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DVD reviews: 'Criminal' is an intelligent action movie

The majority of this week’s offerings are thrillers of varying degrees of competence (all were released in July but I’m only now getting to them following my medical leave). The best of the lot (and boasting the highest profile cast) is “Criminal” (2016 / Summit, Lionsgate / 113m / $39.99 BR+DVD combo /R), which has a sci-fi tinge to it. When a hacker who calls himself Dutchman steals the nuclear launch codes a U.S. agent (played by an A-list star doing essentially a cameo) is sent with a satchel full of money to ransom it back. Another internet figure, a Wikileaks kind of guy (Jordi Molla) has his thugs kill the agent so he can buy the codes. The big bag o’ cash however has been stashed away so nobody can make the buy. CIA head Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman) enlists Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) to implant the dead agent’s memory into a death row convict’s (Kevin Costner) brain so he can complete the mission. I won’t reveal more except to say that complications ensue (naturally) some of which lend surprising emotional depth to director Ariel Vroman’s film. Those who like car crashes, explosions and gunfire will still get their fill in what is a brilliant example of an intelligent action movie (surely Dr. Franks, what with his brain experiments, is meant to evoke Dr. Frankenstein). It may be the only one of its kind that Scott Adkins has been in (and he doesn’t do martial arts even once).

Another action flick involving the heist of the nuclear codes, “Vigilante Diaries” (2016 / Anchor Bay Entertainment / 108m / $22.98 /R) is an example of how not to do such things. Star Paul Sloan (as the titular Vigilante – no other name given) and director Christian Sesma have adapted from a 2013-14 web series with little rhyme or reason. They seem to have taken every known genre trope – hot Asian babes battling, Sapphic action, lots of gunfire, just for starters – and tossed it in willy-nilly. An astonishing profusion of globe-trotting locations is involved but why the characters travel to some of them remains a mystery (Sloan’s character traipses off to Glasgow apparently just to get into a fight). Then there’s such inattention to detail as the Vigilante’s wife who, immediately after giving birth, is dressed in a bare midriff top and displays a tummy only possible after considerable time in the gym. Jason Mewes as a video blogger of the Vigilante’s exploits and Michael Madsen as – well I never did quite figure out what his purpose is – are the only names I recognized among the principal cast. Adding to the “let’s just toss it in” feel are cameos by Danny Trejo and James Russo. Not a single character is developed enough to care about (in fact, the first sequence of the movie has the characters involved in combat before you even know who they are). Even action fans who have to see everything might want to give this one a pass.

Two more are what my late colleague and dear friend Ken Hanke would have termed “massively OK” (and now that he’s gone, I will appropriate the phrase when applicable). “600 Miles” (“600 Mllas” -  2015 / Lionsgate / 84m / $19.98 / R) has AFT agent Hank Harris (Tim Roth) abducted by teenage Mexican gun-runner Arnulfo Rubio (Kristian Ferrer). The latter thinks the former can supply his uncle, who heads up the smuggling operation with all sorts of useful information. Even with its brief running time, this feature (made for Spanish language TV) has so many longueurs it seems to run far longer than it actually does. The two actors are good in fully fleshed out characters, but there’s far too much driving with nothing happening (and Ferrer jiggles the steering wheel so much you know he’s not really driving). Be warned that things end on a very sour note that undermines the empathy that’s been built up for Harris and Rubio. And what’s up with that coda anyway?

Given it stars Anton Yelchin (in the last film released before his untimely death), Imogen Poot and Patrick Stewart, I was expecting far more than what I got from “Green Room” (2016 / Lionsgate / 95m /$24.99 BR / R). But both I and my occasional viewing companion must have been missing something because this effort has gotten overwhelmingly positive reviews from my critical brethren. It has a rock band, desperate for gigs, get booked into a neo-Nazi skinhead bar in the Pacific Northwest boonies. (Any place I see Confederate and Nazi flags displayed is one I leave pronto.) To avoid becoming the next victims of the owners, (Stewart) underlings they lock themselves in the green room (where performers await their time on stage) and try to reason their way out of their predicament. Not surprisingly, this is not a crowd that can be reasoned with. The action is tense, yet somehow uninvolving – maybe because I realized this was going to be a last one(s) standing enterprise or maybe because it was shot in that dreary drained-of-color look that so many filmmakers seem so fond of and of which I am surpassingly tired (behind the scenes footage shows spectacular color in the Washington state forest where the movie was made). And I couldn’t help feeling that – ensemble piece or not –“Green Room” fails to take advantage of Yelchin’s and Stewart’s considerable gifts. Just about anyone could have played their roles in this by-the-books who-will-get-bumped-off-next exercise.

Things aren’t much more promising on the horror front. “Summer Camp” (2014 / Lionsgate / 84m / $19.98 / R) brings an ever so slightly new spin to the genre flicks set in that titular locale as four counselors, awaiting the arrival of a busload of rugrats, fall victim one by one to some rabies-like malady that turns them into homicidal monsters. That’s it for the plot – you expected more? They conveniently fall victim one at a time leaving the remainder to flee mindlessly to avoid being slaughtered. The action is set in and around a spacious Mexican hacienda (no summer camp I’m acquainted with had such posh lodgings), and the film makes good use of the location. The photography is exceptional and the acting is, well, sufficient to the material. Except that we’ve seen permutations of this before this is an above-average entry. The only question is: when the tykes do arrive, why are they all dressed in heavy winter parkas?

There may be some nostalgia value to be had from the double feature of “Doctor Butcher, M.D. / Zombi Holocaust” (1980 / Severin Films / 82m, 89m  (2 discs) / $39.95 BR / NR). The former is an exploitation piece, fondly recalled by some, which got some play beyond the 42nd Street grindhouse palaces. It mixes cannibalism, zombies and mad doctors in wackdoodle fashion. I likely needn’t say more – you know if you’re the target demographic for this. The latter is the Italian film that was recut to become the former. Strangely, it runs longer but seems tighter and more compact (though making not a lick more sense) possible because the U.S. version is padded with such things as a seemingly endless boat trip. The Italian version may be crackpot (well, after all, it is an Italian horror) but it’s never a bore and simple should have been left alone. For those interested, the gore is copious but hardly convincing these days – and probably wasn’t even back in the day.

For something worthwhile in the way of a genre offering there’s “Just Desserts” (2007 / Synapse Films / 90m / $24.95 BR / NR), a documentary on the making of ”Creepshow,” George Romero and Stephen King’s tribute to EC horror comics. The title refers to how every character who meets a sticky end in that film is getting his or her comeuppance. That was the same set-up as in the EC stories, which were essentially elaborate and gruesome black jokes introduced by a trio of wisecracking ghouls. It gave Romero his highest profile cast ever (Leslie Neilsen, E.G. Marshall, Hal Holbrook, Viveca Lindfors) although several (Ted Danson, Carrie Nye, Ed Harris) were yet to achieve any degree of fame. Surviving actors are interviewed, as is Romero, makeup artist Tom Savini and Berni Wrightson who drew the inevitable comic book tie-in. Curiously King did not participate, but there are still a slew of great anecdotes and behind-the-scenes home movies and photos as the documentary covers the genesis, the casting and the making of the movie.

A comedy that won’t be to everyone’s taste (indeed I wasn’t sure it would be to mine), “Search Party” (2014 / Universal Pictures Home Entertainment / 93m / $26.98 BR / R), covers much the same ground as “Dirty Grandpa” – and invokes the same tropes – but does so in such gleefully absurd fashion that I quite enjoyed it. Stoner Jason (T. J. Miller) dramatically wrecks his pal Nardo’s (Thomas Middledeitch) wedding. Bride Tracy (Shannon Woodward) heads off to Baja to do the honeymoon solo (hey, it’s been paid for) and her lovesick almost groom heads off after her, only to get carjacked and left naked and penniless in the Mexican desert. Jason heads to the rescue with mutual friend Evan (Adam Pally) in tow because Jason needs his company car for the journey. Yes it’s the old story of the irresponsible friend creating situations that get his more responsible pals in trouble but the escalating silliness of the pals’ outrageous misadventures, and clueless nature – is infectious. I shouldn’t have, but I enjoyed this essentially romantic romp.

More serious romantic fare is on hand with “My Golden Days” (“Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse” – 2016 Magnolia Home Entertainment / 124m / $26.98 / R) a French film that has Paul Dedalus (Mathieu Amalric) detained for questioning just as he’s about to assume a government job. It seems there is some suspicion about whether he has been a spy for Russia. Paul relates how when he was a student (played by Quentin Dolmaire) he went on a school trip to that country and gave his passport to a Refusenik who assumed his identity in order to leave the country. He also tells of his childhood, living with an emotionally disturbed mother and how, when late in his teens he courted, won and lost Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinett), who was the love of his life. It is this last reminiscence that forms the bulk of the film, and I’m not sure it doesn’t run longer than it ought given the young woman has some exasperating issues. I’m also uncertain that all the film’s ingredients fit all that well together (there is one sequence involving a deceased relative’s ghost that comes completely out of left field). Still it’s an intriguing film and an often charming one and more emotionally ambitious than anything Hollywood serves up.