Archive for the ‘Action.’ Category

DG LOGO Vigilante Force  Vigilante Force

 

This here is really me catching up: I mentioned it briefly in my 2014 positivity post, but I’m co-hosting the Daily Grindhouse podcast now with Joe and Freeman. Our most recent episode found us discussing 1976’s VIGILANTE FORCE, written and directed by George Armitage and starring Kris Kristofferson, Jan-Michael Vincent, Victoria Principal, and Bernadette Peters. It’s a crazy good time (we’re two for two on movie choices! And just wait until you hear our third episode, coming this week!)

 

[Click here to listen and download!]

Here is the trailer and then the copy I read on the show: I feel like I stumbled over my words a bit so for clarity’s sake and for completists, I wanted to make it available. (Sometimes I listen to my own voice and feel so deeply grateful my parents decided to make me pretty.)

 

 

FIRE

 

 

 

Elk Hills, California is a boom town. Oil-field workers drawn to the town by black gold run wild in the streets, drinking heavily and getting in raucous and very costly bar fights (staged by veteran stuntman Buddy Joe Hooker). This movie is set in the 1970s, when it was made, but it plays out like the Old West. One early bar fight BEGINS with a man getting shot in the gut and then escalates from there. The marauders have shoot-outs in the street with the police. One young man decides he’s had enough. Ben Arnold (played by Jan-Michael Vincent) is a widower and single father with a nice, pretty girlfriend (played by Victoria Principal). Ben tells the city elders, including the mayor (played by Brad Dexter, the member of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN everyone always forgets) and David Doyle (best known as Bosley from Charlie’s Angels) that he’s going for outside help.

 

 

BERNADETTE

 

 

Ben’s older brother Aaron is a Vietnam vet working a lousy menial job at an airfield. Ben recruits Aaron and his shitkicking drinking buddies from the service to come to Elk Hills to clean it up. Because Aaron is played by the ruggedly handsome and endlessly charming singer, songwriter, and movie star Kris Kristofferson, we feel like we may have seen this movie before: Good-guy gunslinger comes to lawless town and cleans it up for the decent folks. This isn’t what happens. After beating the oil workers down, Aaron makes a deal with some shady characters – one of them played by professional hard-ass Paul Gleason, best remembered for TRADING PLACES, THE BREAKFAST CLUB, and DIE HARD — to shake down the townspeople so that Aaron and his boys can swoop in and collect the protection tax. Aaron takes up with a spacey nightclub singer – Bernadette Peters, who nearly steals the movie away – but his callous treatment of her echoes his cruel treatment of the town. As Aaron’s tyranny escalates, Ben slowly realizes that his brother is kind of a monster, and recruits his own vigilante force to take him down. This happens in a wild, almost absurdly explosive climax well befitting a story with Biblical undertones. Call it Will Kane and Abel. That’s a HIGH NOON reference, son.

 

 

VIGILANTE FORCE

 

 

VIGILANTE FORCE

 

 

A Vietnam allegory that’s actually about Vietnam, VIGILANTE FORCE was written and directed by a smart, savvy, and sorely under-recognized filmmaker named George Armitage. Armitage started out directing for Roger Corman (whose brother Gene produced VIGILANTE FORCE). His feature previous to this one was HIT MAN, an Americanized version of GET CARTER starring Bernie Casey and Pam Grier. After VIGILANTE FORCE, he didn’t direct a theatrical feature until 1990’s MIAMI BLUES, the cult classic adaptation of the Charles Willeford novel starring a young Alec Baldwin. After writing the screenplay for the HBO movie THE LATE SHIFT, Armitage directed another cult classic, the John Cusack-starring GROSSE POINTE BLANK. Next, Armitage directed THE BIG BOUNCE, a poorly-received Elmore Leonard adaptation starring Owen Wilson and Morgan Freeman. That was 2004. He hasn’t made a film since. This is a mystery that all of humanity should be working to solve.

 

 

BOOM.

 

 

If you like us talking about VIGILANTE FORCE, be sure to check out our episode on STREET WARS!:

 

 

STREET WARS (1992)

 

 

 

 

@jonnyabomb

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The Gauntlet 1977

Let’s start off by agreeing that the poster above is probably the single best one of all time. That is a Frank Frazetta. This isn’t the kind of thing Frazetta usually painted, but as he described in the documentary PAINTING WITH FIRE, Clint came over to ask him personally to do it, so he did. It’s a fun part of the documentary because Frazetta was often told he resembled Clint.

Frazetta Self-Portrait

Frazetta Self-Portrait

frank_frazetta_thuviamaidofmars

frank_frazetta_space_attack

frank-frazetta-the-destroyer

Frazetta-Tigress

I’m starting off my thoughts on THE GAUNTLET with its poster and poster artist because rarely has there ever been such a perfect match of promotional artwork to finished film. Frazetta’s paintings were bombastic, ferocious, horned-up, and hyper-masculine. He painted incredibly beautiful women, but at the same time I’m not sure how impressed the feminists would be.

Likewise, THE GAUNTLET features this kind of dialogue:

“On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d have to give her a 2, and that’s only because I’ve never seen a 1 before.” — Ben Shockley (Clint Eastwood).

I mean, that’s a fun line to me, but I recognize it ain’t exactly courtly.

A large part of my writing about movies to date has featured a long-running battle between the brain and the crotchular vicinity, with the heart reffing the match. Intellectually I tend toward the feminism-friendly but instinctively I rage and I ogle as much as any man on the planet. Being thoughtful and being masculine often results in internal hormonal warfare. I love Clint’s movies for their violence and their brutishness as much as for their progressive thinking and genre-spanning restlessness. THE GAUNTLET is the Icarus of Clint’s movies, darting dangerously close to the burning sun that is the mass of critics who eternally underrate and undermine his work. I don’t think the wax exactly melts, but it’s a photo-finish. What helps is context.

THE GAUNTLET comes in a pivotal place in Clint’s career. It’s the first film he directed after his first masterpiece, 1976’s THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES. In 1976 he also starred in THE ENFORCER, which is the Dirty Harry movie which straight-on tackles the issue of feminism by assigning Callahan a female partner. His next film as director after THE GAUNTLET was 1980’s BRONCO BILLY, hands-down one of his most personal films. It’s interesting to note that THE GAUNTLET was not originally derived as a vehicle for Clint — both Walter Hill and Sam Peckinpah had wanted to make it with Kris Kristofferson, and according to Wikipedia, Steve McQueen had considered it at one point before dropping out over arguments with his female co-star, Barbra Streisand (!!!). The writers, Michael Butler and Dennis Shryack, later wrote 1985’s PALE RIDER, in which Clint starred, and also 1977’s supreme horror oddity THE CAR, apropos of nothing.

So THE GAUNTLET, while incredibly entertaining, is not particularly endemic of Clint’s work — it features very few of his thematic preoccupations, outside of systemic corruption and outsized masculinity. Clint plays an alcoholic detective — unlike Harry Callahan, not remotely an ace — who is charged with safeguarding a federal witness who turns out to have damning evidence about a major authority figure. It’s a set-up. He’s meant to be killed alongside her, and the movie becomes one long dash to the endzone, the titular gauntlet wherein Shockley commandeers a city bus to drive to the federal courthouse in Phoenix despite the fact that the entire police force is bearing down on him with a literal blizzard of bullets. That painting Frazetta did? Not much of an exaggeration.

The most obvious Clint-ism about THE GAUNTLET is that this movie happened during the Sondra Locke era, so she’s the actress who plays the witness. With respect, I’m not the biggest Sondra Locke fan. She seems kind of brittle to me. The combative banter between their two characters is usually entertaining as written, but comes off a little harsh, with the visual disparity between them. With any other female lead, the constant hectoring may have been more charming. There are other Eastwood stock players in the mix, including Pat Hingle (HANG ‘EM HIGH, SUDDEN IMPACT), William Prince (BRONCO BILLY), and the great Bill McKinney (THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES), but the co-stars who leave the biggest impression remain Sondra Locke and that bus.

Really, the final gauntlet scene is what makes this essential viewing. The constant barrage of gunfire is so outlandish that it goes beyond comical to harrowing and then back again. It’s a predictor of the next three decades of American action movies, right up to the present. At the time, it could have been Clint’s way of sending up his own gun-happy image — it certainly works as satire, but so too does it work as a viscerally-pleasing massacre of public property. (The human body count is not particularly high in this film, compared to other Clint actioners.)

Whether there’s much going on beyond the surface of this particular film or not, there are few things as ingratiating and as enjoyably American as Clint in his 1970s primacy, and if THE GAUNTLET isn’t one of his most essential films by a long shot, it’s still pretty damn fun.

@jonnyabomb

The Gauntlet (1977)

Breaking Point (1976)

1976’s BREAKING POINT falls within the Bob Clark filmography during the period after BLACK CHRISTMAS and before PORKY’SBREAKING POINT can be loosely considered as one of those urban vigilante thrillers that were so popular in the mid- to late-1970s, exemplified by DEATH WISH and the like.  In the tradition of those cheaper action titles, BREAKING POINT is rather crude and choppy.  I can’t find much online about the history behind this movie, but even though it was distributed by 20th Century Fox, it feels like it was made on the quick and on the cheap, most likely to capitalize on the popularity of the genre.

You wouldn’t recognize anyone in BREAKING POINT except Robert Culp, as a frustrated and rather ineffectual cop, and Bo Svenson as the lead character, a karate instructor who interrupts a violent crime, feels compelled to report it to the police, and is then targeted by the mob.  He’s pretty dour and humorless in this movie, but Svenson is a really underrated presence in action movies.  He’s a humongous Swede, looking not unlike a super-sized Steve McQueen, who took over the role of Buford Pusser from Joe Don Baker in the sequel to WALKING TALL (and its eventual TV series treatment), and played in a ton of B-list action movies.  Naturally, he’s a favorite of Quentin Tarantino, who cast him in KILL BILL and INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.

As I said, Svenson’s character in BREAKING POINT, Mike McBain (that name is SO 1970s) is a fairly dour guy.  He seems warm enough to his wife and stepson, to his assistant at his dojo, and even to the ex-husband who’s still in the picture, but when any of them press him as to why he seems so dead-set on endangering them all by testifying against the mob enforcers he identified, he barks out in anger that it’s something he has to do, and that’s that.  Eventually, the mobsters, who have major real-estate deals in development, become weirdly obsessed with making McBain pay for his interference, and begin a ridiculously over-zealous campaign of revenge.

They set the ex-husband on fire, shoot another friend to death, and stalk McBain’s assistant in horror-movie masks, in a creepy scene drawing upon Clark’s experience in horror flicks.  (Unfortunately, this scene culminates in the kind of sexual assault that was disturbingly common in movies of this type.)  Even relocating his family under witness protection can’t keep these thugs away from his loved ones, so McBain eventually has to get on his shit-kicking boots.

That’s an hour into the movie, but it’s well worth waiting for, if you like this sort of thing.  For starters, these bad guys are no match for Bo Svenson.  He’s well over six feet tall, and the size of a bookcase – one in which all the books are Sonny Liston autobiographies.  By contrast, the villains are so non-descript that I didn’t even notice that the soft-spoken “don” was supposed to be stereotypically Italian until the movie was half over.  And here’s how his henchmen look:

     

It hardly seems fair.  But let’s face it, we’ve seen plenty of movies where the puny nerds triumph over the dumb jock.  Let’s not pretend that none of us secretly enjoy seeing annoying little pricks get stuffed into the locker.

And that’s exactly the kind of grace with which McBain goes about his mob-stomping rampage.  After clubbing one thug to death in a bathroom, he lifts the guy up by his pants, in the most titanic cinematic wedgie I may have ever seen, and dumps the corpse on the toilet.  Then, to give the jerk that much extra ignobility in death, he pantses the corpse and drapes his lifeless hand over his lifeless crotch.

The final showdown surpasses that momentous confrontation with even more lumbering force.  In a brief setpiece that erases all of the similarities you may have been trying to draw between Bo Svenson and Woody Allen, McBain takes out one henchman by using a massive block of timber like a javelin.

Oh snap!

But it gets better.

Instead of shooting it out with the main villain, McBain comes at him with a bulldozer, driving straight into the guy’s office.  Not even the guy’s pet lizard (a ‘70s villain shorthand) is spared.  McBain drives the house, with the guy in it, over a ridge and into a ravine.  Where it explodes.  Duh.  He watches the debris burn.  And the movie’s over.

And that’s the ‘70s, dude.

I’m not arguing for BREAKING POINT as a lost classic, or even a must-see.  It’s not.  It’s a frequently dull, often sloppy, and absolutely generic movie that doesn’t rate higher than serviceable until its final third, where Bo Svenson finally goes apeshit.  But that part is really fun to watch, and beyond that, it’s profoundly interesting to me that the same director who made this movie also made PORKY’S, A CHRISTMAS STORY, BABY GENIUSES, and something called KARATE DOG.  That’s the kind of bizarre versatility that I can totally get behind.

@jonnyabomb

SALT (2010)

In honor of Angelina Jolie, I’m throwing it back to a good movie worth a look (largely due to Angelina herself), SALT. I originally wrote this in July of 2010.

SALT (2010)

I don’t know if anyone’s mentioned this before, but that Angelina Jolie, boy, she is one striking lady. She really does have an uncanny ability to command a camera any time she steps in front of one.  In her new movie SALT, the effect is magnified, seeing as how she happens to be standing in front of a camera that is being wielded by one of the world’s greatest cinematographers, Robert Elswit (who shot all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies and most of George Clooney’s.) Actually, she’s not doing much standing here, but instead running throughout the majority of SALT’s running time, dodging moving vehicles and speeding bullets and loud explosions, but through it all, Elswit never loses track of the movie’s main draw.

This being the internet, you don’t have to look far to read everyone from profound critical types to adolescent droolers and one-handed typers rhapsodizing over Angelina Jolie’s features, particularly her mouth, which consists of full lips and a sly, unpredictable smile. But in truth, the main feature which makes her a born movie star are her eyes. She has eyes which register huge onscreen, and which make you interested to know what she’s thinking. And that’s a large part of why SALT is so effective.

SALT (2010)

For a good length of the movie, you don’t know what the main character, Evelyn Salt, is thinking. Salt is a super-competent CIA agent who is accused by a captive Russian spymaster (played by veteran Polish actor Daniel Olbrychski) of being a sleeper agent for the KGB, which immediately puts her at odds with her mentor, Winter (played by the great Liev Schreiber) and his colleague, Peabody (played by the great Chiwetel Ejiofor.) The Russian spymaster is named Orlov, which immediately made me think of NOSFERATU, which, if intentional, is only one of SALT’s gloriously over-the-top touches that is played totally straight by several great actors and is therefore totally convincing.

Salt claims to be innocent, but she refuses to sit still for the standard interrogation, claiming that she needs to get home to protect her husband (and dog). This is how the chase begins. Winter and Peabody and a small army of heavily-armored agents chase Salt throughout New York City, unable to trust her motives. That’s pretty much the plot. What makes the chase so thrilling and rewarding is the tenor of the thing: We the audience are kept at emotional arm’s distance the whole way, even as we’re given front-row seats to the excellently-staged action. We look in those evocative eyes of Angelina’s and we want to see a good guy there, but we can’t quite trust it, and a couple of very reliable character actors are being convinced on our behalf that she is indeed on the wrong side. Salt’s very behavior begins to be suspect, even though Angelina couldn’t really be a bad guy, now, could she? Could she really be Russian? Are the Russians really still out to get us? (Apparently…) And does Salt really care about that husband after all?

(Maybe not: It’s another canny move on the filmmakers’ part that the husband who Salt is racing to get back to isn’t exactly a perfect dream. He’s written and shot sympathetically, but he’s also a German entomologist, which means he loves bugs and he’s German.  This ain’t exactly Brad Pitt here.)

SALT is a movie about consummate professionals that also happens to be made by consummate professionals. The fast-moving script is by action screenwriter Kurt Wimmer, with uncredited rewrites by Demon’s Resume favorite Brian Helgeland. The effective score is by James Newton Howard. The film was edited by a trio of expert editors, Stuart Baird, John Gilroy, and Steven Kemper. And at the helm is director Phillip Noyce, the strangely-underrated Australian craftsman, who is best known here for his two Jack Ryan movies with Harrison Ford (PATRIOT GAMES and CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER.) Noyce also made a much smaller movie back in his native Australia called RABBIT-PROOF FENCE, which is a special little film that I highly recommend.  RABBIT-PROOF FENCE is the work of a director who is interested in human beings, not just the espionage and action and suspense and machinery that he is obviously so skilled in capturing on film. That’s the human touch that he brings to SALT, along with the performance he gets out of his lead actress – fiery yet cold, sensitive yet emotionless, tender yet violent.

SALT (2010)

It’s interesting that, as all the pre-release press has mentioned, SALT was originally meant to star Tom Cruise. If I hadn’t have known that, I wouldn’t have thought it. It doesn’t feel like a Tom Cruise movie. SALT is definitely a star vehicle, and it plays perfectly to the strengths of its star. Angelina Jolie is the main reason that people will (hopefully) come out to see SALT, along with the thoroughly satisfying action setpieces, and having seen it, it’s hard to imagine it with any other lead actor. I thought that KNIGHT & DAY was ultimately the better choice for Tom Cruise – even though, despite it working pretty well as a star vehicle in its own right, it hasn’t really caught on with audiences. A good star vehicle has to serve its lead actor, to bring out what you love or find interesting about them while still finding ways to surprise you.

SALT is a great star vehicle for Angelina Jolie. It’s convincingly badass yet more emotional than the average spy thriller. I don’t know anyone who isn’t an Angelina fan, but in case you somehow aren’t, please give SALT a chance anyway, and do it on the big screen. After the tidal wave caused last week by  INCEPTION, it’s hard to imagine where action movies can go next. Maybe right now and for the time being, the only way to compete is to be thoroughly competent. SALT does that. It’s a great time at the movies, a BOURNE movie with a feminine twist, and if it’s successful enough to earn a sequel, I’d be very happy to see one.

SALT (2010)

@jonnyabomb

Cloud Atlas (2012)

 

If you didn’t see this movie on the big screen, you missed out.  If you missed it entirely, you fucked up.  And if you were one of those who called it “the worst movie of the year” (whoever Mary Pols at Time magazine is; stupid stupid Peter Travers) – God help you.  When this movie comes to be seen as a lost classic in a few years, you may wish you weren’t so nasty.

I won’t be gloating though.  I choose the avenue of love.  This movie encouraged me to be that way.  This movie is about a lot of things I may or may not believe in – fate, true love, reincarnation of sorts – and it made me believe – strongly – in them all.  That’s the power of love, son.  That’s the power of cinema.  And I was skeptical too.  I’ve always liked the Wachowskis but I’m not as high on THE MATRIX as so many are (although, weirdly, I liked the sequels better than most), and I haven’t seen a Tom Tykwer move that really resonated with me since RUN LOLA RUN.  Most of all, without having read David Mitchell’s original novel it was hard to tell in advance what the hell this movie was going to be about.  Answer:  It’s kinda about everything.

It’s a 19th-century nautical drama involving slavery and other human cruelties.

It’s a period piece about the creation of classical music and an impossible romance.

It’s a 1970s political thriller about an intrepid reporter (co-starring THE THING‘s Keith David as SHAFT‘s Shaft!).

It’s a whimsical farce about an attempted escape from a nursing home.

It’s a science-fiction anime action-movie love-story.

It’s a post-apocalyptic future-tropical tribal-warfare-slash-horror-movie that turns into a campfire fable.

It’s like no other movie I’ve ever seen before, which for the record is exactly why I go to the movies:  To see things I haven’t seen before.  The performances are surprising and exhilarating, the score is clever and moving, the cinematography is colorful and absorbing, the scope is bold and ambitious.  Does it matter too much that some of the storylines are more affecting than others?  You think I care about anybody’s stupid little quibbles over some of the makeup effects?  This is a movie that shoots for the moon and more than once hits the stars.  This movie didn’t just surprise me with what it is – it surprised me about ME.  It’s sad that more people haven’t embraced it yet, but believe me, I’m happier loving this movie than you are disregarding or ignoring it.  Feel free to come over to this side anytime!

I wrote this for Daily Grindhouse and reposted it here because CLOUD ATLAS is out on DVD & Blu-Ray today. Now’s your chance to remedy the mistakes of the past…

@jonnyabomb

“There are no atheists in foxholes,” as the old saying goes. But what about in wolves’ dens? It’s a question I never knew I had. Just one of many reasons why THE GREY, the new thriller from co-writer/director Joe Carnahan, is such an uncommon and splendid achievement is that it asks (and answers) that question.

I had been sold on this movie from the minute I was made aware that it was to be a survival drama where the great actor Liam Neeson faces off against a pack of hungry wolves. “Herman Melville meets Jack London meets Hemingway meets wolves meets Liam Neeson’s fists.”  That movie would have been just fine.  But this movie is twice as good.  It’s got all the thrills and chills you could hope and expect out of that brilliantly direct premise — but on top of that, THE GREY is one of the more profound, dynamic, and uncompromising illustrations of existentialism I have seen on a movie screen in quite a while. This film goes deep — like “straight to the bone, through the ribcage, all the way through to the soul” deep.

For those of us who have been starving for brutal, bruising, uncompromising American cinema, THE GREY is proof of life.

The Grey (2012)

That was what I had started to write in January 2012. Here’s what I finally wrote about the movie in December for Daily Grindhouse:

THE GREY marked its territory in my number one spot all the way back in January of 2012, and fiercely warded off all comers with teeth bared.  I love all the movies in my top ten and there are plenty still which almost made the list, but THE GREY is the one I really took to heart.  For one thing, I am ready to go to the mat on the argument that the storytelling and filmmaking in THE GREY is at least as exemplary as any of the year’s more award-friendly critical darlings.

The score by Marc Streitenfeld is gorgeous and heartbreaking. The cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi is crisply delineated and winter-clear.  The script by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers & Joe Carnahan is perfectly-paced and indelible.  And Joe Carnahan’s direction is world-class.  I was a huge fan of Carnahan’s movie NARC, and I think his SMOKIN’ ACES and THE A-TEAM, while surely on the cartoony side of the action-movie spectrum, show action chops on par with the best of ‘em.  I have been following and enjoying his work for a long time, but THE GREY makes Carnahan a canon filmmaker in my eyes.

I was lucky enough to see THE GREY a month early, so I could watch with fascination as it was received by the public.  Considering how thoughtful a film it is, all the simplistic and reductive “Liam Neeson punches wolves!” jokes were almost obscene.  Some of the marketing did seem eager to group THE GREY alongside the Liam Neeson action-thrillers of the last few years, and obviously this is a different thing entirely.  Interestingly, some religious groups embraced the movie, although I’m not sure it’s saying what they may want it to be saying.  And some environmental groups were bothered by the portrayal of the wolves, which is a well-intentioned complaint but misses the point.  First of all, Liam Neeson’s character views the wolves above all with a kind of respect.  But more importantly:  The same way FLIGHT isn’t really about a plane, THE GREY isn’t exactly about the wolves.

Think about the title.  Did you look at the wolves in that movie?  Didn’t look all that gray to me.  They looked almost black.  They blended in and out of that night with ease.  These aren’t real-world wolves.  These are something else.  The wolves in THE GREY are an engine, relentlessly forcing the sands through the hourglass.  In my reading of the title, “The Grey” refers to that space between existence and non-existence, between the white of snow and the black of death. No, this isn’t a movie about wolves.  This is a movie about mortality.

The Grey

Many fans of the movie have noted how THE GREY structurally resembles a typically horror movie, as the cast of characters are gradually winnowed away, and maybe that’s true, but in that case I’ve never seen a horror movie that treats the ranks of the culled with such care.  Most of the characters who die in THE GREY get sent out on a moment of dignity, even grace, or at least as much as can be mustered.  (There is one major exception, maybe the most upsetting death in the entire film, but that is the one that prompts the film’s most important emotional moment, so it’s not much of an exception after all.)  This is a movie that shows many people dying, yet it is the rare such movie that happens to value life.  That is one reason why I am struck where it matters by THE GREY.

There are also personal reasons.  I’ve spent the last four years attending more funerals than I wanted to attend in a lifetime.  Without any exaggeration and in a relatively short time, I’ve lost half my nearest and dearest.  I’ve been living with death.  This movie is what that feels like.  Wolves and winter – that’s all just visual trappings meant to illustrate an idea.  The point is, there may come a time in your life when everybody you know starts dropping like flies at the hands of some relentless cosmic flyswatter, and then what are you gonna do?  Pray to God?  Good luck there.  Worth a try.  Maybe He answers your prayers.  Maybe He doesn’t answer.  Probably he doesn’t answer.  Now you’ve got a choice to make.  Or maybe there isn’t a choice at all.

“Fuck it.  I’ll do it myself.”  That isn’t a renunciation.  That is, in fact, a profoundly spiritual decision.  This movie illustrates that concept so beautifully that if I had the tears to do it, I’d cry them.  I thank this movie for existing in 2012, and I thank Joe Carnahan and his cast and crew for braving the cold to make it.

The Grey (2012)

For further reading:

My Top Ten Of 2012

THE A-TEAM

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

@jonnyabomb

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

For the sake of argument, let’s say I’m in love with this girl, and I’m hoping, somewhere in the back of my mind, that we’re maybe going to get married one day. That too, for the sake of argument, judging from the public bickering of many married couples.

But this girl is special, the kind you marry — she’s smart, funny, pretty, one-in-a-million. So, on this speculative day in the distant future, I’m standing up there at the altar, and everybody who we love in the world is there — my parents, her parents, all my best friends, hers, and the sun is shining and the angels are singing…

…And she walks in wearing a live armadillo on her head.

Like a full-on, Lady-Gaga-would-be-envious costume choice. An armadillo.  The armadillo is on top of my beloved’s beautiful head. And the armadillo is wearing a little bridal veil. And my girl, she’s loving it. And everybody else in the room is busy telling her she’s never looked more beautiful.

Now, I happen to believe she’s looked plenty better.

But what can I say? I love her. I love all of these people. They’re all so happy. Who am I to tell them they’re wrong? Maybe the meaning of true love is letting your favorite girl parade around with an armored mammal on her dome. I wouldn’t know. I’m the surly jackass who always ruins it by opening his big mouth.

This imaginary exercise is a deranged illustration of my main point: There are plenty of people who loved THE DARK KNIGHT RISES — smart people, good people, people of taste. I cannot, nor would I ever, tell anyone that they shouldn’t enjoy a movie they love. Hell, I wanted to love it too. Could you understand that, please, before you start telling me how wrong I am? I didn’t walk into that theater as a skeptic. I walked in as a lifelong Batman fan, and as a fan of Christopher Nolan (read my rave reflections on INCEPTION!) and his work on BATMAN BEGINS and in (most of) THE DARK KNIGHT.

But I found the third to be the least of the three.  It is my personal opinion that these movies have grown progressively less thematically coherent and structurally satisfying while their running time has grown more oppressive and their tone more dour. I have many reasons for my overall disappointment in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, and I am about to list them all. Some of them are arguably a matter of personal preference, while others come from a perspective formed by my own experiences in filmmaking and storytelling. You certainly don’t have to agree with me. This is my take. Feel free to let me know where you think I’m right or wrong. I’m always willing to talk at length about Batman.

(Which is maybe one reason why that whole marriage-to-the-perfect-woman scenario described above has thus far remained hypothetical.)

NOTE: Spoilers abound. I’m assuming we’ve all seen these movies by now.

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The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

The biggest problem, by far, about THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, is that we were promised a much more exciting movie than we got. At the end of THE DARK KNIGHT, Batman is an outcast, an outlaw, a fugitive. “Why’s he running, dad?” “Because we have to chase him.” Remember? “We’ll hunt him. Because he can take it.” Remember that whole thing? That dramatic shot of Batman taking flight, as Jim Gordon goes on about him being the “silent protector” — I’m bringing this up because some people seem to have forgotten about it, for example the guys who made the movie. THE DARK KNIGHT promises us a truly compelling scenario where Batman’s best ally, Jim Gordon, is forced to bring his entire police force to bear on tracking down the masked vigilante who supposedly murdered Harvey Dent, the city’s valiant district attorney.  It could have been THE FUGITIVE, but with Batman as Harrison Ford and Commissioner Gordon as Tommy Lee Jones. That sounds like a cool fucking movie. Why didn’t they make that movie? They had three hours and the gross national product of Mexico.

Instead, when THE DARK KNIGHT RISES opens up, eight whole years have passed and Batman has vanished. Bruce Wayne is a recluse. We don’t get to see a single second of the exciting chases and harrowing Batman-related escapes which may have happened towards the beginning of that timespan. He’s in a robe, with a cane. And a Caine. He’s quit being Batman. He’s quit on us. And not for the last time.

Let’s go at this mess character-by-character, starting with the titular case.

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The Problem With BATMAN:

Bruce & Alfred

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is so long it has time for Bruce Wayne to quit being Batman twice!

Okay.

Now.

I think I understand what this series of films is trying to do: To show the evolution of Gotham City away from very much needing a Batman, towards no longer needing him. To use Batman as a symbol, an idea, one that is greater than Bruce Wayne alone. I get that. However, this choice opens up two sizable storytelling problems:

1)  Dramatically speaking, the main protagonist drops out of the film for sizable amounts of running time. (It’s a Batman movie where Batman becomes a supporting character — or did you really buy a ticket hoping to see your favorite superhero hanging out in a hole in the desert for an hour?)

2) More egregiously, it goes against the one thing that makes Batman who he is, the one thing that sets Batman apart from all other superheroes: He doesn’t quit. Spider-Man might, temporarily. That’s his thing. Spider-Man wavers. Batman won’t, ever. Now Superman doesn’t quit, but he takes regular breaks. So does Captain America. So does Iron Man. So does Wonder Woman. Superman has a secret identity so he can have a personal life. That’s not Batman. Batman has a personal life exclusively to finance, enable, and justify his nocturnal activities. Batman never quits, never stops. His determination, his inexhaustible obsession, his monomania, his madness, these are his key defining characteristics.

Yes, that is evident in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, in the way he heals his own broken back to climb out of an inescapable prison, but that doesn’t to me excuse the fact that the movie opened with Bruce Wayne in retirement and it ends with him happily hanging out in a cafe with [someone we will get to in a moment]. Batman isn’t about happy endings and requited romance. If you want that, you can have any other superhero. He’s the Dark Knight. If a story doesn’t end with Bruce Wayne as Batman, it’s kind of defeating the essence of what makes the character interesting.

Even if I were to look at THE DARK KNIGHT RISES as an alternate-universe Elseworlds story, it still wouldn’t be my favorite one. Chris Nolan is a phenomenal filmmaker with phenomenal crews, and his Batman films are brilliantly orchestrated on a technical level, but that ending felt so goddamn false to me.  Ultimately, there are truer endings found in Tim Burton’s two BATMAN movies, where Bruce Wayne may have temporarily found romance (to satisfy the Hollywood beast) but still stands perched atop Gotham in costume in the final frame, and even Joel Schumacher’s BATMAN FOREVER, for fuck’s sake, which makes all kinds of mistakes, still has Batman and Robin running at the camera in the final shot. String me up and set me on fire for saying so, but these are the more satisfying Batman stories to me. They end truer to the character.

Quitter.

Quitter.

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The Problem With ALFRED:

WAAAAAAAAA!

WAAAAAAAAA!

He cries a fucking lot in this movie.  One might argue that all he gets to do in this movie is to cry.  At least in BATMAN BEGINS he got to whack a guy with some lumber or something.  Here he just lurches around Wayne Manor all weepy, and it isn’t any fun at all.  This objection may be a matter of personal opinion, but personally I did not sign up for a Batman movie filled with crying.  Maybe it’s a generational thing. Maybe it doesn’t bother younger men than me.  Of course I don’t think crying is wrong, but I do think there shouldn’t be crying in a movie about people in superhero costumes.  I think that’s one of the few places it is justifiable to expect a surplus of stereotypical machismo.

2012 was a rough one for rugged manliness of the sort I grew up on. Ernest Borgnine died, Clint flipped out, and they put out a Batman movie with a fucking lot of crying in it. If I am watching a tear coming out of Michael Caine’s eye, it had better be because he just watched a porno with his niece in it. And if you don’t get that reference, it means you haven’t seen Michael Caine in GET CARTER, which is precisely the problem.

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The Problem With SELINA KYLE A.K.A. CATWOMAN:

When I heard that the third Nolan Batman movie would have Catwoman in it, what I wanted was this:

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

But what I got was this:

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

Can we look at it without the funny ears?  It’s a little easier to take that way.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

…Better. But not too much.

Anne Hathaway is a talented kid. (Kid? She’s around my age. Why do I write like an 80-year-old?) She was excellent in RACHEL GETTING MARRIED, still her best role to date. But she reads onscreen, to my eyes anyway, like a young adult, at best. She doesn’t play as a full-grown woman. In the costume pictured above, she looks to me the way she looks in almost every other role I’ve seen her in: Like the most enthusiastic member of the high school drama club.  The role of Catwoman, as historically portrayed and as written here specifically, demands a grown woman, who has lived a life she both regrets and takes perverse pride in. She’s got something to prove, and interests to protect. She uses sex as a weapon and is far more dangerous than she looks. I saw that in Michelle Pfeiffer, for sure. I could have seen that in Halle Berry, if that CATWOMAN movie weren’t so bad. I don’t see any of that in Anne Hathaway. In Anne Hathway, I see an actress giving her all, which I appreciate, but all I see is an actress giving her all — not the character of Selina Kyle.

Even if you don’t agree that Anne Hathaway as Catwoman is horrendous miscasting, you will have a hard time explaining to me why Selina Kyle needs to be in this particular movie at all. Nerds of the world, you cannot rail on SPIDER-MAN 3, which had three popular villain characters crammed into an already-crowded narrative, and then give this movie a pass. If Nolan’s Batman films are about the evolution of Gotham City and Batman as a symbol, then where does this character fit in thematically? Why, if Bruce Wayne is in seclusion because Batman is no longer needed, does a lady jewel thief suddenly appear? And why does she have a hat with funny ears on it?

All of that aside, turning her into a love interest for Bruce Wayne, as this movie does, was clumsy and silly. I liked where the movie seemed to be headed, that Batman and Catwoman were alternately adversaries and allies and you never knew where she stood, both morally and even sexually (that one scene where she’s embracing her female sidekick had more interesting intimations which of course weren’t pursued.)

But no, instead, proving that infernal Billy Crystal right, they couldn’t just be friends. Against all common sense, they end up together, despite the fact that it seemed to only happen because the movie wanted to end with Bruce Wayne together with a lady, just because the other one [to be discussed momentarily] was no longer available. Think of it this way, guys (and girls) — if someone sold you out to a giant masked monster-man who broke your goddamn back, would you keep on looking for the good in them? Or would you maybe, particularly since you’re the world’s greatest detective, succumb to common sense and move on? Not the Batman of this movie!

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The Problem With JIM GORDON:

James GordonWhile

Gary Oldman’s quiet-storm performance is probably the single most consistently great thing about this trilogy, I hate hate HATE HATE what they do with his character in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.  First they shoot him and stick him in a bed for half a movie.  Then they have Joseph Gordon-Levitt show up to judge him a bunch.  Put him in the hospital and then have an entirely new character show up to complain about the stuff he did in the last movie.  That sounds like fun!  It’s not the most cinematic choice.  It’s not all that exciting.  This is one of those areas where Nolan goes too much into the idea zone and not nearly enough into the popcorn side of it.  Does anyone really care about the alleged conspiracy wherein Batman and Jim Gordon colluded to lead the city into believing that Harvey Dent died a hero? That they hid the ugly truth, which is that Dent went insane and became the murderous Two-Face?  Who cares?  Who cares?  Who cares?  You who love this movie — do YOU care?  Really?  Don’t lie to me now.

At least Gordon gets a new police sidekick in this movie.  Foley!

FOLEY!

FOLEY!

As awesome as it would be to see Detective Axel Foley swagger into a Batman movie, this Foley is played by Matthew Modine.  It’s always nice to see Matthew Modine, although if this movie is really long enough to have space for actors from PRIVATE SCHOOL, I really wish they would have made room for Betsy Russell.  (As Poison Ivy?)  You may think I’m being too silly and maybe I am.  You know what else is silly?  A Batman movie that is so long it has time for a complete story arc for a secondary tertiary quaternary quintinary character.

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The Problem With BANE & “MIRANDA TATE”:

Bane Miranda Tate

Not gonna draw this one out: In THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, we spend an entire movie being introduced to, and watching everyone intimidated by, Batman’s most powerful adversary yet, the monstrous yet silly-voiced Bane (Tom Hardy). In the last few minutes of the movie, we find out that big bad Bane is not much besides a lovesick stooge, subservient to the woman who spent the rest of the movie until now being Bruce Wayne’s love interest, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard).  Not only has the movie’s main villain been neutered, but he’s been replaced with a character we liked until this moment.

That’s some M. Night Shyamalan shit right there.

An audience should not spend the last few moments of an epic trilogy re-adjusting to a new major villain.  That is not dramatically satisfying.  I appreciate the attempts to link the enemy from the first movie (Liam Neeson as Ra’s Al Ghul) with the final movie, but — to me — it ultimately feels crowbarred in there.  It’s almost exactly like how Jeremy Irons’ character in DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE turns out to be Hans Gruber’s brother — neat trick in a Storytelling 101 kind of way, but not particularly emotionally involving (a fact which DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE deals with in a much craftier way).  I don’t care — in this movie — about Talia’s quest to avenge her father anymore than I care about the Harvey Dent conspiracy.

Which is too bad, because I automatically prefer Marion Cotillard, both as a love interest for Bruce Wayne in this movie, and as an actress in general, to Anne Hathaway.  Cotillard was arguably the best thing about PUBLIC ENEMIES and Nolan’s own INCEPTION, two movies I liked a lot better than this one and not coincidentally because they gave her more to do.  THE DARK KNIGHT RISES doesn’t need Catwoman.  It doesn’t.  What should have happened was that Nolan and his writers should have axed Catwoman entirely, and spent all that now-available screentime bolstering the Talia character.  Give us more time to know her and care about her, then her betrayal stings more.  Or better yet, make her the villain much sooner in the movie.  Even put in her in some kind of a Catwoman suit, if that makes the geeks happy.  There are ways to make that work.  (Bats are flying mice, so only a cat can stomp them out — or whatever. I’m spitballing but my spit is better than their shit.)  Instead, you have not one but TWO disappointing and underwritten female leads.

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The Problem With JOHN “ROBIN” BLAKE:

Robin Quivers.

Robin Quivers.

It’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt!  He’s terrific, of course.  What’s wrong with this movie is not his problem. Then again, if that was supposed to be a New York accent, he’s not entirely blameless either.

My main issue with this character is that his presence turns THE DARK KNIGHT RISES into an origin story for a movie that we will never see.  That didn’t work for me in Ridley Scott’s misbegotten ROBIN HOOD, and it doesn’t work for me here.  As much as I like Joseph Gordon-Levitt (good God, can you imagine how annoying it’d be with any other young actor in the role?), I still resent the fact that he’s taking away what should be Christian Bale’s movie.  It should be Batman’s movie.  It should be Bruce Wayne’s movie.  And Jim Gordon’s movie, but I already mentioned how intolerably Blake shits on Gordon.  This is already the longest post I have ever written, so I don’t need to repeat myself.  There is no way I can be satisfied with a Batman movie that ends with Batman quitting, so don’t on top of it ask me to get excited about some sassy kid taking over for him.  Especially if that inherit-the–mantle follow-up movie is — by definition — not ever coming.

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The Problem With DR. CRANE aka THE SCARECROW:

Scarecrow

Cillian Murphy is a terrific actor, and it’s cute that they keep giving him cameos.  But this is supposed to be the realistic take on Batman, isn’t it?  So isn’t it just a little silly that the Bane army of terrorists allow an escaped lunatic to preside over a court where he gets to sentence rich people to death by walking on thin ice?  I’ll answer that: It is silly.  It’s one of the silliest sentences I’ve typed in a long time, and I type a lot of silly sentences.  I venture to say that this is a scene that would better fit one of the Joel Schumacher movies, and with that, the point is made.

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The Problem With THIS DOCTOR:

Tom Lennon

He’s played by writer/comedian Tom Lennon.  It’s just a quick little cameo, you argue.  What can it hurt?  Well, no offense but this dude is not exactly a good-luck totem for movies.  Enjoy his IMDb page!

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Look, I understand why so many people love these movies.  Batman is the coolest character in all of popular culture.  Nolan’s movies treat Batman with the seriousness he deserves.  But it’s not the seriousness he needs right now.  After BATMAN & ROBIN left such an epic stink in all six of everyone’s senses, Christopher Nolan restored Batman’s dignity with a solid injection of seriousness.  It was a valiant achievement.  But in the short time between BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, we have been bombarded with superhero movies, most of which swiped Nolan’s approach.  So now we’re awash in superhero movies that take themselves way too seriously.  And since it obviously couldn’t counter them, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES instead annointed itself as the most super-serious one of them all.  And for a movie as riddled with conceptual mis-steps as I have argued that this one is, that is deadly.  There is nothing more pretentious and intolerable than a B-minus student who carries himself like a valedictorian.

So those are all of my qualms.  You don’t agree? Fire away!  That’s what comments are for.

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But.

I don’t want to tear something down without being willing to build it back up. After all: Why do we fall?

So let’s do another speculative exercise. This one is a bit more realistic than me getting married. This one has me as an insanely-wealthy, cigar-chomping (because why smoke a cigar when you can chomp one?), tuxedo-wearing big-shot Hollywood producer.

Here’s how it’s going to go:

My friends at Warner Brothers are gonna gather up a ton of money, and we’re gonna head over to the Formosa in order to dump huge bundles of cash on our first-draft guy: Quentin Tarantino. As far as I’m concerned, Quentin can do whatever the hell he wants to with it. He’s a comic book guy, but not the kind who’s overly worried about “staying true to the comics.” Staying true doesn’t mean the kind of literalism that only pleases the obsessive-compulsives with small libraries of Jim Aparo art in their attics. It means capturing the spirit of the character. I want the next Batman movie to be scary, I want it to be funny, I want it to be cool. I just want it to be crazy. I want it to be good, of course, but even more than that, I want it to be crazy.  I want it to be the work of a lunatic. I don’t actually expect Tarantino to ever go near a major-studio superhero movie, but in this alternate universe, he’s the kind of extreme artistic change the character could use.

Then I want Joe Carnahan to take that script and shoot the fuck out of it. I love Joe Carnahan above the majority of young directors out there, because he’s a guy who can do realistic criminology (NARC), and he can do colorful-crazy (SMOKIN’ ACES, THE A-TEAM), and he can can cover great big mythological emotional terrain too (THE GREY). Like Christopher Nolan, he’s a versatile filmmaker of many splendid talents, but most importantly, on top of all the technical requirements, he can do humor and emotion.

So that’s the dream director. Now here are a few casting notions:

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Batman

BATMAN/ BRUCE WAYNE:

Colin Farrell.

Colin Farrell.

Because we need to go lighter than Bale did it, but we still need a solid dramatic actor. I wasn’t always sold on Colin Farrell as a star, but then I saw THE NEW WORLD, MIAMI VICE, IN BRUGES, THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS, THE WAY BACK, HORRIBLE BOSSES, FRIGHT NIGHT, LONDON BOULEVARD, and SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS. Anybody who can do all of that in five years can also do Batman. And probably even deserves to.

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Alfred

ALFRED PENNYWORTH:

Ray Winstone.

Ray Winstone.

Because there would be no fucking crying.

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Gordon

JIM GORDON:

Paul Giamatti

Paul Giamatti.

Because I don’t even have to justify it with words for you to know I’m dead-on with this one.

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Ra's Al Ghul

RA’S AL GHUL:

Daniel Day-Lewis.

Daniel Day-Lewis.

Because in the comics, the character Liam Neeson played has been around for many, many lifetimes, so I like the idea of Daniel Day-Lewis getting to play all of his historical roles — Hawkeye, John Proctor, Abraham Lincoln, Newland Archer, Bill The Butcher, Daniel Plainview, and so on — in one movie. And he’d better like that idea too, because otherwise there’s no way this dude is doing a Batman movie.

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Talia

TALIA:

Sarah Shahi.

Sarah Shahi.

Because that’s a movie star waiting to happen.

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Catwoman

CATWOMAN:

Michelle Monaghan

Michelle Monaghan.

Because she could easily have been cast in any of the female roles in any of the previous three Batman movies, and probably should have been.

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Joker

THE JOKER:

Dave Chappelle

Dave Chappelle.

Because it’s time for a Joker who’s actually funny, and here is not only one of the funniest people on the planet, but also someone who I bet could pour genuine emotions like rage and pathos into his nearly-superhuman funniness if he were somehow persuaded.

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Two Face

TWO-FACE:

John Cusack.

John Cusack.

Because he can do caustic and scary-smart better than anyone, and he’s actually a fairly large dude, all of which make me wonder why he hasn’t played a villain in a huge-scale action movie yet.

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Penguin

THE PENGUIN:

Warwick Davis.

Warwick Davis.

Because if all six LEPRECHAUN movies have taught me anything, it’s that this guy is fully capable of playing a deranged and disturbing villain. I’m not even at all kidding.

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Strange

PROFESSOR HUGO STRANGE:

Christopher Plummer.

Christopher Plummer.

Because this is one of the oldest villains from the comics (at one time rumored to be in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES), and it’d be so cool to have a great older actor holding it down.

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Riddler

THE RIDDLER:

Johnny Knoxville.

Johnny Knoxville.

Because if it was up to me, I would re-envision The Riddler as a kind of Joker copycat. So I thought of an actor I like a lot and one who is funny, but not nearly as funny as the guy I chose to play The Joker.

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Poison Ivy

POISON IVY:

Amber Heard.

Amber Heard.

Because hotness. And because DRIVE ANGRY.

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Killer Croc

KILLER CROC:

Dolph Lundgren.

Dolph Lundgren.

Because the role needs a giant and one who can handle carrying all the prosthetic make-up on his back. And because he has proven to be the single best Expendable so he’s earned it.

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Clayface

CLAYFACE:

Dwayne Johnson.

Dwayne Johnson.

Because again, a large man is needed and there are only so many large humans with acting ability.

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Ventriloquist

THE VENTRILOQUIST:

Jeff Dunham.

Jeff Dunham.

Because I’d truly love to see Batman punch him in the face.

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Scarecrow

THE SCARECROW:

John Hawkes.

John Hawkes.

Because after how scary he was in WINTER’S BONE, anything’s possible.

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Mr. Freeze

MR. FREEZE:

Jonathan Banks.

Jonathan Banks.

Because look at him.

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KGBeast

KGBEAST:

Scott Adkins.

Scott Adkins.

Because of Boyka, obviously.

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Mad Hatter

THE MAD HATTER:

Johnny Depp.

Johnny Depp.

Because he, also, has played this role before. Which is why he, also, deserves a punch from Batman.

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Maniac Cop

MANIAC COP:

Robert Z'Dar

Robert Z’Dar

Because why the beautiful fuck not?

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And there you have it.  That’s my bigger, better Batman movie.  Am I crazy?  Most definitely.  But maybe we could use a little crazy right about now.  What would you rather spend three hours at the movies with — reality?

@jonnyabomb