Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Director: James Gunn

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel (voice), Bradley Cooper (voice), Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin

And now for something completely different. Since 2008, Marvel Studios has had no trouble in introducing its characters to a wide audience. One thing that has aided the Marvel Comics Universe is finding writers and directors that know how to blend action with comedy. Taken too seriously, the superhero genre would fall flat on its face, and not in the good pratfall kind of way. Just as important, they have a knack for humanizing their protagonists, making them relatable people worth rooting for. Even with all the action flying around the screen, “Guardians” is very character-driven. With the exception of Thor and his two solo films, these movies have all centered around human heroes. But even Thor, who has the physical appearance of a human, has had mostly Earthbound adventures. In “Guardians,” we’re not in Kansas anymore. We’ve stepped through the looking glass. We’re beyond Thunderdome. Yet, we’re in a galaxy not so far, far away at all.

The film stars Chris Pratt (TV’s “Parks and Recreation”) as Peter Quill, a human who has been away from Earth since 1988. He was taken from our world on the day of his mother’s death by Yondu (Michael Rooker), an alien with little resembling morals or common decency. In his adulthood, Peter, who from this moment on I’ll refer to by his outlaw name of ‘Star Lord,’ has become adept at the criminal lifestyle, betraying even Yondu. No honor among thieves! Like Han Solo and Malcolm Reynolds before him, Star Lord is a terrific smuggler and a scoundrel, but not too bright. His latest prize, an orb of some importance and power that he knows not what, comes highly sought after. In particular, a murderous individual known as Ronan (Lee Pace) wants it very badly. The mere mention of Ronan’s name on the planet Xandar causes Star Lord’s buyer to back out of the deal, and that’s when he meets the people who will become his best friends in this or any other world. If you’ve already been enjoying the movie up to this point, it’s also the moment when “Guardians” truly kicks into high gear.

Star Lord’s new friends don’t exactly ingratiate themselves to him right away. The green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) has been sent by Ronan to Xandar to retrieve the orb. She intends to betray Ronan and sell it to someone who doesn’t intend to use the powerful stone that lies inside it. To accomplish this, she steals the orb from Star Lord just after his deal goes south. During the ensuing fight, Star Lord is bagged (literally) by two bounty hunters: Rocket Racoon (voice of Bradley Cooper), whose surname explains what kind of creature he is, and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), a walking, talking tree. Rocket is an ill-tempered, at times mean-spirited little fellow, but you would be too if you were the product of several genetic experiments. Groot is really handy in a fight, but it’s difficult to carry on a conversation with him since his entire vocabulary consists of the sentence “I am Groot.” Actor Vin Diesel may not get much to say, but he makes up for that by emphasizing the words differently to express multiple feelings and to show us that he really isn’t just saying the same thing over and over. Rocket, who has been with Groot for long enough that he can translate for him, helps out with the rest. Before the end, Star Lord will need everyone that isn’t trying to kill him (and some that are) on his side if Ronan is to be defeated.

There was still one “Guardian” left to introduce after the incident with the orb. Xandar’s security force, the Nova Corps, breaks up the fight and arrests and incarcerates Star Lord, Gamora, Rocket and Groot. In prison, they meet Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) whose wife and child were killed by Ronan, and whom will be instrumental in the group’s escape from prison. Knowing full well that the other actors could handle their roles, I was the most interested in Bautista’s performance. A professional wrestler for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), Bautista has not had much acting experience outside of the ring, and certainly no starring roles. He’s chiseled enough that he provides the physicality necessary for Drax, but Bautista also brings a highly emotional performance to the role. Drax is single-minded when it comes to seeking the death of Ronan, and this often causes him to act before thinking. He’s got friends now who can help in that area… when they have more than just part of a plan. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson he ain’t, but Dave Bautista’s highly honorable Drax is every bit as lovable as that of Andre the Giant’s Fessik from “The Princess Bride.” He’s also in a much better movie than Johnson has ever participated in.

Although some of the supporting cast does not get as much screen time as maybe they should, I recognize that it’s hard for this big a cast to get the attention they need with a running time of approximately two hours. For example, Glenn Close’s role of Nova Prime could probably have been played by just about anyone. Others do just fine with the time that is given to them. Karen Gillan, recognizable for TV’s “Doctor Who” but thoroughly unrecognizable here, is cast completely against type as Nebula and seems to have enjoyed playing a baddie for once. Her character also takes part (unwillingly so) in one of the movie’s funniest moments. Maybe one of the more impressive things this movie does is with John C. Reilly. Ordinarily, Reilly’s near the top of my list of least favorite actors, in part for his goofy roles. When he is “normal,” as he is in “Guardians,” Reilly can be tolerable. This is the most tolerable I think he’s ever been. Kudos. In addition to the supporting players, there are also cameos to look for. There’s the usual appearance from Stan Lee, still with us at age 91, bless him. Look fast for Troma Entertainment co-founder Lloyd Kaufman as an inmate at the prison, and be sure to sit through the end credits for the triumphant (albeit brief) return to the big screen for a certain Marvel Comics character since his 1980’s solo film tanked and became regarded as one of the worst films of all-time.

Just as important a character as any in the film is the music. Peter’s mother had given him a mix tape, which he still listens to on a Walkman, and he has made it the soundtrack to his life. Comprised of hit pop songs from the 1970’s, it emphasizes as well as anything ever could the fact that the writers are laughing right along with us. Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” and Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” are among the highlights, and any movie that has Marvin Gaye in its soundtrack is okay in my book. If it teaches us anything, it’s that it’s okay to dance to the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” just as long as nobody is watching you.

This is one of Marvel’s best efforts thus far, and the best one that doesn’t feature Robert Downey, Jr. It’s the one that has taken the most direct route to comedy, and certainly the only true outer space adventure, complete with giant spaceship battles. Inevitably, comparisons with “Star Wars” and other science fiction franchises will come to mind. For example, one can watch the scene where Ronan receives instructions from the disembodied head of his boss, Thanos (Josh Brolin, whose part will only grow larger in future Marvel films) and recall a similar scene between Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine in “The Empire Strikes Back.” Ronan’s ship is even referred to as the Dark Astar, which isn’t that far removed from “Death Star.” But, as much as “Guardians of the Galaxy” has in common with those and other films, it is definitely its own animal and will continue to be, with a sequel scheduled for 2017. When the time comes, there ain’t no mountain high enough to keep me from getting to the theater.

The Crow (1994)

Director: Alex Proyas

Starring: Brandon Lee, Ernie Hudson, Michael Wincott

On several occasions, I have found myself sitting down to watch a good movie, only to learn of the passing of a high-profile celebrity… one who has touched the hearts of millions… as soon as the movie is over. I was watching my VHS copy of “Friday the 13th” on February 18, 2001, instead of watching that year’s Daytona 500. That was the day of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash. I was at the theater enjoying “The Hangover” on June 25, 2009, when word got out that Michael Jackson had passed. Flash forward to August 11, 2014. The world has lost actor/comedian Robin Williams. Eerily enough, the news broke while I was watching “The Crow,” which just so happens to be a movie surrounded by a dark cloud concerning the on-set death of its lead actor, Brandon Lee. Consider me sufficiently creeped out.

Storywise, “The Crow” is not overly ambitious. It follows Eric Draven (Brandon Lee), who walked in on a gang of thugs raping and murdering his fiancée, Shelley, only to join her in death when he is stabbed, shot, and falls through their apartment window. It seems Eric and Shelley were to have been married the very next day, on Halloween. Precisely one year later, Eric returns from the grave to exact his revenge on those who did him wrong. His soul is connected somehow with a crow, which remains ever watchful and intervenes as needed. It has also granted him invincibility. Eric can get shot full of holes, but his wounds heal themselves almost instantaneously. That’s a skill that can come in handy when your mission involves charging into the proverbial hornet’s nest.

Joining Brandon Lee in this movie are a superb bunch of supporting players. There is Ernie Hudson as the cop who was on the scene the night Eric was murdered, and is one of his few allies in this world. Rochelle Davis is Sarah, the young tomboy who was friends with Eric and Shelley. She’s the movie’s narrator. David Patrick Kelly, known well for playing the weasel, is the arsonist T-Bird, one of the men on Eric’s hit list. Kelly isn’t in the movie for as many scenes as I would have liked him to be. Michael Wincott is half crime boss, half swashbuckling pirate as Top Dollar. He’s so evil that you can’t wait for Eric to kill this guy, and Bai Ling, as Top Dollar’s half-sister (“You don’t see the resemblance?”), demonstrates an intelligence most of the other villains lack, and a sadistic side to match.

Also notable in the cast is Michael Massee as Funboy, albeit for an entirely different reason. On March 31, 1993, Brandon Lee was shot and killed on the set of “The Crow.” The gun that was used, unbeknownst to anyone, had a dummy round lodged in the barrel of the .44 Magnum revolver. This round was dislodged when a blank was loaded and fired, the combination resulting in the same effect as a normal Magnum round. It was Massee who had the misfortune of being the actor to fire the gun at Lee. Though he was not truly at fault in the incident, Massee has been haunted by this ever since. For a time, there was question as to whether or not it would be proper to finish the movie. Alex Proyas, the film’s director, did thankfully make the decision to see it through with the support of Brandon’s surviving family members.

The movie has one glaring weakness, and perhaps appropriately it is in the reveal of Eric’s weakness. Every superhero’s got to have his Kryptonite. I can accept that, as tired a plot device as it is. If you keep your hero playing on God Mode for too long, your audience could lose interest. Except I wasn’t, and the way the villains discover Eric’s weakness (he will only remain invulnerable so long as the crow remains alive/uninjured) is particularly unsatisfying. Nothing happens to help them learn of it at all… They just make a 1,000,000 to 1 guess that happens to be exactly right.

A cult favorite, “The Crow” is not just a great revenge flick that happens to be based on a comic book. It’s also a beautifully rendered noir film that recalls those crime dramas of the 1940’s, as well as owing some to Ridley Scott’s modern sci-fi classic “Blade Runner” (1982). I’d like to pretend that it didn’t also spawn three abysmal sequels, each one worse than the last.  Being a movie made in the early half of the 1990’s, it’s a creature born of the grunge/alternative era of rock music. The soundtrack echoes this, including metal bands Pantera, Stone Temple Pilots, Nine Inch Nails, The Cure, and the anti-establishment group Rage Against the Machine.

The influence of “The Crow” in popular culture is also evident. Professional wrestler Steve Borden, who since sometime in the late 1980s has performed under the ring name of Sting, abandoned his surfer gimmick in the autumn of 1996, to be replaced with one which was quite clearly based on Brandon Lee’s makeup and attire in this movie. Other than a recent brief detour, it’s a gimmick that Sting has been using ever since.

It’s a shame that Bruce Lee didn’t live to see his son rise to fame with “The Crow,” but it’s even more depressing that Brandon did not either. What’s perhaps the most tragic thing about this is how closely life imitated art. Like his character, Brandon Lee is temporarily resurrected from the grave for one last hurrah. Also, like Eric Draven, Lee was soon to have been married to his fiancée, Eliza Hutton… but alas, it was not to be. As his father was twenty years earlier, Brandon Lee was only just beginning to show the world what he had to offer when circumstance robbed him… and us… of seeing where his path might have led him next. But what a legacy he has left behind!

Dragon The Bruce Lee Story (1993)

Director: Rob Cohen

Starring: Jason Scott Lee, Lauren Holly, Robert Wagner

There will never be another figure quite like Bruce Lee. Without him, it is very likely that the martial arts genre of film would not exist as the entity it is today. Lee was a great philosophical man, and an innovator to match. During a time when it was accepted that those within the Chinese community did not teach non-Chinese, Lee dared to share his culture with “outsiders.” Lee founded Jeet Kune Do under the principle that combat was too spontaneous for any one particular “style” of martial art to be effective enough for one to anticipate their opponent’s every move, merely to respond to them (“Using no way as way. Having no limitation as limitation”). The son of a famous Cantonese opera and film star, he was an actor since early childhood, eventually bringing his talents to American television (“The Green Hornet” and various guest-starring roles) and film (most notably “Enter the Dragon”). No motion picture could ever do Bruce Lee the proper justice… and so it is that none ever has. Yet, still, there is always the conceit that a dramatized biography, however lazy it is with historical accounts, is still quite capable of providing quality entertainment. Case in point, “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.”

The film follows Bruce Lee (Jason Scott Lee) from early childhood to his arrival in the United States, his meeting with future wife Linda (Lauren Holly) and the birth of their children, Brandon and Shannon, through his work on “The Green Hornet” and founding of Jeet Kune Do, and his all-too brief film career (highlighting “The Big Boss” and “Enter the Dragon”). “Dragon” does not paint Bruce’s life in a completely rosy picture. With the triumphs, there are also the failures… among them his crippling back injury in 1970 and his struggle for acceptance as an actor of Chinese heritage, which included being passed over in favor of David Carradine for the lead role on TV’s “Kung Fu.” Sadly, like most biopics, the story must end with the subject’s demise at a young age, leaving behind quite a legacy but also much unfulfilled potential.

Purporting to be based on Linda Lee Cadwell’s book, “Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew,” this movie receives a considerably low grade on historical accuracy. A large percentage is either made up entirely, or is presented out of its correct chronological order. Bruce did compete in a no holds barred match for the rights to teach whomever he pleased (a match he won in all of three minutes), but his fallen opponent did not cause his back injury out of spite. The two also did not have a subsequent rematch. The real Bruce caused his own injury in a weight-lifting accident. Bruce could not have learned of his father’s death while watching the premiere episode of “Kung Fu” (which aired in 1972), because Lee Hoi-chuen died less than a week after the birth of his grandson, Brandon, in February of 1965. Also, these events are depicted as transpiring before the release of “The Big Boss,” Bruce’s first starring vehicle. This is also faulty, since “The Big Boss” was a 1971 film. There was no impromptu fight on the set of that movie, and certainly not with the brother of the guy he beat in the aforementioned match. The stuff about the Reaper-like Samurai/Demon haunting Bruce’s dreams? Complete bullshit, especially considering the real Bruce’s stance on religion.

The only thing that Bruce’s hallucinations of the demon does is creep you out, especially when you consider the scene where Bruce imagines himself protecting his young son from the shadowy figure, and then you remember that Brandon tragically died in an accident on the set of “The Crow” less than two months before “Dragon” was released to theaters. That is why both Lees are mentioned in the dedication at the film’s end.

Grading the entertainment value is another matter, because this is the factor that is of more importance to a martial arts action film. In this area, “Dragon” delivers most satisfactorily. The fight sequences are, to put it mildly, outstandingly choreographed. Whatever screw-ups the writers made in Bruce’s timeline, they obviously are fans of his on-screen work. There are whole sequences that feel as though they could have fit right into one of his movies. There was no way anyone could completely duplicate Bruce Lee’s charisma, his lightning quick reflexes, or that infamous battle cry, but dammit, Jason Scott Lee comes ever so close. Lauren Holly is naturally sweet and tough (and sharply dressed) as Linda. Just as beautiful as the lead actress is the soundtrack. “Bruce and Linda” is another of those musical tracks that, admittedly, got overused by numerous movie trailers over the years. But that was only because it was recognizied as the nice piece of music that it is! And the sets! Perfectly re-imagined are the ice factory from “The Big Boss” and the mirror room from “Enter the Dragon,” as well as a set from a non-existent episode of “The Green Hornet,” notable because Jason Scott Lee trashes it in the same over-the-top manner as Bruce Lee did with James Garner’s office in the movie “Marlowe.” He tells the show’s producers that he figured it’d be more exciting that way. He was right.

It is imperative that one go into “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” seeking the adrenaline rush that any good action movie provides. To truly understand who Bruce Lee was, one should either read one of the many books written about him or, better still, look up archival footage of interviews he gave. He was an interesting man, and is still fascinating to listen to. That he was the same age as I am now when he died really puts into perspective all that he was able to accomplish in the short time that was given to him, and the impact that his teachings and his other creative works continue to have some forty years after his passing. We should all be so fondly remembered for how we lived.

Donnie Brasco (1997)

Director: Mike Newell

Starring: Al Pacino, Johnny Depp, Michael Madsen, Bruno Kirby, Anne Heche, James Russo, Andrew Parks

Like the country song, Al Pacino says it best when he says nothing at all. Certainly, his monologues at the end of movies like “…And Justice for All,” “Scent of a Woman,” and “The Devil’s Advocate” are always fun to listen to (and do much themselves to demonstrate the caliber of his skills as an actor), but it’s when Pacino is telling a story with his eyes (re: “The Godfather”) that you see the true genius of this man. He is given another such scene to perform during a crucial moment in “Donnie Brasco,” and it helps spare this from being just another gangster film. That his co-star is Johnny Depp, and that they have an equally terrific supporting cast, doesn’t hurt things either.

“Donnie Brasco” is based on the very real story of FBI Agent Joseph D. Pistone (Johnny Depp), who in 1978 was tasked with the assignment of infiltrating New York’s Bonanno crime family. Assuming the identity of jewel thief Donnie Brasco, Pistone befriends “Lefty” Ruggero (Al Pacino), a hit man who would like to have been much higher up in the chain of command at this stage in his life, after 30 years as a wiseguy. Lefty steers him on the right path whenever Donnie isn’t quite acting as a member of a mob family should. He sees a chance to live vicariously through Donnie Brasco, to make up for his failings both as a criminal and as a father.  Never once does Lefty actually believe his friend is working for the law.

Pistone’s family life is as crappy as Lefty’s, even if he doesn’t have a drug addict son. His relationship with his wife (Anne Heche) becomes horribly strained because of the time away from home his new assignment demands. He misses his daughter’s birthday for this job. He comes home at late hours after several weeks, staying only just for a few minutes, and then he’s gone again. To make matters worse, Pistone gets a little too comfortable in the role he’s playing, participating in a few gruesome activities. One particularly bloody event has Pistone helping to discard of three dead bodies with the help of a hacksaw. Above all, Pistone fears either being found out or pulled from his assignment, as in either scenario it’s likely to result in the death of someone he cares about.

Although the best decade of Al Pacino’s career is unquestionably the 1970’s, he’s put on several great shows in more recent times, his performance as Lefty being one of them. Despite the fact that we know he’s a monster, Pacino plays Lefty as a very sympathetic monster. Here is a man for whom life has passed him by, as have the younger men in the crime family, and it leaves him to ponder what might have been. Johnny Depp, like Pacino, is someone you can watch no matter the quality of the movie he is in. Pairing the two of them up really kicks it up a notch. They also get a great supporting cast, in particular Michael Madsen and Bruno Kirby, both of whom, like Pacino, feel right at home in a movie like this (Kirby played the young Clemenza in “The Godfather Part II”).

It’s a good thing the cast is so exceptional because, to be honest, the story is somewhat ordinary. It seems somewhat cliched to say, but if you’ve seen one story about an agent of the law infiltrating a criminal organization, you really have seen them all. Inevitably, the hero starts to sympathize with the people he’s supposed to be bringing to justice, flirting with his own dark side before coming to his senses (or not). It’s extraordinary to think that the director of the fall-down funny “Four Weddings and a Funeral” could turn around and create this serious crime drama. If “Donnie Brasco” isn’t offering anything new, it does present the familiar material extremely well. A lot can be forgiven if you’ve done your job well… just as long as you aren’t pretending to be something you’re not.

Monsters (2010)

Director: Gareth Edwards

Starring: Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able

After seeing “Godzilla” back in May, I knew there was no way I could pass up taking a look at director Gareth Edwards’ first feature-length film, 2010’s “Monsters.” It didn’t matter that I had no idea what this movie was really about, because the intrigue was still there. As it turns out, not knowing was actually helpful. Like 2014’s “Godzilla,” “Monsters” thrives on the audience knowing only as much as its main characters know about their situation. Also like director Edwards’ more high-profile movie, “Monsters” is less concerned about armed conflict against massive city-destroying creatures, and chooses to direct most of its focus on its relatable human characters.

Six years prior to the events of the film, a NASA probe crash landed in Mexico, carrying with it extra-terrestrial beings of an unknown origin. These beings, when fully-grown, are of gigantic proportions and because they are asexual, they reproduce at an unbelievable rate. Soon, the US-Mexican border was overrun and placed under quarantine. We simply don’t have the capabilities to deal with them all, so a wall was built to keep the residents of the United States safe… for the time being. Flashing forward to the present day, photojournalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is given another job by his boss: “Get my daughter back home safely!” The boss’s daughter, Samantha (Whitney Able), is in a Mexican hospital with an injured hand (which, unless I missed it, is never explained). All Andrew has to do is get her back on U.S. soil by any mode of transportation available. Sounds easy enough, or at least it would in a world where you’re not in constant fear of being squashed or eaten alive.

In fact, it turns out to be an arduous journey for the pair. First, the train they board gets halted by damaged tracks. Next, some Mexican whore that Andrew has sex with robs him the morning after while he’s out of the room, which includes stealing Samantha’s passport. That means the ferry she’s been waiting for is out of the question. Desperate, Samantha pays for passage through “the quarantine zone” with her engagement ring (the subject of which never comes up when she makes a phone call later on). Andrew and Samantha know they’re taking a huge risk in going this route, but it’s the last one left available to them. Along the way, their armed escort gets snuffed out while they can only watch helplessly and hope that they aren’t next. Surviving through the night, they spend the remainder of their travels on foot.

Like with “Godzilla,” there is nothing particularly outstanding about the acting in “Monsters,” although that doesn’t disqualify the effort. The movie is quite effective in the way it demonstrates how human society has grown accustomed to the aliens’ presence. It’s been long enough that only people who have been shielded all this time, like Andrew and Samantha, can still be upset or sickened by the carnage left in the wake of an attack. Everyone else is so used to their situation that they’ve got the aliens’ activities down to a routine schedule… not that they can do anything about it.

“Monsters” is not your typical alien invasion story. It touches on social issues which are still relevant four years later, and which will likely continue to be for some time. It’s no accident that the movie is almost entirely set in Mexico. The most important connection to reality that this film makes is with the subject of illegal immigration and border fences. That we are more concerned with bombing the crap out of our perceived enemies than we are with helping our fellow man is a sad thing indeed. Worse still, there are those who seem too eager to profit on the plight of others. Priorities, people! If, when you watch this movie, you wonder why there isn’t a greater emphasis on the alien creatures and the reason they chose our planet, ask yourself who the real monsters in “Monsters” are supposed to be.

Tremors (1990)

Director: Ron Underwood

Starring: Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Finn Carter, Michael Gross, Reba McEntire

For years, I had long regarded the creature features from the 1950’s as a rather silly, not particularly scary subgenre of horror. That was until the first time I saw the gi-ants from 1954’s “Them!” Before then, the primitive special effects of the time (not to mention some seriously lame storylines) prevented me from taking that stuff seriously. “Them!” was different. The characters made me believe they were being hunted by abnormally sized ants, created in the wake of  U.S. nuclear testing. For me, “Them!” is the standard-bearer of those types of films. I’m also not blind to the influence that the creature feature still has to this day. Setting aside the plethora of crap churned out by Syfy (formerly the Sci-Fi Channel), there have been several notable movies over the years which have been made in the spirit of those silly monster flicks. The one that most will probably think of first is Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster “Jaws.” The killer shark in that movie taught its potential victims to seek higher, or at least drier ground if they expected to survive. The tension those scenes create is recalled by 1990’s “Tremors,” with the danger coming not from the waters of a fictional island, but from underground in the Nevada desert.

Handymen Val McKee (Kevin Bacon) and Earl Basset (Fred Ward) have had just about enough of their crappy jobs, and leave the town of Perfection, Nevada (population: 14) for nearby Bixby. There, they discover what they believe to be the handywork of a serial killer, as a few of Bixby’s residents are found dead, their remains mutilated, as though they’d been chewed up. They return to Perfection where they warn two road workers of their discovery. It doesn’t make any difference, because the men are sucked underground immediately after Val and Earl leave. The two have it in mind to alert the authorities in Bixby, noting that Perfection’s phone lines are down, but a rock slide now blocks their path.

Val and Earl discover the source of the problem while riding on horseback, as they are both thrown from their rides when the horses sense danger. Sure enough, a giant sandworm erupts from the ground and chases Val and Earl, but the monster kills itself by ramming into a concrete wall while pursuing them. Seems they can’t see us, but they can sense us due to the vibrations our movements cause. It’s a pity the soundtrack doesn’t take advantage of this by including “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys. I suppose it would have clashed too much with the country music sprinkled throughout.

Joined by Rhonda (Finn Carter), a seismologist, their victory is short-lived when she informs them of her readings which indicate three more creatures. Joining forces with survivalist couple Burt and Heather Gummer (Michael Gross and Reba McEntire), the group uses several tactics… including staying high up on rooftops and making use of Burt’s arsenal of explosives… to avoid, lure and eventually defeat the remaining monsters. It turns out to be easier said than done, as the creatures may appear stupid at first, but they do adapt quickly.

Kevin Bacon, Philadelphia-born and raised, could never be confused for a good 0l’ Southern boy. Even so, while his accent is unconvincing, Bacon more than makes up for it with his leading man skills. He makes Val easy to get behind as the hero of this story, even during the scene when he first meets Rhonda. Val has a narrow vision when it comes to his “ideal woman.” If she’s not blonde, tall and well-endowed, he’s disappointed. Rhonda is none of these things, but she’s very pretty, VERY smart (always a plus!), and it’s only Val who doesn’t seem to notice when she takes a liking to him.

The breakout character of this movie, by far, is Michael Gross’s Burt. His level of paranoia would cause a lot of people to stare in disbelief (and possibly laugh) under normal circumstances, but his precautionary nature ends up saving more than just his own life. Doesn’t hurt that he’s absolutely hilarious. All of the best lines go to him. Michael Gross has always been an underrated actor, and Burt could not be any further from his role as Michael J. Fox’s dad on TV’s “Family Ties.” Seems that somebody paid attention to his work here, because Michael Gross eventually takes over as the franchise lead and is the one actor that stars in both of the sequels, the prequel and the short-lived TV series that followed. It’s a shame that actor/singer Reba McEntire does not return after this one, because she also is a delight.

As monster movies go, “Tremors” is quite excellent. It never takes itself too seriously, and although the graboids do occasionally leave a bloody mess, the movie is not excessively gory. This silly creature feature thrives thanks to a terrific cast and great moments of suspense. Like all of the very best of the genre, it takes its time in revealing the monster. “Jaws” would never have become the monster hit (no pun intended) that it was if the very fake shark had been shown throughout. “Them!” would not have half its potency unless you wait until halfway to have the frightening scene where the gi-ant crawls up over the hill to scare the wits out of actress Joan Weldon. Likewise, “Tremors” works because we know there’s something terrible creeping up from under the earth and eating people, but we don’t need to see the graboids until it’s time for Kevin Bacon & Co. to go toe to tentacle with them. What we know for sure is that, when the moment of truth arrives, our heroes are gonna need a bigger GMC truck.

Red 2 (2013)

Director: Dean Parisot

Starring: Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker, Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Byung Hun Lee, Brian Cox, Neal McDonough

How do you keep the energy of an action film series fresh? It can’t be easy, or else there would be any number of sequels out there that could claim to be as good or better than the original. Comedies have the same problem. Too often, they take the easy road of repeating all the same jokes. When you fuse the two genres together, it puts even more pressure on the filmmakers to deliver. The action scenes need to dazzle the eyes and the humor has to tickle the funny bone. Fail in either area, and you’re screwed. Bruce Willis has had plenty of experience with duds over the course of his film career. Even the “Die Hard” franchise has been phoning it for the last 20 years (give or take). How was “RED 2″ going to avoid the sequel curse? Well, putting together as equally talented a cast as the first film was certainly a step in the right direction.

Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) and girlfriend Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) witness the apparent demise of their friend Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) and attend the subsequent funeral. Marvin has faked his death so many times over the years, Frank notes, that it doesn’t seem real that he can be gone. Well, of course he isn’t! Frank gets picked up by government agents after the funeral, but the agents are all disposed of during Frank’s interrogation by Jack Horton (Neal McDonough) and a SWAT team. Frank, also a target, manages to escape in the nick of time, rescued by Sarah and a very much alive Marvin. Frank listens as Marvin explains his deception: They’ve been labeled terrorists because they were erroneously linked to a secret operation codenamed Nightshade. To make matters worse, they’re the targets of two contract killers, Han Cho-Bai (Byung Hun Lee) and their friend, Victoria (Helen Mirren), who calls them in advance to warn them about her hiring by MI6.

Globe-hopping from Paris to London to deep in the heart of Moscow, Frank and crew pick up some company along the way in the form of Katya, a Russian secret agent whom Marvin describes to a jealous Sarah as being Frank’s Kryptonite. She’s just as interested in Nightshade as the rest of them, but is ready, willing and able to backstab Frank at a moment’s notice. Good thing Marvin anticipates this, or she would make off with the all-important key they need. The group’s travels lead them to an insane asylum in London (how appropriate!), where they find the inventor of the nuclear device known as Nightshade, Dr. Edward Bailey (Anthony Hopkins). He’s been locked up for 32 years, and has the appearance of a man whose mind is mostly mush. Appearances can be deceiving.

Having Anthony Hopkins in your movie, whether in the wise old man role or as the villain, pretty much automatically ups your cool factor, as can the presence of Catherine Zeta-Jones. While that holds true in a very big way for Hopkins, I was mostly disappointed with Jones’s inclusion in “RED 2.” Katya seems to have been conceived as a mere plot device to create an unnecessary and uninteresting triangle between her character, Frank and Sarah. Fortunately, this plot device is prevented from overwhelming the main story as I feared it might. Byung Hun Lee and Neal McDonough are okay, but I miss Karl Urban. Willis, Parker, Malkovich and Mirren are all still a lot of fun, and I could stand to see them team together for a third go-round if they so choose. I especially appreciate that Mary-Louise Parker was given even more to do this time than in “RED.” Sarah may not be Retired and Extremely Dangerous, but she’s an integral part of the team now.

One of the more random events in the movie is a blatant product placement for Papa John’s Pizza during the Moscow sequence. There’s a secret tunnel to where the bomb is hidden, but to get to it, Frank & Co. have to enter a Papa John’s location and break through the wall in the back of the building. Great, now I crave a pepperoni and anchovies pizza w/ extra cheese. Thanks for that.

Generally speaking, I enjoyed the experience of watching this movie. If “RED 2″ is inferior to the original, it is because it is far too predictable. While “RED” kept me guessing, “RED 2″ delivers a more straightforward, black & white story where you know who the villains are, you can expect one of the bad guys to join the cause of the people they’ve spent most of the movie trying to kill, and you even know what trick the heroes will use to save the day. The villain’s favorite line that he likes to use is “Didn’t see that coming, did you?” Well, yes… as a matter of fact, I did.