Sep 042008
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Although not truly a hitman movie, El Mariachi is the beginning of Robert Rodriguez’ Mexico trilogy, and its brief 81 minute running time still qualifies as the longest back-story for any cinematic hit man to date. A tale of luck, music, and gunplay, El Mariachi tells the story of a nightmare-ridden traveling mariachi trying to make his way in the world.  Although our hero regularly claims to be out of luck, the film shows that he has enough to spare: both good and bad.

In the course of a few short days, El Mariachi is mistaken for a killer who carries an arsenal in his guitar case, dodges dozens of bullets (literally), finds work, falls in love, loses his job, loses the love of his life, seeks revenge, and gains a motorcycle, a dog, and a briefcase full of guns.  All he ever wanted be was a mariachi, like his father, grandfathre and great grandfather, but now he is destined to be so much more.

The hype around El Mariachi is that it was made on a mere $7,000 budget.  However, reader’s of Robert Rodriguez’ Rebel without a Crew learn that the film we see today is not a result of such a low-budget.  Rodriguez’ film was shot on 16mm without sound.  The sound was all recorded and added in after shooting.  Additionally, since Rodriguez knew that he would be editing the film he essentially edited in camera while filming.  He also didn’t pay any of his actors, many of whom (including star Carlos Gallardo) also worked as crew members on the film.  All of this information, plus lighting tips, advice for saving on props, and more is included in the short film “10 Minute Film School” which is also included on the El Mariachi DVD.   What Rodriguez doesn’t mention there is that instead of having prints made, he transferred the film straight to video in order to use it as a resume of sorts, rather than try and distribute it himself.

Still, El Mariachi is an enjoyable film.  I can’t stand subtitles, but the dialogue is light and it’s not too difficult to keep up with even if you miss a line here or there.  The action scenes aren’t particularly action-packed, and theescapes aren’t exactly believable, but there’s an earnestness about the film that cannot be denied and it is regularly infused with comedic situations.  Although the second film in the trilogy, Desperado (which I’ll be reviewing next week) retells much of the story found here, it’s always nice to see the original for yourself.

The great thing about the El Mariachi trailer is that not only does it not give anything away, but it completely misleads you as to the storyline of the film, all while making you anticipate seeing it and without feeling ripped off after the fact-

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Best Line: “If his name’s Azul, why doesn’t he wear blue?”
Overall Rating: 2.5 outta 5

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Aug 262008
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When I was a little kid, my mother allowed my sister and I to have televisions in our rooms.  I ad an old black-and-white set that always had some static, even after we got cable.  It would have been on that set that I first saw the film that would prompt my near-obsession with hit man films and contract killers in general – The Mechanic aka  Killer of Killers.  Now, there’s no way I could have ever seen the trailer for the film (I was, after all, two years old when it was in theaters), but if I had I know it would have had me chomping at the bit-

Charles Bronson and Jan-Michael Vincent will forever define the role of cinematic hit man in my mind.  In fact, this movie is probably the very reason that the Hollywood Hit Men series even exists here on Philaahzophy.  Bronson is smart, calm, and professional throughout every moment of this film.  His trademark “cool” is in high gear as he methodically plans and executes his assignments.  Meanwhile, Jan-Michael Vincent seems to be be taking lessons in cool from Bronson just as his character is taking lessons on murder for hire.

Fans of modern action films are probably going to be bored with The Mechanic as it is, without a doubt, a product of its times.  While there are a few explosions and a car chase scene, they’re spaced throughout the film and you’ll see no two-fisted gunslingers diving across warehouses a la John Woo.  The Mechanic replaces the modern hard-hitting soundtrack and quick-cut editing with 70s style long shots, dramatic framing, thoughtful near-silence, and intense characterization.  Hell, the first piece of dialog in the film isn’t uttered for more than 15 minutes!

Screenwriter Lewis John Carlino has crafted a script that allows us to feel both the pain and the joy of being a hit man.  Bronson’s character may be teaching Vincent’s character the ropes of being a professional killer, but at the same time we’re learning ourselves.  A professional doesn’t just pick up a gun, find the mark, and put a bullet in their head.  No.  First he learns everything he can about them – their schedule, their habits, medical information, friends and family – everything.  He then uses this information to formulate a plan to take out the target so masterfully that it’s a wonder he ever gets paid because all of the deaths seem accidental or completely natural.  Meanwhile, director Michael Winner clearly understands that while The Mechanic is about a mafia hitman (Bronson works for “The Organization”, but it’s clearly still the mob) this is a drama, not an action film or even a thriller.  Both the cinematography and the acting highlight this difference in nearly every footage of film.

While The Mechanic has absolutely zero semblance to any video game ever made it will long reign supreme among hit man movies.  This film is the total package and has an ending that you may not readily believe, but you’ll certainly accept, and most likely honor as one of the best in all of movie history.

Best Line: “My Friends are so happy they’re killing themselves.”
Overall Rating: 5 outta 5

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Aug 202008
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2 Days In The Valley comes with an all-star ensemble cast, a perfect soundtrack, and way too much story to fit into one film. It seems writer/director John Herzfeld thought this was going to be his big break away from TV movies and into making major motion pictures, so he was looking to provide something for everyone. Even IMDB felt the need to include the film in four distinct genres (comedy, crime, drama and thriller). Unfortunately, it’s not quite any of these.

The Cast-

Danny Aiello plays a washed up hitman trying to get back in the game; James Spader plays his client who just happens to be an ubercool hit man himself; Charlize Theron makes her first (credited) appearance as Spader’s girlfriend; Teri Hatcher plays an Olympic skier going through a messy divorce; Keith Carradine, Eric Stoltz and Jeff Daniels are all cops who stumble into the middle of the mess being made; Paul Mazursky plays John Herzfeld, er… I mean the suicidal writer/director of poorly made TV movies; and, finally, Greg Cutwell, Glenne Headly, and Marsha Mason all manage to get caught up in the madness as well.

The Trailer-

For a mystery/thriller, the trailer for 2 Days In The Valley, gives away far too much, in my opinion. But then, perhaps that’s only because I’m seeing it for the first time after seeing the film. Still, it does make the movie intriguing, while at the same time highlighting some of its worst moments of acting-

The Good-

As an aficionado of hitman movies I can say that this one certainly is unique.  It blends the traditional ‘redemption of the assassin’ and ‘hitman vs. hitman’ sub-genres quite well.

The acting is excellent all around, though James Spader really shines while giving the phrase ‘minute man’ a rather unique twist.  The chemistry between Aiello and Headly is absolutely palpable and Greg Cutwell does such a great job in his role as a pompous jerk that most viewers will probably want to shoot him themselves.  In fact, most of the characters are compelling.

It’s the soundtrack, however, that bumps 2 Days In The Valley from a mediocre two stars to a ‘see it if you’ve got some time’ three stars.  Since watching this film I’ve decided that all hit-man films should have a blues-based soundtrack.  I’m not usually much of a music guy and tend to only notice film music except when it gets in the way, but the tracks by Erin O’Hara, Junior Wells, Scott Reeder, Wilson Pickett, Taj Mahal, and Otis Redding really make this film worthwhile.  They more than set the mood, they carry you along with the story, particularly when the direction bogs it down.

The Bad-

Had Herzfeld been creating a television mini-series I think he may have been able to pull off the stories he was trying to relate here.  But there’s just not not enough room in 104 minutes of film to allow us to explore the rich characters he presents.  Instead, we get a few tantalizing tastes.  Intriguing bits and pieces of both characterization and plot lines appear before us, grabbing our attention, only to then vanish into the netherworld while we’re presented with another compelling tale to enjoy.  Even as the tale wraps to a close, bringing all the characters together again I couldn’t help but feel disappointment as well as excitement.


If you’re a fan of any of the outstanding actors in this film (and there’s plenty of them) than you’ll probably want to see 2 Days In The Valley.  If you’re interested in learning how to blend a blues soundtrack with a storyline it would be a good bet as well.  But if you’re just looking to fill a couple of hours with an interesting tale or two, then there are many far better choices awaiting you.
Best Line: “Now, I may be an asshole, but I’ve worked hard to become one.”
Overall Rating: 2 outta 5

More from Danny Aiello

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Aug 052008
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I’m sorry to say I just wasted 93 minutes of my life watching this sad excuse for a movie and even sadder excuse for a hitman film.

Eric Roberts (The Dark Knight, Heroes, and more than 150 other projects in the last 30 years) stars as “retired” mob hitman Tony Lazorka.  Unfortunately, Tony retired by refusing to fulfill a contract on an old friend, talking to the FBI, and entering witness protection.

I actually got sucked into watching this not only to further my Hollywood Hit Men project, but also because I found the description on Netflix intriguing-

After snitching on the mob, former hit man Tony Lazorka (Eric Roberts) goes into hiding in the Witness Protection Program. The mob’s new target is a kid (Esteban Powell) who hacked the FBI’s computers and obtained a file with names of witnesses … including Tony’s. Tony resurfaces and risks his life to protect his family, but has to team up with the half-baked whiz kid to get it done. Mark L. Lester serves up plenty of shoot-’em-up action in this crime thriller.

You see, I’m not just a sucker for hitman flicks, but hacker films as well.  So, despite it’s overall poor reviews I was hoping to find something worthwhile here.  I was sorely disappointed.

The acting was wooden.  The dialog was stilted.  The stunts were amateurish.  The direction was overwrought.  The editing was abhorrent.  And the hand-to-hand combat scenes looked as if they just filmed the quarter speed walk-thrus instead of real time action.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, this so-called “prince among hitmen” not only couldn’t hit a standing target at 15 yards, but couldn’t even be bothered to aim his gun properly during the opening chase scene.  The only thing making this film remotely worth watching is the (uncredited and all too brief) appearance of inveterate mafioso character actor Joe Viterelli.

Trailer for Hitman’s Run

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Best Line: “I’ll tear off your kneecaps and play air hockey with them.”
Overall Rating: 1.5 outta 5

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Jul 312008
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I’ve been a movie junkie my entire life.  During the many homeless years budgets didn’t allow theater visits and lack of a home means lack of wall outlets to plug in such niceties as televisions or VCRs and DVD players.  But that didn’t mean the itch for filmed entertainment went away.  Instead, the itch was scratched by books about film – biographies, novelizations, and film surveys.

However, one cinematic genre survey I never stumbled across (and which still hasn’t been written as far as I know) was on the ever-popular cinematic hit man.  I’m not talking about the men who make films into hits (through either their artisitic or marketing genius), but rather movies featuring paid assassins.  Whether political, mafiosos, or independents the hit man is a myth that is often exploited on the big screen, though his (or her) role is seldom examined by the film literati.

I’ve wanted to write such a book for years, but had no idea how to go about doing so.  When I started seriously blogging last year I pondered the possibility of dedicating a blog to these guns for hire, but never quite got around to it.  Instead I’ve decided to start my survey here.

So keep the eyes in the back of your head peeled because there will soon be paid killers on the loose and they’ll have you in their crosshairs…

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