REVIEW: Inside Man

With this film, Spike Lee finally steps outside himself and the result is arguably the first of his efforts since “Malcom X” not to buckle under the added weight of it’s maker’s obsession with identity politics. This is a movie about a clever bank robber (Clive Owen) executing a self-declared “perfect” heist, the tough-but-calm hostage negotiator (Denzel Washington) on the other end… and that’s it.

Well, alright, not quite. This is still, after all, Spike Lee; and the usual creeping irritants of his ouvre still poke their heads out from time to time: New York is still fetishized, a lead actor still glides on a dolly-rig, a jarring pullback-from-closeup still reveals characters to be standing in front of a wall plastered with messagery and Jewish-American characters are still played for obvious caricatures; alongside a really moronic aside for a commentary on violence (and, of course, racism) in video games and Jodie Foster as an amoral ice-queen “fixer” who seems to have the entirety of NYC under her sway and is name, yes… Miss White. Cute.

But those little half-slivers of annoyance aside, overall Mr. Lee has put his stature as poster-boy for self-important message-mongering aside and let his skill as a filmmaker take the spotlight. The result: A cracking-good thriller.

The setup you know going in, anything else you shouldn’t know and won’t here from me. Suffice it to say that writer Russel Gerwitz has written a solid mini-marvel of a heist movie with a great collection of characters and a corker third act, and Spike Lee has directed the hell out of it. What you’ve heard is true: Spike Lee has FINALLY made good on his early promise and graduated from political-essayist to filmmaker.

And it’s about damn time. Well done, and reccomended.


REVIEW: The Shaggy Dog (2006)

In historical terms, Walt Disney’s original 1959 “Shaggy Dog” holds a place of some significance as the first live action family hit to come out of the House of Mouse and, per the Disney model, establishing the template more-or-less adhered to for the majority that were to follow: A safe, family-friendly comedy, heavy on visual gags and slapstick but located tonally within the same realm as most television sitcoms at the time, and usually “tweaked” by the addition of some fantastical element, either magical or science-fictional in nature.

The story revolved around a magic ring, somehow tied to the Borgias of old Italy, that was cursed so as to afflict any who donned it with periodic transformations into a sheep dog. The “victim” in that case was a young man, the rest of the plot had him putting his “powers” to use thwarting Soviet spies, and the directing chores fell to Charles Barton, a reliable journeyman director who had previous experience in comedies of the supernatural as helmer of “Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein,” the first and perhaps greatest of all monster/comedies.

The legion of Disney live-action comedies that followed essentially replayed the same concept with new characters, settings and fantasy-twists, and an official sequel arrived MUCH later in the form of “The Shaggy D.A.” and another even later for television. Now, in 2006, we have and “official” remake to reboot the franchise once again, with Tim Allen now in the lead as a man (a D.A., no less!) who finds himself turning into the titular pudgy sheep dog.

Overall, the new film is about as functional and likable as the original, which is to say that it is inoffensive, charming and frequently hillarious, providing that you regard (as I do) the spectacle of Tim Allen behaving like a dog (or giving voice to a dog, depending on the scene) as funny in and of itself. Beyond that, the film is more interesting as a case study in how much the world, and thus, the movies we use to escape from/comment on it, has changed.

Just for starters, there’s the hero: In the original, teenaged Tommy Kirk had the title role, (all told, the film resembles nothing so much as a family-skewing cousin to the then-popular “I Was A Teenaged Werewolf”,) and the magi-comical hijinks were suggestive of typical teen confusion (title character is freaked out by sudden physical changes, prinicipally involving hair? Hm? Anyone?) At the time, that was the basic dynamic of family comedy: Teens were funny because audiences presumed a universal awkwardness and tendency to foul up humorously as they navigated the transition from child to adult.

That was then, this is now. And NOW, we all know, teenage-hood is worshipped in as the only clear-thinking time in life, and the automatic slapstick heroes of the family comedy are fathers: Dad, the reliable goofball who can always be counted on to have lessons to learn and hangups to be spun into comedy gold. It goes without saying that Family Comedy Dad is a workaholic who’s lost touch with his family, especially the kids, and thus requires the aid of mystical intervention to help. To that end, Tim Allen leads as an assistant D.A. preoccupied with his “starmaking” prosecution of a teacher/animal-rights activist accused of sabotaging the lab of a giant pharmacuetical corporation where, he claims, unethical animal experimentation is taking place.

Saying otherwise is the company’s slimy chief scientist (Robert Downey Jr. in an underhyped but inspired comedy turn,) but you can be forgiven for guessing that he’s lying. You probably ALSO didn’t have to guess that the 1959 films’ Russian Spy baddies are here replaced by the New Millenium villian’s of choice: an unscrupulous mega-corporation. (I think we can safely assume that not even a Disney scriptwriter could think of a plausible reason for Al Qaeda to be involved with magical sheep dogs.) Sure enough, the big business bullies are holding captive and experimenting on a mysterious dog.

Why? Seems this time around the sheep dog is a sacred animal from a Buddhist monastery (where else?) who’s DNA may hold the key to the fountain of youth. How? We’re told that a genetic mutation has inverted the dog-years/human-years equation, allowing “Shaggy” to age seven times slower than a human being. Folks, I want to shake the hand of the fake-science black belt who thought that up. In any case, in order to harvest youth-serum the baddies have “viralized” the furry one’s blood, meaning that when he bites Tim Allen about ten minutes in the plot-proper breaks out: Suddenly the no-nonsense work-addict has heightened-sense, embarassing canine personality ticks and the bad luck to transform into a dead-ringer for Shaggy at inoportune times. Will this help him reconnect with his family? Realize he’s defending the wrong side? Help save the day and thwart the scientists? Yeah, I wonder…

But when it works, it works. The slapstick is funny enough, Allen remains a natural talent for such fare, and the animal gags are uniformly amusing. And the film gets just the right amount of mileage out of it’s built-in “awww”-factor: Allen, transformed into a dog, finds himself privy to his family’s various unspoken (to humans) problems with life and himself in particular. His wife feels she’s losing him to work, teenaged daughter wants acknowledgement for all the hard work she puts into her interests, and young son is suffering through football to impress dad but really dreams of landing the lead in the school production of “Grease.” There’s something to be said for a movie that can evoke genuine emotion from the image of a sheep dog standing at the window of a ritzy restaurant, carrying an anniversary boquet in it’s teeth. All together now: Awwww…


REVIEW: V For Vendetta

“V For Vendetta” adapts comic book icon Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel of the early 1980s. As with prior films based on his work, it’s forced to work out a cinematic solution to Moore’s ultra-literary, action-lite (in comic book terms) prose. In this regard, it’s more successful than prior adaptations of “From Hell” and “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” At re-tooling the material’s distinctly Cold War era setup to the current world situations, it’s significantly less successful. But good effort.

The basic premise remains: An England of the near future has been overtaken by an Orwellian fascist government that oppresses it’s citizenry through information control and secret police. Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) a secretary at the state-run news media, finds herself rescued from danger by a self-proclaimed freedom fighter named “V,” (Hugo Weaving,) who has superhuman strength and wears the mask of Guy Fawkes (the British folk icon who tried to blow up Parliament.) To her and soon to all V reveals his mission: To blow up landmarks and assassinate Party officials in order to bring down The System. Evey finds herself pulled along for the ride, and is troubled by a pair of slowly-unveiling truths about her “savior”: Namely, that his mission may be borne more of personal vengeance than of populist anger and, more immediately, that “right” or not… V is a madman.

Weaving does the heavy lifting as V, asked to turn in a fairly complex character performance with no facial expressions (V never removes his immobile Fawkes mask for our benefit) and elaborate pantomime. That he frequently appears more silly-looking than menacing is kind of the point, though I wonder how such is really going to play to audiences expecting an action hero… particularly those with little or no frame of reference for what the mask means as a symbol from a British perspective. Portman, by design, spends most of the film being either frantic or confused until a 3rd Act twist allows her to affect a shell-shocked icy madness. Ever a fine actress, she manages to make it flow.

A fine assortment of British bad-guy specialists assemble as the Party Members opposed to V, with John Hurt standing out in the plum but thankless role of High Chancellor Sutler; the Big Boss who spends approximately 98% of his screentime as a giant head on giant TV screens, 1% waxing the Hitlerian in flashbacks and the remaining moments as… eh, you’ll see. Steven Rhea brings his grumbly A-game as Finch, the cynical detective who’s investigation into V leads him to a spooky cover-up conspiracy and may (or may not) be just another part of V’s master plan.

Most of this works, preserving the source material’s overall effect of a standard 1984/Brave New World/Fahrenheit 411 dark-future fable re-imagined with a superhero lead and tweaked with the “oh by the way” implications that the “hero” may be nearly as twisted as those he strikes against. The re-working of the Evil State from a crumbling Hitlerian/Stalinist beaurocracy to a ruthlessly efficient Christian Fundamentalist theocracy is a little creaky, but it squares appropriately with the kept-from-the-book dwelling on Nazi-esque persecution of gays.

Less functional are specifics added to definitively remove the action from Cold War cautionary tale to War on Terror parable. Nevermind that V is technically a terrorist, thats the point. Another, less-violent protester keeps vintage anti-Iraq War protest signs and a banned Koran under glass as part of his banned-works collection; which strike a curious note by being at once “gutsy” in inviting MORE controversy but also seem a bit out-of-place given later revelations. More pointedly: Enemies of religious fundamentalism are collecting religious texts… why, exactly?


To it’s credit, the film keeps the book’s morally troubling “gotcha!” as to the extent of V’s madness: At about midpoint, Evey gets abducted and tortured past the point of insanity by shadowy “government” figures. When it becomes apparent that she’s so far gone as to be untroubled by death, her tormentor is revealed to be… V, (whom we’re told became what he is via similar torture and medical experiments,) staging an elaborate torture regimen in order to make his protege’ as crazy as he is so that she’ll “understand.” So thats the gag: What the characters (and the film) play as an awakening to revolution is actually a descent into insanity. V is a terrorist, and a monster, and while he may be a nominal protagonist he’s no “hero.” Whether audiences are going to process this (the film’s early critics, calling it “pro-terrorist,” certainly didn’t) is another matter, the proof is onscreen that the filmmakers are aiming for debate and moral complexity.

All this doesn’t exactly “rescue” the film from it’s bigger flaws: It’s a little too short for all of it’s twisting and mystery, it’s a little TOO talky for it’s own good, and final reveals about “whats really going on” (a kind of conspiracy/business scam involving a staged WMD attack made to look connected to the U.S. war on terror) lands onscreen like a convulted last-minute detail. And while it won’t unseat “Equilibrium” as the ultimate New Millenium negative-utopia actioner, it’s at least smarter and more ambitious than we usually get from the genre.

Reccomended with reservation.


REVIEW: Failure to Launch

Romantic Comedies continue to be responsible for the worst overall output of any genre, and “Failure to Launch” is no exception. A pair of “name” stars pop up in the first ten minutes, pre-revealed by the posters (stark white with just the leads, MANDATORY) as a “great couple,” and the story spends the length of a feature keeping them apart by any means necessary. Once again, the result is a god-awful movie that takes the #1 spot at the boxoffice. I’m a critic, so I already know why I went to see this. The question is… what’s the excuse for the rest of you?

Like most of it’s worser brethren, “Failure” starts out by pretending to be “about” something bigger than itself. The subject for the day is “adult children still living at home,” the continuing baby boomer pickle that already inspired the much-maligned but much-funnier “Freddy Got Fingered.” A good film could be made from this situation, but so far hasn’t and probably won’t until someone wants to take a hard look at it. Thus far, the “Peter Pan” generation hasn’t quite captured control of the film biz, while their boomer parents remain steadfastly in denial about any culpability on their part, and nobody really wants to see an entire film based on the premise of the WWII generation “I-told-you-so-ing” thier boomer offspring about not practicing enough tough-love.

Matthew McConaughey is Trip, a 35 year-old heartbreaker still living with his parents. You’ll already have gathered that he’s no “slacker,” though: He’s got a good job as a high-end boat broker, he’s a master chef, a mountain-biking, rock-climbing, paint-balling super athlete, a sensitive conversationalist and a top-shelf father-figure to his African American nephew. A catch, in other words. This can be indicative of two things: That the film is yet another bad rom-com propping up a cheezy female fantasy OR that it’s setting up a poor excuse for a third-act twist. Guess what, you’re right either way!

Kathy Bates and Terry Bradshaw are the parents, apparently lacking the ability to just ask him to move out. Enter Sarah Jessica Parker as, when you get right down to it, the evil female caucasian counterpart to Will Smith’s “Hitch.” She’s a “professional interventionist” who specializes in evicting man-children from mom and dad’s house by (I’m not making this up) pretending to fall in love with them, dating them and staging big emotional hurdles in order to jump-start their self-confidence. Presumably she then dumps them, likely without ever revealing the truth, which from where I’m standing makes her a pretty unlikable protagonist.

I know, I know. This is just “Taming of The Shrew” gender-reversed and in modern times, so it would be wrong to complain about Parker’s character running a Petrucchio scam “because I wouldn’t if she was a MAN!” But here’s the thing… What makes the situation in “Taming” funny is that Katherine is such a bitch-on-wheels that it actually is necessary to call in a shifty con artist to take her down a peg or twelve. Here, the only things seemingly “wrong” with Trip are comfort-zone inertia and fear of commitment, which don’t “make” him anything other than MALE. So it’s just moronic that Parker’s character is so desperately needed, (and NO, the later “what’s really going on” twist DOESN’T fix it.)

This is the same basic problem that most bad romantic comedies (i.e. most romantic comedies) run in to: They’re based on contrived, idiotic premises that render the two lead characters either un-engaging or unlikable. What’s primarily supposed to “make up” for that is that these awful characters are played by attractive, well-liked actors behaving as readers of “Us Weekly” imagine them to behave. There’s also a secondary defense: The Wacky Best Friend(s) played by funny character actors who walk away with the film. “Failure” equips Trip with three fellow man-boys, none of them funny; while Zooey Deschanel works her (adorable) ass off to make some scenes of this not suck so much as Parker’s character’s funnier, sexier, more-interesting roommate.

Which reminds me… Ladies, guys have to hear from y’all CONSTANTLY about films for “us” giving us unrealistic images of women, sell us “fantasies,” etc. Here’s my issue: Every month or so we get one of these “going-nowhere-guy-improved-by-right-girl” rom-coms, and in EVERY SINGLE ONE these Greek-statuary-looking surfer-hunk guys are falling all over themselves for Sarah Jessica Parker, Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, etc. All very pleasant-looking but not exactly “stop-traffic” sexy women. Girls… you want to talk UNREALISTIC FANTASIES!?

I mean, I don’t wanna sound bitter or cynical, but… it’s not a big secret that the reason it’s THESE actresses (again, all very talented and attractive in their own right) who topline this genre: Because their good-looking enough to be movie starlets but not holy-crap-sexy enough to actually intimidate or threaten “real” women. The plain fact is, and you KNOW THIS… if there really were a guy who looked like Matthew McConaughey, who had money and stable job, and who was great with kids, and who could cook, etc., women would be lined up for blocks trying to woo him away from the nest like some kind of human sword-in-the-stone… And if it hadn’t worked yet, guess what? A Sarah Jessica Parker ain’t gonna do it. It’s gonna take an Angelina Jolie.

Or a Charlize Theron.

Or a Salma Hayek.

Or Veronica Zemanova. (ignore the text, CLEAN link)

Or he’s gay…

In which case, Angelina could probably STILL do it, her being superwoman and all. The point is, you won’t see those actresses in these movies, even though it’s more realistic (hell, because it’s more realistic) because they intimidate the female audience and this genre lives and breathes by selling said female audience goofy fantasies as contrived and unlikely as ANYTHING men are chastised for enjoying-as-served by Michael Bay or John Woo.

Skip this.


Footnote: This must be some kind of record, as the film not only contains THREE unfunny scenes of a character being attacked by various animals, it contains what has to be the single stupidest justification for such ever inserted into a single film. It’s kind of awe-inspiring, in it’s awfulness.

REVIEW: The Hills Have Eyes (2006)


“The Hills Have Eyes” begins as garbage. Complete, utter, unrelenting garbage. The worst kind of over-produced, over-stated, over-thought big studio “horror” garbage. Think “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”-remake bad. Hell, think “When a Stranger Calls”-remake bad. A punishingly bad script. Mercilessly blunt, clunky dialogue. Moronic, smack-you-over-the-head symbolism… connected, no less, to a double-take-inducingly-stupid “social message” inserted, nay, FORCED into the story.

For two full acts, I sat grumbling in my seat, taking note once more of “Haute Tension” auteur Alexandre Aja’s admirable skill at and enthusiams for the staging of ultra-explicit gore-scenes and bemoaning once more his seeming innability (or outright refusal?) to hitch said scenes to the framework of a good movie. I disgustedly kicked the empty seat in front of me as, one by one, the film ticked off entries on the “remaking classic horror movies” Don’t-List. Though the exact words never entered my mind, my feeling was such that the only thing that could save this movie was for it to transform into a completely different movie.

And then it does. Oh, don’t misunderstand me… it’s still garbage. But once Act Three roles around and just about the dopiest excuse for satire of plastic Americana this side of “Dogville” has somehow morphed into gory swath of shameless pandering and bloodlust-slaking , it attains the final effect of garbage that’s been shaped into an impressive sculpture. Like that guy who makes dinosaurs out of junkyard cars. It saves itself by jumping the shark. Sadly, as over-the-moon as I am about the way this remake eventually resolves, it doesn’t quite get good enough to make up for it’s earlier sins.

The problems start right away in the prologue and opening credits. Wes Craven’s original “Hills” (he serves as producer here) was part of the “Texas Chainsaw” cycle of 70s/80s shockers pitting unsuspecting urbanites against Neanderthal-esque rural man-beasts. Like it’s cousins, the film had no cause or time to appologize or shade it’s portrayal of the bad guys; they were the city-dweller’s nightmare stereotype of his farm/desert/backwoods brethren: Slovenly, smelly, subhuman, inbred and irredeemably evil. Mean-spirited, yes, but that mean-spiritedness was a part of the feel of these films; one of the cues letting us know how little regard the filmmaker’s had for finesse or good taste, and thus how unlikely they were to pull their punches.

The new version, on the other hand, opens with “ironic” symbolism that was already getting tired when Stanley Kubrick put it to bed at the conclusion of “Dr. Strangelove”: A dreamy country ballad underscores footage of 1950s atom bomb tests in the New Mexico desert, while shock cuts of newpaper clippings and deformed fetuses give us the new backstory about dirt-poor miners who refused to leave when their land was comandeered for the nuke tests, leading to a community of cannibalistic mutants living among the mine-shafts and fake test-site houses, feeding off wayward tourists. Just in case we don’t “get it,” a character helpfully spells it out towards the end “we” (as in “normal America”) “made them what they are.” Gentlemen, set eyeballs to roll…

…Because the cheezy symbolism is only beginning. Enter our victims, a Nuclear Family of the less-literal sort, who get stuck in the desert at the mercy of the baddies. Father Big Bob (Ted Levine!) is a Magnum-slinging retired cop and proud Republican. Mom is an ex-hippie who’s found Jesus. Son is an emo kid just itching to prove his mettle. Daughter #1 is a trampy teen queen. Daughter #2 is the responsible one who’s brought along her new baby and husband, a gun-shy, tech-saavy Democrat (GUESS which member of the family he clashes with.) Folks, believe me when I tell you that the film spells this out even MORE ham-fistedly than I am. And it’s not even DONE yet: Aja’s camera dwells obsessively on the chintzy American Flag flying from the window of Big Bob’s truck, and on the oh-so-50s camper that the new parents are riding in. They’ve even brought along a pair of Family Dogs with them, for crissakes, named Beauty and Beast. No, really.

It’s not that I’m against Aja’s apparent message here, as much as it is I’m irritated by the phoniness of it: glib mockery of the “duck and cover” 50s has been old-hat go-to stuff for a LONG time now, and despite the temptation to imagine this French filmmaker taking an opportunity to bite his thumb at Uncle Sam on the studio dime it rings hollow. Aja’s feigned distaste for kitschy Americana is betrayed by his skill at utilizing it. This doesn’t read like horror-as-social-commentary, it plays like an Art School freshman trying to score brownie points with an ex-hippie professor.

The film marks time between desert-stranding and bad guy emergence with dead-in-the-water “character development” scenes that would play as stilted and expository in The Sims. When the baddies do show up, Aja piles on the makeup-FX gore and spices it up with extended sequences of sexual assault and animal abuse like a latter-day Ruggero Deodatto. But while these scenes ARE impressively gruesome, they’re also too telegraphed as to dull most of the impact: Even a casual afficionado of modern horror can tell you that the most virtuous and innocent of characters will buy it first to prove how “serious” the film is, or that comely teenaged girls will be threatened with rape, or that parakeets have only ONE use in the genre.

As siege sequences go, it’s kind of dissapointing. And it takes the film in a slightly schizophrenic direction: Aja has spend almost an hour taking every cheap, obvious shot at the Norman Rockwell family dynamic he could muster, but now wants us to recoil in horror as the monsters literally start tearing it to pieces? Later on, a sarcasm-loaded shot of an American Flad planted in a corpse’s skull punctuated by a mutant singing “The Star Spangled Banner” will be directly followed by an applause-begging scene of a good guy using said flag to take down a baddie, and getting a soaring Sousza-esque music cue for his trouble!

Fortunately, one sunrise, three bodies and one abducted baby later is enough to jolt the film back to life: Silly satire gives way to sillier-but-more-effective action, as “Hills” mutates into a blood-soaked revenge/adventure trip for it’s final act. Gun-shy men discover their inner John Wayne, black hats swing pitchforks like Uruk-hai berserkers, and family dogs exact righteous vigilante justice (earning, when I saw it, thunderous applause every damn time.)

It could just be that Aja is better at this: Act 3 drops all pretense of building dread or “saying something,” it’s just good guys and bad guys wailing on one-another with guns, clubs and axes; blood spraying up at the camera and wounds explicitly framed. It’s pure bloodlust and adrenaline, catharsis for the audience. It’s totally mechanical, of course: The mutants do unforgivably evil things in the 2nd act, and in the 3rd the survivors exact revenge to the delight of the audience. But like any good mechanical device, it WORKS. It works not just in spite but because of it’s willingness to deliver the goods in the form of hero-shots, swelling orchestral music and superheroic canine sidekicks.

So the third act saves it, and makes it worth seeing, but it remains not much of a movie and overall a big mess. A big problem remains the disconnect between Aja’s natural talent and his ability (or lack thereof) to make it work beyond the surface level. Here is a film that opens with nuke-test archival reels intercut with images of Vietnamese Agent Orange babies and closes with an image crafted to lionize that kind of previously-satirized old-school jingoism: A “liberal cityboy” turned new-millenium cowboy; emerging behind flames with a rescued baby in one hand, a shotgun in the other, the loyal dog at his side, “baptized” in the blood of his enemies.

Having nothing to say other than “look at me!” isn’t necessarily a crime, but if Aja doesn’t find a sense of purpose or cohesion his act is going to wear out it’s welcome. Until then… reccomended, but the first hour or so is MURDER.


REVIEW: Ultraviolet (2006)

The opening credit’s of “Ultraviolet” run over a montage of ersatz comic book covers, imagining the titular heroine as part of some long-pedigree superhero franchise, accompanied by a portion of the (otherwise excellent) score that sounds far too similar to the “Spider-Man” theme music to be coincidental. It’s a pretty obvious attempt, either by director Kurt Wimmer or (more likely) the producers to tie the film in to the enduring success of movies based on graphic novels. Interestingly, it’s the last time the film is attempting to emulate the four-color page: It’s true inspiration seems to be the realm of video games, right down to it’s “mission-oriented” story structure and gleeful fetishism over the heroine’s arsenal of nifty high-tech toys.

Wimmer showed up almost literally out of nowhere three years back as the director of “Equilibrium,” a low-budget scifi actioner that raised eyebrows among genre fans in limited release and became a cult mini-phenomenon on DVD. Why? It turned out that what had been promoted as yet another “Matrix”-also-ran was actually a startlingly-intelligent, action-heavy 21st century updating of the 1984/Fahrenheit 411/Brave New World model; a brazen anti-Prozac allegorical fable cast with top-drawer talent (Christian Bale, Emily Watson, Taye Diggs and more) and martial-arts/gunplay sequences so gorgeous one could be forgiven for assuming they were watching an actual Hong Kong import.

All that “Equilibrium”-generated goodwill among scifi afficionados has made “Ultraviolet,” Wimmer’s long-delayed follow-up, the subject of unusual anticipation for a mid-budget genre flick. The extra attention will probably help the film out in the short-term, but may backfire in the long run: The fans who rightly regard “Equilibrium” as one of the best scifi films of the last couple decades may be let down to find that “Ultraviolet” is “only” a good, but not great, genre entry.

It might not help that the setting, tone and backstory bear more than a passing resemblance to Wimmer’s prior work: The story once again is a futuristic action/adventure featuring a lone killing-machine hero versus the legions of a pharmaceutical-connected facist government. Briefly: An experiment to harness Vampirism (really!) as a combat-enhancement serum instead unleashed a viral plague that turns people into super-powered, fanged “Hemophages.” The medical industry, controlling the science needed to prevent the disease, has seized power via The Arch-Ministry, a particularly nasty Big Brother organization who’s archictecture all looks like an unsubtle mixture of Facism and Catholicism (get it?) and who’ve forcefully turned the Hemophages into an oppressed minority (blunt visual allusions to the Holocaust? Check.)

In the story-proper, the Hemophage rebels are at war with Vice Cardinal (get it?) Daxus, (Nick Chinlund) the germophobic head of the Arch-Minstry. In the middle is Violet (Milla Jovovich) a Hemophage gunslinger with a grudge who’s stumbled into custody of a mysterious child (Cameron Bright) who may or may not be walking aroudn with a hemophagia cure in his bloodstream.

As I said, it’s basically a video game: Violet has to protect, rescue and ferry the kid through wave after wave of heavily-armed enemies en-route to the innevitable final showdown with Daxus. And for the most part, that really is enough in terms of giving Wimmer room to show off his creativity in inventing scifi weaponry (Violet’s hair and clothing change colors like a mood-ring, a special belt lets her bend gravity to walk and motorcycle on walls, and “flat space” technology lets her hide hundreds of guns and swords shrunk-down inside tiny bracelets) and his still frighteningly good skill at directing action setpeices.

The problem is, sad to say, the film lacks the principal element that makes better examples of this genre (like “Equilibrium”) a cut above: The script. It’s not that Wimmer has turned in a poor screenplay this time around, it’s that he’s loaded up a gorgeous-looking movie with an average, “been-there” story and dialogue that doesn’t exactly crackle with life. The cast makes do with what they’re given: Jovovich is a natural action-goddess, right down the the throaty delivery and the healthily curvy physique. Chinlund chews the scenery like a madman. Bright isn’t given much to do but look confused and uncomfortable, but considering we’re watching this kid essentially being PAID to stand at eye-level with Milla Jovovich’s bare midriff for the duration of the shoot, he must be a great actor to not be grinning ear-to-ear in every single shot.

The film comes to life in it’s action scenes, which are fortunately frequent. Wimmer has, obviously, enough imagination for such material to fill dozens of these films, and he’s here restrained only by the budget (much of the exterior CGI shots are simply MUCH too Playstation-looking.) Worth the price of admission are a (literally) gravity-warping opening scene and a battle in total darkness illuminated only by the light of the combatant’s FLAMING SWORDS. He understands that greatness is in the details: A baddie whipping out a samurai sword with a serated edge… Violet rapid-firing an uzi and using the superheated gun-metal to cauterize a wound (BAD-ASS!)… and a great moment cribbed with affection from “Lone Wolf & Cub” that may earn Wimmer a high-five the next time he passes Quentin Tarantino on the street.

The final product suffers from a distinct lack of “kick” to it’s more heavily-violent scenes, perhaps confirmation of the rumored cutting from an R to a PG-13 that gossipmongers are claiming has Wimmer in a bad mood. Oddly enough, this gives me a bit of positive hope: That kind of cutting innevitably begets an “Unrated Director’s Cut!!!” DVD, which may give Wimmer the opportunity to smooth out some of the rougher edges in other respects. As it stands right now, we’ve got a solid, diverting but underwhelming actioner from a filmmaker we know is capable of better.

But at least it’s better than “Aeon Flux.”