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All Cruised-Out

Warner's LETHAL WEAPON Director's Cuts, TWISTER and more on DVD, plus a look at MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2 and SHANGHAI NOON!

An Aisle Seat Entry by Andy Dursin

When I saw MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 2 almost two weeks ago, there was a plethora of dirt inside the lens, a cloud of dirt that left a virtual "crust" of blackness on the right hand side of the theater screen. "It looks like someone puked all over it!," cried out the high school senior behind me, and while I echoed his sentiments, it dawned upon me that I actually didn't feel compelled enough to get up and have them repair it.

The movie didn't do anything for me (my review follows below), and while it sounds depressing and sad, that's how I've felt about this summer so far. Yeah, sure, I want to see X-MEN and THE PATRIOT (though I'm just as interested in hearing John Williams's score), but while HOLLOW MAN and THE PERFECT STORM look to have some great special effects, it looks pretty dry this summer for the most part otherwise.

You almost get the feeling, from watching some of the trailers out there for upcoming summer movies, that the studios know it. Case in point: the trailer for Robert Zemeckis's supernatural thriller WHAT LIES BENEATH, starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer. This is a movie, if you read Premiere, Movieline, or any other film mag's summer preview, that the filmmakers refused to talk about. "We're keeping our secrecy," the cast and crew said, one after another. They wouldn't even say that it was about ghosts -- they didn't want us to know ANYTHING about it.

You would think, a straight trailer selling Ford and Pfeiffer in what MIGHT be a ghost story would be enough to get audiences into theaters, but apparently the studio marketing people feel otherwise.

If you see the trailer (and there are NO SPOILERS EXCEPT WHAT YOU SEE IN THE TRAILER following in this paragraph), you not only know that the movie is a thriller, but it IS about ghosts. And not only is it a movie about ghosts, it's about the spirit of a vengeful teenager. And not only does the plot revolve around that vengeful teenager, but this dead girl also slept with "the perfect husband" Harrison Ford sometime in the past. And not only does wife Pfeiffer start questioning her husband, it almost seems as if she's being possessed by the girl. And not only that, but it seems like the girl wants revenge and is going to try and drown Ford in the lake of their nice Vermont house. And not only that...

You get the drift. So much for secrecy, and so much for anticipation about some of this summer's movies. 2001 will bring Tim Burton's PLANET OF THE APES and LORD OF THE RINGS just for starters. It's only a year away, but already there seems to be a bit more excitement about what's to come in 12 months than next week's roster of films that will get people into theaters, but may have some trouble entertaining them there.


New This Week on DVD

Richard Donner's long-running LETHAL WEAPON series may have run its course by the time last year's LETHAL WEAPON 4 rolled out, but for action fans, they remain personal favorites -- the pinnacle of the Joel Silver-produced, stylized "buddy pictures" that became a permanent part of our movie-going culture during the 1980s.

Of course, it helped that Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, as a pair of mismatched L.A. cops, had splendid chemistry together on-screen, and also that Donner, who seemed to find his niche as an action filmmaker with the series, handled each picture with plenty of energy and distinction. Go ahead, say that two, maybe even three films in the series was enough -- but you won't find a lot of viewers who weren't at least mildly entertained by either the first or second entries in the series at least, while parts 3 and 4 made box-office chum of its counterparts financially if nothing else (though with the star profit participation and salaries, I'm not sure the studio made a whole lot of money in the process).

That continued popularity is almost certainly one of the reasons why Warner Home Video has released a trio of "Director's Cuts" for the first three films in the series, available individually for $24.98 and in-stores this week. Each picture has extra footage incorporated into the fabric of the film, along with Dolby Digital and DTS audio tracks with plenty of pumped-up home theater effects to please the hard-core action nut.

LETHAL WEAPON (***) arrived in the fall of 1987 and was a box-office hit for all involved. Intriguingly, this first entry in the series -- written by Shane Black -- is markedly different than the sequels that followed. The tone is darker and edgier (Gibson's character, mourning the death of his wife, is outwardly suicidal), and the look of the movie, photographed by Stephen Goldblatt, also makes for an interesting contrast to the subsequent films. The movie, shot in 1.85, lacks the anamorphic, widescreen look of the following installments, but what the movie may lack in terms of the broad, sometimes cartoonish action trademarked by the sequels, it compensates for in more realistic writing and character development.

Originally running 110 minutes, this Director's Cut restores some seven minutes of previously excised footage, most notably an action sequence near the beginning of the movie. As you'll see with the restored scenes in all three of these longer cuts, the new scenes don't add a great deal of texture to the individual films (you can see why they were cut in the interests of running time), but fans in particular will certainly find them of interest.

In the sequel-filled '80s, it was just a matter of time before a follow-up was released, so within two years LETHAL WEAPON 2 (***) found its way into the blockbuster summer of '89 and became an even bigger success than the original. Gibson and Glover are here joined by Joe Pesci as a tough-talking trial witness, a role that energized Pesci's career (leading to MY COUSIN VINNY) and added plenty of outright comic relief to a picture that's bigger, louder, and probably slightly better than the original movie. The love interest here is Patsy Kensit, while Joss Ackland provides the villainy (with some political subtext thrown in for good measure).

The Director's Cut here adds eight minutes of new scenes, basically comic asides and other throwaway bits which are fun, if not quite substantial to the plot itself.

With star salaries escalating (along with the filmmakers' fee), it took three years before the inevitable LETHAL WEAPON 3 (**1/2) was produced, and this time out the series showed signs of running out of gas. Stuart Wilson's villain and the film's plot -- credited to Jeffrey Boam (who wrote the second film) and "Karate Kid" scribe Robert Mark Kamen -- is so convoluted that the movie tends to jump from one set piece to the next with a minimum of character development and dramatic tension. There are moments of entertainment and there certainly have been inferior buddy-films, but as sequels go, this one feels creaky almost from the outset. The sequel's sole distinction is the addition of Rene Russo as Gibson's love interest, adding some sparks to an otherwise stale plot.

Three minutes of new scenes have been added to the already-bloated running time here, but again, if you're an addict of the series, you likely aren't going to mind.

The transfers in each instance are quite good, with LETHAL WEAPON matted at 1.85 and both parts 2 and 3 letterboxed in their full 2.35 widescreen ratios. The soundtracks are likewise excellent. The Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are crisp and efficient, but if you have the option, the DTS mixes are even better, with a "warmer" sound and balance between the rear and front channels. The music for the series -- original scores by Michael Kamen (in sort of his bland "action music" mode) with improvisations by Eric Clapton and David Sanborn -- have never been favorites of mine, but they also comes across fairly well though some sound effects have an unsurprising tendency to be a bit too loud. Theatrical trailers are included in all three of the shiny, silver-coated DVD packages.

Two other popular titles have been re-released by Warner Bros. on DVD, one with new supplements and the other a pared-down re-issue of one of the prized early possessions of the DVD format.

The latter is the gleefully entertaining, 1986 musical LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (***1/2, $24.98), which gained a whole lot of distinction several years ago for its inclusion of the film's infamous (but quite overrated) original ending, where Audrey II eats the main characters, blossoms into a Godzilla-sized titan and takes over the world. Overkill was one of the main reasons studio executives and test audiences dissed the initial finale to the film, but curious viewers flocked to Warner's original "Special Edition" DVD release of the film to take in the sights and sounds of director Frank Oz's excised first climax, albeit in rough- looking black-and-white.

Unfortunately, producer David Geffen apparently wasn't consulted about the DVD (and was reportedly miffed about the inclusion of the original finale), so the title was quickly withdrawn, creating a series of collector scrambles for copies and auctions on eBay that have been going on ever since.

Having owned that original DVD, I can tell you that the original ending wasn't worth all the fuss. The majority of the film's budget may have been thrown at the excised climax, but it turned an intimate, goofy musical into an excessive, overproduced special FX spectacle that really had a sour taste when compared to the rest of the movie.

The rest of the DVD featured an interesting audio commentary by director Frank Oz, an outtake/gag reel, making-of featurette, trailer, isolated score track for the songs and Miles Goodman's score, and generally was quite entertaining -- making this straight re-issue of the original DVD (sans the original ending, of course) a happy event for viewers who didn't feel like shelling out over $100 for the recalled version. The 1.85 transfer and Dolby Digital track are both superb and appear to be the same as the original release (though this disc is dual-layer), and aside from the absence of the original ending, the extras are identical.

With great songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (who will ever forget "Suddenly Seymour"?) and terrific performances by leads Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Vincent Gardenia and Steve Martin (in the first of a handful of performances for the director), LITTLE SHOP is still a cult favorite, a successful musical and spoof that's still as energetic and alive as ever in its current DVD incarnation. (And if you look at the very end of the outtake reel, you can still see the only COLOR footage of the original ending, which wasn't removed from this DVD release).

Finally, Warner's has released a bulked-up Special Edition of Jan DeBont's big 1996 hit TWISTER (***, $24.98), the guilty-pleasure Michael Chricton-penned tornado movie that's thoroughly mindless but perfectly entertaining just the same. You get Bill Paxton, Helen Hunt, Cary Elwes, and in the role of his life, Philip Seymour Hoffman, as storm chasers trying to get a tornado to "suck up" a new scientific device so the Weather Channel can learn more about predicting the formation of the nasty twisters -- not to mention flying cows and plenty of debris along the way.

Warner's original DVD release came at the outset of the DVD format and early pressings had some technical problems that future editions corrected; this new dual-layer DVD appears to have been culled from the same master, and both the 2.35 transfer and Dolby Digital track are superb. Even better is the addition of a new DTS track to this release, which is even more detailed and slightly superior to the Dolby 5.1 track.

More interesting is that a full range of extras have been added to the package: a primarily technical commentary by Jan DeBont and the special effects supervisors, a behind-the-scenes, semi-promotional documentary on the making of the film, both of the movie's impressive theatrical trailers, a Van Halen music video, along with other goodies. Since this release retails for the same price as the earlier, almost extras-free DVD, the new edition of TWISTER sucks up its predecessor, and as brainless blockbusters go, it's still undeniably entertaining.


In Theaters

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2 (**): The last time a filmmaker wore out a visual device to the degree that John Woo and Tom Cruise wear out a cool mask-disguise-identity-switch to the absurd level that they do here, it was Paul Verhoeven trying everyone's patience with the triple-breasted woman gag from TOTAL RECALL.

That kind of notoriety is about all that MI2 has to offer, aside from 85 minutes of total boredom and 35 minutes of guitar-blaring fight sequences that come across as watered-down variations of director Woo's past work. Leave it to producer/star/mogul Cruise to make a sequel that could have easily improved on its flawed but at least competent predecessor, but fails in nearly every respect, right down to an often godawful score by Hans Zimmer that only accentuates how empty this entire project is.

After a silly opening sequence establishing the non-chemistry between Cruise and co-star Thandie Newton (as a thief recruited by Ethan Hunt to snare a vial of a fatal virus before madman and Newton's former flame Dougray Scott takes over the world, or something like that), MI2 settles into one of the longest, most protracted narratives you'll ever see in a "summer blockbuster." The characters are bland, Scott's villain (and terrible performance) is completely uninteresting, and even Ving Rhames's weak comic relief can't do anything to spice things up.

What you get instead are long, endless vanity shots of Cruise, his hair flopping in the wind, diving over and doing cartwheels beating up the bad guys whenever he's allowed. Trouble is, in this sequel, it ain't very often. Only in the last quarter does MI2 even ATTEMPT an action scene, and when it happens, it's a Woo variation on SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT with motorcycles, capped by -- you got it -- another fist-fight with slow-motion and Cruise flipping his heels in the air. Pay close enough attention to the sequence before it (where the mask-disguise is used for a laugh-inducing final time), and you'll even notice the same pigeons and doves from FACE/OFF making a cameo appearance, much the way Anthony Hopkins does for his five minutes of depressingly unexciting, check-cashing plot exposition. (He could have been doing an ad for Agilent or something, it wouldn't have mattered what he was saying).

It's hard to believe that screenwriter Robert Towne once penned CHINATOWN, since this lifeless affair has recycled elements all over it, particularly a plot scenario and production design that mirrors GOLDENEYE (it's almost as if the art designer logged too many hours playing his N64!), ENTRAPMENT, and countless other recent films. Zimmer's hideous soundtrack -- an annoying mix of loud guitars, grating synths, and electronic variations on Lalo Schifrin's theme -- will make you cry out for Danny Elfman's neat score from the original movie, while the uncertain pacing and plot of Brian DePalma's original feel like a Hitchcock film in comparison to this one.

And that, really, sums it all up: just what was everyone DOING here? Why would anyone have thought this languid, limp plot ever would have flown? And most importantly, how did this movie's budget get so overrun when there's not nearly enough action in it? Judging from the lack of excitement in the final cut, it seems apparent that most of the time had to have been devoted to keep Cruise's hair fresh and his ego satisfied -- an IMPOSSIBLE mission indeed. (PG-13, 125 mins)

SHANGAHI NOON (**1/2): The beneficiary of positive reviews from critics (the likely result of having been screened right after viewings of BATTLEFIELD EARTH and MI2), this amiable but overlong western-comedy provides the kind of carefree entertainment I would have felt better about if I didn't have to pay $8.50 to see it.

Jackie Chan is a member of the Imperial Guard of China sent to find abducted Princess Lucy Liu in the hills of the old West; Owen Wilson plays the good-hearted outlaw who ultimately helps him out. Culture shock laughs, well-worn western gags, and barroom fights ensue, the funniest moments of which involve Jackie waking up from a hangover in a teepee.

Maybe it's because I'm not a big fan of westerns, but SHANGHAI NOON, despite some laughs and a few nifty set-pieces, never really gets its act together. The plot is a snore and Randy Edelman's distressingly bland score is a bore, so even though Chan gives it his usual all, the movie plays like a well-executed but thoroughly by-the-numbers western-comedy that you've seen before. Kids may like it, but unless your film- of-choice is sold-out at the multiplex, SHANGHAI NOON would be a better fit on the small screen for most viewers. (PG-13)


NEXT WEEK: Your comments as the Mail Bag returns, plus other news & notes! Send all emails to me at dursina@att.net and we'll see you then. Excelsior!


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