Kevin Spacey: Separating the artist from the art

The summer of 1994 brought the death of two people in Los Angeles, California. I had never heard of either of these people before, but the aftermath brought the names of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman to the ears of most of America. Whether you have an opinion as to whether Nicole’s ex-husband, O.J., committed both murders, what can be agreed on is the very limited entertainment career of Simpson was over from that time on.

Worse for some, including me, is that the three movies he made that had any sort of repeat viewing value, The Naked Gun Trilogy, now sits in a sort of limbo on the shelf. I have not watched the series more than once since 1994, even through I transferred the collection from video cassette to DVD sometime in the early 2000’s.

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As I watched them all, the very enjoyable supporting performance of O.J. as the ironically named Detective Nordberg stood out like a sore thumb. He did some yeoman’s work there, seemingly taking an endless amount of bumps and bruises with a smile on his face. He’s always the loser, until the last film when he catches the baby and in his exuberance nearly spikes it on the ground in celebration.

I was never a huge fan of O.J. and I didn’t really consider him much of an actor, but those films I enjoyed. Not any more.

For Kevin Spacey, the library of films and his acting in them is much more extensive and talented. Again, regardless of your opinion of who he is and whether he did any of the things for which he is accused, the allegations and his own actions since they have surfaced have to have some sort of effect. Ridley Scott just made the decision to completely eradicate him from the upcoming film All the Money in the World in favor of Christopher Plummer.

The move is unprecedented in its complexity and ambition. He’s doing all of the reshoots and still plans to have the film released at its original December 22 date. Some see this as virtue signalling. Knowing that the film is being released in Awards season, however, points to another reason. This film would have no chance to get any sort of recognition in current form.

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Destined to become a trivia question

For another 2017 contender starring Spacey, there will be no such opportunity at revising history. Baby Driver is one of the best films of the year. And up until the moment these allegations began to surface, it was my favorite film this year. It was great for many reasons besides Spacey, but it was also great because of him. It will likely and somewhat unfairly sink into obscurity now.

The film as it stands works with the our present image of the artist that is Kevin Spacey. His character, Doc, is the leader of an ever changing group of thieves. The one constant is a young man, Baby, who is completely under his control. The story is about Baby’s discovery of life outside of Doc’s never-ending series of heists and onto his own life with someone he loves by his side.

That these robberies benefit Doc more than anyone and that Doc is a puppet master only benefits the experience of film for the viewer. We know Baby is a victim, just as we know Doc is really his abuser, as much, if not more than the other antagonists in the film. Kevin Spacey as a puppet master and a manipulator?  Who’d imagine…now more than ever.

The point is, few people will want to.

If one looks back on the career of Kevin Spacey, most of his films are good. Nearly all of his performances are great. I personally own copies of at least 8 of the films of which he’s been a major part.

Now begins life after Spacey’s been revealed for who he is at his worst.

For the films in which he plays a bad or somewhat unprincipled guy, one might be able to get through them. The films made where he’s a shining star, like Pay It Forward, The Negotiator, The Shipping News…well its not like anyone had talked about those films lately anyway.

The real test for Hollywood is what does one do with American Beauty? This is literally a film in which its Oscar Winning star is lustful of an underage teenager (Suvari) while literally being hunted down by a homosexual (spoiler alert). This film’s aggressive handling of social mores is not an easy watch to begin with. Even I got rid of it by 2005, after getting married and having two daughters. Does the Academy continue to recognize this film or does it fade into obscurity.

Likewise The Usual Suspects. Spacey’s performance was good enough to get a supporting Oscar, but how is it viewable now? I hadn’t watched it since the 90’s, but I always kind of knew it was there, for when I wanted to watch it in the future.

L.A. Confidential is a crucial film in many ways. Although Spacey isn’t technically one of the leads, his Det. Sgt. Jack Vincennes is a crucial supporting character and is possibly my favorite Spacey performance. His character is perfectly played. The smooth operator who has a chance to be real life hero. He is undone in site of the finish line, never to see true reward. This story is not his to be told, though, and the way it unfolds is a remarkable example of film making. Indeed, we’d never see Curtis Hanson come close to this height again.

For each of these films there are excellent performers beyond Spacey. Watching Crowe beat down a spouse abuser and threatening to “slap a kiddie raper” charge on him is an ironic start for the rising of his star, when the next scene features Spacey. Fortunately for the likes of Crowe, Guy Pearce, Annette Bening, and Robin Wright, they already have established careers before Spacey’s misdeeds came to light.

The people who took part in those films and the show House of Cards extend beyond established stars. Hundreds of people made their living off of these shows and films. What will happen to their future royalties?

What will happen to those who helped to create Spacey’s more recent work, including the unreleased Gore? This will have an affect, and that is unfair.

Just like everyone who worked on the classic trio of Leslie Nielsen films, who surely lost out numerous sales on home video when O.J. went through trial after trial asserting his innocence.

All of these works of art had people who depended on the works profits as some sort of living. They were deprived of this by actions they took no part in and most certainly did not condone.

Human nature takes its toll, however. We can’t control how we react to the image of two people viciously slaughtered while watching great comedies. Nor can we push the image of an older man taking advantage of younger actors while we try our best to work through any of myriad films or television shows of a prolific career.

For my part, L.A. Confidential loses none of its power. It’s such a rich and coldly cynical story, one can’t help but be overwhelmed by the vastness of its presentation of the deep undercurrent of sickness of Hollywood, California post WWII. That Spacey leads a dual life as police detective and star only serves to underscore how little anything has changed in the years since the story that is portrayed.

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The undercurrent of the undercurrent

If the Naked Gun films weighed on my morality in my 20’s, being almost 50 gives me pause in wondering how I will ultimately react to the work of Kevin Spacey.

I will not ever stop watching the films of David Fincher, even if I skip his work on House of Cards. The Usual Suspects, with its Director Singer also under a cloud of suspicion – might sit on the shelf a while longer. GlenGarry Glen Ross doesn’t  get as much viewing as it does referencing for most.

American Beauty, for all of it’s analysis if the deviance of modern America, is likely pretty much done. There was already too much going on in that film for comfortable evening viewing, much less a Sunday afternoon.

Horrible Bosses and its second film were never considered to be long lasting fare. It was for money, not for posterity. Superman Returns is all but forgotten at this point. If you liked A Bug’s Life, you are amazing, because most people can’t even remember that is the movie they released after the first Toy Story.

This brings us back to Baby Driver. It’s not a movie that deserves to be overlooked, though I am pretty sure it will be kicked to the awards curb. As it stands, I still think this film is one of the most incredibly well directed films of my lifetime. Kevin Spacey being abusive only makes it’s creation more apt and just as amazing.

Don’t let this man’s life outside of his art diminish the work others created in his presence.

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The Mummy (**1/2) guesses wrong…a lot

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The Mummy – 2017

Director Alex Kurtzman
Screenplay  David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie, Dylan Kussman
Starring  Tom Cruise, Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance, Russell Crowe

Every summer, there is at least one movie that misses on an approximation of what a movie should be. Sahara is a great example of this. This year’s example might as well be The Mummy. Kurtzman’s bloated estimate of a movie doesn’t know if it’s an adventure movie that needs to be funny, or a comedy that needs to have adventure. If you throw an overarching drama in there, then you really got a mess. Wait, isn’t this supposed to be horror?

The film starts off with two adventurers who awkwardly end up finding an ancient tomb of an Egyptian princess (Boutella) who’s been erased from history because she wanted to rule a little too soon. This results in one of the adventurers (Johnson) becoming zombified and killing his commander (Vance) while en route somewhere with the casket of the princess. Then the plane they’re on crashes…man I am getting bored even recounting this…leaving the main adventurer (Cruise) dead after saving the life of science girl (Wallis). Then the real crazy stuff begins.

The rest of the first two acts finds Cruise and Wallis running around ancient Oxford England, among other places. They are trying to avoid the reconstituted princess and her zombies (including Johnson, who becomes some sort of Griffin Dunne American Zombie in London). They quickly realize that Cruise is not only hard to kill, but he is drawn to the mummy Boutella. Tough as he is, he still can’t beat her with a stick.

Enter Russell Crowe and his merry band of secret society soldiers. Crowe, whose name is Dr. Henry Jekyll. His main job is to give Cruise’s Nick Morton a bunch of exposition which translates into a welcome into the Universal Monster franchise, which he calls Prodigium.

One really hesitates to blame Cruise for the ineffectiveness of The Mummy. He gives it the old college try, even if he never quite fits into the role as a lovable rogue. The movie throws him around like a rag doll and gives him little motivation or character beyond being tethered to The Mummy. Anyone who’s hated Cruise might like this film, because he gets the unholy hell beaten out of him.

Wallis is the girl who gets to be smart and vulnerable. She runs along side Cruise for as long as she is able. As we know, no one can out run him, even if he does have tiny legs.

Who knows what Johnson is supposed to be. He’s a discipline, but he’s a buddy, and he’s also kind of a bad guy. In every iteration, he is more annoying than funny. That’s too bad.

Fortunately, as Ahmanet, Boutella at least feels like she has a plan. Hers is not exactly a menacing Mummy, but she is driven to succeed. So she’s got that going for her.

What is the point to a franchise of classic horror villains? We can’t let them win, but can’t exactly kill them off. So everything leading up to the end is just stuff that happens while we wait for the next film. At least in the Marvel Universe, we can kill off the bad guys once in a while. We can give points for originality here, but it sure doesn’t feel like a victory.

This film is messy, but it’s not a complete disaster. It guesses a lot and most of those guesses land awkwardly. One can wonder if that good line was by McQuarrie, or if the bad plot line was Koepp. Or if it would have been better but for second time director Kurtzman. The film is passable, but in no way can we consider it the solid basis for the Dark Universe franchise. The sense of adventure exhibited in this film could lead to something better. It’s a long shot, though.

(**1/2 out of *****)

The Nice Guys (****) Don’t say and stuff

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The Nice Guys – 2016

Director Shane Black
Screenplay by Shane Black, Anthony Bagarozzi
Starring  Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Keith David, Kim Basinger, Beau Knapp

Thus goes the career of Shane Black. He directs one of the top grossing films of the past decade (Iron Man 3) and immediately sets to making the movie he’s been wanting to make for years before that. Of course it’s funny as hell, while filled with strangely realistic action scenes. Not one scene will leave action-comedy fans without a genuine smile. The story, the acting, the direction are all spot on. And it fails at the box office. Why?

For one thing, it lacks glamour. Oh, there are pretty women all over the place, but they don’t look as great when they’re knocked over during a chase scene or hit with an errant bullet. We even have the familiar Black intro with a pretty girl dying spectacularly.

Speaking of dowdy, I am not sure I have seen Crowe look as disheveled as Jackson Healy, a tough guy who’s not going to bother getting a license as a Private Investigator. He’s kind of looking like post-Godfather Brando by now, but I get the feeling he’s doing it on purpose. His skill is easy to miss at this point as I am sure most people would if he hadn’t already won an Oscar. He is so relaxed within the frame of his character, he’s almost a part of the background. Albeit, he’s a part of the background that can tell you to have your doctor check for the spiral fracture he’s about to apply to your left arm. It’s fun watching him play a man who is a bruiser, but not a mindless one. If the odds are against his taking action, he will duck out until the odds change. It takes courage to look smart enough to modify your brutal nature. Most actors can’t do this.

Ryan Gosling is as much a chameleon, but at an earlier age. His Holland March is a licensed PI, but you wouldn’t know it based on his ethics. He is an alcoholic widower raising a 13 year old girl after his wife died a few years earlier in an explosion. My guess is we find out it was not an accident if they ever do make another film. His condition is pliable enough that he is able to piece together who can help him and who cannot. Since this is a buddy film, one can guess who that will be.

His daughter, Holly (Rice) is somewhere between Holland’s conscience and his enabler. Seeing her driving him up to meet Healy after March had a few drinks is a gem of a scene. He is jamming away, singing The Band’s cover of Ain’t Got No Home as if he’d been born to sing along. It’s not a tremendously well known song, but you wouldn’t know that from looking at father and daughter. They look so familiar with it. She has a habit of asking men who are important to her if they are “a nice guy.” This could be answered quickly and honestly with “I do what it takes to stay living.” Both March and Healy answer her differently.

The interplay between Crowe and Gosling is deftly handled. There is no one writing about interpersonal dealings between partners as well as Black, even after all these years. The connections are rarely obvious or telegraphed. One has to know for what they are looking. It’s a credit to both actors that they pull off Black and partner Bagarozzi’s subtlety so effectively. I don’t think I have seen Gosling this charismatic. Both are full-fledged persons capable of good and bad moments without unnecessary flare. For this reason alone The Nice Guys is worth watching.

Almost as good is Holly. She’s in a lot of places that kids ought not be, and the excuse for that is thinly played. We get that Holland is not a good father, but does he have no one that could have helped to watch her? It plays well for a few scenes, but by the time we get to the last act, it’s become anathema to the desired effect on the viewer.

The challenge with The Nice Guys is definitely the ending. The MacGuffin everyone is chasing ends up a disappointment. It’s a shame, too, because they waste not only a great pair of well played minor henchmen (Knapp and a very welcome Keith David) but also a supremely scary Matt Bomer. The bad haircut, the delayed reveal and the name (John Boy) make for a performance I had no idea Bomer was capable of based on earlier work.

There are also several production gaffes with the film. They go out of their way to point out the film takes place in 1977, but I would guess over half of the musical references take place after that year.

These points alone should not dissuade you from seeing this good film. It doesn’t keep me from wanting to see a sequel.

(**** out of *****)

Bearing the weight of the Man of Steel

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Man of Steel – 2013

Director Zack Snyder
Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Diane Lane, Christopher Meloni, Ayelet Zurer
Screenplay David S. Goyer

Well documented are the difficulties of making a movie about a man with no weaknesses.  As good a Superman as Christopher Reeve was, there was really nothing for him to do after he beat Terrance Stamp’s General Zod way back in Superman II.  It took 2 more movies before they realized it.  The beautiful but flawed Superman Returns showed that, even with better special effects and an extreme emphasis on character development, they had nothing to fall back on but a literal sea of Kryptonite.  Now, with the help of Christopher Nolan, savior of the Batman franchise, the push was towards darkness and the weight of morality.  It is a bold decision, and one that nearly succeeds.  This Man of Steel has more death and destruction than any super hero film I have ever seen.  Yes, that includes The Avengers and the third Transformers film…combined.

The story starts out on the doomed planet of Krypton.  We get extensive back story that explains (for the most part) the reason for the planet’s demise and the actual sins of General Zod, which are closer to an insane nobility than unchecked arrogance as presented in the Reeve franchise.  Crowe, Shannon and Zurer are all exceptional here, as is the variety of living beings present.  It starts to make sense.

Once on earth, we are presented with a story for Kal-El in the same winding and flashback fashion that we got to see in Batman Begins.  It’s at this point that Man of Steel is at its most daring.  We get to see what makes him the son of Jonathan and Martha Kent (Costner and Lane) in contrast to what it means to be the son of Jor-El (Crowe) and Laura (Zurer).  The contrast is interesting, and it really encourages an interest in his development.  All of this dovetails very nicely with the introduction of Amy Adams as Lois Lane.  Thankfully, she avoids the playful pluckiness of Kidder, who had made the character her own opposite Reeve.  Instead, we get a mostly believable journalist who ruled as much by her conscience as her desire for the story.

From here, the film takes its most jarring turns.  Shannon is every bit the equal of Stamp in the role of the antagonist.  His vitriol, mixed with an unexpected intelligence, creates a worthy adversary for Superman.  There is a leap into megalomania which would seem inconsistent with all but the most irrational beings and it wreaks havoc on the rest of the film.  The result is a mixture of destruction and exposition that is curiously ill-fitting.  What we see is breathtakingly horrific, and decisive.  The very next moment, we hear its reasoning verbalized.  The explanations seem more the “just in case you don’t follow” variety.  That aside, Shannon is riveting and worth every moment on-screen.  He is hands down the best actor around now.

Superman is the hero that started everything.  He is also the end of all heroes.  There is no DC Universe without him.  There is just Batman, and a bunch of one offs.  Cavill does a great job here, working well with all he is given, and my God what a winning smile.  There could not be a better director for visual effects, save Del Toro or Jackson.  Even so, it’s a barrage of destruction that comes close to overwhelming everything else that the story is attempting to build.  For this I have to blame the writer.  We see decision foisted upon the hero answered with such a casual quip it’s quite shocking.  One can’t imagine that I could make such a decision.  Then there is the ending.  It’s impossible to imagine anyone could smile after all that happens.  But then, there still is hope.  We do have Superman.

(**** out of *****)

Broken City welcome to the home of underachievement

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Broken City – 2013

Director Allen Hughes
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jeffrey Wright, Barry Pepper, Alona Tal, Natalie Martinez, Kyle Chandler, Griffin Dunne, James Ransone
Screenplay Brian Tucker

All that acting talent.  What I wouldn’t give to see Jeffrey Wright win an Oscar one day.  Russell Crowe with a politician’s haircut.  Barry Pepper with a mullet.  Catherine Zeta-Jones playing a woman who marries well.  Kyle Chandler once more not playing a leading man.  Griffin Dunne at his most violent since An American Werewolf in London.  Mark Wahlberg taking the reins on a film and pushing the budget from anticipated $60 million to a scant $35 million.  They spent too much.  If you have seen the trailer for this movie, you have seen the entire film.  And it’s not because the folks who cut the trailer gave away any secrets.  There are no secrets.

So, for those who want to save time, here it is:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9lDV8FQp28

(** out of  *****)

Les Miserables thoughts of a not so miserable viewer

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Les Miserables – 2012

Director Tom Hooper
Starring Hugh Jackman, Amanda Seyfried, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Isabelle Allen, Daniel Hufflestone, Colm Wilkinson, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen
Screenplay by William Nicholson, Alan Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Herbert Kretzmer based on the play by Boublil and Schönberg

Random thoughts about a musical:

  • Anytime I am discussing this with people who call it “Les Miz,” there is a good chance I am in the wrong crowd.
  • The boat they are pulling at the beginning…is it real?  That I have to ask means it’s not.
  • I am not a fan of musicals…even less a fan of France.
  • How does one begin a life of honesty on false pretenses?
  • One can be pretty confident that even after the unfortunate circumstances that brought someone the caliber of Anne Hathaway to misery, she would have been plucked out of obscurity by some dude with money, if not someone who needed an opera singer.
  • Russell Crowe sounds like every man who never took a singing lesson.
  • Hugh Jackman sings like he lives…very well.
  • For the number of ironies and unfortunate coincidences, this script feels like it was written by Thomas Hardy and James Fenimore Cooper.
  • What they do to Hathaway’s teeth is worse than killing her off…and I am not talking about pulling them out.
  • Does anyone really need to see Helena Bonham Carter dressed like a Tim Burton character in a movie that Burton didn’t direct?  Fight Club was the first, and should have been the last.
  • The song at the in, and those performing it, seem right out of The Muppets, if The Muppets were from hell.
  • In fact, I think I am done with Bonham Carter and Baron Cohen.  They can take a 20 year break from acting and I would not miss them one bit.
  • A lot of these songs seem less like tunes than singing out words of the plot.
  • I think I prefer the daughter of the scumbag Muppet innkeepers over the daughter from Mamma Mia.
  • That statue of the elephant is pretty cool.  I can’t help but think that my not knowing what it is invalidates me writing something about the French Revolution depicted in this story.
  • Where is the song about crying in Argentina?  Maybe in the director’s cut?
  • It’s too bad that Samantha Banks had to die so early.  I can’t wait to see her in everything she does the rest of her life.
  • I appreciate the conflict between Jackman’s Valjean and Crowe’s Javert, almost as much as do I appreciate the pure heart and plight of Banks’ Éponine.
  • I don’t care so much for the student revolutionaries…it feels like filler, even if it is the backdrop to the story.
  • I do appreciate Eddie Redmayne, however, as his face appears lived in.
  • Not sure I care to understand how the hell Hugh Jackman can sing while Eddie Redmayne sleeps without waking him up.  It just seems so annoyingly impossible.
  • The kid wandering around revealing the true identity of everyone seems a little like the feral kid from the Mad Max movies.  The feral kid is a bit more wiley though.
  • Nothing like a nice shot of the sewer to let one completely understand how the black plague lasted so long.
  • As for Javert, why can’t he go without looking so hard into the horse’s mouth that he exits out his behind?  Only in musicals.
  • I always wondered who cleaned up the blood in the streets after a battle, war or failed revolution…
  • How could France move from a place with such high ideals to one so far from reality?  Oh, wait, colleges…
  • Wolverine looks really old towards the end of this, but then, all of those French Revolutions are enough to age anyone.
  • Amazing that one can go from revolutionary to a grand wedding in one scene.
  • I wish the punch could have hit both Innkeepers.
  • Very touching ending, even if I never quite get the feeling that Valjean and his “daughter” got to know one another well enough for me to believe he never knew love until he knew her.
  • My wife says “It is a story of belief…it’s sad but…,” she is right.
  • My wife likes musicals, mind you.  And other than this and very few others, I do not.
  • Thinking back on this film, I still smell urine when I think of Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter.  But then, that goes with every movie they are in.

(***1/2 out of *****)

The Man with the Iron Fists: Not so dexterous

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The Man with the Iron Fists – 2012

Directed by RZA
Starring Russell Crowe, Cung Le, Lucy Liu, Byron Mann, RZA, David Bautista, Jamie Chung
Screenplay by RZA and Eli Roth

The Man with the Iron Fists lumbers across the screen like the big time wrestler that decides he wants to be an ice skater.  The skates are strapped on, and he is heading across the floor, but the thing feels like it’s headed for disaster.  As if by magic or remote control, it avoids oblivion and instead finds a space right there in the place where average movies go to live…right next door to oblivion.

What we have is an earnest effort by what is a true fan of the film style that is the extremely gory kung-fu glorified by Tarantino.  It lacks skillful direction, acting and dialogue, but who’s counting?  In the end, even if all that stuff were a notch higher, no one is the wiser.  RZA, who I am told is an incredible rap producer famous for his work with the Wu-Tang Clan.  Even if I had never heard of him or any of his aliases (Prince Rakeem, The Abbot, Bobby Digital, Bobby Steels, the Scientist, Prince Delight, Prince Dynamite, Ruler Zig-Zag-Zig Allah), I can say his performance is somewhat one-dimensional, if respectable.  His effort to piece together a story of a former slave, who happens to be the local blacksmith in a town rife with clan warfare comes together slowly, obviously and conspicuously as the lone black man in a city of thousands of Chinese.

That strange combination does not last indefinitely, however.  We soon see a rather rotund Russell Crowe, as Jack Knife, waddle into town, take on two whores and kill an even fatter guy with a cool looking knife to obtain his third.  This concerns no one, least of all the Madam Blossom, played with an ever increasing lack of nuance by Lucy Liu.  I am not sure why Russell Crowe is in this film, but he gets at least one decent line in with all the huffing and puffing, after a particularly good kill:

“I always bring a gun to a knife fight.”

Okay, so it’s not that great a line.  It is pure gold when compared to the clunker RZA and Roth make Liu exclaim:

“Power belongs to no one, until it is seized through sex or violence.”

Or this line that RZA saved for himself:

“When it comes to money, things get funny.”

They get funny, but not necessarily well written.

The rest of the players are present to dispatch hundreds of Chinese.  Most of these guys are on the screen to be in the right spot where one weapon or another is discharged.  Of the main Asian counterparts, Yune and Cung, they are opposite sides of the Old West paradigm.  One side noble, the other scurrilous.  Jamie Chung as Lady Silk is odd in her apparent disharmony with The Blacksmith, who seems smitten with her to the point of planning and paying for their escape from the town.  It never seems like she’s on board with the plan.

The soundtrack to this film is pretty good, especially given the fact that most of the songs are out of place and time.

The movie comes together in the end, rising to just a bit better than average.  Much of it won’t be remembered.  And if it is, it’s 50/50 whether you will be laughing at it or admiring it.

(*** out of *****)