(UK/US/China - 2018)
sleeper agent Steven Seagal's worst films, despite Seagal and his dwindling number of apologists in his online fan base touting it as his best work in years. Hyped as a long-planned pet project--he also wrote the script--it's really just an aimless, meandering Seagal home movie that briefly comes to life with some CGI splatter-abetted throwdowns in the last ten minutes. Until then, it's all talk, with Seagal as Axe, an ex-black ops badass who walked away from the death and destruction to devote himself to Buddha and is now a practicing doctor in a tiny Thai village. He's summoned back into action when a young woman named Tara (Ting Sue), who possesses some type of mystical powers that are never quite explained, is kidnapped by local crime lord Qmom (Yu Kang) and his henchman Black Claw Ma (Cha-Lee Yoon). Though he's now a man of peace, prayer, and healing, Axe teams with Chen Man (Louis Fan Siu Wong), the son of his martial arts mentor, and "puts the band back together," reassembling his mercenary team to rescue Tara. It takes about 55 of the film's 85 minutes before this crew of fourth-string Expendables--Infidel (APOCALYPTO's Rudy Youngblood), Ying Ying (Kat Ingkarat), Scarecrow (James Bennett), and Hollywood (Sergey Badyuk)--reunites, just in time for Axe to give them all recon and prep work assignments, which is really just a cover for Seagal's standard mid-film sabbatical, where he essentially says "I'm gonna duck out for a while...I'll be back for the climactic showdown."
Until then, it's a lot of Axe caring for patients, playing with little kids, talking a man (ONLY GOD FORGIVES' Vithaya Pansringham) out of suicide, showing a bad-tempered criminal that he's using martial arts the wrong way, and having visions of a topless Tara in his dreams, asking her "Who are you?" and being told "I am nothing...I am everything." It all ends with a long, ON DEADLY GROUND-style lecture about keeping the spiritual philosophy of martial arts alive (delivered by Seagal in a scene that's lit so strangely that it might actually be someone wearing a Steven Seagal mask), followed by live footage of Seagal and his blues band playing for the cast and crew over the closing credits. Props where they're due: Seagal dropped about 25 lbs prior to filming and looks noticeably more svelte than he has in recent years, but that's the nicest thing one can say about this. He probably figured ATTRITION would be taken seriously since about 75% of the dialogue is in Mandarin, which means everyone is speaking to him in Mandarin with English subtitles, while he speaks in mumbled Seagalese English, and everyone just understands one another. ATTRITION was supposed to be the flagship offering of "365Flix," a streaming service created by co-producer Philippe Martinez (who co-directed Seagal's recent GENERAL COMMANDER) that nobody's heard of, with their site still promising "Coming Summer 2019." When the initial launch of the service didn't happen, Martinez instead set up a distribution deal for 365Flix through Roku--offering ATTRITION and a handful of instantly-forgotten mid-2000s Martinez productions like LAND OF THE BLIND, HOUSE OF 9, MODIGLIANI, and THE GROOMSMEN)--in what sounds like one of the most poorly-crafted business plans in the history of home entertainment. Now, nearly a year later, ATTRITION is finally on Blu-ray/DVD courtesy of Echo Bridge Entertainment, which means it'll likely be in the $5 bin at Walmart by the end of this sentence. (R, 85 mins)
(US - 2019)
It's here that VAULT essentially becomes GOODFELLAS JR, with Ouimette sitting on the money and Deuce and Chucky getting antsy about not getting their cut, plus the crew inevitably turning on one another, with "Buddy Providence" (William Forsythe) deciding to whack a few of them on his own, or perhaps on the orders of someone higher. Deuce turns into a trainwreck, going on sweaty, wild-eyed Henry Hill coke jags and getting increasingly paranoid that he's being followed as he and girlfriend Karyn (ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK's Samira Wiley) go on the run from one fleabag motel to another all the way out in Nevada. Director/co-writer Tom DeNucci gets things off to an interesting start as he builds the characters and sets the scene, but it takes a turn for the rote and predictable soon after, with the pace really lagging in the second half when it should be getting frantic and tense as Deuce starts to feel the walls closing in on him. The cast is fine, though it's too bad we don't get more interaction and ballbusting with the assorted "Buddys," like Forsythe's "Buddy Providence" and Andrew Divoff's bad-tempered "Buddy Woonsocket," and it's nice to see the great Burt Young in a brief bit as an aging Mafioso. The script also plays a little too fast and loose with the facts, to the point where it almost qualifies as Bonded Vault fan fiction, most egregiously with the character of Gerry Ouimette, who was 35 years old in 1975 and is being played by 69-year-old Don Johnson. But more importantly, Gerry Ouimette wasn't even involved in the Bonded Vault heist. His younger brother John was, but by using Gerry, who was directly connected to the Patriarca crime family, the filmmakers go off on a wild speculative tangent about the reasons behind the heist, which manifest in the form of a twist ending that only seems to be deployed because Palminteri was in THE USUAL SUSPECTS. (R, 99 mins)
(US - 2019)
ONCE UPON A TIME...IN HOLLYWOOD. This year also saw the lower-profile release of the indie THE HAUNTING OF SHARON TATE, with Hilary Duff in the title role, and CHARLIE SAYS, which focuses on Leslie "Lulu" Van Houten's indoctrination into Manson's "family." The latest collaboration between director Mary Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner, who previously teamed on 2000's AMERICAN PSYCHO and 2006's THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE, CHARLIE SAYS is a laborious misfire that, despite its POV, doesn't really tell us anything we didn't already know about Manson and says even less about Van Houten, played here by Hannah Murray, best known as Gilly on GAME OF THRONES. It certainly doesn't go into details on what prompted Van Houten to abandon her family and throw everything away for Manson (a pretty by-the-numbers SNL-level impression by DOCTOR WHO's Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith). Van Houten seems incredulous at every turn--whether it's the lurid sex (she's introduced to Squeaky Fromme when she's in the middle of giving elderly George Spahn a handjob), the patriarchal nature of Manson's rule over his followers at Spahn Ranch, like men being served dinner before the women, or just his general craziness. The structure doesn't do the film any favors, as it's told mostly in flashback in 1972 by an incarcerated Van Houten, Patricia "Katie" Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon, daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick), and Susan "Sadie" Atkins (Marianne Rendon) to USC grad student Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever), who teaches college courses to the inmates at the women's correctional facility where they're being held.
Faith's 2001 book The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten: Life Beyond the Cult was one of two sources for Turner's script, and telling the story of Faith's viewpoint and having her get inside the heads of the three women might've been a more productive approach than what's on the screen. By the end of the film, Van Houten shows remorse for her participation in the LaBianca murders (she wasn't part of the crew that invaded Tate's home the night before), but she's still a blank slate as a character in this film. That's no fault of Murray's, as she does what she can with how little she's been given. Of course, Smith is able to overact to his heart's content, but his Manson seems more like a petulant child in need of a time-out than an insidiously charismatic cult leader, especially with the amount of time Harron and Turner devote to his musical aspirations and his hissy-fit over Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson (James Trevana-Brown) failing to land him a record contract with influential producer Terry Melcher (Bryan Adrian). Haven't we seen and heard all of this before? Isn't CHARLIE SAYS (drink every time Leslie makes a suggestion and a brainwashed Spahn Ranch space case cuts her off with a Mansonsplaining "Well, Charlie says...") supposed to be about Leslie Van Houten? For all its liberties with the Tate part of the story (she's only briefly seen here, and yet Mary Harron isn't being endlessly harangued in one article after another about Grace Van Dien's lack of dialogue), ONCE UPON A TIME...IN HOLLYWOOD did a much more effective job in one extended sequence of conveying the truly disturbing mindset of the "family" at Spahn Ranch and depicting the hold Manson had over them--with Manson barely even being in the movie--than Harron accomplishes in nearly two hours here. What a missed opportunity. (R, 110 mins)