Following the back-to-back successes of The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), William Friedkin’s reputation took a critical mauling thanks to a series of misfires, and it was 1985 before he bounced back with the bloody, amoral To Live and Die in LA (Arrow Video).
When his veteran partner is murdered just days before retirement, Secret Service Agent Richard Chance (William Petersen, Manhunter) embarks on an obsessive cat and mouse hunt for the suspected killer – psychotic counterfeiter Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe). What follows is a hard-edged, adrenalized thriller that sees Chance stop at nothing in his quest to nail his target.
Often described as a West Coast companion piece to The French Connection and its New York grit, To Live and Die in LA is every bit as good as its predecessor. The soundtrack – courtesy of British New Wave group Wang Chung – lacks subtlety, but now feels weirdly contemporary in a post-Drive cinematic world. Casting-wise, William Petersen is an extremely charismatic leading man, and he brings a real energy to the proceedings. Dafoe, meanwhile, proves that gawkiness is not a stumbling block when portraying villainy, and the pair prove to be well-matched adversaries.
Cool, nasty and weird, To Live and Die in LA is a cracking 80s thriller, and if – like me – you missed it first time round, make sure you check it out.
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The Shallows (Sony) follows Nancy (Blake Lively, Gossip Girl), an American tourist who has put her life on hold for a Mexican surfing vacation. The secluded beach that she finds herself on looks idyllic at first glance, but things turn ugly when the daylight starts to fade, and it becomes apparent that the cove is the preferred feeding ground of a great white shark. Although she is only 200 yards from shore – stranded on a rocky outcrop – her situation becomes increasingly precarious as high tide approaches…
Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra has established himself as a safe pair of hands in recent years, helming pulpy Liam Neeson collaborations such as Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night. Wisely, he opted not to tap up Neeson for this gruelling surf-survival thriller, and Lively delivers an admirably committed lead performance, boosting her reputation considerably in the process. Lively reportedly accepted the role because the script reminded her of her husband Ryan Reynolds’ impressively claustrophobic Buried, and the comparison proves to be an apt one.
The Shallows’ premise is deceptively simple, but the action is extremely well executed, and the grisly set-pieces hit the spot every time. All in all, an impeccable B-movie.
Charles Bronson remake The Mechanic may have done solid box office business back in 2011, but it is still a genuine surprise to see a sequel – The Mechanic: Resurrection (Lionsgate) – emerge after all this time. The plot sees retired hitman Arthur Bishop (Statham) blackmailed into eliminating three notorious criminals by sadistic crime boss Crain, with new girlfriend Gina (Jessica Alba) dangled as the bait. The initial set-up is more long-winded than it needs to be, but as soon as the movie picks up the pace it delivers an impressive array of fight scenes and some audacious stunt-work. Tough-guy-with-a-heart Bishop is largely indistinguishable from other Statham characters – this movie could realistically be a sequel to anything that he has made over the last decade – but he delivers the goods regardless. Statham may be firmly situated within his comfort zone, but Mechanic: Resurrection still represents a crowd-pleasing turn from the UK’s most reliable action star.
Elstree 1976 (Soda) takes us back in time to suburban North London in the late 1970s, when the original Star Wars movie was shot. Nobody involved had any idea quite how big the film would become, but for the extras and supporting actors – many of whose faces were hidden behind masks or beneath helmets – what could have been an insignificant notch on their CV continues to cast a shadow over their lives four decades later. For this film, documentary maker Jon Spira tracked down a cross-section of these actors and extras – David Prowse (Darth Vader) and Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett) are arguably the best known – to find out how Star Wars has affected, and continues to affect, their lives.
Despite the (understandable) absence of the marquee names, Elstree 1976 makes for strangely enjoyable, weirdly addictive viewing, and the smaller the roles are, the more distorted the experiences seem. Amusingly, one of the biggest sticking points for the contributors is the bitterly contested hierarchy of convention attendance!
They don’t make blockbusters like they used to, and this is a timely reminder of quite how unassuming Star Wars was before it became a pop-culture phenomenon.
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Tim Roth recently returned to the small screen, starring in a well-received BBC remake of 10 Rillington Place (Indicator). The stomach-churning 1971 original stands the test of time admirably, boasting a genuinely unnerving lead performance from Richard Attenborough, who plays real-life serial killer John Christie. When Timothy Evans (a young John Hurt) and his wife (Judy Geeson) rent a tiny room in Christie s terraced house, they are unaware that they have sealed their own fates and that they will fall foul of Christie’s demented scheme. Shot in the street where Christie’s crimes were perpetrated, Richard Fleischer’s stark retelling uses exteriors from the actual house as part of its grim recreation of the events. The technique is startling, and latent nastiness oozes from every scene. Horribly compelling.
One final retro title this week is the cult 1981 slasher movie Happy Birthday To Me (Indicator). Directed by J. Lee Thompson (Cape Fear), it is a cheap, nasty low-budget effort with an amusingly chaotic pre-production story. Popular high school senior Virginia Wainwright (Melissa Sue Anderson) survives a freak accident but suffers from memory loss and traumatic blackouts. As she attempts to resume a normal life, her friends are being ruthlessly murdered one by one. But will she be the next victim or is she the killer? Cheerless and sometimes incoherent, this movie is about as inessential as 80s B-movies get.