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On Blu-ray/DVD: BACKDRAFT 2 (2019) and NEVER GROW OLD (2019)

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BACKDRAFT 2
(US/Belgium - 2019)

In addition to creating random franchises for its 1440 DTV division with sequels to TREMORS, THE SCORPION KING, DEATH RACE, DRAGONHEART, and JARHEAD, Universal has also decided to start raiding their back catalog for some really belated follow-ups like KINDERGARTEN COP 2 (27 years between films), HARD TARGET 2 (21 years after the first), COP AND A HALF: NEW RECRUIT (24 years), and THE CAR: ROAD TO REVENGE (a ludicrous 42 years after THE CAR). After 28 years, they've given us the sequel you never knew you didn't need with BACKDRAFT 2. Incredibly, they managed to get screenwriter Gregory Widen to cobble a script together, somehow convincing him to take a brief respite from cashing HIGHLANDER and THE PROPHECY royalty checks for the rest of his life. Also returning are William Baldwin as Brian McCaffrey, now a Chicago fire chief, and Donald Sutherland as the incarcerated Ronald Bartel, the Hannibal Lecter of Windy City arsonists. The story focuses on Chief McCaffrey's hothead nephew Sean (Joe Anderson as the son of Kurt Russell's late character from the 1991 original), a plays-by-his-own-rules arson whisperer prone to inner monologues that begin with statements like "We only come out at night..." when confronting a fire and "Stay out of my burn!" when higher-ranking fire department desk jockeys and pencil-pushers question his methods. Forced to take on rookie partner Maggie Rening (Alisha Bailey) and greeting her with "You know anything about this work?," Sean--who also says things like "I don't like fire...but I understand it"--is convinced he's dealing with a serial arsonist in a convoluted plot that ends up involving mercenary contractors selling missile production secrets to either the Russians or the Chinese. Or something. Who gives a shit?






Less a sequel to BACKDRAFT and more like a pilot for a bad spinoff series that got rejected by Crackle, BACKDRAFT 2 never gets around the insufferably grating performance of Anderson (who was a great Mason Verger when he replaced Michael Pitt on the third season of HANNIBAL), who comes off as one of the most off-putting heroes in quite some time. Much of that is due to the British actor seriously overcompensating with his American accent, a problem facing every cast member aside from Baldwin (who's really looking like Alec these days) and Sutherland, as this was shot mostly in Romania and Canada with an almost-entirely British cast (more than everyone else, the guy playing Sean's ATF nemesis is seriously struggling with his American accent). At least Baldwin emerges unscathed in his handful of scenes, but Sutherland, who couldn't have spent more than a day on the set, is a hammy embarrassment as the gleeful, cackling Bartel, who's consulted by Sean, correctly assuming that the arsonists have sought the advice of "the master." So terribly-written and cartoonishly cliched in almost every aspect that it practically qualifies as self-parody, BACKDRAFT 2, directed by Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego (APOLLO 18, THE HOLLOW POINT), offers a hero who lives in an abandoned warehouse that's approximately the size of an airplane hangar, a potential drinking game every time someone gravely intones "It's a backdraft," a climactic showdown in a massive shipyard, a shitty theme song by what sounds like an Imagine Dragons cover band, and what might go down as the funniest bad guy demise of the year. It's one of the most cynical name-brand DTV cash-ins to come down the pike since, well, THE CAR: ROAD TO REVENGE, and that also goes for BACKDRAFT director Ron Howard, who gets a courtesy executive producer credit but I'm willing to bet he won't even know this exists until his accountant shows him his 2019 income tax return. As for Universal dusting off ancient catalog titles for really late Redbox sequels, what's next? May I suggest Scott Eastwood in HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER 2? (R, 102 mins)



NEVER GROW OLD
(Ireland/Luxembourg/Belgium/France - 2019)


A muddy and bloody western of the post-PROPOSITION sort, NEVER GROW OLD is part of a recent trend of underseen revisionist European art westerns, similar in tone and style to SLOW WEST, THE SALVATION, and BRIMSTONE. Written and directed by Irish filmmaker Ivan Kavanagh (THE CANAL), the film is set in 1849 in a puritanical haven of Garlow, a town on the California Trail. Overzealous Preacher Pike (Danny Webb) effectively rules Garlow, having banished alcohol, gambling, and prostitution to its economic detriment. Most of the businesses have left, and the residents are following suit. Garlow's undertaker/carpenter, Irish immigrant Patrick Tate (Emile Hirsch), doesn't have much work, but he does have a pregnant French-born wife, Audrey (Deborah Francois), son Thomas (Quinn Topper Marcus), and young daughter Emma (Molly McCann). Patrick tries to talk Audrey into leaving on the two-month journey to the promised land of California, but she hopes to build a good, Christian life in Garlow. That goes to hell on a dark and stormy night with the arrival of outlaw Dutch Albert (John Cusack, looking like cult filmmaker Richard Stanley) and his two cohorts, Sicily (Camille Pistone), and hulking mute Dumb-Dumb (Sam Louwyck), who carries his preserved severed tongue and uses it as a comedic prop. Albert is in pursuit of Bill Crabtree, an ex-partner who cheated him out of some money, and intimidates Patrick into taking him to see Crabtree's wife (Anne Coesens), who claims he left her and their teenage daughter a year ago. Disappointed that there's no booze, gambling, or women in Garlow, Albert decides to buy the decrepit hotel, reopening it as a saloon with gambling and whores, defying Preacher Pike and causing an escalating body count, which keeps Patrick busy but puts a strain on his family, especially when Dumb-Dumb decides he wants Audrey for himself and Patrick is too afraid to do anything about it.






NEVER GROW OLD opens with some thinly-veiled jabs at evangelicals and quickly takes a turn for the relentlessly downbeat, with Patrick constantly being prodded, bullied, and emasculated by the ruthless Albert, who doesn't get much resistance in his takeover of Garlow, either from the all-talk Preacher Pike or the useless sheriff (Tim Ahern), and you know this is the type of movie where a meek character like Patrick will only be pushed so far before he snaps. Albert's atrocities are endless, particularly when Crabtree's financially-strapped wife begs to be hired as a prostitute, and he'll only take her on if the teenage daughter is part of the package. Dutch Albert is a character who makes UNFORGIVEN's Little Bill Daggett look affable, and to NEVER GROW OLD's benefit, this is the John Cusack that even John Cusack seems to have forgotten about most of the time. He's absolutely terrifying as a western outlaw version of Frank Booth, and it's easily his best performance since 2014's LOVE & MERCY. NEVER GROW OLD doesn't blaze any new trails, but it makes an unsettling impression with its grim atmosphere, a climax as violent as Travis Bickle's rampage in TAXI DRIVER, and Cusack bringing to life a personification of pure evil that sticks with you. Look for this one to find a cult following pretty quickly. (R, 100 mins)


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