Action packed DVDs reviewed

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Joe Cornish first achieved prominence back in the late-90s as one half of the irreverent Adam & Joe Show, and he has enjoyed a steady trickle of low-key writing and directing assignments ever since. Executive produced by close friend Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), Attack The Block (Optimum) is Cornish’s biggest project to date, and it’s a barnstorming debut feature that easily ranks alongside Wright’s terrific double-header.

Set on Bonfire Night, the movie follows trainee nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker, Venus), who is walking home to her South London tower block when she is set upon by a malevolent gang of hooded youths. Terrified Sam manages to escape when the gang are distracted by a meteorite, which plummets from the sky and hits a nearby parked car, but it is clear her troubles are far from over. The gang are astonished to observe a small alien-like creature emerge from the wreckage, and promptly set about butchering the unidentifiable monster. When a second wave of meteorites fall later that night, the gang are determined to defend their ‘block’ from the creatures, using whatever weapons they can lay their hands on. Unfortunately, this time the aliens are far bigger, scarier and more dangerous, and quickly transform the council estate into a blood-soaked battleground! What’s more, unfortunate Sam realises that her best chance of survival involves teaming up with her former tormentors.

While the Shaun of the Dead/Hot Fuzz comparisons are hard to avoid, Attack The Block is its own movie, and Cornish gives his film an appealing deadpan poise that sidesteps the slapstick of its predecessors and delivers a far more bruising movie experience. In fact, the movie that Attack The Block resembles most is John McTiernan’s original Die Hard, with the soon-to-be-demolished Heygate Estate – incredibly making its 76th movie appearance – offering all of the claustrophobia of the Nakatomi Plaza. Surreally, Cornish recently found himself in the frame for the Die Hard 5 director’s job, only to lose out to the terminally average John Moore (Behind Enemy Lines, Flight of the Phoenix), which suggests that Hollywood is already paying attention to his career. Nevertheless, Die Hard or no Die Hard, the future looks extremely bright for Cornish. Attack The Block is not just my favourite British movie of the year, it is also one of the most enjoyable action movies in recent memory. Highly recommended.

Based on the 1990 Luc Besson movie that spawned a Hollywood remake (starring Bridget Fonda) and a Canadian series (helmed by 24 creator Joel Surnow), you would be forgiven for thinking that the last thing the world needed was a new version of Nikita. Happily, this slick reboot injects enough vitality into the reassuringly timeless premise to make it worthwhile. Nikita – Season 1 (Warner Home Video) follows the highly-skilled ex-assassin title character (Maggie Q, Mission Impossible 3, Die Hard 4.0) as she wages war on Division, the shadowy quasi-government agency whom she used to work for. Emerging from hiding, the deadly Nikita is a perennial fly in Division’s ointment, and seeks to unravel the dark conspiracy at the heart of the sinister organisation. Little does Division know, a young double-agent Alex (Lyndsy Fonseca, Desperate Housewives) – trained by Nikita herself – has infiltrated its ranks, and aims to topple the regime from the inside – as long as Nikita can keep her one step ahead of the game.

It may not be particularly groundbreaking entertainment, but Nikita is slick and compelling, and proved to be a worthy addition to the small screen schedules earlier this year. Maggie Q offers an engaging focal point as the seductive Nikita, and proves that she is more than capable of carrying a big-budget TV series, after a succession of eye-catching supporting roles. The reliably aggravating ‘McG’ may hold a production credit, but Nikita is streets ahead of his lamentable Charlie’s Angels movies, and feels positively subtle in comparison. Although the individual plots occasionally lapse into generic laziness, the underlying mythology of the show is pretty solid, and there are enough twists in the tale to ensure that Nikita goes the distance. It may not be as engrossing as the much-missed 24, but the slinky Maggie Q ensures that Nikita is a suitably diverting proposition.

Twenty-five years after their parents were murdered by a ruthless Hong Kong crime boss, lycra-clad LA fitness instructor Chad (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is reunited with his long-lost twin brother, cigar-chomping Hong Kong hard-man Alex (also Jean-Claude Van Damme), and the pair embark on a daring mission to uncover the truth behind their parents’ brutal slaying. So begins Double Impact (Second Sight), the 1991 action thriller co-scripted by the ‘Muscles from Brussels’ himself. Interestingly, Double Impact was the first sign of the egotistical Van Damme’s enduring fascination with playing multiple roles – a quirk he went on to repeat in Timecop, Maximum Risk, The Order and Replicant – to increasingly bewildering effect. Seriously, give the man a fat suit, and he could be the action genre’s answer to Eddie Murphy.

In truth, cheese-drenched early-90s action movies such as Double Impact formed an integral part of my cinematic education, with many happy afternoons spent loitering in Visual Video hunting for underage videotape violence. Happily, despite its naff central conceit, the movie still packs a punch, and Van Damme’s ‘bad twin’ Alex sees the Belgian action star playing against type to impressive effect. What’s more, with a pair of effective villains in the form of disfigured Moon (Hong Kong action star Bolo Yeung) and Kara (frankly terrifying female bodybuilder Cory Everson), Double Impact has plenty in its favour. As you might expect, the tight-trousered, high-kicking action scenes are the film’s high-points, and Double Impact offers a welcome chance to see prime-time Van Damme strut his stuff. They don’t make ‘em like they used to!

Originally based on a Disneyland ride, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is arguably one of Hollywood’s more unlikely success stories. With an iconic anti-hero in the form of Johnny Depp’s swashbuckling Captain Jack Sparrow the films boast a natural charisma that is hard to fake. However, as the series has drifted along, the producers have attempted to inject more depth into the fairly flimsy initial premise, with mixed success. Ironically, the more ideas that have been flung into the melting pot, the more mechanical the films have become, with Captain Jack floundering under a tidal wave of narrative uncertainty. After a pair of strangely sluggish sequels, Pirates of the Caribbean – On Stranger Tides (Walt Disney) is billed as a return to form, effectively rebooting the franchise and introducing a whole host of new characters, including the sultry Angelica (Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and her fearsome father Blackbeard (Ian McShane, Lovejoy, Deadwood). Using her feminine wiles, Angelica lures Captain Jack into a perilous (if slightly long-winded) quest to locate the fabled Fountain of Youth, and family-friendly mayhem ensues…

While Captain Jack has suffered badly from over-exposure in recent years, Depp is as enthusiastic as ever, even if his dialogue lacks the subversive charm of the first film. Sadly, new director Rob (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha) Marshall’s pacing is seriously skew-whiff, and any number of potentially interesting scenes drag on interminably. Somehow he even manages to make savage, man-hungry mermaids seem boring! While On Stranger Tides isn’t the worst Pirates movie, it definitely isn’t the best either – and remains a far cry from the exuberant first outing. What’s more, considering its title, On Stranger Tides is possibly the least strange Pirates film yet. After finding itself in a sink or swim situation after the energy-sapping third movie, the Pirates franchise finally looks set for a watery grave – bogged down by Jerry Bruckheimer’s moneybags. Disappointing.