REVIEW: Armageddon (1998)

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Directed by Michael Bay
Written by Jonathan Hensleigh and  J.J. Abrams, Adapted by Tony Gilroy and Shane Salerno, Story by Robert Roy Pool and Jonathan Hensleigh
Starring Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Billy Bob Thornton, Will Patton, Steve Buscemi, William Fichtner, Owen Wilson, Michael Clarke Duncan, Peter Stormaire, Keith David, Jason Isaacs

I would call Armageddon my greatest guilty pleasure….if I considered it a guilty pleasure. But I don’t. In fact, I am going to go all black sheep on you and say Armageddon is secretly a great film, simply misunderstood by the masses who tolerate unbelievable and trite premises in other films because they simply do not have Michael Bay listed as their director. Indefensible? Misguided? Just plain wrong? Nope, I’ll prove it to you.

With the space shuttle Atlantis’s unfortunate demise in outer space and the devastation of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States by meteor showers, NASA becomes aware of a doomsday asteroid that is on a collision course with Earth. After numerous plans are tabled, it seems that the only way to knock it off course is to drill into its surface and detonate a nuclear weapon. But as NASA’s under-funded yet resourceful team train the world’s best drillers for the job, under the auspices of their boss Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis), the social order of the world begins to break down as the information reaches the public and hysteria results. As high-ranking officials play politics with the effort, the drilling team all faces deep personal issues which may jeopardize humanity’s last chance…

So what makes Armageddon a good movie in my eyes? Well, the first indication is that Michael Bay most certainly has the favor of the cinematic gods when it comes to an eye for composition. Even Bay’s critics have always been quick to point out that his visual style is distinctive and even beautiful at times, and that style is present in force within Armageddon. Every shot is incredibly dynamic, with sweeping camera and character movement that achieves a high parallax, coupled with equally dynamic editing in which the average shot length is about 1.5 seconds. It sounds like a cacophony of undecipherable images, and I grant you, the nameless reader in my head, that in most of his more recent films, like Transformers, this causes quite the headache, but it works for Armageddon, which commands a more J.J. Abrams-esque command of light and color and most certainly doesn’t have to deal with alien shards of sentient metal constantly shifting in the frame.

Still, Armageddon is not for the viewer who is even the least bit slow-eyed, because every one of their senses will be under assault by deafening loudness, both physical and metaphorical. Everything about Armageddon is decidedly unsubtle, and I think this is what works against the film in the eyes of its detractors. Okay, that was a nice way of saying that’s why the film is so hated. But, and let’s be honest here, what other films are like that? If you said just about every superhero film put out by Marvel and Warner Brothers today, than you would be correct. So maybe it’s high time to knock it off with the hypocrisy, shall we?

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What truly works in Armageddon are the characters. Before we even meet our main heroes, we are treated to the denizens of the NASA control room, headed by Director Truman (Billy Bob Thornton), a Texan throwback to the days of the early Space Race, full of Southern charm and fire. He works as an excellent bridge and confidant between the military and scientific elites and the drill team of oilman Harry Stamper, played in the usual lunkhead everyman caricature by Die Hard‘s own Bruce Willis. Stamper’s team are a veritable Dirty Dozen, composed of an array of blue-collar types who range from dependable to shaky to downright crazy. Luckily, some of the best character actors of the decade were assembled to play them, giving us the likes of Will Patton, Michael Clarke Duncan, Owen Wilson, and in a special note, the absolutely hilarious Steve Buscemi.

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All is not well among them, however, as Harry has a daughter (or rather, Steve Tyler of Aerosmith’s daughter, Liv Tyler) who is being courted by none other than Ben Affleck as Harry’s young hot-shot A.J. The less that can be said about this subplot however, the better, because it just isn’t up to scratch with the rest of the picture.

Image result for armageddon aj graceSomewhere out there, a hater is thinking, “The whole picture isn’t up to scratch. WTF are you talking about?”

Once we get off the ground, the full force of “Bayhem,” as his visual style is so often derided or praised as, hits the audience and propels them into satisfying blend of action and disaster genres, throwing our already likeable heroes into intense situations such as the destruction of a Russian space station in orbit or the insanely difficult landing maneuvers onto the asteroid. The script attempts to inject some political turmoil into this script with the President and his advisors deciding to blow the bomb early due to their doubts that the drillers can succeed, and as you would have guessed, it is handled with the subtlety of a nine-year-old who’s found his dad’s gun.

But, again, this is okay. Not every science fiction film can be 2001: A Space Odyssey, and in the case, the farcical and over-the-top nature of the narrative and the people that move it along are a main feature, meant to be enjoyed as spectacle, not nuance. Hell, I’ve even made the argument that Armageddon should be considered a quintessential 4th of July movie, and that allegorical connection is about as unsubtle as a Donald Trump rally. That is the point. America is never subtle. Neither is Bay, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I hope I’ve been able to get somewhere with this argument, but in the end, I guess it comes down to preferences. Those who prefer their entertainment more simple-minded will love this movie, as will people who are flexible like myself, while those who demand narrative and technical perfection will never listen to a word I say. But for those who may be undecided, I feel that early Bay, from Bad Boys to Pearl Harbor, offered excellent spectacle filmmaking, before he let his juvenile frat-boy streak take over. Since Armageddon fits firmly in the middle of this part of his career, I hope that you will give at least one more chance.

 

REVIEW: The Patriot (2000)

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Directed by Roland Emmerich
Written by Robert Rodat
Starring Mel Gibson, Heath Leadger, Joely Richardson, Jason Isaacs, Chris Cooper, Tchéky Karyo, Rene Auberjonois, Lisa Brenner, Tom Wilkinson, Gregory Smith

A sprawling epic of the American Revolution as told by Roland Emmerich, best known then for sci-fi extraordinaires Stargate and Independence Day, The Patriot is an interesting picture, at the same time shallow and deep. I don’t know if I can quite pin down why it feels like two polar opposite stories smashed into one, but I can tell you why it actually works, for the most part.

1776, colonial South Carolina. Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), a French-Indian war hero who is haunted by his past, now wants nothing more than to live peacefully on his small plantation, and wants no part of a war with the most powerful nation in the world, Great Britain. Meanwhile, his two eldest sons, Gabriel (Heath Ledger) and Thomas (Gregory Smith), can’t wait to enlist in the newly formed “Continental Army.” When South Carolina decides to join the rebellion against England, Gabriel immediately signs up to fight without his father’s permission. But when Colonel William Tavington (Jason Isaacs), British dragoon, infamous for his brutal tactics, burns the Martin Plantation to the ground, and tragedy strikes. Benjamin quickly finds himself torn between protecting his family, and seeking revenge along with being a part of the birth of a new, young, and ambitious nation.

Written not by Emmerich’s usual partner Dean Devlin but by Robert Rodat of Saving Private Ryan fame, from the beginning, this partnership proves as fruitful as Devlin’s is, with The Patriot providing a rich historical tableau to see in virtually every scene. The political attitudes, the cultural atmosphere, the way of life in the late 18th century Colonial America is captured with the utmost care in Rodat’s script. This provides a good base for Emmerich’s larger-than-life cinematic style to open up the era and provide the same kind of epic sights and thrills as his sci-fi pictures.

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Where the script somewhat falters is its main storyline, revolving around Gibson’s Benjamin Martin, the main protagonist. Reportedly, Harrison Ford was offered the role, but refused, stating that he didn’t appreciate the film’s rendition of the American Revolution as “one man’s revenge.” I completely agree with Ford in this case, as Martin’s entire arc, while containing some moving family drama and serious ruminations on the effects of war upon its soldiers, is motivated solely by his desire to kill Col. Tavington, a one-dimensional war criminal nevertheless played with delicious villainy by Jason Isaacs.

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This isn’t to say that The Patriot isn’t worth owning or even a viewing, it more certainly is. It is just frustrating to see what is probably the most sacred era of American history reduced to the narrative of a typical Gibson action noir. Even more frustrating is that the film bucks the more unsavory aspects of the young nation’s birth such as the existence of slavery. Here, Martin’s family most certainly owns slaves but they are “treated nicely” and, as one puts it, “not slaves…we work this land as freed men.” This becomes only the first of the most lazy alternative history lesson I’ve ever come across in a period piece, as the one and only racist character in Martin’s militia sees the error of his ways in an arc so unrealistic that it stops the drama cold for me. More of a focus on such characters as Heath Ledger’s Gabriel Martin might have made an even better film.

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Speaking of Ledger, he is immensely watchable in one of his earlier roles, portraying an intensely patriotic young man whose ideals of liberty begin to clash with the harsh reality that his father tried to warn him about. Throughout the film, usually while mending a tattered American flag while not behind his musket, he espouses some truly inspiring thoughts, obviously plucked from some of the better writers of the period, like Jefferson and Paine. General Lord Cornwallis, a real-life figure played by Tom Wilkinson, is another interesting figure, a distinguished leader who still believes in honor and achieving his mission with it. While a lot of his scenes are played for laughs, his performance is still an intricate one that I enjoy.

The real star of The Patriot, however, is most certainly the epic visual style and incredible production design that transports the viewer directly into the battlefields of 1778 with complete realism. Enormous lines of soldiers fire off ear-splitting musket volleys as cannons rip through limbs clothed in period uniforms authentic enough to truly be mistaken for the real thing. Like his other films, Emmerich’s The Patriot plays to his strengths in depicting the world around his characters as realistically as possible.

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The Patriot is available in two versions, a 165-minute theatrical version and an extended cut with ten minutes of additional footage. Honestly, and I sound like a broken record here, but I’d go with the theatrical cut. The additions don’t really add more substance other the spoon-feeding mildly unclear information that an otherwise observant viewer can figure out on their own, and most have a noticeable dip in quality with regards to the actors’ performances, indicating why they were cut. The only addition I appreciate would have to be the burial of Martin’s second-oldest son Thomas, which reestablishes his tender side after he was just seen hacking away at British soldiers. Unfortunately, if you want the film in high-definition, the blu-ray only contains the extended cut, so I’m sure a lot of you may disregard my recommendation.

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While it is still a shame that The Patriot went for more of an action film’s understanding of the Revolutionary War and then compounded that problem by casting Mel Gibson, he still plays the role with utmost conviction and is quite convincing in the quieter scenes with his family, and the film is a marvel of production design and execution. It’s grand and epic, and with a typically excellent John Williams score to top off the product. The Patriot will work out nicely in any patriotic movie marathon.