Welcome to the Jungle (2003, Peter Berg)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. 

TheRundown

NOTE: This film’s original title when released in the US was The Rundown.

Watched: 1 February 2020
Format: A secondhand DVD bought online.
Seen before? No.

Review: Visiting his friend Dwayne Johnson on the set of his new movie, Arnold Schwarzenegger was persuaded to make an exceedingly brief cameo. It comes early in the film as we follow Johnson’s bounty-hunter character, Beck, into a busy nightclub. He’s there to extract a debt from an arrogant NFL star, but on the way through the crowd he passes a tall, middle-aged man (Arnie). ‘Have fun,’ says the man.

In the context of the film, it’s utterly meaningless. But, intertextually, there is something going on in this moment. At the time of filming, Schwarzenegger was just beginning his sabbatical from Hollywood in order to serve as Governor of California, while Johnson – still commonly known as The Rock – was starting out *his* film career after making a name as the biggest draw in WWF wrestling. The ‘Have fun’ comment is the passing of the baton, from one former-strongman-turned-movie-star to another. The king is dead, long live the king. 

The film itself, which didn’t make much impact when released in 2003, is a generally enjoyable if disposable action caper. Beck is tasked with travelling to a Brazilian mining town to locate and bring back home the son of a rich criminal. But Seann William Scott’s cocky Travis doesn’t want to return to daddy because he’s on the verge of discovering a valuable sacred artefact. Beck tries to extract him using strength; Travis resists using bravado and sarcasm. They make a watchable double act. Meanwhile, Rosario Dawson is Travis’s spiky love interest, Christopher Walken plays the local nut-job hard man, while Ewen Bremner is a comic-relief chopper pilot.

The movie has an outlandish 1980s-style plot – hints of Indiana Jones or Romancing the Stone – but tells it with the flashy editing and cartoon violence that would later become the norm in Fast & Furious films (some of which, coincidentally, feature Dwayne Johnson). There’s an ironic flamboyance to everything, and Johnson is a huge part of that. His only previous large role had been as the mythological bad guy in 2001’s The Mummy Returns, but here he’s pure movie star: a commanding screen presence, plenty of charisma, and a handle on the script’s droll comedy. Very reminiscent of Schwarzenegger in his 1980s heyday, in fact. And while Arnie moved on to the political phase of his career, Johnson replaced him as one of the go-to stars of action films and high-concept comedies.

Seven hallucinogenic drugs out of 10

Next time: Escape Plan

REDUX REVIEW: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003, Jonathan Mostow)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.

Terminator3Arnie

Watched: 1 December 2019
Format: A DVD from my collection.
Seen before? Yes, at the cinema on 19 August 2003 and a couple of times since.

Note: I have already reviewed this film as part of another blogging series – you can read it here. So instead of focusing on the film itself, this article is about how its iconic star turned his back on acting soon after the movie’s release…

Review: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s final films before his move into professional politics. He announced his candidacy for Governor of California in August 2003, just six days after T3 had been released in the United Kingdom, and then won a recall election in October. Almost inevitably, he was soon nicknamed the Governator.

He’d made no secret of his electoral ambitions while an actor, talking publicly about his Republican leanings, attending a rally for George Bush Snr in 1988, and later serving in some ambassadorial-type roles for President Bush. Considered a moderate Republican – a centrist who advocated financial conservatism but also supported liberal issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage – Governor Schwarzenegger was initially a popular leader. For many, he came across as sensible, no-nonsense and conciliatory, even appointing a Democrat as his Chief of Staff. In 2006, he claimed a second term by a winning margin of more than a million votes. However, his approval rating dropped appreciably during his time in the Governor’s Mansion, finishing on a record low of 23 per cent, and he was dogged by allegations about sexual misconduct.

All this meant that Arnie’s movie appearances were put on ice for a few years, with the period 2003 to 2012 notable only for some cameos. He’d already filmed an ear-scrappingly awful appearance in 2004 adventure film Around the World in 80 Days before running for office, then he took time away from his political schedule to work briefly on comedy The Kid & I and action mash-up The Expendables.

An actor who deliberately engineers such a long break from a Hollywood career is an oddity. Studios clearly favour stars with recent cachet and assume audiences have short memories. So when Arnie returned to the movies full-time after seven years as California’s 38th Governor, he found that the world had moved on. He was now on a noticeably different level of the industry. It’s true that his star had begun to wane anyway, his appeal lessened by age, over-familiarity and the fact that his style of high-concept action film was going out of fashion. His starring roles in the years immediately before his gubernatorial adventure – End of Days, The 6th Day, Collateral Damage – were simply not in the same class as his 1980s heyday. But not playing a lead character for nearly a decade resulted in the post-Governor Arnie having to accept roles in what were essentially straight-to-video projects.

He starred as a sheriff in The Last Stand, a prisoner in Escape Plan, a SWAT team leader in Sabotage – undistinguished parts in films that most people have now forgotten. In fact, the return to the big time came only when Arnie went full circle. In 2015 and then again in 2019 he returned to the Terminator series, essentially short-circuiting the two halves of his movie career.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘Another close friend I wanted to touch base with was Andy Vajna, who with his business partner, Mario Kassar, had produced Total Recall and Terminator 2 and owned the rights to Terminator 3… If they were enthusiastic [about Arnie’s political ambitions], I meant to hit them up for a lot of money for the campaign… When I went to their office to talk about the governorship in April 2001, I didn’t expect them to bring up Terminator 3. I’d signed a “deal memo” to star in it if it ever got made, but the project had been in development limbo for years… Jim Cameron had moved on to other projects, and as far as I knew, they didn’t have a director or a script. But as I made my pitch about politics, I saw them looking at me as if to say, “What the fuck are you talking about, running for governor?”‘

Seven nano-technological transjectors out of 10

Next: Red Sonja

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003, Jonathan Mostow)

Terminator3

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A few years after his encounter with a cyborg assassin from the future, John Connor faces another deadly threat…

Main characters:

 * Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career had been tailing off alarmingly in the lead-up to this third Terminator movie. Bored perhaps of the diminishing returns of his late-90s action duds, he returned to his most notable role 19 years since his debut in the series… When this film’s T-800 arrives in the present day – we all know the time-traveller-from-the-future score by now, right? – he has the same mission as his predecessor in Terminator 2: to protect John Connor from an assassination attempt. He hunts for John and finds him just in time to save the now 20-something from another Terminator, a stern, expressionless, female-looking cyborg called a T-X. After a few major action sequences, he gets John and his friend Kate to safety, then the plot kicks into another gear at the hour mark when the T-800 reveals that Kate’s dad holds the key to Skynet taking over the world… which is about to enter a nuclear winter later that day. The cyborg wants to take John and Kate to Mexico, to avoid the fallout from the first bombs, but John argues that they need to stop the self-aware computer system Skynet from starting its attack… In his third go at this character type, Schwarzenegger – now in his mid-50s – still has the expressionless face and drone voice. But the steel and intensity from the first film have gone. So too has the character development from the second. 

* In the first of many lazily sexist aspects of the character, when the T-X (played by Kristanna Loken) time-travels into the present day she lands in the shop window of an upmarket clothes store. Ha, ha – women really like clothes, right? As with the previous Terminators earlier in the series, she’s naked when he arrives – so quickly steals a passing woman’s tight-fitting leather suit. Then, when the cops pull her over for speeding, the T-X takes inspiration from a nearby Victoria’s Secret billboard and artificially enlarges her breasts. She’s also later jokingly called the Terminatrix. (It’s all a far cry from Arnie’s intimidating ‘Your clothes: given them to me’ in the 1984 movie.) The T-X’s mission differs from Arnie in film one and the T-1000 in film two. As she doesn’t know where John Connor is in this time period, she wants to murder the young people who will grow up to be his associates and allies; they’re all now innocent kids going about their lives. A cross between the metallic, battering-ram rigidity of a T-800 and the fluid, restorative nature of the T-1000, the T-X has some nifty qualities. She can analysis blood by licking it – another idea you can imagine the writers jumping to because they knew the character would be played by an attractive woman – and can remotely control other machines (such as cars). She lacks the impact of her forebears. She also doesn’t have the James Cameron-style sci-fi plausibility of the earlier bad guys, coming off more like a comic-book villain.

* John Connor is lost when we first meet him, in more ways than one. Judgment Day never happened, thanks to his and his mother’s efforts in Terminator 2, but now the grown-up John lives off the grid, drifting from job to job and having nightmares. (He’s also all alone in the world: mum Sarah died of leukaemia not long after averting the end of the world.) When he breaks into a veterinarians’ to steal some painkillers for a leg injury, the wiry and jumpy John encounters an old school friend who works there – Kate Brewster, with whom he once shared a childhood kiss. Then two Terminators show up – one out to kill him, one out to protect him. Kate is also a target because, we learn, she will one day marry John and be his closest advisor in the future war with the machines. (Yes, that’s right: it turns out that the events of the previous film have only *delayed* Judgment Day, not written it off entirely. The enigmatic empty-road metaphor that ended T2 is well and truly pissed on.) When John and Kate team up with their protector from the future, the T-800, John has to be a bit of a moron for script-exposition reasons and keep forgetting that this cyborg is not the same one he met when he was 10. But when he realises there’s a chance to stop Judgment Day (again), John smartens up and shows some of the leadership qualities we’ve always been told he has. He orders the T-800 to help him and Kate reach the Skynet central computer so they can destroy it before it launches its attack on humanity… T2’s Edward Furlong was originally signed up to reprise the role, but was going through some much-publicised drug problems, so a change was decided upon. Drafted in to replace him was Nick Stahl (who’s actually two years younger than Furlong). He gives a decent enough performance, but because the character is damaged and lonely and bitter, he can’t bring in any of the cheek and swagger that Furlong had established.

* Kate is a young woman who thinks she has a nice-enough life: a fiancé, a job, a good relationship with her loving dad. But all that comes crashing down quickly. When she’s called to the vets’ surgery where she works at 4am to deal with an anxious cat-lady, she finds John – who she recognises from her school days – hiding in the back room. He tries to take her hostage, but she disarms him with ease and locks him up while she calls the cops. However, then the T-X shows up intent on killing them both… Kate is another character initially cast with someone else, but Sophia Bush was released after a month of filming because it was deemed she looked too young. Claire Danes replaced her and gives a fairly vanilla performance.

Other characters:
* Kate’s boyfriend, Scott Mason (Mark Farniglietti), seems a pretty boring bloke so it’s not a huge tug on our emotions when he’s brutally killed and then impersonated by the T-X.
* Kate’s dad, Lieutenant General Robert Brewster (David Andrews), is a military bigwig at a US military base inside a mountain. He’s the programme director of Cyber Research Systems, an autonomous weapons division… In other words, Skynet – the operating system that will eventually become sentient and declare war on humanity. At the start of the story, he’s dealing with a computer virus and is urged by a colleague to use a revolutionary new AI to clear out the problem. However, Lieutenant General Brewster wants to keep ‘humans in the loop.’ When various civilian and military computer systems begin crashing, he has no option to activate Skynet… which immediately locks itself off and takes over.
* A secondary character from the first two Terminator movies, Dr Silberman (Earl Boen), gets a superfluous, silly and irritating cameo during a sequence at the tomb that supposedly houses Sarah Connor’s remains. (The T-800 reveals that she was actually cremated; the tomb is a secret weapons store.)
* In a scene cut from the finished film, Arnold Schwarzenegger played another character. Sergeant Candy is the US serviceman who’s been chosen to be the model for a new line of human-looking super soldier. In other words, the T-800s Arnie has been playing since 1984. Candy’s accent is Southern American, but it’s said they can replace that with something more neutral. Probably best this piece of continuity-woven nonsense was dropped.

Where: John moves around early in the film, appearing in various unspecified areas of America. The T-X arrives in Beverly Hills; the T-800 in the desert outside LA. After locating John and Kate, the T-800 drives them south back into the desert – intent on heading into Mexico. Then stop off at a cemetery before heading to a military research base two hours’ drive away and then ultimately the Crystal Peak instillation in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

When: Okay, things are getting complicated now. In voiceover, John tells us that the events of Terminator 2 happened over 10 years ago. That means this film’s story is playing out two or three years into the future (its cinema release was in 2003). However, John also claims that he was 13 when he encountered the T-1000. Given that it’s been established that John was born in 1985 and Judgment Day was due in 1997, the stated age of 13 seems to be a continuity error based on the age of actor Edward Furlong, who was 13 when he played John in the second film. We’re also now in a new timeline where that Judgment Day didn’t happen, of course, which causes all kinds of logical complexities that we’d be better off ignoring. The present scenes in Terminator 3 begin during night – it’s late enough that a shopping district is deserted, but a nightclub is still open – and continues through the next day, which is the delayed Judgment Day. It’s due to kick off at 6.18pm.

I’ll be back: Given that the threat in this film looks like a woman, Arnie gives his catchphrase a twist: referring to the T-X, he says, ‘She’ll be back.’ Later, she completes the gag when she says, ‘I’m back,’ after emerging from the wreck of a crashed helicopter. Arnie also says later ‘I’m back,’ when the T-800 comes out of a reprogrammed befuddlement. Since the previous Terminator movie, Schwarzenegger had continued to treat audiences to his favourite phrase, almost like a singer wheeling out an old hit. In 1993’s Last Action Hero,­ a clever spoof of the type of movies that had made Arnie’s name,­ his character, Jack Slade, tells a young friend, ‘I’ll be back… Ha, you didn’t know I was going to say that, did you?’ The lad, Danny, who is aware of his Schwarzenegger’s fictional persona, is unimpressed: ‘That’s what you always say… Everybody waits for you to say it. It’s like your calling card.’ The phrase is quoted a couple of other times elsewhere in the film too, then appeared in 1994 comedy Junior (‘It’s nice to be back’) and the terrible sci-fi flick The 6th Day in 2000 (‘I might be back,’ Arnie says to a sales assistant. ‘Oh, you’ll be back,’ comes the knowing reply).

Review: There’s a definite drop-off of quality from the first two Terminator movies, almost inevitably because writer/director James Cameron was not involved. (He’d sold his interest in the franchise to other producers.) For one thing, there’s little intrigue in the storytelling. It’s assumed that we’ve all seen the earlier films and no attempt is made to disguise what’s going on, so everything feels very ‘surface’. Elements of goofy humour – Arnie deadpan as he puts on disco sunglasses is the worst offender – have crept in, and there’s a sense that the filmmakers have thrown in sequences and moments on the basis of ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if?’ rather than character-based scripting. Did we really need a tiresome cameo from Sarah Connor’s psychiatric doctor? Did Sarah’s will stipulate that her stash of guns should be buried in a tomb for any reason other than a director’s wish for a cool shot as Arnold Schwarzenegger carries a casket on his shoulder while firing at police officers? However, there are also undoubted plusses. Terminator 3 is a competently shot movie and is pacey enough to keep the interest. Some of the action is world-class, especially the truly great chase sequence that sees the T-X hounding our heroes in a crane-truck, which is bombastic and enormously loud and destructive yet also staged and shot clearly and precisely for maximum impact. In its second half, the film also pulls of a bravado rug-pull. During their attempt to stop Skynet, John and Kate are told that the central operating system is contained in a bunker inside a mountain in Nevada. They race there with the help of the T-800, all the while chased by the T-X. But it was a con. The mountain base doesn’t contain the means to defeat Skynet. It’s a fallout shelter designed for VIPs. John and Kate realise there was never any way to stop Judgment Day. It was about surviving it so they could run the human resistance.

Seven hands (talk to them) out of 10

Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003, Quentin Tarantino)

kill-bill-vol-1

Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After waking from a four-year coma, a woman seeks revenge on the people who tried to kill her…

What does QT do? The idea for Kill Bill came about on the set of Pulp Fiction when Quentin Tarantino and actress Uma Thurman busked the basic storyline. Tarantino wrote a few pages, but then got distracted by other projects. Returning to it years later, he came up with such a massive script that – after he’d directed the film – the decision was made to cut it into two volumes. (This is a review of Vol. 1 only.) There’s a special credit to acknowledge Thurman’s contribution: ‘Based on the character of The Bride, created by Q&U.’

Notable characters:
* The Bride (Uma Thurman) wants to kill the gang of assassins who attacked her while she was pregnant and put her in a coma. We never learn her real name: the one time it’s mentioned is bleeped out. She used to be a member of the gang – the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad – until they turned against her. (Her codename was Black Mamba.) Uma Thurman gives a very straight-ahead performance, but the script doesn’t ask for anything else.
* Bill (David Carradine) – codename Snake Charmer – is the leader of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. He doesn’t feature much in this first film and is framed so we never see his face, which builds up his mystery and power.
* Vernita Green (Vivica A Fox) – codename Copperhead – is the first squad member we see the Bride go after. She’s now seemingly retired from the assassination game and is living with her daughter in suburbia.
* Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) investigates the attack on the Bride. He’s assisted by Edgar (James Parks, Michael’s real-life son), who he refers to as ‘Son Number One’.
* Ell Driver (Daryl Hannah) – codename California Mountain Snake – shows up at the hospital when the Bride is in a coma and is just about to finish the job when Bill calls and tells her to stop. She wears an eye patch.
* Buck (Michael Bowen) works at the hospital and takes $75 from a redneck (Jonathan Loughran) so he can rape the comatose Bride. She’s recently woken up, though, so kills them both.
* Budd (Michael Madsen) – codename Sidewinder – is another member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, but this is just a cameo to set up his role in the second movie.
* O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) – codename Cottonmouth – is introduced to us via an eight-minute anime sequence, which tells her backstory and features a fair amount of graphic violence and some paedophilia. In the present day, she’s a mob boss in Toyko who’s backed up by her personal army, the Crazy 88s.
* Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba) is a swordmaster who the Bride visits in Okinawa.
* Sophie Fatale (Julie Dreyfus) is O-Ren’s friend and consigliere.
* Gogo Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama) is one of O-Ren’s best fighters: a young girl in a school uniform who likes killing people.
* Johnny Mo (Gordon Liu) is the head of the Crazy 88s, who all wear Kato masks. The massive fight scene between the Bride and the Crazy 88s features some outrageous violence. The scene turns black-and-white so the gushes of blood don’t get overpowering.

Returning actors: Uma Thurman was in Pulp Fiction. Michael Madsen was in Reservoir Dogs. Michael Parks returns to play his From Dusk Till Dawn character again (see Connections). Michael Bowen had been in Jackie Brown. Sonny Chiba was mentioned in True Romance.

Music: Lots of pre-existing songs are used to give the film a certain sweep and grandeur, such as the sorrowful Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) by Nancy Sinatra, incidental music from a 1972 Italian film called The Grand Duel, and even a bit of Gheorghe Zamfir, whose panpipe track The Lonely Shepherd sounds like a mournful theme from a Spaghetti Western. The klaxon-like sting of Quincy Jones’s Ironside theme tune is used when the Bride sees one of her targets, while the title music from The Green Hornet TV show scores her journey to Tokyo. Japanese rock trio The 5,6,7,8’s play a few songs on screen in the House of Blue Leaves sequence. The most famous track in the film is the bombastic Battle Without Honor or Humanity by Tomoyasu Hotei, used for slo-mo shots of O-Ren and her entourage. But the best is Santa Esmerdalda’s epic disco cover of Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, which gives the Bride’s showdown with O-Ren beauty and grace. There’s some bespoke score for the first time on a Tarantino film: a few short cues written by RZA.

Time shifts and chapters: The story is told in discrete chapters with on-screen titles (‘2’, ‘The Blood-Splattered Bride’, ‘The Origin of O-Ren’, ‘The Man From Okinawa’ and ‘Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves’). The events play out in chronological order, other than: a brief prologue showing Bill shooting the Bride on her wedding day; the anime scene, which is flashback to a character’s childhood; and the fact the opening chapter is set after all the others. Putting the Vernita sequence first certainly kicks the film off with a big fight, but the order in which the Bride goes after her foes seems arbitrary.

Connections: The character of Earl McGraw first appeared in From Dusk Till Dawn – he’s again played by Michael Parks. (Additionally, *Edgar* McGraw had been in From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money.) Sonny Chiba’s Kill Bill character, Hattori Hanzo, is intended to be a descendant of the various historical Hattori Hanzos played by Chiba in his 1980s TV show Shadow Warriors. The concept of the Deadly Vipers Assassination Squad is reminiscent of the Fox Force Five TV pilot described by Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction.

Review: Tarantino has always used what writer DK Holm calls ‘magpieism’, a habit of referencing, alluding to, or downright stealing from other movies. Reservoir Dogs is Quentin’s spin on a heist caper; Pulp Fiction is a modern film noir; Jackie Brown is a homage to blaxploitation cinema; and they each feature dozens of postmodern nods to other films (and TV shows and songs). However, along with the conventions and quotations, these movies have their own spirits, their own identities. Kill Bill Vol. 1 is a pastiche of various genres (action, martial arts, Spaghetti Westerns, revenge), but it’s hard to see much substance beneath the style. Even with outlandish characters and plots, the earlier films took place in a recognisably ‘real’ world. Kill Bill, on the other hand, is set in a universe where assassins work in squads and give themselves codenames, where Japanese mobsters wear masks, and where you need to acquire a specially made sword in order to kill a rival. It’s a cartoon world – literally so in the anime sequence. If anything, maybe this movie falls between two stools. If it had been even more stylised, more surreal, more out-there, it might work better. But too often the joke is so earnest it doesn’t stretch very far. (Speaking of comedy, a ‘funny’ scene with Sonny Chiba falls on its face and the film becomes very dull for a while.) In the movie’s favour, the action is violent, well shot and sound-designed to hell (just listen to all those whooshes!). And it’s a story dominated by women, which is refreshing. The Bride, her three main adversaries and a couple of other important characters are all female. But even though it’s fun as 100 minutes of escapism, you miss the loaded dialogue, interesting characters and dark wit of previous Tarantino films.

Seven dishes best served cold (old Klingon proverb) out of 10

Firefly: Heart of Gold (4 August 2003, Thomas J Wright)

Heart_Of_Gold_0_28629

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Inara is contacted by a friend who asks for help in defending her brothel from a local thug…

Written by Brett Matthews. Directed by Thomas J Wright.

Best performance: Another lovely turn from Morena Baccarin as Inara.

Best bits:
* The whorehouse is covered in solar-panelling – a nice sci-fi twist.
* Inara disturbs Mal while he’s cleaning his guns. “It’s not altogether wise to sneak up on a fella while he’s handling his weapon,” he says. “I’ve heard that said,” replies Inara.
* Mal assuming that the distress signal is for him. It’s actually for Inara.
* Jayne doesn’t want any part of the job, but then Mal says, “They’re whores.” Jayne: “I’m in.”
* Jayne’s glee at being in a brothel. “My John Thomas is about to pop off!”
* The scene at the theatre, including a sadly briefly seen shadow-puppet show.
* Having met bad guy Ranse Burgess, Mal decides they should all run away.
* Jayne braiding his favourite prostitute’s hair.
* One of the hookers goes into labour. Simon and Inara, who’ll have to deliver the baby, say it’s their first time. “Mine too,” adds River.
* A shockingly nasty moment when Burgess forces a prostitute who works for him to give him a blowjob.
* Inara learns that Mal and her friend Nandi slept together – she pretends to be fine with it, but then we see her crying in private.
* River’s mostly dialogue-free fascination with the labour.
* Nandi is shot by Burgess and dies. Mal and Inara share a killer look that says, ‘Get him.’
* A shock ending: Inara says she’s leaving the crew.

Review: After a run of sci-fi-heavy stories, this is the most Western-y the show has been since at least Jaynestown. Featuring a brothel, bad guys on horses and a torch-lit frontier town, it evolves into a cowboy-style siege-and-shootout episode. It may have a rather dull and one-dimensional villain – not for the first time in this series, it must be said – but there’s also some typically witty dialogue and another boost of energy to the Mal/Inara romance.

Eight small, concealable weapons out of 10

Firefly: The Message (28 July 2003, Tim Minear)

JayneHat

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The crew call in at a post office to find a package waiting for them. The package contains a dead body…

Written by Joss Whedon and Tim Minear. Directed by Tim Minear.

Best performance: Surprisingly, given that it’s not especially ‘about’ her, this is a good Kaylee episode. Jewel Staite has flirting and frustration to play in scenes with Simon, while the A-plot affects her character deeply.

Best bits:
* Kaylee and Simon swapping playful banter while at a freak show – until, that is, Simon jokes that every other woman he knows is married, a prostitute or his sister, so Kaylee’s his only option.
* River and her candy-floss-style confectionary that dangles from a string. “My food is problematic,” she says.
* Jayne received a package from his mother: it contains a hat. (“Pretty cunning, don’t you think?” he says.)
* Mal and Zoe received a package too: it contains a dead body.
* A flashback to seven years previously: Mal and Zoe fighting in the war and meeting a guy called Tracey (who we recognise as the corpse).
* Zoe: “First rule of battle… Never let them know where you are.” Mal then runs in, screaming and shouting at the enemy troops he’s shooting at.
* The space station, with its Asian aesthetic and big-screen advertisements, is not a million miles away from Blade Runner.
* Kaylee’s hammock in the engine room – a delightful example of how good this show’s production design is. There’s storytelling in every little detail.
* Simon begins an autopsy… and the body wakes up.
* Wash freaked out by seeing Tracey alive and well.
* Jayne wearing his new hat during the climactic showdown.
* The gang delivering Tracey’s now-dead-for-real body to his family on a snow-covered planet. Aside from one small pick-up, this was the final scene ever shot for the series, a fact the cast knew at the time.

Review: A low-key episode that – despite a nice melancholic tone – never quite punches home. Still eminently watchable.

Seven other schools of thought out of 10

Firefly: Trash (21 July 2003, Vern Gillum)

FireflyTrash

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When Mal bumps into con artist Saffron, who’s also kinda his ex-wife, she tempts him with a job that could make them both rich…

Written by Ben Edlund & Jose Molina. Directed by Vern Gillum.

Best performance: Christina Hendricks again. Her character was clearly being set up as a recurring villain/adversary/flirting partner for Mal, but sadly the show was axed before she appeared again. She’s a shameless liar and con artist, can beat people up, and has no scruples – yet you also feel sorry for her. At one point, Mal calls her Yo-Saff-Bridge, a jokey portmanteau of her aliases. We never learn her real name.

Best bits:
* The episode begins with Mal, alone and naked and stranded in a desert. “Yeah,” he says to himself. “That went well.” Cut to 72 hours earlier…
* Mal meets a friend’s new wife… who turns out to be Saffron, the con artist from the episode Our Mrs Reynolds. Saffron and Mal immediately pull guns on each other. (The mate thinks she’s called Bridget. For ease, I’ll keep calling her Saffron.)
* Saffron tries to convince her husband that Mal a liar, but slips up and gives herself away. Mal looks smug.
* Oh, yeah: EVERY SINGLE FRAME THAT HAS CHRISTINA HENDRICKS IN IT.
* A long while after he gets back to Serenity with some crates, Mal opens one of them up… to reveal Saffron trapped inside it.
* While Saffron pitches her heist plan, there’s a funny two-shot of Wash and Kaylee listening to her. The former looks confused; the latter hangs on her every word.
* Jayne proudly asks a question that the conversation has already covered.
* Zoe punches Saffron.
* The intercutting of planning the heist and carrying it out.
* Jayne, Zoe and Kaylee in their aviation goggles as they dangle underneath Serenity to reprogramme a drone.
* While stealing the MacGuffin, Mal and Saffron are rumbled… by another of her husbands. (He knows her as Yolande.)
* Saffron lifts Mal’s gun while he’s being nice to her.
* Mal is abandoned in the desert. Naked. “Yeah, you better run!” he shouts at the departing space ship.
* Saffron, having tricked everyone, searches in a rubbish bin for the antique gun they were stealing… But Inara has got there first! (The reveal that Inara – who flounced off in a huff earlier in the episode – is actually part of a plan to double-cross Saffron is audacious. Add an extra mark to the score!)
* Inara traps Saffron in the garbage bin. As the lid closes, you can hear Saffron shout, “You can’t do this! I’ve got a condition!”
* Simon confronts Jayne about the events of the episode Ariel. He’s forceful but calm and reasonable. Then River adds: “Also, I can kill you with my brain.”
* Mal walks back on board Serenity and chats to his colleagues… while still naked.

Review: This is a sequel to Our Mrs Reynolds, and the second heist plotline in three episodes. And like that previous heist story, the cast needs to be whittled down so everyone gets a role to play. Shepherd Book barely features – he does seem like one character too many at times – while Simon and River are shuffled off. Another good one, with twists and turns aplenty.

Nine feminine wiles out of 10

X2 (2003, Bryan Singer)

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Aka: X-Men 2, X2: X-Men United

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Two opposing factions of mutants must join forces when a man called William Stryker plots to wipe them out…

Get used to multiples names…
* Back from the first film are good guys Logan aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Ororo Munroe aka Storm (Halle Berry), Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Scott Summers aka Cyclops (James Marsden), Marie aka Rogue (Anna Paquin), Bobby Drake aka Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Charles Xavier aka Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and, in another gag cameo about walking through walls, Kitty Pryde (recast with Katie Stuart). Wolverine and Jean continue their flirtation – that is, until she sacrifices herself during the action climax for not terribly clear reasons. Sadly, Xavier spends a looong time in a catatonic stupor so Patrick Stewart is rather sidelined. There’s a nice bit where Bobby has to tell his parents he’s a mutant: it plays like a coming-out scene, reinforcing the theme and providing some gentle comic relief. Younger team members Rogue and Drake more than hold their own with the others.
* Added to the team for this film are John Allerdyce aka Pyro (Aaron Standford), a livewire student who switches sides late on, and Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), who can turn his body into metal.
* A character who starts off working for the bad guys (against his will) but then joins up with the heroes is Kurt Wagner aka Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming). He can teleport and has a strong religious faith. In one scene, he has a chat with Jean and Storm. Maybe they’re comparing notes on what it’s like to be in a James Bond film with Pierce Brosnan.
* The real villain of the piece is a military loon called William Stryker (an OTT Brian Cox), who has a history with Wolverine and a hatred of mutants. Despite this, he has a mostly mute mutant sidekick called Yuriko Oyama aka Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu).
* The previous film’s Big Bad – Erik Lehnsherr aka Magneto (Ian McKellen) – is back, as is his pal Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos). Initially, Magneto is in the same prison we saw at the end of the first film. Because of the threat posed by Styker, he later teams up with the good guys. Romijn-Stamos actually gets a scene sans make-up when her character pretends to be a sexy blonde woman.
* Oh, and Senator Kelly has a short appearance. Neat trick, seeing how he died in X-Men. (It’s actually Mystique pretending to be him: actor Bruce Davison returns.)

Crossovers and continuity: There are a few elements that will be contradicted or expanded in future movies.
* Younger versions of William Stryker will play key roles in both X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). In this movie, Stryker says it’s been 15 years since he saw Wolverine, which doesn’t tally with what we learn later.
* Mystique and Nightcrawler share a moment in this film – it’s a nod to the fact they’re mother and son in the comic books.
* Jean Grey’s death is a deliberate setting up of plot for the next film, X-Men: The Last Stand (2006).

A comic-fan writes… Because I know next to nothing about the source material, I’ve asked my friend Johnathon Hughes to give a comic-reader’s view on this movie: “X2 brims with confidence and definitely owes more to its comic-book roots than the first film. The episodic structure, multiple story strands, ambitious scale and richer characterisation give it the feel of a graphic novel from the glory days of the 1980s, drawing heavily from God Loves, Man Kills with its political comment about prejudice against mutants, and a fan-pleasing nod to the Phoenix saga at the end – the final image mourning Jean and teasing what lies beneath Alkali Lake is heart-stopping for anyone who grew up imagining what would it be like if Dark Phoenix made it to the big screen. The downbeat ending and shifting allegiances also make it feel like part of an ongoing story, meaning you want to come back to see what happens next issue.”

Review: A big improvement on the (decent enough) first film. For a kick-off, this is more complex: there’s more intrigue, more excitement, generally more going on. At first, a number of subplots bounce around each other before clicking together nicely, and it’s a script where each scene pushes the story on in interesting ways. Editorially it works really well too: scenes often reach a crisis point then cut away to eke out tension. (The attack on the school is especially gripping.) There’s also a pleasing Empire Strikes Backsiness about how the team of regulars is split up as the shit hits the fan. Meanwhile, as the plot motors along, every character gets a meaningful journey or nice little moment. In short, it’s just notably better written than the first film. People’s powers tend to be shown rather than explained in dialogue, for example, while plot exposition is much more elegantly handled. One thing that fails to fly, however, is the Wolverine/Jean romance. There’s little chemistry between the actors and it’s hard to understand what they see in each other (beyond the fact they’re both played by attractive people). But the sombre ending teases the next film well…

Nine White Houses out of 10

Dracula II: Ascension (2003, Patrick Lussier)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: After a prologue in the Czech Republic, the main action takes place in New Orleans (the same location as the first movie). It’s the present day – Dracula is resurrected on 10 March.

Faithful to the novel? This is a straight-to-DVD sequel to Dracula 2000, but title character aside it’s a whole new story. Dracula’s burnt corpse from film one is taken to a morgue, where a drop of blood from the cut finger of attendant Elizabeth (Diane Neal) begins a resurrection process. A guy called Eric (John Light) then offers Elizabeth and her colleague Luke (Jason London) $30 million for the body, so they realise they have a money-spinner on their hands. Elizabeth, Luke and two sidekicks (Blonde With Big Tits and Token Black Guy) take the body to an empty house. They start to experiment on it because Elizabeth’s paraplegic boyfriend, Lowell (Craig Sheffer), wants to see if they can use vampire blood to cure ailments. Dracula soon comes back to life, now played by Stephen Billington (Coronation Street, Hollyoaks). To explain the recasting, vampires are said to have Doctor Who-style regenerations. (Not coincidentally, writer/director Patrick Lussier edited a Doctor Who TV movie in 1996. On this film’s DVD commentary he admits to stealing a distinctive mirror shot from it.) Dracula soon kills Blonde With Big Tits, while Token Black Guy gets turned after injecting himself with vampire blood. When Lowell’s palsy is cured by a similar process, he reveals that he engineered the whole situation in order to get access to vampire blood; Eric is in on the scam too, and possibly Lowell’s lover. Meanwhile, a vampire hunter called Father Uffizi (Jason Scott Lee) is on the team’s trail. We see flashbacks to him being given his mission by his boss (Roy Scheider, who gets a high billing for 60 seconds on screen). They know that Dracula can only die once he’s been given absolution by a Christian priest. But before Uffizi can destroy Dracula, Elizabeth – who has slowly been turning thanks to that early finger injury – helps the vampire escape. It’s a deliberate cliffhanger. The next film in the series, Dracula III: Legacy, was filmed concurrently with this one.

Best performance: Diane Neal is reasonably good. She’s a believable human being.

Best bit: Dracula *bites someone’s face off*.

Review: It’s pacey and lasts just 80 minutes. Maybe it’s too pacey. There are a few jarring leaps forward in the plot. But like the first film in the trilogy there’s also a self-aware B-movie vibe about this. A mixed cast and a dull middle act are problems, while Dracula himself is essentially just a talking MacGuffin. But on the whole it’s shallow fun.

Six abandoned swimming pools out of 10

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003, Stephen Norrington)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: 1899 – London in April, Berlin in May, Kenya in June, and London, Paris, Venice, the open seas and Mongolia in July.

Faithful to the novel? This steampunk-influenced mash-up movie, which throws together various icons of 19th-century fiction, was based on a comic-book series by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill. The film’s connection to Bram Stoker’s novel is the use of Mina Harker (played here by Peta Wilson), who joins the eponymous team of heroes. Her husband, Jonathan, has died and she’s now a vampire who can turn into a colony of bats yet seems okay with sunlight and can control her bloodlust. She also knows fellow League member Dorian Gray, with whom she shares a snog at one point; she feels betrayed when he’s revealed to be a baddie. Away from Stoker, the other key fictional creations being plundered are:

* Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery), the hero of H. Rider Haggard’s 1885 novel King Soloman’s Mines and its sequels.

* M (Richard Roxburgh), who at first is presented as a Victorian equivalent of James Bond’s boss from Ian Fleming’s novels (1953 onwards) and their movie adaptations (1962 onwards). The character is later revealed to actually be Professor James Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’s arch-nemesis from Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story The Final Problem (1893).

* Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah) from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea (1870) and The Mysterious Island (1874), two novels by Jules Verne.

* Rodney Skinner (Tony Curran), a character created for the film who’s said to have stolen the invisibility formula from the guy in HG Wells’s 1987 novella The Invisible Man.

* Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend) from Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.

* Tom Sawyer (Shane West), who appeared in four Mark Twain novels between 1876 and 1896.

* Dr Henry Jekyll (Jason Flemyng) from Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella.

* Phileas Fogg from Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) is also mentioned.

Best performance: Oh, I don’t know. Tony Curran’s funny, I suppose.

Best bit: An info-dump scene 64 minutes in, which is heard by the characters as a gramophone recording – but which we see as period-quality, black-and-white footage with the baddies talking straight to camera.

Review: At first, you think this is going to be fun. A crack team of famous characters from different fictions is brought together to fight a common enemy in a swashbuckling, derring-do adventure. But the cliché-happy dialogue, affected performances and general lack of both nuance and oomph wear you down very quickly. On the upside, the sets and costumes are gorgeous – especially those connected to Nemo’s submarine – so just watch with the sound turned down.

Four “automobiles” out of 10