The Dead Don’t Die (2019): Clever Ideas in an Empty Story

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       The type of comedies I’m usually into are British style or dark comedy. This is a film that truly wants to be a dark comedy but I’m sad to say I didn’t laugh once. The premise is intriguing, the execution looks good but the writing just doesn’t work and none of the jokes landed for me. Comedies are a strange thing to review given how subjective it can be. There is such a thing as a film believing it to be more clever than it actually is, and this is that film. I think was the story was going for was calling out the tropes in horror but it forgot to give character arcs and a compelling story in the process.

The film was written and directed by Jim Jamusch who wrote and directed a different film I like in “Only Lovers Left Alive.”

The story follows Sheriff Cliff (Bill Murray) and Officer Ronnie (Adam Driver) as they deal with the zombie apocalypse in their small town of Centerville.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful. The colors are stark and it does a good job of paying homage to classic zombie films by using red when death is happening and giving a little bit of light and day. Frederick Elmes really did a great job. Within the film you can see what inspirations he pulls from. It is really well done too.

The Cast – Bill Murray, Adam Drive, Tilda Swinton…this is an amazing cast who really deserved a better film. They act the hell out of their tropes, the problem is there isn’t much of a story to hang it all on, so they are wasted.

The Tropes of Zombie Films – We got the zombie invasion of a small town, survivors holed up in the Police Station, Hardware Store and a fight in a cemetery. All of these are so common and if they’d been played it straight like in “Shaun of the Dead,” I think this film could have worked.

Okay:

The Writing and Characters – The writing is all tell and can’t help but referencing itself. We have hipsters from out of town who all get killed (no surprise in a horror film) we have the mysterious owner of the funeral home who is an alien we find out at the very end, the hero cop and the veteran cop who doesn’t care anymore. Somehow the script thought making this about consumerism would give a greater point? The writing is just awful. The jokes fall flat and the characters don’t have arcs. They are static tropes reacting to the situation.

The Cons:

Poor Use of Meta-Humor – Early on Officer Ronnie references the song “The Dead Don’t Die,” as the theme song. He knows it will end badly because he read the script and Bill Murray’s Sheriff Cliff feels that he should have known some of what was going to happen because the director owes him. This is the kind of film that feels like an extended vacation that a director and his friends take in an Adam Sandler film.

An Empty Point – The point is about consumerism but there is nothing to show this beyond a gas station with a lot of horror memorabilia that is being sold. If you want to make a larger point about society you can, just work it better into the script. This film failed at that.

The more I talk about this film the more I dislike what this film is. This film could have worked as a meta-take on consumerism and movie culture but it doesn’t even have that as part of the world of the characters beyond one person. This one person isn’t integrated enough in the plot to illustrate the point either. What also sucks is it is a horror comedy but it wasn’t scary or funny. I can’t recommend this film and saying it okay is being generous. Don’t waste your time and just watch “Shaun of the Dead.”

Final Score: 4 / 10

Escape from L.A. (1996): Tearing Down the Machines

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    John Carpenter is easily one of my favorite directors at this point. “The Thing” is one of my favorite films as are both his “Escape” films. “Escape from L.A.” is better from “Escape from New York” in my opinion because the characters are more memorable and everyone has more agency, it also is much more of a protest too as we see Snake do much more than troll the President to finally end this film. All of these things make it the stronger film with the only thing being less being the cinematography.

     “Escape from L.A.” was directed by John Carpenter who co-wrote it along with Kurt Russell and Debra Hill with Debra Hill and Kurt Russell also being the producers behind the film.

     The story is in 2000 after a huge Earthquake has turned L.A. into an island. A theocratic President blames L.A.’s sins for this and turns it into a prison Island to put all the “undesirables” from the United States. Things come to a head when Cuervo Jones, the leader of the Shining Path seduces the President’s daughter Utopia in order for her to steal a Super Weapon which is transported to L.A. as Cuervo Jones plans the conquest of the United States. Snake is brought in again to stop him as he is infected with a super-virus giving him only 10 hours to complete the mission.

The Pros: The Premise – The idea of the Earthquake making things worse since the last film makes sense, as is the rise of theocracy in the United States as people would be seeking stability and blaming of “the Other.” We’re already seeing that blaming of the other right now with how the Syrian refugees are being seen here in the States as fear takes over rationality. In that way what brings about the premise hits very close to home.

The World – The World is factionalized with the Third World on one side fighting for revolution with Cuervo as their leader and the President on the other seeking to uphold the status quo of inequality. Both are dictators though as they each silence dissent in the same way.

The Themes – The themes are about getting back to the base of what it means to be human. Are ways of escaping that base humanity and seeking to control others (the President and Cuervo) or ourselves (the Plastic Surgeon and mutants) runs throughout the film as it is only when Utopia and Eddie work with Snake that there is any chance for things to change as either side winning is the loss of freedom for all.

The Action – The action is once again solid as we see Eddie, Hershe and Snake to an air assault on gliders against Cuervo and Cuervo taking out Snake when Snake is taking out his men in the first car chase is really good too.

The Soundtrack – Shirley Walker and John Carpenter do a great job of keeping the sci. fi. feel from the last film in the soundtrack while adding a much more apocalyptic feel as well as everything is bigger and more desolate than before.

The Characters – The characters are all compelling, whether they are antagonistic or not and I anytime any of them appeared I wanted to see what choices and decisions they would make.

Taslima – Is a small role but shows Snake the fearful on the Island. She speaks for the vulnerable and is super trusting too. At one point her and Snake escape from the Surgeon and his plastic surgeon mutants before she is eventually killed. Valeria Golina did a great job as this minor character.

Brazen – Michelle Forbes (Ro Laren from “Star Trek: TNG”) is awesome as Mallory’s second-in-command as we see someone who is calm and collected and is always looking towards the bigger picture.

Commander Mallory – Mallory is a true believer unlike is predecessor and at one point tries to kill Snake until he realizes he was played out he had played Snake with Snake only appearing as a hologram before taking away all power from the world. He felt threatening too and we see him force the President to stay and face the consequences of making the weapon. He isn’t a coward. Stacy Keach does a great job.

Utopia – Utopia starts out as one dimensional but becomes a full character over the course of the film as we see her realize that Cuervo is just as corrupt as her father, leading her to helping Snake fight back and escaping along with him, only to be sent to the electric chair by her father. She is a character who is trapped and is only freed when all the power around the world is shut down for good by the Super Weapon when Snake activates it.

Map to the Stars Eddie – Eddie is a double crosser who in the end chooses Snake after he sees that Cuervo cares nothing about him. Steve Buscemi did a great job as the quick talking salesman whose tape about L.A. is used to mock the President when it is played at the end. He is comedic but is a schemer who you end up taking seriously. He doesn’t make it out of L.A. as he shoots Cuervo but Cuervo fires the rocket before dying forcing Eddie to jump out of the helicopter.

Cuervo Jones – Cuervo is a great enemy. He is the dictator of L.A. and is connected to the oppressed as a symbol around the world. He is brutal though and cannot see past himself. He doesn’t dehumanize his enemies like the President but he is just as brutal and corrupt as he even turns on his allies. Georges Corraface did great.

The President – The President is the worst of the Religious Right as all racial, religious and political minorities are sent to L.A. He is brutal and clearly is a functioning dictator in the United States, though he was elected as the timeline doesn’t tell us anything different. He is a true believer like Cuervo as we see him willing to sacrifice his daughter to death for having been with the enemy. Seeing him literally lose power and get mocked at the end was rewarding. The guy was a great antagonist. Cliff Robinson was awesome.

Hershe – Is a transgender heroine and also Snake’s ex-partner. It is she who gives Snake the air support he needs to stop Cuervo and get the weapon. She thankfully manages to escape to the mainland and is off the copter before the troops arrive to take Snake. She is a great leader and the only faction standing against Cuervo and his corruption. Pam Grier played my favorite character in this film.

Snake Plissken – Snake is back and is a much better person in this! He doesn’t threaten people nearly as often and we see him go from setting out to kill Utopia to protecting her pretty quickly. He also does more than just troll and chooses to take away power from both Cuervos Revolutionaries and the President, both who are fighting with the same mentality of silencing all opposition and using murder as the way to enforce will upon the world. Snake isn’t a hero but he does the action that changes everything before he disappears once again.

Okay: The Cinematography – There are a few moments where green screen use is obvious and took me out of the film a little bit, the most glaring example being when Snake is surfing the largest wave. It’s an odd statement to say but this film is much more cartoony than it’s predecessor but it works and fits the tone.

    This was a great film with only certain cartoony moments in regards to cinematography as the only real downside. The characters are much more colorful than in “Escape from New York,” and Snake is more sympathetic as we see him act for more than just himself on multiple occasions. The antagonists are good too with the Socialist Dictator Cuervo on one side and the religious theocratic President on the other. Both are extreme sides of fanaticism that are rejected by Snake in the end when he makes the decision to take away their abilities to control and destroys the machine that’s been using him during this film and the last one. John Carpenter did an amazing job creating these two film and I can see how they inspired the character of Solid Snake and the world of the “Metal Gear” series. I highly recommend both the films.

Final Score: 9.5 / 10

Reservoir Dogs (1992): A Job Gone Wrong

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        “Reservoir Dogs” is a movie that for me has gotten better with time. When I first saw it, it was so depressing it was hard to be invested in any of the characters. They were all extremely flawed and I saw no reason to care about them. This second time watching this film gave me a new perspective though. I’ll get into what changed my perspective about the film in the assessment.

      “Reservoir Dogs” was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino and produced by Lawrence Bender.

      The premise of the film is that a bunch of strangers are called on to do a diamond heist by the Mob Boss Joe Cabot. They are each given names tied to colors except for Joe’s son Eddie “Nice Guy” Cabot but things soon unravel as they discover they were set up and a mole is among them leading to the death of two of the group in the initial heist. From here the story unfolds in the warehouse while giving us the survivor’s backstory.

Here is the assessment of the film

The Pros: The Soundtrack – The use of 70’s music like “Stuck in the Middle with You,” gives a light feel to the heavy scenes and silence that unfolds through a lot of the production. It gives the thrill of the heist and the idea of the heist which makes the traumatic events afterward (Mr. Orange has a bullet to the gut, a cop gets tortured, multiple standoffs) and adds dimensions to the scenes. The collection of artists added a lot to the film.

The Structure – Tarantino has always been known for his breaking of linear story structure and this film does it really well. We get the survivor’s backstory…from Mr. White being the reluctant thief, to Mr. Blonde getting out of prison and his relationship with Eddie, Joe’s son…to Mr. Pink surviving the robbery and getting the jewels and Mr. Orange’s backstory as an undercover cop trying to bring down the Cabot family leading to the final conclusion of events and the finale scene.

Cinematography – Most of the film is filmed in a warehouse but how it is filmed makes it appear like a prison cell or an open battlefield…Andrzej Sekula did an amazing job with showing the scenery as a reflection of the characters’ mindsets. From seeing Mr. Blonde leaving to get the gasoline and being the only one we see perspectivewise leave the warehouse…to Mr. Orange and White as always being presented closer, like they are trapped.

The Characters – I didn’t like the character the first time I saw it. They were racist criminals who were impossible to root for. This time my perspective changed in that you see how each of them besides Mr. Blonde had a life beyond the work. This adds stakes and adds sympathy even if the characters aren’t wholly sympathetic…which is a Tarantino thing since in most of this films the characters are flawed to the point of almost being unsympathetic a lot of the time.

Mr. Pink – Steve Buscemi is one of the common actors in Tarantino or Rodriguez films and here does a great job as the cowardly survivor. He is the one who doesn’t have an ego in the battle between folks and because of this only has a gun pulled on him once. He also makes the getaway with the diamonds showing that he never lost site of the mission. His dynamic is fascinating as he is the most submissive of the characters but also fights back when threatened. He certainly isn’t good, but he is an intriguing character.

Mr. Orange  – Tim Roth (another common Tarantino actor) does a great job as the undercover cop. We see him remind the cop who was tortured by Mr. Blonde that he’s dying and help is on the way so to stop panicking and also how he takes on the role of the character that eventually Mr. White feels drawn to. He plays the rookie criminal real well and his biggest tragedy is when he confesses his identity to Mr. White which leads to Mr. White killing him in the end.

Mr. White – Harvey Keitel plays the reluctant thief as we see he’d had a falling out with an ex-partner and was set moving on before Joe’s pulls him back in. His character is a character of regret as he learns Joe was right about Mr. Orange and that his defense of Mr. Orange ruined any chance he had of getting out of the business. I didn’t feel bad for the guy the first time I saw this film, but did this time as he is a person acting from what he knows…even as he tries to get beyond it.

Mr. Blonde – This guy is a psycho and an interesting one at that. From torturing a cop to 70’s hits and killing civilians in the bank…this guy doesn’t care at all about anything except his loyalty to the Cabot family. When he got killed it was rewarding as he is the closest thing there is to an antagonist in this film. He’s an unrepentant crook who just enjoys hurting people.

The Themes – The Themes are great. Trust is key and all the interesting characters are conflicted and just trying to survive. No one knows anyone’s identity and they are dependent on the mob boss for an out but soon find he doesn’t have all the answers and things have gotten too deep. It’s only the character who trusts no one…Mr. Pink, who survives.

Okay/Con: The Cabots – I didn’t really care about Eddie or Joe. They basically function as standard mob bosses and there wasn’t anything complex about them. They were loyal to those who were loyal to them and Blonde and Eddie were like brothers…but it never got deeper than that. I never cared about these characters.

Mr. Blue and Mr. Brown – Tarantino plays Mr. Brown but is a one note character. Neither of them is really memorable so their deaths mean nothing beyond a statistic. Tarantino usually plays more interesting characters so it was a shame.

   “Reservoir Dogs” is by no means my favorite Tarantino film, though at this point I feel comfortable calling it a favorite. It is really good, even if it isn’t great and the non-linear story structure really serves the drama and raises the stakes. The music is also a great addition like most Tarantino films, and of course the cinematography is beautiful. If you haven’t seen it and like Tarantino, check it out. At the very least check out some of the character names and themes that would inspire Vince Gillian in “Breaking Bad.”

Final Score: 8.6 / 10. A very good favorite.

Barton Fink (1991): To Become the Common Man

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“Barton Fink,” was once an impressive film. I also have yet to see a bad Coen Brothers film so it may be that everything they make is gold since they put so much time into shooting a scene and exploring the mind and motivations of their characters while keeping an overwhelming theme of loneliness and isolation.

“Barton Fink” was directed, written and produced by Joel and Ethan Coen.

The story involves Barton Fink, a playwright whose successful Broadway show Bare Ruined Choirs leads to some folks in Hollywood wanting him to write the script for a wrestling movie. Once he arrives he finds he has none of the support network he had in New York and that he is completely alone except for his neighbor Charlie, who isn’t all he appears. He soon finds things even more complicated as his writer’s block continues and he finds himself pulled into a murder investigation. From here the story unfolds.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful, from the shots of the broken down and later burning hotel, to any time you are seeing things from Barton’s point of view or you see his anxiety and isolation taking hold. The room is big but can be made to be confining, the hotel is beautiful but is made to bleak…that is the beauty of the cinematography of this film that the Coens and Roger Deakins pulled off.

The Music – The music is very minimalist, which serves the plot really well since it gives us time with the characters and creates tension when it needs too. There are some great piano pieces that I plan on listening to later for my own writing. Carter Burwell did great!

The Characters – Characters are usually the strongest part of most Coen Brothers Films, and this movie continues that.

Chet – Steve Buscemi makes a brief appearance at Chet the Bellhop who is miserable and unhappy. Every word he does is a passive aggressive jab and his character looks miserable. He is our first glimpse of how Hollywood spits people out and destroys the common man.

Audrey Taylor – Judie Davis plays the primary love interest for the writer W.P. Mayhew and Barton Fink. In the case of Mayhew she isn’t respected but it is only in it out of a savior complex and the fact that she built him and wrote most of his work. She is a wonderful and trapped character (like most of the folks in the film). We see her escape with Barton only for it to end in her death…Her death actually means something too since she is one of the few better people we meet.

Ben Geisler – Ben Geisler is the producer who is pretty driven and tends to see past most of the crap around him. He also doesn’t care about anyone truly outside of the films he produces. Tony Shalhoub is great in this role as he calls out Lipnick and the studios for how they don’t care and use everyone. He also advises Barton to get advice from another writer which drives the story forward.

The Detectives – The guys are completely Noir, I love their speech patterns as they insult Barton to give them information they can use to find where Charlie Meadows went since he is the serial killer who has been killing women (who fit Audrey’s description) and taking their heads. They are detached as everyone around Barton but are good in their roles as they aren’t completely antagonistic.

Charlie Meadows / Karl “Madman” Munt – Charlie Meadows is the every man and the muse who Barton denies for sometime. He is expressive about his work as a salesman and Goodman was perfect for the role as he’s so jovial and kind of Barton who is a nervous wreck most of the time. The Reveal that was he was the serial killer was powerful too as he admits he only let Barton live because Barton never listened (before he frees Barton from the beadpost he chained him too). He may have killed Barton’s family and Audrey’s head might be in the present he gave Barton before leaving. In that way we don’t know if he’s just mad or if he is in fact the killer, though most signs point to him being the killer given his shooting down of the detectives and everything he implies to Barton. He’s a pretty great character and antagonist. One of Goodman’s best roles.

Barton Fink – This is the best role I’ve seen John Turturro do, which makes me want to see him in more films. He was great in “O Brother Where Art Thou?” but I haven’t ever seen him as the lead character until this film. He is great at playing the nervous writer who fetishizes the common man (doesn’t listen to anyone share their story and will interrupt them to go off on the idealized common man and how noble his profession is) until he’s found he’s become one. For much of the film he isn’t able to connect to anyone except for Charlie, who used him to kill Audrey and he briefly connects with a woman at the end who may be the woman in the picture above his type writer making the illusion of connection around him complete. He is a character who is unable to stand up to himself even after his work is insulted by Lipnick and Capital Pictures, it’s really his stubbornness that keeps him there and fear, which illustrates how by the end he has become the common man trapped in a job he doesn’t want anymore being used by those around him.

The Themes – The themes in this movie are wonderful…the biggest is that of integrity and the connection to the common man. Barton Fink is seeking to tell the story of the common man but it is so involved in himself he’s unable to listen or empathize until he is chewed out and spit out by the studio in turn becoming the common man. He also finds that he was wrong in his idealization of the people as Charlie was really the serial killer Karl “Madman”‘ Munt who killed Audrey and countless other women before taking off their heads. The movie reveals the false faces of the common men like Charlie and also of the higher ups like Lipnick the leader of Capital Boss pictures who has been lying to Barton the entire time.

The Message – One of the core messages of the film is that Barton was right about writing and that Mayhew and making stuff up was wrong. Good writing comes from a place of suffering and pain and Barton is unable to finish his script until than. The world doesn’t want that though as represented by Lipnick who rejects it as “fruity,” and is shown to be as false as Mayhew and the films he desires. It’s a pretty great critique of Modern Hollywood now even as it’s far easier for million dollar schlock to be produced and green lighted (Emmerich and Michael Bay as examples) than for pictures that have character and a deeper meaning. It also shows that if you stay true you to you and the experience of your experiences that you can create something great, even if nobody recognizes it.

Okay/ The Cons: Lipnick – Lipnick is a two faced guy who tells people want they want to hear but in the end cares nothing about the integrity of art or the well being of his employees. In this way he is a great antagonist, but we have no idea why he is this way as his motivations are never truly explored. Not a con completely, but given how well most of the other characters are explored, I wish he’d been given more motivation.

W.P. Mayhew – The drunk writer who just writers for the sake of writing and putting out schlock because it pays the bills. The guy is miserable and slave for selling himself out and his integrity and he’s an abusive drunk to boot as he hits Audrey on one occassion we see. I get he is broken and apparently he’s married to a “Broken” wife which is why Audrey is trying to save him…but I never cared for the guy. The theme of detachment doesn’t serve his character, though I guess that’s the point since his great work didn’t come from any real place.

This is one of my favorite films, but not the perfect Coen Brothers Film. It has great themes, characters, music and cinematography…but some characters who are antagonistic aren’t as explored as they could have been. That’s really the only big problem I can find as the critique of films produced nowadays still stands, as well as the importance of integrity in art and the importance of empathy and connection. If you like the Coen Brothers or are looking for a good drama, I highly recommend this film. John Goodman and Turturro are fantastic as the leads and have some of the best moments in the film. It is well worth checking out.

Final Score: 9.5 / 10. One of my favorite films and another great Coen Brothers movie.

Desperado (1995): A Fantastic Revenge Drama

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“Desperado” is the second film in Robert Rodriguez’s “Mexico Trilogy.” A trilogy I plan to watch in full at some point. The movie stands strong on it’s own as a revenge flick and previews what Robert Rodriguez is good at; choosing a great cast, huge body counts, revenge and action. The story is simple which I think serves to Rodriguez’s strength.

“Desperado” was as stated above, directed by Robert Rodriguez who also wrote and produced it. The other producer credit for this film goes to Bill Borden.

The story is about a man who is avenging the death of his lover by the gang boss Bucho in the area as things get more complicated as he forms and loses relationships in his war against Bucho as he seeks to find himself and a reason beyond revenge in the bloodbath.

The Pros: The Action – Robert Rodriguez like Quentin Tarantino has an eye for how to make gore so over the top and elegant that it is an art form in how it is presented. Each action seen feels full but never overcrowded like special effects from the Star Wars Special Editions and Prequels. One of the great action scenes is when the Mariachi band reunites, one has his guitar case turned into a rocket launcher while the other wields two cases that are machine guns.

The Characters

El Mariachi – Antonio Banderas is great as the hero El Mariachi who is seeking to grow beyond his scars and finding a reason to live beyond killing. We see how the death of his lover by the mob has shaped him into the weapon he is now..and his seeking of a reason behind it and connecting to other human being again. There is a great moment where his allies arrive who are also Mariachi members who use instrument cases as weapons.

Carolina – Salma Hayek is good as the secondary protagonist Carolina who is trying to get out of a bad situation. We see her fight for herself on multiple occasions against Bucho and work with El Mariachi against the mob. She owns a bookstore that she puts on the line for El Mariachi.

Bucho – Joaquim de Almeida is a good baddie with a personal connection to El Mariachi. We see how this has influenced his actions and that in the end he is a complicated villain. Still a villain, but a complicated one. He is also dangerous too and feels like a threat the entire time, giving reason for El Mariachi to call in the band. Also his death feels like it means something which adds power to the story.

Pick-Up Guy – Quentin Tarantino plays this small comedic part that adds layers and levity to the performance as he is a guy just looking for easy money who soon finds himself out of his league. It is a great cameo on Tarantino’s part. His guest appearances are part of what make a Rodriguez film for me.

Navajas – Another great cameo on the part of Danny Trejas. Navajas is a dangerous knife wielding thug who is only there to try and kill El Mariachi. He does the role well though and it’s almost a shame he doesn’t stick around longer as he was one of the more interesting thugs hunting El Mariachi.

The Plot – It is very well paced. It has great rising action leading to the big gun fight between Bucho’s minions and the Mariachi band and coming to head with the big reveal about Bucho’s relationship to El Mariachi the main character. The ending has El Mariachi reflecting on all those he has killed as he sits at the bed of a child who was caught in the big gunfight. He also gets to move on to some degree at the end and is no longer haunted by the ghost of his former lover and what was done to him.

The Music – Is fantastic! It is a mixture of western, traditional Mariachi and classic rock. It is very Rodriguez that way. He is great at mixing his influences in the soundtracks he creates for his films. Los Lobos was fantastic in making this.

Okay: The Message – The thing about Revenge films is you can more often than not predict what the message is  going to be. It will either be “Revenge is empty and you have to move on with life,” or “Revenge is life, there will always be horrible people that need to be put down.” The ending goes at first with the first premise with his reflecting on the injured child and later after he casts away his case for Carolina but he later picks it back up again, “Just in case,” which supports the second premise. I guess that is the danger of a trilogy, especially one built on revenge. In the end can the case ever be put down? Nolan was lucky that Bruce Wayne was able to go on living after Rises in the comics he can’t live without being Batman. This is how it seems to be for the El Mariachi at this point in the trilogy. Okay and predictable message and one that opted for both…but it wasn’t bad, especially in how they executed it.

If you love action and a solid story you will enjoy this movie. It made me want to check out the rest of the “Mexico Trilogy” and gave me a great appreciation of Robert Rodriguez as a director…like Tarantino he is directing and doing what he loves.

I would give this film an 8.4 / 10.