not to say the scenarios Crytek comes up with and the core action of the title is bad, just largely unspectacular. Ryse has a very intuitive combat system though and that's something it should be praised for. Crytek's game incorporates a sword attack and a shield attack - relegated to the X and Y buttons - along with the prerequisite dodging action by way of the left analog stick and button B. One thing Ryse has going for its combat is the option to parry attackers. You can stick to plain ol' dodging if you'd prefer, but the parrying mechanic incorporates some defensive depth in what is an otherwise purely offensive fighting system.

During battle the player, as Marius, will be given the opportunity to dispatch foes with extremely gory kill moves called Executions. After chipping away at an enemy's health you'll see a skull icon appear over their head which you can respond to by pressing RT. That triggers a quick time event where your foe's body will faintly glow yellow or blue, indicating which button should be pressed to continue the animation. The better timed your button presses are the more experience points you'll earn for one of four categories. Each of those four groups has its own Executions and gameplay advantages. I'll hesitantly admit that the graphic Executions were one of Ryse's biggest selling points for yours truly, but before long those jaw-dropping kill moves started feeling like exactly what they are; repetitive displays of brutal violence for the sake of shock value. Remember those sequences in 300 where the Romans were laying waste to the Persians in a series of successive attacks where each stab, slash, and impalement was punctuated with a pronounced slo-mo money shot? Ryse's Executions are literally just like that, and how much you enjoyed those aspects of 300 will determine how much you like or dislike these kill moves.




Despite being impressed by the Executions initially, there's only so much of it I could take before I found myself totally desensitized to them. As the game wears on you'll be awarded XP to purchase additional Executions with, which means at the very least you won't be seeing the same moves as frequently as at the game's start. A bulk of the upgraded Executions are context-based such as rear or side-facing as well as granting Marius the ability to take down more than one enemy at a time. These dual Executions are of particular note as they encourage juggling multiple opponents at once, adding a nice strategic element to the mix. Taking on five or more enemies all the while perfectly timing your blocking & parrying, finishing off two simultaneously, and then focusing on the remaining baddies in much the same manner is immensely satisfying.

Eventually you'll be treated to sections where you're required to pick off enemies from a distance using pila, a sort of Roman spear. Varying the gameplay in such ways is appreciated although the end result is a bit of a bore. Throwing pila requires little effort on your part other than deflecting/dodging incoming arrows and charging LT until Marius locks on to a target. Control is never fully given to the player and that's a woefully disappointing decision. Other segments will task Marius with leading a battalion of Roman soldiers down narrow paths where you are to shield yourself from incoming arrows as you slowly progress forward. Again, I'm immediately reminded of a scene from 300 where the Romans group their shields together to protect themselves from a shower of Persian arrows. Ryse shares so much in common with 300 that spotting its riffs becomes a game unto itself. That doesn't mean it isn't enjoyable to play through this derivative stuff, it's just that enjoyably derivative is still derivative. It won't take you long to see all the game has to offer, and while the combat is nicely polished and responsive, repetition and a complete lack of complexity eventually tears away at the seams.

What Ryse lacks in gameplay it certainly makes up for in graphics. No cross-generation hijinks going on here, Ryse was built specifically for the Xbox One console and it shows. From the opening moments of the game with Marius fending off a Barbarian assault during a meeting with his father, Leontius (Nick Brimble), you're met with some of the best looking graphics to date. The power of the CryEngine is no more apparent than in a sequence where Marius and his fellow Legionaries are attacked on their ships. Giant harbor chains designed for the sole purpose of destroying these massive watercraft are raised into position and tear them apart in splendid fashion. What most games last generation relegated to pre-rendered cut scenes Ryse presents in real-time. Marius dodging exploding fireballs while a ship sails into the rocks behind him, its flag burning and sending glowing red embers swirling into the air, looks frighteningly lifelike. There are no noticeable transitions from cut scene to gameplay simply because there would be nothing to transition to. Everything you see in Ryse - sans a couple of noticeably grainy pre-rendered cut scenes - happens in-engine.




As soon as you think you've hit the precipice of Ryse's visual goods, on comes another impressive moment that's guaranteed to leave your jaw hanging around your ankles. Absolutely nothing bad can be said of the game's visual presentation. If there's one aspect that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the game it's the character models. They are some of the most realistic looking, moving, and acting I've seen in a videogame. The environments - namely rendered grass and awe-inspiring water physics - are positively lush. I was taken aback numerous times while playing, losing myself in the surrounding environs as I took note of the photorealistic textures and stunning lighting effects on display. No doubt about it, friends, Ryse is the bleeding edge of videogame graphics.

And that's something every last review of this game has in common: none of them have denied Ryse's graphical legitimacy. You wanted shiny next-gen graphics and Crytek is more than happy to sate your appetite. Graphics whores have plenty to dig their greedy little mitts into whereas those craving a strongly playable title will probably find themselves checking out of this buffet unsatisfied. Ryse is a lot like that pretty girl in high school every guy wanted to date. On the surface she looks fantastic and as far as you can tell she's the best looking chick in town. Someone that pretty couldn't possibly be anything less than perfect, right? You smooth talk your way in, score yourself a date, and after two hours of what you imagined would be the best night of your life... she's fairly unremarkable. Pretty face, great body, great features, and after all is said and done you can't figure out for the life of you why it didn't click. You should be head-over-heels for her, but you're just... not.

Ryse is a lot like that girl. She's perfectly attractive, you have a good time getting to know her, and in the moment you find yourself wanting to spend more time with her. After eight hours of hacking, slashing, and executing ad infinitum with nothing breaking up the monotony except for some mindless spear-chucking here and there you quickly realize why true beauty is only skin deep. I've been playing games like this for years now, most of them much deeper & rewarding than Ryse, and no amount of visual sheen or over-the-top gore is going to mask that. If you've never tried your hand at a a hack 'n' slash title before then Ryse's decidedly entry-level appeal should do nicely for you. Ryse isn't a bad game, though. Seriously impressive from a purely visual standpoint and its gameplay, while simple, is satisfying enough and perfectly refined. A reinvention of the wheel this is not and with some vexing flaws that a veteran studio like Crytek could have easily dealt with prior to release, Ryse is a moderately fun diversion that's execution never quite matches its potential.


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The Expendables 2 (Blu-ray + UltraViolet + Digital Copy) review

Posted : 3 years, 1 month ago on 18 September 2014 03:26 (A review of The Expendables 2 (Blu-ray + UltraViolet + Digital Copy))

When Sly Stallone first announced his idea for the original Expendables film - getting all the big '80s and '90s ass-kickers together in the name of nostalgia and blowing shit up - what action enthusiast didn't go nuts for it? It sounded so awesome yet so unlikely. What was the probability of getting all of these guys together at the same time, all of them agreeing on the script, and all of them getting along well enough to make it happen? If you grew up on these types of movies then you understand exactly why The Expendables' sales pitch was as enticing as it was preposterous.

Stars signed on for the project then signed off, the promising potential cast list dwindled ever lower, and by that point I'd pretty much stopped caring. A pipe dream that wasn't going to happen, I assumed. Backed by Sylvester Stallone's impressive directing chops, The Expendables did eventually happen and opened to a solid box office reception the summer of 2010. Every single cast member looked to be having a good time and the novelty of seeing Sly, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Jason Statham, Steve Austin, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Eric Roberts sharing the same screen was nothing short of awesome. The content of the film, however, paled in comparison to its lofty ambitions with Stallone's scattershot script being more or less the main culprit. '80s action was fast, funny, and sometimes subversive. The Expendables had a good time with itself occasionally, parting the doom & gloom for witty one-liners and glib funnies, but most of the film was too heavy-handed for its own good. Sly wanted to tell a story about honor & redemption, about doing the right thing when it needed to be done. Plain and simply put it wasn't the time or place for Stallone to tell that tale.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed The Expendables' brand of fun and excitement, I just wanted more of it. I wanted self-deprecation & outrageousness, not straight-faced brutality and moral grey areas. In steps The Expendables 2, and when I say "steps" I mean "blows the fucking doors down." Sly vacates the director's chair this time out, ably replaced by action vet Simon West (Con Air). Stallone is a ballsy director; not afraid to experiment and not afraid to explore the ugly side of violence. As such it's best he not direct every script or idea he has, and I'm glad to see that his ego isn't above letting another director take the reins. Depending on how you like your action you're going to feel one of two ways about this movie. Before the opening titles are even underway you've got Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) telling Trench Mauser (Arnold Schwarzenegger) that if he fails to return his AA-12 automatic shotgun to him that his "ass is terminated."




If you think that level of self-reference is totally unnecessary then get ready to hate the dish The Expendables 2 asks you to muscle down. Even the plot takes a turn for the absurd with Stallone enlisting the likes of Scott Adkins (Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning) and '90s box office king Jean-Claude Van Damme as black market arms dealers. Not enough for you? Adkins puts on his best Russian accent for the part of Hector while Van Damme gleefully chews the scenery as the merciless Vilain. No, no, that's not a typo: Van Damme's character is in fact named Jean Vilain. You know, 'cause he's the villain. Juvenile and low-brow? You bet. Though I'd be lying if I said it didn't get a chuckle out of me. Barney Ross's (Sylvester Stallone) cadre of mercenaries are to retrieve a mysterious case from a downed plane in the Albanian mountains as ordered by the mysterious Mr. Church (Bruce Willis reprising his role from the first) and accompanied by Maggie (Yu Nan), whom Church handpicked himself. One thing inevitably leads to another, the group runs afoul of Vilain, and eventually Ross's team are on the hunt for the stolen case and payback for the death of one of their own.

Simon West starts things off on the right foot with the opening action sequence, featuring our gang of anti-heroes rescuing a Chinese billionaire. It's loud, funny, and bloody as hell. Before you know it you've got Gunnar (Dolph Lundgren) spraying machine gun fire from the side of a steel-encased humvee, yelling "Eat shit" as he mows down bad guys. The action is immaculately staged with the film's R rating doing its job of delivering bloody bullet hits, blown off heads, and shot off limbs. The way West orchestrates the action makes it obvious that he comes from a different era of action filmmaking: easy to follow, well-paced, and with distinctive crescendos. West does everything right. And not just during the film's incredible opening sequence but with all the film's exciting set pieces. Sly's direction in the previous film was a bit muddled and hard to follow, but West has a great handle on setting and where to place the camera for maximum efficiency. In short, he's a vast improvement.




How much you enjoy those sequences depends, of course, on how well you dig raucous, over-the-top action. Not that the first movie was a lesson in Newtonian physics laws, but The Expendables 2 goes the typical sequel route of making sure everything is bigger and louder. None of what happens in this flick is particularly believable, so if you can check your brain at the door you're going to have a blast with The Expendables 2's explode-y goods. The dark tone of the first made it a lot harder to swallow the more outrageous moments because it asked us to take them seriously whereas West's tongue-in-cheek handling of the material means the audience isn't asked to believe the on-screen carnage in The Expendables 2 any more than the filmmakers do. They're laughing right along with us and that goes a long way towards downplaying the sheer gratuitousness of the stunts & pyrotechnics.

Fans leveled complaints at Stallone and co-star Jason Statham for taking up nearly the entire runtime of the first film, complaints that aren't without merit. Sly and company got the message, it seems, because The Expendables 2 makes better use of its cast and gives each one of them a stellar scene or two. Ex-UFC fighter Randy Couture (Toll Road) isn't much of an actor and, unlike a majority of the cast, doesn't have a laundry list of roles to his credit. With that said it's not surprising he wasn't given a whole lot to do in the first other than offer humorous anecdotes now and again or pop a couple heads when necessary. He works well as comic relief, as evidenced by the first movie, and he's utilized even more effectively in the second. His exchanges with Hale Caesar are highlights unto themselves. The Expendables 2 has no shortage of humor, and lucky for us it's far funnier and organic than in the first. A conversation about having one's last meal comes to mind as Caesar asks what everyone's preferred dish would be. Caesar telling Toll his would "Probably be cereal or some shit" and Toll's response, "And what the hell's wrong with cereal?," is priceless. The best lines are often handed to Lundgren's Gunnar, an unstable yet horrifyingly intelligent ex-chemist (no kidding). Lundgren is having a great time with the part and it shows. Blowing his nose with a napkin in which he's written Einstein's Theory of General Relativity on, asking Yin Yang (Jet Li) if he were to leave who else he would have to pick on (and Yang's comeback, "You will find other minority"), attempting to build a makeshift bomb with phosphate rock, and on the list goes. Nearly everything Lundgren does or says is gold. Gunnar was a standout in the first movie and I'm ecstatic that the character gets more screen time in the second.

The one actor I wish had gotten more to do, however, was Jean-Claude Van Damme. He turned what could have been a predictably one-note bad guy into a nasty, detestable, yet strangely charismatic bad guy. Within 60 seconds of our introduction to Vilain, Van Damme outlines him perfectly. We know what he wants, we know how far he'll go to get it, and we see that he finds solace in his cruelty. West wants us to hate him and knows exactly how to achieve the desired result. Despite Vilain's wickedness, Van Damme is having a visibly great time with it. The best performance in the film belongs to him, but there's just not enough time to fully enjoy it. You've likely guessed that Vilain ends up going toe-to-toe with Ross by the end of the film and that a Stallone/Van Damme match up sounds damn satisfying. Again, after an entire hour and a half of build--up, once these two finally go at it, it lasts all of five minutes with Ross dominating Vilain. Anti-climactic isn't nearly the proper descriptor. Unsatisfying, disappointing, wasted potential... take your pick.




The Expendables 2's pre-release rounds in early 2012 found Stallone chatting it up with various websites and he eventually let slip that the film was being considered for a PG-13 rating. He tried this song-and-dance with the previous film where he and producer Avi Lerner sat test audiences through both PG-13 and R-rated cuts of it, with the R-rated version obviously winning favor. In the case of The Expendables 2 it seemed as though Chuck Norris - who gets a brief cameo as Booker, a fellow mercenary - asked the producers to ensure the film was a PG-13 or he would no longer participate. He hadn't, in fact, requested a PG-13 but that the movie's filthy dialogue be toned down. The miscommunication isn't surprising given the interview was conducted by Kazeta, a Polish newspaper. Unsurprisingly there's nary an F-bomb to be heard, but the violence is undeniably R. While most of the harder bloodshed is rendered via CGI, observant folks will make note of many instances where practical blood squibs were used.

It's disappointing that Jet Li is sidelined sans the beginning of the film, that Van Damme's screen time is cut so short, and that the middle portion of the movie feels so leaden. Plot-wise The Expendables 2 is also pretty inconsequential and it makes sense that the halfway point tries to squeeze in all the story elements. It's boring because, frankly, none us checked into this one for an involving plot. In every other way The Expendables 2 is a marked improvement over the solid first installment. I don't want to be asked to take this stuff seriously and I love that the film didn't want me to. I wanted to have fun and it served it up in spades. Check your brain at the door and you're guaranteed an explosive hour-and-a-half of machismo-fuelled excess. If you're old enough to remember thinking to your 10-year-old self how awesome it would be to see Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis, and Van Damme in one movie together, then The Expendables 2 was signed, sealed, and delivered with your name on the postage.


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Live Free or Die Hard review

Posted : 3 years, 5 months ago on 14 May 2014 11:48 (A review of Live Free or Die Hard)

Die Hard is as storied an action film as you're likely to find. The movie's biggest achievement? Transcending the "action movie" label: Die Hard is such a great action flick because it's a great movie first and foremost. The acting is fantastic, the story is wonderfully written & full of unexpected twists and turns, brilliant characterization, an unforgettable villain in Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber, truly spectacular action, and all of that is held together by Bruce Willis's career-defining portrayal of NYPD detective John McClane. As with any successful movie there are bound to be a sequel or two (or four in the case of Die Hard) and, unsurprisingly, each sequel continually diminished what made the first movie so special.

None of Die Hard's sequels are particularly awful. Even my least favorite installment, the Renny Harlin-helmed Die Hard 2: Die Harder, has enough spark to keep its two hour runtime light and breezy. Die Hard With a Vengeance - the franchise's third sequel - is often considered the series' second best and it isn't hard to see why. Director John McTiernan is as much a part of Die Hard's success as Bruce Willis's inimitable performance. Renny Harlin was no John McTiernan and the latter filmmaker's return to the franchise is felt from the very first time John McClane is reintroduced to us. He's pissed off, smoking a cigarette, and nursing a legendary hangover. With a Vengeance capped off the trilogy properly. A bit light on the action, perhaps, but a satisfying concluding chapter nonetheless.

12 years after the third came the Len Wiseman-directed Live Free or Die Hard. There's something unexplainably enigmatic about this film. I'm sure you've read all about it by now and you're likely to have your own opinion on the matter. Live Free or Die Hard is the first (and only) entry in the series to be given a PG-13 rating. The other Die Hard's have been unmistakably R-rated undertakings. While some are more violent or profane than others to varying degrees, the franchise has retained its penchant for gritty violence and John McClane's love of the F-bomb for three films prior and one film after. That PG-13 rating means you aren't going to get the salty language, bloody violence, and perma-smoking John McClane. Some argue that those changes are all cosmetic and don't affect the overall integrity of the movie. But does it? Absolutely. McClane is rough around the edges and the confines of the PG-13 limits just how rough he can be.




What's enigmatic about Live Free or Die Hard is how good a sequel it is despite the MPAA rating. Len Wiseman is a fervent admirer of the franchise & its lore, and he makes it known as often as he possibly can. Willis is no stranger to outspokenness and he's been quite vocal through the years about his general distaste for self-reference in these movies. Wiseman is an obvious advocate of it and must have given Bruce some heavy-duty convincing to be allowed the amount he's squeezed into this one. Live Free... is loaded with subtle callbacks and in-jokes longtime fans are going to have a ball with. If there's one thing Live Free or Die Hard has in spades, it's humor. Maybe a little too much humor, in fact. McClane must have set a record for number of wisecracks in a single Die Hard movie, and most of them are positively crackling. What does McClane say when asked why he's just launched a car into a helicopter? "I was out of bullets." How does McClane respond to blowing a terrorist out of an apartment complex window? "That's going to wake the neighbors." The villain remarks that he thought he'd have killed McClane by now to which John dryly retorts, "Yeah, I get that sometimes." Willis was obviously having a great time and it shows. He's looking a bit tired by this go 'round - wearing his early 50s on his sleeve just as prominently as the bloody gashes on his face - but he capably embodies McClane once again despite his bald head and milder demeanor. Fans haven't been kind to Bruce's performance in this film and I've never understood why. McClane is physically & emotionally worn out by this point in his life. He's been through hell three times over, definitively divorced, his daughter can't stand him, and he's a decorated detective reduced to being a glorified babysitter. He's not meant to be in a great mood so Willis is expectedly understated for a portion of the film.

Live Free... knows its pedigree and fully embraces it. It's a huge summer movie that wants you to have as much fun watching it as the crew seemed to have making it. That's ultimately the movie's biggest problem. The other Die Hard's are aware of their audiences expectations and thirst for exciting action all the while maintaining a certain level of intelligence and realism. These are movies designed for entertainment and as such I'm not expecting them to be completely true to life, but Live Free or Die Hard is the most unhinged entry in the entire franchise. I'd go as far as to argue that the original trilogy couldn't match this one's level of ridiculousness between them. That sequence in With a Vengeance where John rides a wave of water through the New York sewer system? Child's play. Live Free... finds him going mano e mano with a fighter jet, dodging flying cars, climbing through an SUV dangling above a nauseatingly deep elevator shaft, and that's just the short list. And the fighter jet I mentioned? Somehow our hero manages to traverse an imploding freeway in a semi-truck, dodging the aircraft's gunfire, and gets himself on top of the vehicle only to surf it for a few seconds and jump off just before it engulfs itself. The action can (and often does) get absurdly unrealistic, but I'll be damned if it isn't entertaining. Wiseman's action sequences are some of the most exciting, well-choreographed, and executed of the entire franchise.




Wiseman and company are so keen on keeping the Die Hard spirit alive so well most of the time that it's downright inexplicable why they decided to take this entry so above and beyond the plausible limits McClane should and could be able to tolerate. The vast majority of Live Free... is pitch-perfect Die Hard, right down to the villains' motives and their reliance on communicating with McClane via walkie-talkie. The cat-and-mouse game played between John and the film's main villain, Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), is so Die Hard that it hurts. The two banter back and forth with each other, Gabriel's threats one-upped by McClane's wise-ass quips effortlessly. In typical fashion Gabriel underestimates McClane and it always comes back on him tenfold. Olyphant doesn't make a great villain, unfortunately, though that doesn't stop him from giving it his best effort. He's a good verbal jouster for Willis, but totally non-threatening and doesn't have the physicality to make Gabriel imposing. He brandishes a gun with the best of them but he's no physical match for John, leaving most of the heavy lifting to his mercenaries. That's fine and dandy but, barring Maggie Q's formidable Mai, Gabriel's cronies are wholly dispensable. Maggie Q gets a one-on-one fistfight with Willis that's one of the best the series has to offer; McClane gets his ass kicked in spectacular fashion.

You'd think with all the explosions, gunfights, fistfights, and assorted mayhem permeating this flick there wouldn't be much time for plot. Again, Live Free or Die Hard surprises. Mark Bomback's screenplay is adapted from John Carlin's A Call to Arms, an original story Bomback re-worked into a Die Hard sequel. The idea of a group of virtual terrorists attacking the United States' infrastructure is novel and effectively brings the franchise to modern relevancy. It's a new school plot with an old school protagonist and Len Wiseman milks the concept for all its worth. McClane's reluctant sidekick this time out is Matt Ferrell (Justin Long), a New Jersey computer hacker whose competition is systematically murdered, leaving him wanted for questioning by the FBI following a series of security breaches. Naturally it becomes Detective McClane's task to deliver him to the Feds. He gets in over his head almost immediately after meeting Ferrell, getting swarmed in Ferrell's apartment by Gabriel's thugs, and quicker than you can say Yippee Ki-Yay John's back in the thick of it. As you may expect, Long is utilized for comic relief, though he's utilized effectively. Some aren't going to like his whiny, motor-mouthed shtick, but he gels with Willis exceptionally well and adds credence to the film's plot. Ferrell is strongly likeable and provides some genuinely funny moments when necessary.




Live Free or Die Hard parallels the original in that McClane eventually finds himself rescuing a family member. In the first and second it was his estranged wife, in this one it's his daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Lucy runs afoul of Gabriel leading up to the movie's third act. Her character feels a bit shoehorned in, totally absent from the film sans the beginning until it's time for a new plot device. Make no mistake, Winstead is an incredible actress and she did a terrific job with the part. She's bad-ass and vulnerable in equal measure. That leads me into my second problem with Live Free or Die Hard: it's too long. Wiseman could have shaved a solid 20-30 minutes off of this bugger and it would have been a better movie because of it. Cliff Curtis (Deputy Director Bowman) is one of my favorite actors but is utterly wasted here. His character does nothing but deliver exposition, which isn't a problem per se, except that it's exposition we're set to learn again 10 minutes later. Said exposition is left to Kevin Smith's ill-advised cameo as Ferrell's friend and fellow hacker, Warlock. Smith's appearance should have been left on the cutting room floor. I suppose in the right frame of mind (and depending on how much you like Kevin Smith) it's funny in an ironic sort of way, but its inclusion slows the pace to a snail's crawl. Not to mention it just has no business in a Die Hard movie.

Live Free or Die Hard could have used some hefty editing to iron some of this out. A scene at the halfway point perfectly illustrates how the bloated runtime hurts the film. Gabriel's boys flood the news stations with an image of the White House, accompanied by details of how the combined effects of their attack will cripple the country, followed shortly thereafter by footage of the White House exploding, which is obviously an elaborate ruse. Why? I have no idea. It serves the plot in no way whatsoever. The Die Hard's preceding this one are of equal length so I suppose the goal was to eek out a minimum two-hour runtime. It's overlong and because of that becomes a chore to sit through during its final act.




Perhaps that's just nitpicking because everything about this one otherwise is rock solid. Unfortunately the incredible picture quality and window-rattling (no, seriously) DTS HD 5.1 track are undermined by Fox's decision to release the Blu-ray with only the PG-13 version included. The DVD release features the superior unrated cut that inserts the removed profanity and bloodshed from the original version of the film. The decision to shoot for a PG-13 instead of an R is an interesting one as, according to Len Wiseman, Fox decided halfway through production that they wanted a lesser rating. Much of the R-rated dialogue had already been shot, as had some of the bloodier shootouts. While the deleted F-bombs were in fact recorded during production, this new cut doesn't alter any of the previous version's takes so the profanity is just dubbed on top of the current footage. That amounts to some peculiar instances where a character's mouth is covered when the word is uttered and, if you look closely enough, you'll notice instances where their lips aren't moving at all. You likely won't notice them if you aren't actively searching for them; most of the time it blends right in. Some scenes are notable for having the character visibly mouth these words, lending weight to Wiseman's claims of already filming some of these sequences. The unrated version also alters a few lines of dialogue (most substituting brilliant one-liners for rather mediocre ones) or eliminating some bits of dialogue entirely. It runs a minute or so shorter than the theatrical print, but has the added benefit of feeling a lot more like true Die Hard.

If there's proof that a talented director and actor that care about the quality of the franchise they're attached to can outweigh questionable executive decisions, it's Live Free or Die Hard. For all intents and purposes this flick was rushing headlong into an early death. It should have sucked and bombed miserably. Lord knows most fans were waiting for that. Lo and behold it ends up being the best reviewed franchise entry since the first, made huge bank at the box office, and quickly became my second favorite Die Hard movie right behind the first. Live Free... is a heck of a good time. There are shortcomings abound, some a lot more prevalent than others, but its heart is in the right place and that certainly counts for something. The action sequences are worth the price of admission alone. Sure, it's offensively over-the-top at times and a bit too self-aware to take seriously, but it's fun. Len Wiseman knows exactly the kind of movie this is, what you're expecting from it, and does nothing more than deliver on that promise. Live Free or Die Hard is a great time and a damn good sequel, nailing what makes this franchise so awesome and effectively migrates those classic elements into a modern update indelibly.


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A Good Day to Die Hard (Blu-ray + DVD + UltraViolet Digital Copy) (Extended Cut) review

Posted : 3 years, 8 months ago on 15 February 2014 01:52 (A review of A Good Day to Die Hard (Blu-ray + DVD + UltraViolet Digital Copy) (Extended Cut))

The first Die Hard film resonated with audiences 25 years ago because it wasn't afraid to go against type. Action stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Steven Seagal made up a large bulk of the '80s and '90s action fare and all were, for lack of a better phrase, muscle-bound meatheads using an infinite health cheat. Here were men that punched, kicked, shot, stabbed, and one-liner'd their way through countless films year after year, making a proverbial killing doing it.

That's where a movie like Die Hard managed to find its footing amidst a sea of overly macho Hollywood action films. Word has it that Bruce Willis's career-defining role was also one he was never really in the running for. The 20th Century Fox execs ran the gamut of action stars - some current, some not so current - and found them either ducking out at the last minute or passing on the role altogether. Bruce Willis was, quite literally, the last guy even they expected to see headlining an action flick. Cast purely by chance, it proved to be a move that's benefited Fox and Bruce Willis for years. Willis's John McClane worked so well because he looked, acted, and talked like any other number of Americans that would have found themselves in his situation. He was a flawed husband, father, and cop & really wanted no part in the situations he often fixed. McClane did what he had to do because there never seemed to be any one else to do it.

With the latest entry in the long-running franchise, A Good Day to Die Hard, this series has found itself the center of critical scorn it's never received before. Each of the four previous entries have been extraordinarily well-received with 2007's Live Free or Die Hard in particular being the most favorably reviewed among professional critics since the first. Just how poorly was A Good Day to Die Hard reviewed? Head on over to Rotten Tomatoes and take in that 14% Fresh rating. That's not just a poor score for a Die Hard movie, that's a remarkably low score by any standard.

The biggest problem critics and audiences alike seem to be having with A Good Day to Die Hard is that, whether you wanted them to or not, the action sequences have progressed from moderately believable to complete spectacle. As has become tradition with each Die Hard film, most of the movie's big set pieces were pulled off practically with very little CG augmentation. Throughout this extended cut's 101-minute runtime you'll see McClane flip a truck, get hit by a car, jump through a luxury hotel's ballroom room window onto the many tiers of scaffolding below, get thrown from a truck dangling out of the back of an attack helicopter, drive over traffic, and more. It's all a bit silly, but at this stage in the game when the goal is to one-up themselves with each sequel, I can't say it isn't expected. For a man that looks to be in his mid 50s, the mere fact that John is able to take just as much abuse as his CIA agent son, Jack (portrayed by Australian newcomer Jai Courtney), is astounding. You see, McClane once again finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time after seeking out his estranged and often troubled son in Russia during a tumultuous political shift. John finds out his son is an undercover CIA operative.


There's definitely some fun to be had with this concept. Jack is a by-the-books kind of guy. He's not thinking on the fly, he's not making shit up as he goes along, and he most certainly isn't enjoying the company of his father. John is Jack's polar opposite, the gung-ho American cowboy that busts in with nary a second thought and hopes for the best. Jack's plan to extract high-value prisoner Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch) comes to a screeching halt when his father very literally pops up right in front of him. McClane Senior is still the monkey in the wrench: the one thing you can't plan on. It makes for some interesting moments where the two's contrasting methods mix like oil and water. It's a nice twist on the Die Hard formula that John goes into a situation expecting to come to the rescue only to find that Jack is actually quite capable. The last three films in the franchise have given John a comparatively helpless sidekick. It's interesting to see John paired up with someone who can hold his own in a scuffle. 


Unfortunately, the movie's brief 101-minute runtime doesn't allow for much time to explore their relationship, although the extended cut adds in some much needed character beats and the film is better for it. The popular opinion seems to be that Courtney and Willis shared very little on-screen chemistry. I'm in the minority here but I thought the two worked remarkably well together. Courtney did a fine job as McClane's son, pulling off the tough guy routine admirably, ably expressing emotion through body language and facial expressions, and even giving the elder McClane a run for his money in the banter department. The movie wanted me to believe that they were family and I honestly had no trouble buying into it.


Admittedly, the lack of any substantial downtime does hurt the flow of the movie. It isn't uncommon for something to happen and it not be made entirely clear why it does. The stakes aren't properly laid out, characters are discarded after just a few scenes (in the case of Cole Hauser, he gets only a few lines of dialogue), and there isn't enough time spent with the villains to give them proper personalities. Rasha Bukvic's Alik certainly had potential, as did the cold menace of Sergey Kolesnikov's Viktor Chagarin. Bukvic in particular has a fun scene wherein he proceeds to disarm the McClane's all to the tune of carrot-munching and tap-dancing. Bukvic's charismatic performance really sells the character. Public opinion seems to be that the villains were underutilized and not nearly as memorable as past Die Hard heavies. On the contrary, the bevy of would-be terrorists in this installment had no less screen time than, say, Jeremy Irons as Simon Gruber in Die Hard With a Vengeance. The problem isn't with the baddies themselves but rather the fact that the movie is lacking a strong central villain. A Good Day to Die Hard doesn't give McClane anyone to tangle with long-term, and that's because writer Skip Woods' screenplay has so many double-crosses happening that you're left not knowing who the real villain is until the third act is beginning to wind down.

What constitutes most of A Good Day to Die Hard's 101 minutes then? Action, and lots of it. The 20-minute mark begins a huge car chase - one that involves a heavily armored transport vehicle in thick Russian traffic - that goes on for a good 10 minutes and is as over-the-top as you can imagine. Thankfully, nothing in A Good Day to Die Hard approaches the ludicrous self-parody of McClane surfing a fighter jet in Live Free or Die Hard's climactic set piece. The action sequences in this film are much more grounded than the previous entry's, eschewing its overdone theatrics for a grittier presentation more in line with With a Vengeance. Going for the R rating helps this one out too: squibs, bloody headshots, McClane dropping F-bombs, and the unforgettable sight of a villain mulched to a gooey pulp by a helicopter blade. The stunt work throughout is top-tier and director John Moore (2001's Behind Enemy Lines and 2008's videogame adaptation Max Payne) proves why he's one of the more underrated action directors in the business.

A Good Day to Die Hard does unfortunately suffer from Moore's action chops. The action is there in spades, but the story suffers. The plot feels rushed along, as if Moore just has to get to that next envelope-pushing action scene. To Moore's credit, they're exceedingly well-shot and the sound design is second to none. It's positively explosive. But as the action has gotten more outrageous over the years, the physical punishment John McClane is forced to endure has gotten less and less believable. Right from the start he's put into situations no normal human being should be able to walk away from. This is the same guy that had a tough time removing pieces of glass from his feet, let alone flipping a truck three or four times only to open the door, fall out, and lie on the ground with a look on his face that says, "That hurt a little bit more than I thought it would." Still, McClane seems a lot more human here than in his last outing. He grimaces, winces when hurt, stumbles along after big falls, groans in pain, and at times seems legitimately surprised at some of the things he's preparing to do. One scene finds McClane ramming his jeep through a glass barricade and crashing down onto the cars beneath him. John doesn't play it stoic as he's prepping, instead he slinks back in the driver's seat, the look of fear in his eyes, and exclaims, "Oh, God."

Then there's the consistent criticism about Willis turning in a completely phoned in performance, looking disinterested and bored throughout. I wholeheartedly disagree. John McClane is first and foremost a reluctant hero. If Willis looks as if he doesn't want to be there it's because McClane doesn't want to be there. Fans' complaints of McClane being stripped of that reluctance couldn't be more inaccurate. During the first hour of the film John does nothing but try to pass Komarov off to whomever will take him which promptly receives a scolding from his son. Sardonic as ever, McClane makes no qualms about just how much he doesn't want to be apart of what he's stumbled into. "8,000 miles for this?," he asks while dodging gunfire. "Why don't we just drop him off at the embassy and we can go home?," he suggests to his son. "Whoa, Nijinsky! I'm not in the gang, I just got off the plane. I'm still jet-lagged," he exclaims. Always the smart-ass, McClane finds himself on the receiving end of a harsh blow to the face, recovers, and chuckles lightly. "Nice one," he jests. As father and son load up their weapons for the final confrontation, John so matter-of-factly states, "Alright, let's go kill some motherfuckers." That's the McClane attitude the previous film just couldn't reconnect with.

I'll admit to being disappointed that Bruce doesn't do as much running around as he has over the last three sequels. The previous films did have him getting a lot more physical than he does here and the all-too-brief fistfight McClane has with Alik is disappointing. John trading blows with an antagonist has become a staple of this franchise and is A Good Day to Die Hard's one unforgivable oversight. Still, Bruce's one-liners are snappier this time out and the character overall seems a lot more cynical and world-weary than in his last outing. That trusty ol' McClane smirk is present and accounted for and an early scene involving Willis and a Russian cabbie (Pasha D. Lychnikoff) wouldn't have been out of place in one of these films 20 years ago. There's even a scene where McClane distracts the bad guys by laughing all the while being beaten and threatened.

Perhaps as time goes on fans will be kinder to A Good Day to Die Hard and more accepting of its flaws. Despite the missteps, there really is a lot to like. Whatever your feelings on John Moore, he's an obvious lover of the franchise - the film opens with a rendition of Michael Kamen's Ode to Joy for God's sake. Die Hard was a watershed moment for action films, so fans are inevitably going to hold future sequels to its unusually lofty standards. A Good Day to Die Hard doesn't hold a candle to the original. Does that make it a bad movie? Certainly not. John Moore takes risks and tries things within the series' universe most directors wouldn't dare attempt. I know I'll catch flack for this, but further distancing the franchise from its roots is a wise decision. Whether you love it or hate it, A Good Day to Die Hard isn't a retread and I'm thankful for that. If you're anticipating a "return to form," then I can say with all certainty that you're not going to like this one bit. Is that the result of an incompetent filmmaker that doesn't "get" the essence of Die Hard or a director's conscious decision to break out of the franchise's comfort zone? Fans seem to have already made up their minds but I vote for the latter. Different, but enjoyably so. A Good Day to Die Hard gets better and better each time I watch it.


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