Action in ‘Underworld,’ ‘Haywire’ and ‘Contraband’

By Tom Von Malder | May 13, 2012
Photo by: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Kate Beckinsale takes another bite out of her role of Selene in the “Underworld” films.

Owls Head — Underworld: Awakening (Sony, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R 89 min.). After the third “Underworld” film went back to the origins of the vampire-lycan warfare, the fourth film picks up where the second left off, and Death Dealer Selene (a returning Kate Beckinsale) is to meet hybrid love Michael (Scott Speedman) at the docks for their escape. This is at the time when mankind has begun a purge of the vampires and lycans (werewolves) due to the increase in infections. A grenade separates Selene and Michael, and she awakens 12 years later from cryogenic sleep in a lab.

That lab, Antigen, is run by Dr. Jacob Lane (Stephen Rea), but not all is as it seems. Especially, the general belief that vampires and lycans have been all but wiped out. In fact, the vampires have literally gone underground, where Selene meets elder Thomas (Charles Dance) and his son David (Theo James, bringing some -- pardon the pun -- new blood to the series). Selene also believes the other test subject who escaped was Michael, but it turns out to be a young girl (India Easley as Subject 2, who will be called Eve is subsequent films). And yes, the lycans still exist as well; in fact, a 12-foot, super breed has been created, as in Quint (Kris Holden-Reid). Most of the really exciting scenes in the film involve battles with Quint as an uber-lycan. Another top scene has three lycans chasing Selene, David and Subject 2’s vehicle through traffic. Michael Ealy plays Det. Sebastian, who becomes an ally of Selene’s because he knows there is lycan skullduggery afoot. The film ultimately revolves around three parent-child relationships.

It was not until the extras that I realized the film had been created in 3-D. In fact, it is so well filmed that you get a true sense of depth even in the 2-D format. There are five very good behind-the-scenes features (63 min.), especially a look at the lycans and we see actor Dan Payne put into his lycan suit. The Blu-ray exclusive is a picture-in-picture mode called “Cracking the Underworld,” which shows clips from the other three films as background, along with on-screen written notes. Finally, there is a 3:21 blooper reel. Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 3.5 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Haywire (Lionsgate, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 93 min.). Not sure if director Steven Soderbergh has a usual anymore, but this is yet another twist from the director “Contagion” and “Ocean’s 11.” It is an action movie, starring martial arts superstar Gina Carano. She plays Mallory Kane, a black ops agent for a government security contractor (Ewen McGregor as Kenneth). We first see her in upstate New York, waiting for Aaron (Channing Tatum) at a café. The meeting soon turns into a fight, with bystanders trying to help Mallory. She escapes with one in his car and, via flashbacks, tells him what has been happening in her life.

The flashbacks begin with a job in Barcelona, with Aaron as one of her co-workers on a job to free a dissident. US security figure Coblenz (Michael Douglas) insisted Mallory be part of the job. Interestingly, most of this rescue is done without sound -- only music. Almost immediately, she is sent to Dublin to be eye candy on Paul’s (Michael Fassbender) arm, but she discovers she has been set up for murder and ends up having a big battle with Paul as well. Now on the run, she arranges the meeting in upstate New York, only to be betrayed again. Antonio Banderos plays the mysterious Rodrigo, who seems to be a go-between for Coblenz and Kenneth, while Bill Paxton plays her father. The fights are brutal and very physical, but the film did end with a laugh for me.

Bonus features include Carano in training (16:03) and a look at the men in the film via interviews with the actors (5:29). Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 2 stars

Contraband (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 110 min.).
There’s some good action mixed in with a highly unbelievable plot in this remake of the Icelandic film “Raykjavik -- Rotterdam.” Interestingly, Baltasar Kormakur, the lead of the original film, is the director of this Hollywood remake. Her the lead is played by Mark Wahlberg, who definitely has his action acting chops down by now. (Who would have known he had such a strong acting career ahead, however, as we watched and enjoyed him as a musical performer and lead of the group Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch?)

Wahlberg plays Chris Farraday, a legendary smuggler, who has gone straight and now installs security systems to support his wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale of “Underworld: Awakening”) and their two young sons. However, the misadventure of his wife’s younger brother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones of “X-Men: First Class” and lead singer/drummer of the band Robert Jones) forces Chris into one more job. Andy had been smuggling cocaine for Tim Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi in one of his off-the-wall performances, including weird accent and jumpy behavior), when his stolen boat was boarded and he dropped the drugs overboard. Chris refuses to smuggle drugs but decides counterfeit currency from Panama City will raise the $700,000 needed. He gets a job aboard a ship (J.K. Simmons plays the captain, an old nemesis of Chris’), as does Andy and a couple of others in on the plan. Chris’ old partner, Sebastian Abney (Ben Foster), stays behind, which struck me as strange and, sure enough, Sebastian is working his own angles, including a double cross.

This is one of those movies for which you have to park your brain outside the theater.  When they arrive in Panama City, they only have about an hour to sneak off the boat, pick up the counterfeit notes and get back undetected. However, the notes they are given are printed on the wrong kind of paper, so Chris and crew have to go find the source and get the real paper, even though he is not sure where it is located in the city, and then be forced into participating in an armored car heist that turns very violent. (The big joke here, which I knew would pay off later, is the stolen item is a painting, which everyone overlooks as an oily rag until the finale. Later on, there is an even greater suspension of belief required to accept what happens to Kate. I did enjoy the ending, though.

Extras on Blu-ray picture-in-picture viewing with pre-visualization and storyboard comparisons of the action scenes, as well as UltraViolet and digital copies. Both versions have eight deleted scenes (6:24; from a silly dance by Sebastian at the wedding to the vital one of Chris showing the captain that he was still on the ship); a making-of feature (17:02); a look at the stunts (7:56); and audio commentary by the director and his co-producer Evan Hayes. Grade: film and extras 3 stars

Let the Bullets Fly (China, Well Go USA, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 132 min.).
Action and humor fills this film, which is China’s top domestic box office film of all-time. It was nominated for nine Golden Horse awards in 2011, including best film, best director and best actor (Chow Yun-Fat). The setting is 1919, the Age of the Warlords. Notorious bandit chief “Pocky” Zhang (director Jiang Wen) robs a horse-drawn train. This is the first of many action highlights in the film, as the train goes airborne, flips and lands in water. The train was carrying Governor Ma, his wife and a poet. Con man Tang (Ge You) survives and explains he was on the way to Goose Town, where he has bought  the governorship. In return for sparing him, he offers to help Zhang assume the governorship in his place, through which Zhang can make more money in a month as a corrupt politician as he could in a year’s worth of train robberies. What he does not tell Zhang is that the town already is under the rule of wealthy crime lord Master Huang (Yun-Fat).

What follows is a series of hyper-violent, and often hilarious, mind games and tricks between the bandit, who has decided to help the people of the town, and the crime lord. For example, the disguised Zhang talks Huang into raising money to fight Zhang, then steals the money and throws it to the townspeople in little bags. Along the way, a man is used like a soccer ball repeatedly against a large drum, the dead appear to fall victim in a shoot-out and a double-cross becomes a triple-cross.
The Blu-ray version reviewed included only the trailer has an extras, but a collector’s edition is available with a making-of feature, deleted scenes and actor interviews. Grade: film 3.75 stars

Tarzan: The First Season Part One and Part Two (1966-67, Warner Archive, each 4 DVDs, NR, 750 and 800 min.).
This coming October marks the centennial anniversary of the first publication of “Tarzan of the Apes” by Edgar Rice Burroughs in “The All-Story,” a sister publication to “Argosy.” Burroughs went on to write 23 more original Tarzan novels, and there have been several authorized sequels, dozens of films (Johnny Weissmuller starred in the most famous of the films), several TV series, hundreds of comic books and a very popular newspaper strip. In this very well made TV series, which brought Tarzan to network television for the first time, Ron Ely plays a well-educated, articulate Tarzan, just as Burroughs created him. The show ran for two seasons on NBC. Cheeta was retained for the monkey shines humor and Manuel Padilla Jr. ( “Tarzan and the Valley of Gold,” “Tarzan and the Great River”) as Jai filled a role similar to Boy, but Tarzan’s mate Jane was jettisoned for the series. Mike Henry, who had done several Tarzan films in Brazil, was the original choice for the show, but he had a disagreement with producer Sy Weintraub and the role as given to Ely, who had been hired to play a Tarzan impersonator in just one episode. Ely did his own stunts and suffered 17 injuries during the first season alone.

The scripts are decent -- in the first episode, Tarzan has to prevent a woman’s seeing-eye lion from being killed instead of its more lethal litter mate -- and the acting is very good, as represented by the numerous guest stars. These included Andrew Prine and fellow screen Tarzan Jock Mahoney in episode two (Mahoney returned in episode eight); Russ Tamblyn (film “West Side Story” and “Twin Peaks” on TV ) and Ken Scott in episode three; Woody Strode in episode nine; Henry Silva in episode 15, Maurice Evans (“Planet of the Apes” films) as Sir Basil Bertram in episodes 22, 29 and 30; Julie Harris in episode 26; Ralph Meeker (TV’s “The Waltons” in episode 29; and Tammy Grimes in episode 31. Tarzan also is called upon to protect endangered leopards and pampered princes, to battle man-eaters, despots and deadly arachnids in the first 15 episodes and, in the second 16-episode set, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, phantom dinosaurs and other jungle menaces. The sets are available from www.warnerarchive.com and are manufactured on demand. Grade: season 3.5 stars

Logan’s Run: The Complete Series (1977-78, Warner, 3 DVDs, NR, 711 min.).
It is the 24th century, after a nuclear war was wiped out most of civilization. Logan 5 is a Sandman in the City of Domes, where everyone lives in total bliss until their 30th birthday, when they are sent to Carousel for renewal. Of course, the behind-the-scenes rulers of the city are lying. Carousel actually means death; there is no renewal because the number of births have to be offset by the same number of deaths so there will be enough resources to live. However, they also have lied about what lies outside the city, as the atmosphere has returned to normal and is breathable. William F. Nolan wrote the original book, which was made into the successful film. In the double-length pilot episode, scenes from the film -- mostly of Carousel -- are used.

Gregory Harrison (“Trapper John, M.D.”) plays Logan 5, who has doubts about renewal and is sympathetic toward the very Runners he is supposed to track down. Going after one runner, he meets Jessica 6 (Heather Menzies of “The Sound of Music”) and spares her life, forcing him to flee with her outside in an attempt to find the fabled Sanctuary. What they find instead are a clan living underground in a fallout shelter because men of horses terrorize them; a city of robots without masters (this yields their android companion Rem, played by Donald Moffat); aliens who can play visual mind games; a computerized complex; a scientist who has traveled 200 years in time to prevent the nuclear apocalypse; six cryogenically frozen geniuses; other scientists who want to use them as lab rats; and Logan is shot with an amnesia dart and returns to the City of Domes. Throughout their adventures, Logan and Jessica are chased by a trio led by Logan’s former friend and fellow Sandman Francis 7 (Randy Powell), who has been promised a seat on the city’s ruling council. The 14 episodes include three that were not aired during the show’s original run. The show looks a bit dated, and particularly low-tech, but it is good to have it available. Grade: series 3 stars

Eureka: Season 4.5 (Universal, 3 DVDs, NR, 7 hours 20 min.).
Syfy channel (hate the new name; hate how they cancel all my favorite science fiction shows and replace them with wrestling and paranormal reality shows) is currently broadcasting the abbreviated final season of the show. This second half of season four continued to deal with the ramifications of the five who went back in time to 1947 and returned, only to discover significant changes in their personal lives. As the episodes progress, scientists are chosen for the 20-member crew for a mission to Titan, one of Jupiter’s moons. The very likeable regulars are Colin Ferguson as Sheriff Carter, Salli Richardson-Whitfield as Allison (with someone tinkering with her mind and no longer head of Global Dynamics) and Zane (Niall Matter) and Deputy Jo (Erica Cerra) deal with their fractured relationship. Recurring guest roles are filled by Felicia Day (as Dr. Holly Marten, love interest for Neil Grayston’s Douglas Fargo, now head of Global Dynamics) and Wil Wheaton. Bonus features include an extended version of the episode “Of Mites and Men,” the holiday episode “O Little Town” in which various forms of animation are used with fun results, the “Warehouse 13” crossover episode “Don’t Hate the Player,” a featurette on the show’s mythology, commentaries by cast and crew, deleted scenes and a gag reel. The show continues to be a delight. Grade: season 3.75 stars; extras 3.25 stars

Car 54 Where Are You: The Complete Second Season  (1962-63, Shanachie, 4 DVDs, NR, 760 min.).
It has taken a while (50 years!), but funny the second season of this very funny buddy-cop show, starring Joe E. Ross and Fred Gwynne as Officers Gunther Toody (the bumbler) and Francis Muldoon (the cultured one), has come to home video. The 30 episodes have been newly remastered from the only known set of 35mm fine grain prints. The show was created and written by Nat Hiken, a comedic genius who also gave us the “Sgt. Bilko” show. The show is set in the Bronx’s 53rd precinct. Beatrice Pons plays Toody’s domineering shrew of a wife, circus veteran Al Lewis is irascible Officer Leo Schnauser, Charlotte Rae is Schnauser;s moody, hot-tempered wife, Paul Reed as exasperated Capt. Block and Catskill comic/body builder Hank Garret is Officer Ed Nicholson. Hiken uses a wealth of New York talent as guest stars -- seasoned film and TV veterans, borscht belt comedians and talent from the Broadway stage. Among these are Molly Picon (Mrs. Bronson), Larry Storch (Charlie the Drunk), Gene Baylos (Benny the Bookie), Mitch Miller, Jack Guilford, Shari Lewis and boxers Sugar Ray Robinson and Rocky Graziano. The bonus feature is a 10-minute standup comedy routine by Ross. The only drawback to the set is the strange way the discs are housed. Grade: season 3.75 stars

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