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Summer Blockbuster Roundup

C. Spencer Beggs | Thursday, August 28, 2003

Among summer traditions, the blockbuster “event movie” has become an American summer staple. Unfortunately, the 2003 roundup of blockbusters turned out flop after flop after flop. With special effects and production costs soaring to new heights, the quality of action flicks is starting to scrape rock bottom.

The blockbuster season appeared to be off to a good start with the release of X-Men 2: X-Men United. It is the follow up to the successful 2000 adaptation of the Marvel comic series about a world filled with mutants with wonderful and terrifying powers.

Breaking the Hollywood curse of sequels, director Bryan Singer managed to make X2 more compelling than his original film. X2 expanded upon the X-Men universe introducing many new characters like the tattooed teleporting demon Night Crawler (Alan Cummings) as well as expanding upon and integrating previously established plotlines.

X2’s action sequences were some of the best of the summer. The sequel was notably more violent than the first film in the series, which brought cheers from audiences as Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) actually used his claws to, well, claw people.

After X2, the blockbuster season took a surprising nosedive with the much-anticipated The Matrix Reloaded. In the second of the man vs. machine sci-fi trilogy, Neo (Keanu Reeves) explores his god-like powers over the cyber reality of the Matrix as the machines begin burrowing their way to Zion, the haven of unplugged and freeborn humans. And, once again, Neo and co. must launch a daring rescue mission in the Matrix to save all humanity – blah ba blah-blah-blah.

The Matrix Reloaded was filled with eye-popping CGI effects, but little else. Instead of taking risks with the storyline, part of the reason the original film captivated audiences, the Wachowski brothers stuck to their original formula. Reloaded showed audiences a bigger Matrix world, but not really a better one – perhaps “reloaded” was a bit too apropos.

Following the success of comic book heroes onscreen like Spider-man, Daredevil and X-Men, it was only a matter of time before everyone’s favorite green behemoth bashed his way onto the silver screen.

The prospect of having veteran director Ang Lee at the helm of Hulk created a lot of early buzz about the movie. But the film never managed to shake the bad rep it picked up after the awkward CGI Hulk was previewed during the Super Bowl.

Lee, who directed the action masterpiece Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, attempted to focus on the dark side of a misunderstood hero, but the idea didn’t translate to film well. In the comic book version of the story, mild mannered scientist Bruce Banner gets zapped with radiation during an experiment that turns him into a muscle-bound green giant when he gets angry. Granted, the explanation of the Hulk’s origin may seem a bit unexplained, but watching Lee grind through a redux of the back-story involving genetic modifications passed on to children, weapons experiments and an unnecessary Freudian twist with a creepy looking Nick Nolte as Banner’s father was nothing short of torturous.

To Lee’s artistic credit, he used a number of interesting editing techniques to emulate the look and feel of a comic book. But Lee’s artistic savvy couldn’t wade through the tedious storyline and unsightly CGI.

The next flick to try its hand at box office gold was Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. Reuniting Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu and Drew Barrymore as a team of private eyes working for the mysterious Charlie Townsend, Full Throttle proved to be a movie that maintained the status quo – a mindless status quo, but entertaining nonetheless.

The plot and plot twists to Full Throttle proved to be essentially inconsequential, much like the original. Much of the appeal of the Charlie’s Angels series has been its affable star power. Demi Moore bolstered the already camera friendly cast this time around as the angel-gone-bad Madison Lee; Bernie Mac stepped up to fill Bill Murray’s shoes as Bosley. Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle was entertaining, but a third outing might not be the charm for this franchise.

One of the summer’s best action movies came from an unlikely source. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was Disney’s first PG-13 movie ever. But the kids company’s gamble turned into big bucks banking on Johnny Depp’s acting chops as Captain Jack Sparrow, a swaggering pirate with a penchant for daring escapes that never quite work out.

Pirates was just plain fun. It was a pirate movie that used every pirate cliché in the book. Heck, Disney wrote the book on pirate clichés.

Of course, clichés can work against a film too. After 12 years Arnold Schwartzenegger returned to the franchise that made him famous. But for fans of the first two Terminator flicks, there’s not much new in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

Evil computers from the future send a killer robot back in time to kill the leader of the human resistance, John Connor (Nick Stahl) and the humans send another reprogrammed killer robot to protect him. Last time they sent a shape shifting Terminator, this time they send a shape shifting Terminatrix (Kristianna Loken).

Schwartzenegger tosses in a lackluster performance – he has more personality pretending he knows something about politics. And even though the film has well choreographed action sequences, watching indestructible robots smash for each other for hours at a time gets really boring really fast. Remember when bullets were objects to be avoided?

One of the summer’s biggest stinkers, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, also had a lot of real potential. Sean Connery stars as an aging adventurer, Alan Quartermain, who is put in charge of a group of literary superheros in Victorian England to stop a stock B-movie madman hell bent on world domination.

The premise is a PLS major’s fantasy: Quatermain teams up with Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, Tom Sawyer, Mina Harker, Dorian Gray and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But the shoddy acting and cumbersome script manage to suck the life out of any of the League’s characters. Connery’s days as an action star are long over.

Sometimes, old ideas can be reused. What do you get when you cross Dawn of the Dead, The Stand, 12 Monkeys and Lord of the Flies? 28 Days Later.

The breakout hit of the summer was released last November in the UK and has been steadily gaining momentum at the box office culminating in a double ending release earlier this month.

28 Days Later doesn’t really have any one great idea; it has more like five pretty good ideas. Shot in the UK, director Danny Boyle of Trainspotting fame shows off his keen eye for gorgeous and morbid cinematography in this flesh-eating zombie blasting flick.

Bad Boys II also breathed some much-needed life into the summer movie scene. Reuniting Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as the Oscar and Felix of the Miami P.D., Bad Boys II is a testament to why Jerry Bruckheimer is a master of producing action flicks.

Although the plot was one of the most unnecessarily convoluted storylines to reach a mainstream action flick – something about Cuban ecstasy kingpins who employ KKK members – Bad Boys II truly had it all: great car chases, huge explosions, wild gunfights and lots of comic relief. With star power like Smith and Lawrence in its corner, Bad Boys II was sure fire.

Angelina Jolie brought her bitch-in-boots back to the big screen in Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. Jolie may be one of Hollywood’s hottest, but she couldn’t stop Cradle from being lukewarm at best. Tomb Raider 2 plods along at a tediously slow pace and is almost exactly like the first one except set in different CGI locales. It’s not that Cradle is the worst way to spend $10, but this is definitely better for a rainy day rental.

If you go to Barnes & Noble and purchase a copy of How to Write a Movie Script in a Week, you’ll get the gist of how S.W.A.T. was developed. In one sense the film was amazing because it managed to be the most generic action flick ever written. If you couldn’t guess the plot twists in bomb, there’s some beachfront property in Iowa you might be interested in.

The only redeeming thing about S.W.A.T. was a seriously buffed L.L. Cool J; but despite his oiled, rock-hard abs, this movie “said mama’s gonna knock you out.”

The final blockbuster of the season brought some much-needed hope and much-needed levity the summer movie bustfest.

Freddy vs. Jason settles that argument every 12-year-old guy had at sleepover at some point. Pitting dream killer Freddy Kruger of the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise against hockey masked mutilator Jason Voorhees of the Friday the 13th franchise against each other in a no hold barred deathmatch was the perfect way to forget about a summer of lame movies. Freddy vs. Jason may be cheesy, but at least it knows it’s cheesy.

It may have been a bad year for the blockbuster, but perhaps studios will realize that moviegoers want more than bigger and better special effects. With box office takes down, hopefully studios will start producing action flicks with a bit more substance – or maybe we’ll all have to see other genres of summer event movies for anything decent. Oh wait, we forgot about Gigli.