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On Blu-ray/DVD: THE COMMAND (2019), EL CHICANO (2019) and BODY AT BRIGHTON ROCK (2019)

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THE COMMAND
(France/Luxembourg/Belgium - 2019)


Originally titled KURSK, the Luc Besson-produced THE COMMAND is a strangely inert dramatization of the Kursk disaster in 2000, when two explosions--one small, followed by a second large enough to register on the Richter scale--sank a nuclear-powered Russian submarine that was part of a training exercise on the Barents Sea. Of the 118 officers onboard, 23 initially survived the explosions but all perished within the next couple of days due in large part to the inexcusably slow response of a Russian government desperate to save face and avoid national humiliation. The Russian Navy even stubbornly refused offers of rescue assistance from both England and Norway, who had ships in the vicinity that could be there in a matter of hours. The Kursk disaster was a huge embarrassment for Vladimir Putin, who became president just four months earlier and was roundly criticized for his handling of the tragedy. Adapted from Robert Moore's 2002 book A Time to Die: The Untold Story of the Kursk Tragedy by screenwriter Robert Rodat (SAVING PRIVATE RYAN), THE COMMAND doesn't have the courage of its convictions--or the 118 men who died--in its decision to make no mention of Putin at all, instead letting faulty, outdated equipment take the blame and the fictional composite Admiral Petrenko (Max von Sydow) serve as the villain, an old guard, bureaucratic company man overruling fleet commander Admiral Grudzinsky (TONI ERDMANN's Peter Simonischek), refusing help from British Commodore Russell (Colin Firth), and holding press conferences where he's forced to shout down angry wives and order them removed from the room when they start making a scene. Despite the kid-gloves treatment of Putin, it's these scenes that are the strongest in THE COMMAND, with the mutual respect between Russell and Grudzinsky tossed aside when Grudzinsky is removed from the situation after he goes rogue and takes England and Norway up on their offers to assist with a rescue. That rescue never happens because Petrenko decides Russia's honor--and the guarding any potential military secrets the rescuers might encounter--takes precedence over human lives ("They know what they signed up for," an unknown voice is heard saying over the phone). That voice is as close as THE COMMAND gets to a Putin appearance, as all scenes involving the president, reportedly a major supporting character in Rodat's script, were tossed in the shredder before shooting even began.





The submarine sequences aren't exactly the second coming of DAS BOOT, largely because we already know the outcome. There's some rudimentary characterization in the early going with a rushed wedding sequence that evokes memories of THE DEER HUNTER while showing the relative poverty of the Russian military in the way the officers make so little money that they have to pawn their watches to pay for champagne for the reception. Once on the sub, actors like Matthias Schoenaerts and August Diehl do solid work as men displaying valor and fighting to stay alive (and Schoenaerts goes above and beyond, holding his breath in a long scene underwater), but it's the scenes above water, with Schoenaerts' pregnant wife (Lea Seydoux) being coldly stonewalled at every turn in her search for news, that have a more dramatic impact. With an abundance of dodgy greenscreen and video-gamey CGI, it's clear that director Thomas Vinterberg (who worked with Schoenaerts on 2015's FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD) has ventured as far as he can from the minimalist "Dogme '95" movement he co-founded with his much more controversial friend Lars von Trier. But he still indulges in pointless wankery like the first 20 minutes of the film being in a windowboxed 1.66 aspect ratio, then opening up to 2.35 for the next 80 minutes before returning to the windowboxing for the last act. It might make artistic sense if there was a rhyme or reason to it--like one aspect ratio for the submarine scenes and another for above water--but that's not the case. Filmed in 2017, THE COMMAND also suffers from inadvertent bad timing in its eventual straight-to-VOD US release, as the harrowing HBO miniseries CHERNOBYL did an infinitely more effective job of depicting the indifference of the Russian government to the suffering of its people in a devastating tragedy. The late Michael Nyqvist (THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, JOHN WICK) succumbed to cancer during production, and while Vinterberg said the actor completed his scenes before his death and initial festival screenings mentioned him being in it, he appears to have been cut from the final release despite his name remaining at the very end of the closing credits cast crawl. (PG-13, 119 mins)



EL CHICANO
(US - 2019)


Advertised as the first Latino superhero movie, EL CHICANO attracted some attention during its brief theatrical run when producer/co-writer/internet tough guy Joe Carnahan (NARC, SMOKIN' ACES, THE GREY) read some negative reviews and promptly began attacking those critics on social media. He ended up deleting his Twitter account and eventually admitted he was "punching down" to generate publicity for the movie. A dick move that's pretty much on-brand, but it didn't help, as it opened in 11th place and topped out at 605 screens, grossing just over $1 million. In the end, EL CHICANO is hardly a barrio BLACK PANTHER, as Carnahan and director/co-writer Ben Hernandez Bray (a veteran stuntman and the second unit director on several Carnahan films) don't really do anything interesting beyond setting their story in East L.A. In a prologue set 20 years ago, twins Diego and Pedro and their friend Jose witness masked avenger El Chicano brutally murder Jose's father, crime lord Shadow (Emilio Rivera). In the present day, Diego (Raul Castillo) is a dedicated cop long-estranged from Pedro, who chose a life of crime and has just committed suicide shortly after being paroled. Diego and his hothead partner Martinez (Jose Pablo Cantillo) are told by an informer (Noel Gugliemi) that Pedro didn't kill himself, but rather, was part of a massacre orchestrated by Jose, who took over his father's East L.A. empire and now goes by Shotgun (David Castaneda). Diego discovers a trail of clues that Pedro has left for him, revealing a storage unit where Pedro kept everything he needed for his plan to resurrect the long-dormant legend of "El Chicano" and rid the area of the likes of Shotgun once and for all. Unable to nail Shadow by the book and watched over by his no-bullshit captain (George Lopez), Diego is inspired to pick up with Pedro left off and become the new El Chicano, especially when Shadow partners with Mexican cartel boss El Gallo (Sal Lopez) and his son Jaws (Roberto Fabian Garcia, aka Chicano rap star Mr. Criminal, who also performs the theme song) to tighten his stranglehold on the area.





The hard-R EL CHICANO, which also counts Carnahan bro Frank Grillo as a co-producer, gets off to a decent start, but soon becomes a rote checklist of genre cliches and imagery swiped from other comic book and graphic novel films. It leans heavily on THE PUNISHER and especially THE DARK KNIGHT by the end, which sets up a sequel that looks pretty doubtful given the tepid response from critics and audiences. Castillo does a decent Christian Bale impression in his stoical performance, but Castaneda doesn't get the space to create a complex character like he did in the JCVD thriller WE DIE YOUNG. The familiar faces in the supporting cast aren't put to good use--Rivera and Gugliemi are killed off shortly after they appear, Aimee Garcia (GEORGE LOPEZ, DEXTER) is wasted in a thankless role as Diego's wife, and Mexican telenovela star and El Chapo bestie Kate del Castillo turns up at the end to set up that unlikely sequel. (R, 108 mins)




BODY AT BRIGHTON ROCK
(US - 2019)


Having cut her teeth on horror anthologies starting with a producer credit on V/H/S, writer/director Roxanne Benjamin helmed one of strongest segments of SOUTHBOUND and the weakest of XX. She splits the difference with her feature-length debut BODY AT BRIGHTON ROCK, which takes a terrific premise and doesn't really do anything interesting with it. Relative newcomer Karina Fontes is well-cast as Wendy, a part-time summer guide at the fictional Brighton Rock National Park (the film was shot in Idyllwild, CA). Wendy doesn't take the job as seriously as she should--she's always late for work and is considered a lightweight "indoor kid" by her more experienced colleagues--and as the season's winding down into fall, she decides to prove to the naysayers, namely her friend Maya (Emily Althaus), that she can hack it by offering to take Maya's assignment for the day: switching out seasonal signs and postings along one of the park's rougher trails. Wendy is absent-minded and easily-distracted, so of course she misplaces her map, gets lost, and wanders off the trail. She sends a selfie to Maya from the peak of a rock formation, to which Maya replies "Who's behind you in the pic?" Wendy sees what she's talking about in a nearby ravine: a dead body. She tries to call for help but killed her phone battery taking selfies and playing '80s music (Oingo Boingo and Expose on the soundtrack) while she danced along the trails all day, and she's in a remote area where radio reception is poor. What she manages to ascertain is that it's getting dark, they don't know where she is, and she's to stand guard over what might be a crime scene until the authorities can start looking for her in the morning. Then affable but vaguely sinister hiker Red (Casey Adams) shows up.





The initial set-up of BODY AT BRIGHTON ROCK seems primed for an effective survivalist B-movie where "indoor kid" Wendy grows up and sees what she's made of. While it's no fault of Fontes, who does a good job in what's effectively a solo show after the first ten minutes (the only established cast member is veteran character actor John Getz, seen briefly as a local sheriff), Wendy's hard to root for as she makes one dumb decision after another. Offended that her co-workers think she can't handle the trail--and they're absolutely right--she proceeds to do everything possible to make her predicament worse, with the low point being when she freaks out and thinks something's behind her and ends up misting herself with capsaicin bear spray. Benjamin wrings some suspense out of shadows, breezes, and other random nature sounds and uses some effective editing techniques, but once the premise is established, BODY AT BRIGHTON ROCK just spins its wheels to an unsatisfying conclusion. (R, 87 mins)


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