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THE HOT ROCK, CINDERELLA LIBERTY, ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL and DISTANT VOICES STILL LIVES

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

SOLOMON KANE: A COUSIN TO CONAN?



I can not begin to describe how much I enjoyed this movie. Made in 2009 and sitting on the shelf for 4 years now all I could think to myself while watching it was why did was this film held back while so much drek made it's way to the big screen? Why weren't we allowed to watch this film in theaters rather than having to wait to see it at home?

For those unfamiliar with the character Kane was a creation of author Robert E. Howard prior to his writing his most famous character Conan the barbarian. As a pulp fiction character he was perhaps as widely read but for some reason never considered as marketable by film makers. Until now.

James Purefoy stars as Kane, a ruthless privateer in 1600 supposedly working for the King but in truth working only for himself. For Kane killing is an art that he does well and often as he and his men cut their way through body upon body as they try to find a treasure considered lost and hidden. As they approach the room said to contain this treasure, Kane and his men are separated. While hearing their death screams Kane finds the treasure but at the same time finds someone waiting for him. This is the reaper, sent to collect Kane's soul to be taken to Hell. Kane escapes intent on doing anything he can to redeem himself.

Several years later we find Kane living in a monastery. He has sworn off his past ways, making an oath to never raise a hand or rapier against any man. Living a life of penance, Kane is approached by the head of monastery and asked to leave. God has spoken to him and told him that it would be best if Kane did so.

Kane obeys and on his trek to find what God has intended for him he is attacked and robbed, refusing to lift a hand against his attackers. Found by William Crowthorn and his family, puritans on their way to America, he is mended and travels with them for a time. During their travels they come upon a village where everyone was wiped out in what appears to be a witch burning. Everyone except a young girl who swears her family was taken from her. When Kane recognizes her for what she is she marks the William's daughter Meredith and disappears.

Their travels continue and one day Kane walks ahead in the forest and comes across a group of mercenaries capturing people and caging them to take to their home base. When he returns to the Crowthorns he finds them under attack as well. Refusing to fight, he witnesses their deaths with the exception of young Meredith who is captured. William, knowing what Kane is capable of, makes him swear to save Meredith. Turning his eyes to the heavens Kane asks what God wants of him. It is then that he realizes he was sent here to use the skills he acquired as a killer in the hopes of saving the land from these mercenaries and the marauder who leads them.

Back to his killing ways Kane confronts numerous bad guys, finding himself in situations where he's never quite sure who to trust. In the end his skills help him not only rid the world of some terrible people but lead him towards Meredith as well. Will Kane be placing his soul in jeopardy once more by living his life like this? Or will his attempt to rescue someone be the one redeeming feature needed to save his soul?

This movie is a fantastic action film that not only delivers scene for scene thrills but offers tons of story to go along with it. Background stories of Kane when he was young, discovering who is behind this plague of murder across the land and the battle Kane struggles with for his immortal soul blend together to make a tale that would serve Howard proud.

The movie is just now released on blu-ray and all I can say is that it is one of the most spectacular displays of imagery that I've seen on film in some time. Every shot feels like it is about to pop off the screen at you and this movie is NOT in 3D! The clarity on display is so sharp as to be razor keen. The composition of the shots by the director and cinematographer are splendid with each one being the most perfect shot they could have gotten. There is not one shot in this film that seemed incomplete or done imperfectly.

The acting is wonderful as well with Purefoy taking on the task of playing Kane in both his wild days and his repentant ways with equal skill. It would be easy to swagger around swinging a sword and looking evil at all times. But in the character of Kane Purefoy shows the inner struggle that he feels with each confrontation he avoids and then with each death he brings about. He wants to do the right thing and thinks that is to not kill or defend himself. When he finds out this is not his path, he takes to his old ways like a duck to water but at the same time feeling remorse that he didn't have early on.

There is only one sad thing about this film and that is that it never received the attention it should have. As I said this movie was better than probably 75% of the movies I saw this past year and deserved to be treated better. This IS a movie that you will watch and wish that they would make sequels to. While it's rather doubtful that will happen, perhaps enough copies will be sold to make that dream come true. If not, at least we have this film to hold on to and watch over and over wishing that the path of Solomon Kane were one we could follow again and again.

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STOKER: ODD BUT IN A GOOD WAY

My guess is that while some may decipher what is going on in the new DVD release STOKER before the final moments of the film, most will not. And the honest truth is that this can be a good thing. It's rare that a film will offer you moments of sheer unease like this film does, but when it does so this effectively you'll end up with a movie that's unlike any other and quite original.

Mia Wasikowska plays India Stoker, a young woman whose father has just died in a tragic accident. Early on as the film opens to her voice over and scenes from her past, we know that India is nothing if not unusual. It's her birthday and every year she gets the same gift from her father, a new pair of shoes to replace her old ones. But what will happen now?

It's at the funeral that we get a better glimpse of the rest of the family. India's mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) is a wife who seems a bit off as well. While playing the distraught widow she seems as if she's walking through life not caring about much. The distance between mother and daughter comes up throughout the film. India was definitely daddy's daughter and mom was just someone who seems to think more about herself than India.

At the funeral India meets her uncle, Charlie (Matthew Goode). Charlie was rarely seen or heard of. In fact India wasn't quite aware that he existed at all. But her mother seems to take well to him and he ends up staying with them in their house to help out. All of this seems to point towards the usual relationship between the widow and the "missing" brother that we've seen in so many films. But those hints are never so certain here as more is going on than we realize.

The first odd thing that happens is when Mrs. McGarrick the housekeeper suddenly disappears. This was a woman who got along fine with India but who was last seen having words with Charlie. As viewers we assume what possibly happened but there is no proof, no scene that displays what happened or could have happened.

Then India's grandmother Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver) shows. She has some reservations about Charlie but won't share them out loud. When she tries to discuss them with her daughter in law, Evelyn calls her out on the issue of Charlie's staying with Charlie in earshot. Gwendolyn has a fearful look in her eye when she glimpses Charlie and rather than spend the night in the house she heads for a motel. Her fate is one of the few we actually see happen. Or do we?

India continues to feel that something isn't quite right with her uncle Charlie. Nor is she happy with the way her mother seems to be fawning over him. Is it jealousy or is it a touch of caution she feels, a bit of intuition that makes her think that something just isn't quite right.

India also has problems not centered around home. In school she is tormented by the class bully for her unusual appearance and high IQ. Eventually a confrontation ensues between them where she is saved by another classmate. A love interest? Possibly. Then again there is more there than is seen on screen.

The movie is filled with twists and turns leading the viewer down one path and then veering off into another. Is Charlie really India's uncle or is he really a man whose only interest is her mother? Why does Charlie stare at India so intently? What really happened to the people that seem to disappear all around India? The answers to these question and more are answered before the end of the film and answered in such a way as to surprise even the most jaded viewer.

One thing you should know going in is that this film is not normal in any sense of the word. Characters seem like nothing you would find in real life yet they fit well in this story. Performances are not done in a standard method here but seem more like caricatures of characters instead. Speech and body language are done not as we would expect people to behave but instead to move the story forward. This may be in part because of the language difficulties found for director Chan-wook Park in his first time doing an English speaking film. Fans of this director won't be disappointed by what he offers here.

STOKER might not be the movie that most everyone will think of when looking through what is available on the racks or in the Redbox. But if you're willing to step out of your comfort zone, if you're willing to try something new, then this would be the movie to do that with. It also might be enough to get you interested in the other films of Chan-wook Park. While it's far from normal, it is interesting at all turns.


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EVIL DEAD: BUCKETS OF GORE GALORE

I was always a big fan of the original EVIL DEAD. It was one of those movies that most people hadn't heard of but that word got around about. When you saw it you had no idea what to expect. This small group of film makers had pieced together a classic horror film putting a new twist on the old dark house by moving it into the woods and creating a whole new sub-genre. It was only a matter of time before the folks in Hollywood decided it was time to remake the film.

The story is a bit changed this time around. The make up of 5 characters tossed into an inescapable situation remains but their make up is altered as well as their motivation for being at the cabin. Jane Levy stars as Mia, a drug addict who has tried cold turkey before but is willing to give it one more shot. Her friends Olivia (Jessica Lucas), a nurse, and Eric (Lou David Pucci) have driven her to her old family cabin in the woods. They are met there by her normally absent brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) and his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore).

Mia swears off the drugs and dumps the last that she has. As the day progresses she begins to show signs of trouble and it's during that time that Olivia tells David that she O.D.ed once already and won't survive if they don't force her to stay. At the same time Mia continues to complain about a smell and the group discovers a cellar to the old place. In that cellar they find numerous animal corpses, what appears to be a burned center post to the cabin and a book wrapped in barbed wire.

While the group does their best to help with Mia, Eric decides that he absolutely must see what is beneath the barbed wire. He cuts it off and discovers a book whose cover seems to be made of human skin. As he reads the books, he cuts his hand on its pages dripping blood on it. The book shows demonic symbols and pictures and has written in blood on one page "Do not write! Do not read! Do not follow!" So of course Eric decides the smartest thing to do is all three. Reading words that were hidden which he finds by pencil rubbing technique, he unleashes the demons contained within. He doesn't know it yet, but he has.

Mia in the throws of cold turkey argues with the group that she wants to leave. David finally agrees with the group that it wouldn't be the best idea and she retreats to her room. So it seems. In truth she stole his car keys and takes off in David's car. Driving in the pouring rain she thinks she sees someone in the road and crashes the car to avoid them. When she gets out of the car she's pursued by this same person and eventually falls into the forest only to find the forest grasping her limbs and holding her in place while it a root slides up her leg and rapes her. I would say this is a spoiler but it was one of the most talked about scenes in the original film and here.

David and the group find Mia and take her back to the cabin. Mia tries to tell them that there is something in the woods but of course no one believes her. When things go from bad to worse David tries to take her to town but unfortunately the road is flooded with the non-stop rain. Returning to the cabin it is now that the really creepy, scary stuff begins. What, you thought everything described so far was bad? As the circus barker used to say "You ain't seen nuthin' yet folks!"

So how does this film stack up against the original? Well for one this film had a much bigger budget to work with. That being said the quality of the film making here is top notch with some effective photography to be seen and special effects that are state of the art. The acting by all involved is well done, especially Levy as Mia. The only thing lacking here, at least for me, was the script.

The original found the group having the demons basically forced on them when they accidentally played a tape recording found in the cellar. Here we have a character that seems to be a self centered idiot who totally ignores the warnings in the book NOT to read or write passages who then does exactly that. I'm willing to suspend belief when watching horror of sci-fi films but this took the cake. How stupid do you have to be to completely ignore the warnings there for you to see? If he had acted like he was skeptical of what he was reading or that he thought it was a joke maybe, but here he's portrayed as taking a scholarly approach to what he's reading and then saying it out loud while ignoring the warning.

Perhaps the biggest differences between to two are those seen in most movies made from one generation to the next. While there was some swearing in the original film it was nothing like the F bombs dropped non-stop in this one. The gore factor was also amped up. The original had some truly gross out moments for its day but those on display here surpass anything from the original. SPOILER: If watching someone drag their tongue along the edge of a box cutter's blade bothers you then this is not your type of film.

This was my second time seeing this film having seen it in the theater first. I thought it held up better this time than I did then. Still, for me this movie is less about story and more about how much gore they could offer. The bad part about that is that most of it was so far over the top as to be completely unbelievable. My guess is that if you've been stabbed in the eye with a needle, stabbed in the chest with a chunk of broken mirror, shot with nails from a nail gun, had your hand split in two by a crowbar and then stabbed again you're not going to be cognizant enough to continue talking let alone help anyone. Not in this film.

Like I said, it's not a terrible film but it isn't near as good as the original. Kids of today might like it better since gore seems to be the way they rate a film. For me the original is better. One thing of note, watch this one until the credits finish for what I thought was the best thing in the movie. Fans of "Chuck Finley" will know what I'm talking about.

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JACK THE GIANT SLAYER: GIANT KILLING REVAMP

The most difficult thing about reviewing new DVDs each week is choosing just which title to write about. While you would love to write about the best film being released it's not always a movie that's easily accessible. So you do the next best thing. You write about the one that will be easily found and probably rented by more folks than any other. So if you want to know what the best release this week is read what I've written about SOLOMON KANE.

That being said let's take a look at what will probably be the big DVD of the week, JACK THE GIANT SLAYER. Directed by Bryan Singer, the man responsible for the X-Men trilogy, SUPERMAN RETURNS, VALKYRIE and one of my favorite movies, THE USUAL SUSPECTS, brings us a new take on the classic fairy tale that I'm sure we all heard growing up. Trust me when I say this isn't your grandpa's giant killer.

Jack here, played by Nicholas Hoult, is indeed a young farm boy who has fond memories of his mother reading him the fairy tale but who now finds himself living with his uncle and being forced to sell the family horse to get money to fix their home. In town he bumps into a friar on the run from the evil Lord Roderick (Stanley Tucci). The friar has stolen some magic beans from Roderick in hopes of preventing him from using them to reach the legendary giants as well as the crown that held them at bay from attacking folks here on Earth. Before he can be caught he entrusts the beans to Jack and tells him to take them to the Abby for safekeeping. Of course Jack's uncle gets mad and tosses the beans at him, several of which fall through the cracks in the floor to the ground in the midst of a terrible rain storm.

Back at the castle Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) is set to marry Roderick, something she truly does not want to do. But as with all medieval films it seems princesses are nearly always forced into a marriage with someone they don't love to solve problems in the kingdom. This story is no different and that evening Isabell runs away from home. Where does she end up? At Jack's house of course.

Having met earlier in the day, when Jack attempted to save her honor from some ruffians when she was in disguise, the two are drawn to one another but realize that there is no way a princess may marry a commoner. Before their attraction can kick in, the beans hatch and begin lifting the house into the skies. Jack attempts to save Isabell but is tossed from the house before he can do so.

The next day the king's men show, led by knight Elmont (Ewan McGregor) head of the elite guard. The king sends Elmont along with Roderick, several guards and Jack who insists on going along. They make the treacherous climb up the beanstalk and find the land that was spoken of in fairy tales, a land where giants actually exist. They also have the uncanny ability to smell out the Englishmen who have made there way upwards.

The rest of the film answers the questions will they escape, will Roderick find the crown and rule over all, will Jack and Isabell find a way around their differences to fulfill true love and will the giants make their way down the beanstalk to attack England? I could answer all of those questions but there is more fun in watching them than reading here about those answers.

The film moves along at a brisk pace, never slacking off or becoming tiresome. The acting by all is well played with McGregor moving comfortably into the swashbuckling hero role he began playing in the STAR WARS films. Hoult does a great job as well as the impressionable Jack and Tomlinson portrays the fair maiden in distress admirably. But while the acting is good it's the special effects folks are waiting for in this movie.

Those special effects live up to all expectations. The giants are all quite believable with each one having their own special characteristics and quirks about them. In the lead is General Fallon, a two headed creature bent on taking back the lower land they once ruled. The beanstalk is also well thought out and offered up in its full glory.

In the end I can say that this film was an enjoyable time, an evening well spent. It offered some new twists to an old tale, some great acting, notable special effects and never attempted to become offensive with gross out jokes or language. There are some violent moments that might bother small children (people being eaten by giants) but I would say the whole family could enjoy this one together. Unless you're the Addams family, in which case you'll want to rent EVIL DEAD.

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MAMA: TIME FOR YOUR SKIN TO CRAWL



With the overabundance of horror films coming out, it's difficult to decide what you should or should not watch. My son, a die hard horror fan, found the recent THE PURGE a total disappointment and yet they got his ticket money. So when a truly creepy, terrifying film comes out its only natural that fans will pass the word along. Let me pass the word right now about MAMA - I loved it!

The story opens with an investment banker having a breakdown, killing his partners and his wife and then taking his daughters to a secluded house in the woods where he intends to kill them and then himself. Before he can follow through with this act he is whisked away by an unseen force and the girls are left to fend for themselves...or with the help of their unseen benefactor.

Fast forward 5 years and we come to Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), the girl's uncle, who has spent what resources he has on someone searching for them. As the group is about to stop they do indeed find the girls. At a clinic where they are being watched and taken care of Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) does his best to help the girls readjust to their new surroundings. In doing so he later explains to Lucas that the girls seem to have created an unseen friend called Mama. Eventually they're able to return to their family and a battle for the girls between their aunt Jean and Lucas results in Lucas having custody.

Along with his girlfriend Annabelle (Jessica Chastain), a bass player in a rock band, they are aided by the doctor. He wants to continue to treat the girls and knowing their aunt will move them across country, he provides this new family with a home to stay in owned by the clinic he works in. But his research isn't limited to the girls in the home. We witness him traveling to a different city to look into the past of someone we're unaware of yet.

At the home the girls seem a bit gun shy at first but slowly begin to open up to Lucas. This doesn't last long as some unseen entity knocks him over the railing at the top of the stairs and he ends up in the hospital. Now Annabelle, who wants nothing to do with children, is left to oversee these two. It's a slow adjustment but eventually she wins the trust of the girls and the friendship of the elder of the pair, Victoria (Megan Carpentier). An incident with the younger girl, Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) breaks down her walls as well.

But someone, or something, in the house still seems to preoccupy the girls, most notably Lilly. We get not glimpses but a full on look at just what is behind this but have no idea yet what is causing this image to appear. I won't spoil it by saying just what that is but I will offer a word of advice: if you scare easy, keep the blanket pulled close to your eyes. And if you know someone who scares easy, make sure they don't have hold of your arm for fear of an injury during one of the many scenes guaranteed to make you jump.

This film is not just a scare fest but a film filled with just the right tone to make your skin crawl at all the right moments and some of the not right moments as well. Visions of "Mama" are certain to become the things of nightmares for children whose parents allow them to watch this film thinking that the PG-13 rating makes it safe for them. It isn't. They will be scared. Come to think of it I might have to turn on my lights tonight before going to bed.

The behind the scenes efforts on this film are tremendous. The direction by Andres Muschietti is wonderful and he pulls some outstanding performances not just from the adult actors but from the children in particular. To think that children this young could pull off the job it takes to make this believable and to make you care is amazing and they do it with apparent ease.

The special effects seen here are also outstanding. They convey the slow moving rot that appears from time to time and then blast you out of your seat with one of the scariest visages in some time. Perhaps not enough that you'll look away but enough that it will stick with you.

Readers will know after all these years that I am a fan of horror, sometimes too much so. But this was one film that I know I'll be watching more than once and enjoying each and every time. And while I enjoy it there is one thing I know I'll do for at least the first few times around: keep the lights on.

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DEAD MAN DOWN: VENGEANCE IS MINE

I wrote recently about the slow burn. What I'm talking about is a movie where the pieces are readily available to you to figure out what exactly is going on. This doesn't mean these pieces are doled out in a haphazard order but that they are given to you one at a time, letting the story unfold rather than thrown at you in one big shove. Classic films were all about the slow burn but lately it seems that the MTV generation can't stand taking the time to hear a story out. They want it slam bam in your face right now! In viewing movies that way they miss so much.

DEAD MAN DOWN is a slow burn film. It does offer plenty of action eventually but the story is the important thing here. Colin Farrell stars as Victor, a low level gang member who's on his way up in the world. Victor works for Alphonse (Terence Howard), a high level suit and tie thug who uses his gang to get property rather than the usual criminal endeavors. Someone has been sending Alphonse clipped squares from a photo along with snippets of sentences. This same person is seeking revenge against him but he has no clue who or why.

When a member of Alphonse' gang is found in the basement freezer of his home it delivers another message to him. Not only the clues this time but the fact that the person sending them can get to him any time and anywhere. Alphonse thinks he knows who is behind it and he and his gang face down against a Jamaican crew that gives him a cut of their profits. Things go wrong and a shootout begins during which Victor saves Alphonse' life thus earning him more respect from his boss.

The story involves a secondary plot as well. Victor lives in a high rise and across the way from his apartment lives Beatrice (Noomi Rapace). Beatrice is an attractive woman with a problem: the left side of her face is terribly scarred. She eventually approaches Victor in what seems like a date until she tells him the truth. She watched from across the way as he murdered the man recently found in Alphonse' freezer. She tells him she won't go to the police if he will do her one favor: kill the man who scarred her. It seems that the man was drunk when his car plowed into hers and did nothing more than 3 months in jail. Now she wants revenge.

What we have are two separate cases of revenge here. Victor's due to a tragedy he suffered because of Alphonse and Beatrice's from the drunk driver. Victor agrees to help her but lets her know his problem comes first. The two eventually help one another and begin to develop a bond that goes beyond a simple business arrangement. And as that bond develops perhaps the days where life is nothing more than existing to seek revenge might change to a reason worth living.

Farrell has turned in some really good performances lately (see SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS) but it doesn't appear that they are done in movies that are extreme money makers. But that doesn't stop him from doing the best he can which is quite good. Rapace is making a name for herself in English language films and shows what a solid actress she is here. Both are extremely compelling in their roles here, making you care about two people scarred, both inside and out, that are just trying to find their place in life again.

As I said from the start, the clues meted out in this film are offered slowly but at a steady pace making the movie both interesting and well thought out. Don't go in expecting guns ablaze from start to finish but rather a movie that will make you think and solve the puzzles left for one and all to see. If you know this up front you'll have a movie that will entertain from beginning to end.

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A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD: DUD HARD

I've been a big fan of Bruce Willis since the days of MOONLIGHTING. When he headed for the big screen I remained a fan. That being the case each time I've heard that a new DIE HARD movie was coming out I found myself excited to see what would happen next. I even enjoyed LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD which many critics savaged. Unfortunately I'll have to join them this time around with A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD.

This time around John McClane (Willis) heads for Russia when his son Jack (Jai Courtney) is on trial for murder there. The film opens with us learning about two political rivals, ex-business partners Komarov (Sebastian Koch) and Chagarin. Komarov is imprisoned by his former partner who will release him if he would only provide him with a file he hid years ago. Instead, Komarov intends to try and speak his peace before a court, if Chagarin will allow it to happen.

As John heads to the courthouse to help his son, his son sits in an enclosed cell in the courtroom next to Komarov after telling the police that he will implicate Komarov if they will lighten his sentence. That all changes when a set of vehicles parked outside the courthouse explode and a team intent on extricating Komarov enters guns blazing. Jack rescues Komarov and they head to a waiting vehicle only to be stopped by John delaying Jack's rescue.

It turns out that Jack is working for the CIA and was there to help Komarov all along. But John has no idea and instead screws things up. A chase through the highways of Moscow between Jack's van and the armored vehicle in pursuit follows with John trying to catch up in a vehicle he commandeers. This leads to a far too long chase sequence that involves more vehicles than one would think are even available in Moscow.

In the end they escape through John's intervention, head for a safe house and John learns what his son's job is all about. Before the happy reunion can go any further, another team sweeps in to catch Komarov and both McClanes must do their best to rescue him and keep him out of harms way while trying to devise an escape plan.

More twists and turns in the plot follow with an over abundant amount of destruction. Buildings are blown apart by high caliber ammunition sprayed by a helicopter as well as machine gun fire aplenty. This movie must have had a tie in with some window manufacturer as the deadly duo either shoots out or jumps through more windows by the end of the film than are seen in most films.

It all ends up in a final shoot out that involves the same helicopter, hand grenades, machine guns, hand guns and more. And for some reason the police and Russian army have no idea what is going on or any way of even finding the criminals involved to capture them or the McClane boys. I'm not sure but the moment that much fire power is involved or a fireball lights up the sky you would think that would be a clue as to what is going on.

The biggest problem with the film and after the rest I know this will sound strange, but it doesn't have enough plot. With the exception of John going to save his son we don't get anything else until nearly 50 minutes into the movie. And the plot line we do get feels forced and shoved together, the final twist not even something that comes as a surprise or takes up much story time. The movie is well made but hard to appreciate since most of it is spent either running, driving or flying somewhere in pursuit.

I'm still a Willis fan. I'll still go back and watch the previous films in this series. I was glad that I watched this one as a rental because if I had paid for the DVD I would have been disappointed. As a rental this one can be a good night's entertainment but not one that I'd want to watch over again. If the idea was to spin off of the elder McClane to a new series of films involving his son then they've failed. As a stand alone action flick it's not bad but no better than a number of direct to DVD films that have come out this year. So in the end, worth watching = yes, worth owning = no.

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