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A man like Neil Marshall makes Doomsday because he thought a futuristic soldier facing down a knight would be cool. A man like Neil Marshall makes two critically acclaimed horror movies and then obliterates expectations with his third.

A man like Neil Marshall is one the last great champions of genre cinema.

Though he’s in a league with Edgar Wright and Robert Rodriguez — the modern day John Carpenters of our world — he fell down with Doomsday, such that his next film, Centurion, went seemingly unnoticed, leaving his future in uncertain terms. It’s hard to believe, really, because the philosophy behind Doomsday was so genuine, though some might say naive. He wanted to make a movie so absurd you’d be compelled to laugh, but also find yourself enjoying some of the best R-rated sci-fi action in years — nobody makes movies quite like this anymore.

Dog Soldiers

I don’t think this is technically his feature debut, but it’s a strong start for a career nonetheless. Making use of minimalist settings and a creepy atmosphere, Marshall managed to make one of the few cool werewolf movies in existence. And certainly the last, though I’m sure a few movies made in direct answer to Twilight will challenge Dog Soldiers.

As one critic put it so well, this is like Alien, Predator, and Jaws all rolled up into one — but with werewolves. It feels derivative, but in that good way. It’s familiarity done with enough style and care that it feels fresh. There’s some gore, some ooh-rah soldier stuff, way too much foreshadowing, and a lame twist at the end. A formula for success, often necessary with such formulaic subject matter.

Right, there’s a lot of dog and wolf jokes/puns at the start of the movie. It feels like a beginner’s screenplay in that regard, but it isn’t quite enough to push it over the edge, into absurdity. Leave that for the one after next…

The Descent

I don’t care for this movie. It’s drawn out and the monsters are not scary or that well-designed. Visually, that is. In other regards, there’s implied history to them, and it’s pretty creepy, but I actually prefer the nonsense lizards from The Cave, or whatever the fuck. The Descent was white-knuckling in its first half, with these women being claustrophobic in caves, and getting stuck and running high tension. I can’t imagine a better place to set a horror movie. Cave-diving is not escapism, James Cameron.

The flaws of this movie, like the aloof narrative and out-of-the-blue moments could at the time be excused, or even appreciated, as horror movie unpredictableness, but the next movie would paint them in a new light.

Doomsday

When Doomsday was announced and the trailer was released, people whined. They said, “It’s 28 Days Later meets Mad Max meets Escape from New York.” Now, I don’t know what fucking planet these people live on, because no way does the combination of Mad Max and Escape from New York equal anything but Yeah. Was it just the derivative nature of the project that got people so frazzled? Perhaps it was an insult to their intelligence, because they perceived the movie to think it was being original, on the grounds that, well, most movies tend to do that. But of course the rip-offs were so glaring that it seemed to taunt the audience.

Doomsday, rather, the reaction to Doomsday, is proof that we live in a cynical movie-watching world. As soon as one watches the film, they’ll realize that the director was not only paying homage to these earlier movies, but having a complete blast with them. It’s the same principle, but on a much different level, as what Peter Jackson did with King Kong. Marshall wanted to introduce this genre to a wider audience, though he may not realize just how inventive the film actually is.

Yes, it uses the structure of Escape from New York as a base, but that’s fine because just like how Waterworld is a perfect Mad Max 3, this is a great sequel to Escape from L.A., following in the same conventions that that film set up — that being, this premise of crazy people clustered together is going to breed some batshit insane obstacles for the hero to meet. This post-apocalypse movie isn’t just about zombies or cannibals or viruses — Rhona Mitra’s character Maj. Eden Sinclair (awesome name) is going to fight medieval knights in an arena and get into car chases with barbarians who tape their beheaded girlfriends to one piece so they can drive together.

Doomsday in this regard recalls Total Recall, another gory 80s movie that didn’t come out in the 1980s. And much like Total Recall, Doomsday in its day was not well understood. There’s a joy in novelty and invention in Doomsday, and a lot of these scenarios and things are born out of sources we’ve all enjoyed, but kicked up to a new extreme. It’s not only one of the best sci-fi movies of the decade, but one of the goriest and most fun action movies too. This rabbit will be blown up by sentry turrets for — well, for absolutely no reason.

Marshall also introduces two things here that carry over into his next picture: a strong female character, and an impressive ability to have the audience invest in characters they know nothing about. For the latter, we have these two soldiers who survive by Sinclair’s side longer than they have any right to. I assumed they’d die at every encounter, because truly this is her show, and these guys have no characterization. What they do have, and this was seen in Dog Soldiers, is solid chemistry. Despite the carnage and the macabre setting, these two have a laugh as they take out cannibals with axes, and by goofing around — and even just surviving up to a late point — I didn’t want to see them die. For an action movie, this is a preferable, on-the-fly alternative to actual characterization. Good on you, Neil.

Then of course we have the tough girl, played by the woman who looks like a tough girl despite the beauty — Rhona Mitra. While she may not be as compelling to watch as the next female character to be discussed, Maj. Eden Sinclair is one cool chick, with a fake eye and a knack for killing gladiators. She’s a badass, but she’s a believable badass. Not only does Rhona Mitra look like an athletically capable woman (rather than Milly from Hard Revenge Milly, to use a recent example, who looks like a pretty normal person you’d see walking around), she isn’t the action hero god that trounces everyone. She gets beat up and tossed around, and this puts her on an equal playing field with the villains.

Last post I lamented the fact that Milly wasn’t the action hero god. That’s because I want a movie like hers to be a slasher flick, but with Doomsday, it’s more appropriate that Sinclair is a realistic badass. It heightens her moments of victory, and adds tension to hand-to-hand fight scenes with spears in swords… in the future.

Doomsday will keep you guessing, and Neil Marshall leaves you in good hands with Eden Sinclair, who’s got the tacit nature of her most obvious inspiration — Snake Plissken — with an all-soldier, no fucking around attitude that’s pretty rare, even for dude action heroes. It’s confidence without the one-liners, and the badassery to back it up.

Neil Marshall is also ballsy enough to take an unbelievably beautiful South African stunt woman and paint her face beyond recognition, and then behead her… and then reattach the head in vain. I am so ashamed that I skipped this movie when it came out in theatres. It’s right up there with Slither and so many others…

Centurion

Doomsday was a sci-fi movie that wanted to be a sword-and-sandals movie, so let’s just make a sword-and-sandals movie. While this one lacks the wacky nature and imagination of its predecessor, it has the same level of bloodshed and action. If you’re in town for a straightforward, bruising actioner, Marshall is your man. Centurion stars Michael Fassbender and Jimmy McNulty himself as soldiers of the Ninth Legion, which went missing during the expansion into Pict territory. This is that story, though historical accuracy is not something we come to a movie like this for.

We come because we know it’s going to be a ride, one with plenty of blood and running around in beautiful Scotland scenery. There’s also a lovely Olga Kurylenko all done up to look like a barbarian, whose Etain is savage as hell but still manages to look sexy. Indeed she is the greatest draw, and plays a great part in the film. Centurion, despite the violence and overall intensity (“I AM A SOLDIER OF ROME! I WILL NOT YAAYLD!”), borders on generic, and requires that iconic image of deadly Etain with her facepaint to stand out.

There was a moment in Centurion where I felt the story could’ve capitalized on the L.L. Cool J mentality from Deep Blue Sea, that of having two stories interwoven, where one is basically irrelevant and all the better for it, but the two soldier who get separated don’t have much screentime as such, and leads to an anti-climax within the narrative. I really thought that dude was gonna kill those wolves and make it back, which would’ve made no sense and been more Marshallian.

There’s kid killing and CG blood explosions — that which we adore from Doomsday, but none of the same elements that make you say ‘wow’ and sit up, save for a particularly nasty eye-trauma. Good, but not great. Memorable certainly for Etain, a performance that’s subtely animal, though we get the feeling that a great deal is blasting through that bloodthirsty brain of hers, maybe even some humanity.

Conclusion

Neil Marshall is a complicated thing. We’re not used to filmmakers who make movies because that’s their interest, and they want to make movies. Odd as it is to say. He’s not interested in the business or in making money, but having fun, which produces some of the most unpredictable and lively entertainment in movies today. Whatever his next movie will be, I can’t guess at subject matter, certainly, I can only hope that it arrives soon.

What a specific thing this is, and what a delicate feel modern action directors whiff on so frequently. Movies like Taken are on the right path, movies like The Expendables farther but still there, and movies like Machete miss it entirely. Thing is, those three movies are all pretty acclaimed, relatively speaking. The following movies are overlooked, underappreciated, or downright hated, and that’s because they’re far ahead of their time. Or… twenty to thirty years past…

Punisher: War Zone (2008)

Color, motion, composition, and endless violence. With this four year follow-up to the more popular and successful Thomas Jane Punisher, Lexi Alexander had pretty much free reign to do something we often shy away from, and the result is a balls crazy and allegedly faithful adaptation of Punisher comics. In those comics, people get their heads blown off, bodies torn apart, shot to pieces, and more — if that sounds good, pop this in the VCR and sit back. I think a problem with a lot of action movies these days is a mind-boggling commitment to realism. Movies are escapism, and we get to see in movies what we can’t see in real life or on TV shows or sometimes in our own minds because we wouldn’t think that a chair leg could be used to dispatch of somebody in such a way.

Punisher: War Zone is part slasher movie, and part zombie movie. It’s a slasher because the Punisher wrecks everyone he sees, and it’s a zombie movie — but without the zombies, which as of late have become the weakest parts of a zom… well never mind, that’s an absurd thing to say but I do believe they’re a bit played out. Six years ago. In zombie movies people get their heads blown off, bodies torn apart — you remember. The Punisher does horrible things to the human body, and he’s so eh about it. That’s why we have the straight man in Colin Salmon, a fan favorite despite rarely being in good movies, to react as we would when somebody gets their face removed.

Rounding out the cast are TV faces, in particular Dominic West of The Wire fame. Here he plays Jigsaw, and his reparte with “Looney Bin Jim,” who you won’t recognize from any of the comics, is comedy gold. In the end though, I appreciate that this movie commits to over-the-topness, and is plenty aware of what it is. A violence film, one that’s gleeful in its horrendous violence. The spectacle is spectacular, as people explode and get punched in — seriously, the Punisher could poke somebody in this movie and they’d start hemmohraging. Unfortunately for them he does much more than that.

Verdict: BUY, IMMEDIATREY

The Expendables (2010)

The build-up to The Expendables was enormous. Here’s a movie with everyone, about a team of soldiers who at some point will probably learn that they’re expendable, a classic trope whose best analog here would be Predator. I was also thinking Alien, but that’s not exactly an action movie. So I’m sitting in the theatre watching this movie and in the first five minutes a guy gets his head cut off with a sniper and I’m thinking, “Okay. I can see this.” But then the rest of the movie happens and it’s like… they just gave up. Or actually cared about their awful story. All I know is that it involves Angel Batista and waterboarding some chick, which was uncomfortable. Why would I want to see that? Was The Expendables gonna be the political thriller that’ll really bring to light all sorts of discussions on the morality of torture in our modern day? No, that’s clearly the job of 24: Season 8. There’s little action in this movie, and the action that’s there is average. Mildly entertaining, but highly disappointing.

These actors have Crank, Total Recall, Die Hard, First Blood, Terminator 2, and… Crank 2 between them, and The Expendables falls far beneath all of them. To be fair, Arnold wasn’t really in it, but he’s definitely in the sequel. Christ. I won’t go up to the box office and say “One for The Expendables 2 please… JUST KIDDING!” and then drive back home because it’s rated PG-13 (doesn’t really help though) I’ll do that because the first movie was atrocious.

Verdict: Avoid

Doomsday (2008)

The preemptive criticisms of this post-Descent Neil Marshall flick were priceless. They called it a mix of Escape from New York, 28 Days Later, and The Road Warrior. Now, I can’t speak for 28 Days Later — but look at yourself. Is that a bad thing?! I’d say more accurately the closest analog to Doomsday is Escape from LA, the much maligned sequel to Carpenter’s 1981 classic. Escape from LA to me set a precedent which was never capitalized on until Rhona Mitra hit the land beyond the wall in this movie, where it’s the same old song and dance: we quarantined a segment of population and they’re crazy. Time to check back in.

In Escape from LA you had transvestite Pam Grier, plastic surgeon zombie Bruce Campbell, Map to the Stars Eddie, surfing, evil basketball, and hanglider battles — it was completely wild and unpredictable, a 100% good time throughout, because amidst all this madness you have our favorite hero Snake Plissken, an entirely over-the-top and bad motherfucker. In Doomsday you have girl snake, a woman with an equally great name — Maj. Eden Sinclair.

I’ve talked a little bit about girls in science-fiction movies, and Eden Sinclair always places highly on ‘the list,’ (the one in my head) alongside better known femmes like Ripley and… Clone Ripley. She’s believably badass, and it isn’t like she’s just fighting useless stormtrooper types, you know the corporate soldiers in gas masks — she fights Ren fair knights and Mad Max cannibals. Add David O’Hara and one great chase scene at the end and you’ve got a recipe for Marshall’s best yet movie (though I haven’t seen Centurion). There’s actually more I want to say about Doomsday but this isn’t the time. So for now…

Verdict: Yes!

The Nelvedine/Taylor Catalogue

Crank, Crank 2: High Voltage, and Gamer are all great fun. Let’s look at each individually, because they’d all place on this list and you should infinitely see them.

Crank: The humble beginnings of one Chev Chelios, who finds out he’s a dead man in a high-concept movie. Shot on camcorders and rollerskates, this movie takes you to the action on a unique plane. There’s also very explicit violence and sex. For those It’s Always Sunny fans check out a cameo appearance by Glenn Howerton.

Crank 2: If you thought Crank was good, get ready, because Crank 2 is a phenomenon. Pretty much the insanest and funnest American action movie since Death Wish III. Eye-popping, and in at least two cases cringe-inducing. There’s just something about nipple cutting… These movies are endlessly inventive and highly motivational. Some days I’d like to just get up and run through town with a sexy accent, screaming into the air. The only fault I have with the movie is the villain. As much as I like Clifton Collins, Jr., and as great a character as he was, there was really great chemistry between Chev Chelios and the original guy — the first villain would also engage in a phone conversation with Chev and be like “We’re gonna kill you man,” and Chev would say something very casually and get the dude royally pissed off every time.

Gamer: I really enjoyed this movie. I know some have gripes with it, and maybe it isn’t as good as the others, maybe it takes itself too seriously, but I’m actually a big fan of the imagery in this movie, even as a straightup science-fiction film. The art design is great, the guns are big and cool, the battlefield is appropriately shattered, and Society is bright and eerie. It’s a movie with a surprisingly entertaining story, which is surprising given the saturation on the market across time for all these ‘evil sport on TV, look at yourself’ movies. This came out around the same time as The Condemned and Death Race, the latter of which I saw and also enjoyed quite a bit. If you’re into solid sci-fi shootemups or glorified B-movies or whatever name you want to give something like this, check it out. Explosions, Dexter, Zoe Bell, Gerard Butler with a gun, and the hectic assault on Society make it all worth it.

Verdict: Check em

Hobo with a Shotgun (2011)

Interesting story behind this one, but it’s not my place to go over it here. It’s also one that made watching the movie slightly bittersweet, but don’t let it get to you because Hobo is a very entertaining grindhouse flick. It isn’t like Planet Terror or Black Dynamite which, while they do dabble in their respective horror and action, are comedies, and good ones at that. Hobo with a Shotgun pretends to actually take itself seriously — and it makes sense. These guys set out to make a crazy 80s action movie with a lot of blood, and they succeeded. While there was less Hobo than anticipated, it’s still a fun, gory ride, with an early cameo by Ricky from Trailer Park Boys, the one who’s always losing his head.

Of course, there’s plenty more; I didn’t mention any foreign movies, but there are a few that have a lot of action and lean toward the ludicrious — half of the 80s action movie was the HK school, stuff by Woo and To, and there are modern versions of those, but F. I’m out.

Two things were zapping through my head as the lightcycles and disccs passed across the screen: Avatar, and – strangely – Mamoru Oshii. For the former, this movie is its little brother. It creates a world, and populates it with characters created digitally. For the latter, I wished earnestly during the first half that a movie this visually dazzling was more cerebral, slower. It wasn’t until later on that I realized that Tron Legacy shouldn’t be an Oshii picture, that it’s a great film even without that meditative bent.

Having never seen the 1982 original, my only familiarity with the universe is vicarious through fellow nerds on the Internet and scifi history books. It’s the movie that revolutionized the use of computer graphics in film, and established a distinct look. It also came at a price for fans – the movie, from what I understand (and can infer from from Legacy), is totally goofy. Truly nobody believes that this is what the inside of a computer looks like…

No, it’s not cyberpunk by way of Gibson, but it’s a family movie. Kids, as we know, are ace at suspending their disbelief. Assumedly then the theory is ‘turn your brain off, sit back, and enjoy.’ Have your mind blown – one half of it, anyway.

Tron Legacy does the same thing: it numbs the skull as it blows the mind. It’s a battle between A to B storytelling and character and a devastatingly beautiful world. For me, the victor of this struggle was undeniably the visuals. In the end I suppose that this movie stands where Avatar falls, and it becomes one of the best scifi action movies in recent memory. The story and characters aren’t stellar, but they aren’t stultifying or offensive like most action contemporaries like The Expendables and Machete.

We find the son of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges’ character from the original), Sam, the daredevil bad boy type, returning to Tronworld, better known as the Grid. There he meets his father who’s been trapped for twenty years, and one of the few non-hostile inhabitants of this strange world, Quorra. Together, they journey back to the Real World, and must contend with Clu, a doppleganger of Flynn who’s trying to defect to the Real World for nefarious Bond villain reasons. Blow up the ocean, probably. Father and son will reunite, good will fight evil, there will be betrayals, there will be chases of all kinds.

On paper, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. So how did something like this get greenlit? Well, that’s a question that has more to do with the Tron brand than anything, but it works because of the product on screen. It can’t help but feel fresh. I’ve seen stills and a trailer from Tron, and this is very rather different – they definitely embodied the J.J. Abrams philosophy of design, where everything has that Apple Store shine, right down to the lens flares themselves. The polygonal cyberspace of Tron has been given quite the update – I believe on critic described the world as “Blade Runner after gentrification.”

No matter what you call it, it’s still pure visual stimuli. It’s the kind of thing one watches scifi film to see – I feel like we’re glimpsing a rare thing here, the climax of cinema dreams thirty years old. I’d advise you to turn the sound off and just take the world in, but that’d be doing everybody a disservice. Yes, the dialogue is flat – though never poorly delivered – but the real kicker is the sound effects and score. Daft Punk’s thumping soundtrack looms with foreboding swell or pops with electric energy when the scene calls for it – layer this on top of some of the movie’s action scenes and you’ve got a recipe for gold.

It’s an action movie where the story doesn’t bother me; in movies in the mold of Bond or Bourne, the budgets are high, giving the action scenes the filmmakers’ attention. They may be entertaining, but much less focus put on the characters, premise, and storytelling shows. So in between car chases we must slog through dead characters and poorly told story that was bland to begin with.

The argument can be made that Legacy is the same way. But it offers something new in these hard times between the action. The characters don’t gather into the Pentagon or in a hotel room or outside the White House to move the story along, they sit on a floating laser train in an electrical sky, or on the neon streets of the Downtown area, where fog and light dance in the background like classic Ridley Scott.

Of course, the action scenes alternating the obligatory plotforwards are so good, they make the movie. Fighting with discs may sound idiotic, but it’s elevated to aesthetically violent pleasure by the art design of the costumes, the environments, and the weapons themselves, all of which light up and react when touched. Everything’s streamlined and coupled with the slick energy and movement of the choreography and cinematography. The director comes off as an expert here, despite this being his first – and rather ambitious – feature film. He establishes rules for the action and then lets the situation run wild. Everything feels logical as it flows by us.

There is also that great sense of invention pervading these sequences. I know that the trailing light was a product of the first movie, but it’s a great idea, and lovingly applied to the new film. For offense and defense, the characters find many inventive purposes for it, and it feels like something that would be difficult to handle. Every time a vehicle would emanate with that light stream my interest would pique, the suspense would ratchet up – how are the heroes going to maneuver this challenge?

As inventive and dizzying as everything was, there was one major issue I have with the action scenes, and with the movie in general, and her name is Quorra. Olivia Wilde’s character is terrible, an absolute joke that makes the movie feel like it was made in 1982, an era where genre women had to be punched in the gut by the hero for him to move on, like in the otherwise awesome Streets of Fire, or nearly raped as in Blade Runner: the women that make Ripley look like a fucking saint. Remember the little girl from The Matrix Revolutions? The one Neo meets in Mobil Station? That’s Quorra. A program who doesn’t quite understand you humans, only twenty-something years old, just like all the naive alien babes out there who you can totally have sex with.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Kate Lloyd, from the other update of a 1982 classic, may have been a simple imitation of the aforementioned Alien heroine, but she was proper in the form of the Strong Science-fiction Female Character arehetype. These women don’t get kidnapped – and by extension don’t get rescued – they kick just as much ass as everyone else, whether that means fighting Agents in the Matrix or Renaissance knights in the post-apocalypse, and probably looking good as they’re at it, because there’s nothing nerds like better.

It wouldn’t be a problem (I can handle weak females just like I can handle weak males), but it didn’t match up with expectations. Wilde, in some of her press interviews, discussed how little girls these days don’t really have movie role models anymore – obviously this doesn’t mean women a la Kill Bill, but certainly not this. I did assume that her perception of Quorra was pure marketing speak, but in my heart, I hoped. Cyberpunk is generally pretty good about tough, well-to-do women, but alas.

One minor fumble aside, Tron Legacy is great fun. It’s an exhilarating marriage of image and sound – there’s nothing that looks or sounds like it, not even Tron. Maybe it could’ve been bettered if there was no dialogue (same solution to Wall-E), and if it was ninety minutes of straight action, but as it stands, it’s a delightful entry in a cult favorite franchise. My appreciation of Tron Legacy was as a nerd. I liked the flashbacks, the moments where we find that Tron had fought to save Flynn from Clu during the creation of the Grid – I don’t know, something about that rang right with me, the history of this world. I’m not sure if this has anything to do with the original mythos, so named for a character and not the world itself, a fact I always found odd, but it was interesting to me nonetheless. I look forward to this story being furthered.

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