The Web of International Intrigue

Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold is more kung fu craze than blaxploitation. This time Cleo is a stranger in a strange land who spends the entire movie in Hong Kong. Tamara Dobson stands out in even more exotic outfits like a brown sequin dress. Norman Fell plays her new commanding officer that she has a playful relationship with. Cleo is still very much in charge overseas. The only other returning characters are Matt and Mel Johnson who end up captured by the villain during a drug bust.

Despite calling herself the Dragon Lady, Stella Stevens is another white antagonist with more overt lesbian tendencies. Unlike its predecessor, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold is rated R like all the other blaxploitation flicks. Aside from some increased violence, the language is still PG and Dobson still isn’t naked. All the nudity is from the Dragon Lady and her girls who wash the Johnson brothers.

The cast is mostly Chinese including Ni Tien as badass undercover agent Mi Ling-Fong. I can’t help but wonder if the black officer and martial arts expert inspired the Daughters of the Dragon from Marvel comics. The climax at the titular casino is even bigger with lots of guns and kung fu action. None of it seemed to help the sequel since blaxploitation was slowly losing popularity. Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold is a forgotten follow up that does enough justice to the revolutionary black female spy.

Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold

Cleopatra Jones at the casino

Preceded by: Cleopatra Jones

Time is Money

In Time takes the expression “time is money” literally. This is a future where time has become currency, payment is given or accepted from a person’s arm clock, everyone has 1 year to live after they turn 25, the poor live minute by minute, and the rich are practically immortal. In Time is similar to Logan’s Run for having a youthful society. Director Andrew Niccol openly admitted similarities to Gattaca. Both movies have retrofuturistic cars, an unlikely romance, and a protagonist who evades arrest in an effort to disrupt the established order. In Time sounded interesting when I first saw the trailer, but I lost interest after the less than stellar reception.

Justin Timberlake can act, but when he’s not expected to sing, it can be hard to take him seriously as an action star. He plays struggling factory worker Will Salas who lives in the ghetto with his mother. Seeing the very attractive Olivia Wilde as his mother can be a bit jarring the first time. Time Zones separate poor neighborhoods like Dayton from wealthy neighborhoods like New Greenwich. Minutemen are literal time burglars who steal time from the less fortunate. Timekeepers are a police force that operate day to day. Matt Bomer plays the century old Henry Hamilton who willingly gives Will all his time.

Which is what leads Cillian Murphy as an obsessive Timekeeper to hunt him down. Will enjoys his wealth, but it doesn’t last long. He ends up kidnapping the daughter of a wealthy elite with too much time on his hands played by Vincent Kartheiser. Amanda Seyfried is cute as a redhead, but I feel like she’s only around to be eye candy. Sylvia willingly joins Will on a Bonnie & Clyde style crusade to fight the system. Maybe it’s the cheesy dialogue or constant time puns, but In Time doesn’t quite land the way Gattaca did. Nevertheless, In Time was still worth my time for its creative depiction of the future.

In Time

Will and Sylvia go on the run

Welcome to the 23rd Century

Logan’s Run was the most ambitious science fiction film made at the time. Bare in mind this was 1 year before Star Wars dominated the big screen. So their depiction of a futuristic society is a bit more cheesy with a space age soundtrack from Jerry Goldsmith, colorful costumes, and clean sets made from repurposed shopping malls. Logan’s Run is very 70’s, but it was loosely based on a 1967 novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson. The movie had a long production run and many changes were made to the book. Logan’s Run is a classic dystopian tale about what seems like a utopian world. In the 23rd Century, a hedonistic society of people live under a dome, but die young at the age of 30.

Everyone has a crystal on their palm indicating how much time they have and a “Carrousel” ceremony tricks people into thinking their life will be renewed. It’s complicated, but the idea of overpopulation and blissful ignorance leaves an undeniable impact. Logan’s Run also made use of levitation, holograms, and wide-angle lenses in a miniature city that earned the movie a Special Achievement Oscar. The cast is small, but Michael York is a suitable conformist turned rebel. Logan 5 is a “Sandman” who terminates people who run from their fate. Jenny Agutter plays a beautiful runner capable of changing his ideology. Logan 5 and Jessica 6 go on the run throughout the city and into an unfamiliar world.

Similar to Planet of the Apes, the real world is overgrown with Peter Ustinov as the last surviving old man. Meanwhile, Richard Jordan tirelessly hunts down the runners as Logan’s former partner Francis 7. Roscoe Lee Browne voices a very unexpected evil robot named Box and rising star Farrah Fawcett gets top-billing as facial stylist Holly 13. Despite the sexual themes, Logan’s Run somehow got away with a PG rating. Despite the fact that all women have sexy revealing outfits and are seen casually naked several times. There’s something to be said about the Free Love mentality, but Logan’s Run can be interpreted many ways. Though there was a short-lived TV series and Marvel comics, I’m surprised a sequel or remake never materialized. Logan’s Run is a product of its time that inspired more than it’s given credit for.

Logan's Run

Logan 5 and Jessica 6

The White Death

Bullet Train is one crazy ride. After directing 2 franchise movies in a row, David Leitch chose to adapt the lesser known Japanese action novel Maria Beetle. Bullet Train is technically a sequel in a Hitman trilogy that began with Three Assassins which was adapted into the Japanese film Grasshopper. Since I knew nothing about the source material, the hilarious trailer and expected comparison to John Wick drew me in. It was one of a few original movies my brother and I saw in 2022. Despite the title, Bullet Train has a slow start, but it does become funnier and more action packed over time. The plot involves several highly trained operatives and/or assassins with colorful codenames. Most of them are after a briefcase that brings them together on the titular high speed bullet train.

Although Bullet Train takes place in Tokyo, the A-list cast isn’t entirely Japanese. Some critics complained about that, but I’m not sure it would’ve made a difference. Brad Pitt is an entertaining unlucky American operative codenamed Ladybug. I didn’t care for his quest for enlightenment, but he is a kick ass fighter. Speaking of Kick-Ass, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry steal the show as bickering English assassin twin brothers Tangerine & Lemon. Tangerine is a tad profane, but Lemon stands out with his out of nowhere obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine. The Diesel of the story is Joey King disguised as an unassuming pink school girl. The Prince is a particularly annoying villain who manipulates everyone she encounters.

The only Asian characters are also the most serious. Andrew Koji and Hiroyuki Sanada play a father and son who are both after the vengeful Russian head of the Yakuza. Michael Shannon is almost unrecognizable as the White Death and so is Logan Lerman as his ill-fated son. Mexican assassin the Wolf is just an obstacle, but Bad Bunny manages to make an impression with his brief role. So does Zazie Beetz as the poison spreading assassin the Hornet who loves saying “b*tch.” David Leitch also manages to sneak in a cameo for Ryan Reynolds. After appearing together in The Lost City, Channing Tatum gets an unexpected cameo and Sandra Bullock plays Ladybug’s mostly unseen handler. Despite a reliance on bloody violence, Bullet Train is stylish with plenty of well choreographed action.

Bullet Train

Ladybug interrogates Tangerine

Kitty Cat Bracelet

Nobody knows how to make the most of a simple premise. At this point, most modern action movies have been influenced by John Wick. Nobody looked like John Wick before I found out the writer and producer were the same. I considered seeing it in theaters, but the Pandemic forced me to limit the amount of movies I went to see. Nobody was technically successful since it has a small budget and refreshingly short hour and a half runtime. Saul himself Bob Odenkirk is just an unassuming nobody with a suburban family and the same old routine.

Unlike John Wick, Hutch Mansell has an emotionally distant wife named Becca played by Connie Nielsen, their teenage son Blake, and sweet daughter Abby. Like John Wick, a chance home invasion pushes Hutch to return to his violent past. In this case, it’s two criminals stealing his daughter’s kitty cat bracelet. Nobody has a good sense of humor and a killer soundtrack, but it’s the absolutely brutal action sequences that bring out the best in Hutch. Turns out the director is also responsible for the much more underrated shoot ’em up Hardcore Henry. When the home invaders aren’t worth attacking, he takes his aggression out on random bus delinquents.

When they end up being part of the Russian mob, Hutch does whatever he can to protect his family. Michael Ironside plays his father-in-law, but it’s actually Christopher Lloyd as his biological father who gets in on the action. Along with RZA as his mysterious adopted brother. Aleksei Serebryakov’s Yulian is a lot like the crime boss in John Wick, but he’s taken out in a much more bonkers way. Hutch adopting a cat at the end is another similarity that may or may not have been intentional. I would like to see a John Wick crossover, but Nobody works just as well on its own.

Nobody

Hutch Mansell lights a fuse

Agent KA-12

Salt shakes up the world of international espionage. The project was perfect for Jack Ryan director Phillip Noyce who wanted Tom Cruise for the lead role. Turns out Edwin A. Salt was originally a male spy, but the character was too similar to Ethan Hunt. Angelina Jolie is easily the best part of what could’ve been a forgotten action flick. I distinctly remember the trailer, and liking the idea of Jolie leading her own spy thriller. Evelyn Salt is an unassuming blond CIA operative accused of being a Russian spy. What I thought would be a straightforward premise, is actually a lot more far-fetched and insane.

KGB agents have apparently been infiltrating the US since the assassination of JFK. Salt denies being a Russian spy despite running, dying her hair black, and having a lot of special training that she wouldn’t have learned in the CIA. Jolie continues to have sex appeal despite taking a serious beating. Salt manages to stand out by constructing a makeshift bomb and jumping across semi trucks. Don’t get too attached to the supporting cast since they almost all die without warning.

Liev Schreiber is a fellow CIA agent with a suspicious amount of trust in Salt. Chiwetel Ejiofor has no trust in Salt as he attempts to track her down. I’m not too familiar with the actors playing the Russian accuser or Salt’s German husband, but Corey Stoll briefly plays a Russian contact. So basically Thena is on the run from Baron Mordo and Sabretooth with Yellowjacket as a contact. There are so many twists and turns that make it hard to know who you’re rooting for, but Salt is an underrated female led action thriller elevated by Angelina Jolie.

Salt

Evelyn Salt takes aim

They’re the Clades

Strange World may be the worst Walt Disney Animation Studios movie I’ve ever seen. I usually don’t care about CinemaScore, but it’s worth noting that Strange World has the lowest rating of any Disney movie since 1991. Even lower than Home on the Range or Chicken Little. I know there are several objectively worse Disney movies, but at least I can still feel nostalgia when I watch them. Strange World is too modern for its own good. Which is why it bombed hard with a pathetic $54.1 million dollar box-office gross against a budget of $135-180 million. Thanksgiving is usually a good release schedule for Disney, but Strange World was almost completely overlooked by audiences. As I said in my Lightyear review, Disney sure does love losing money with the direction they’ve been taking.

Encanto wasn’t a financial success either, but the studio can’t keep blaming the Pandemic for their failure. This time you can’t deny that diversity and LGBT characters were more important than good storytelling. Of course Disney’s sixty-first animated film was banned like everything else they pushed in the last decade. Strange World is the brainchild of longtime Disney filmmaker Don Hall. He was inspired by pulp magazines and adventure movies like Journey to the Center of the Earth, Fantastic Voyage, and King Kong. The teaser was made to look like a classic 50’s trailer, and that was the extent of Disney’s creativity. I’ll always know when a new Disney movie comes out, but I don’t blame anyone who had no clue Strange World even existed…

98. Strange World

Strange World

Strange World is basically a modern day Post-Renaissance Disney movie. Like Atlantis: The Lost Empire or Treasure Planet, Strange World is a science fiction adventure that lost a significant amount of money for the studio. Proving once again that musical fantasies and talking animal movies are more likely to be successful. Atlantis and Treasure Planet both got a much needed cult following, but Strange World doesn’t deserve it. Nor does it deserve the 100 year Disney studio banner. I had little to no interest in Strange World, but my brother and I did end up going a week after its release. Our theater was packed with children and they were dead silent the entire time. Strange World was written by Raya and the Last Dragon screenwriter Qui Nguyen, and it shows. None of the jokes are funny and the story is more boring than it has any right to be. I love a good old fashioned adventure, but Strange World is a clunky mix of old and new themes. The Clades are a family of explorers who end up lost like the Robinson family.

After Encanto and Pixar’s Turning Red, Strange World is yet another Disney movie where family trauma is more important than having a villain. There’s actually a scene in the movie where characters literally say having no villain is bad storytelling. Surprisingly, being self aware about the problem just makes it more annoying. It’s almost like Disney is too afraid to have genuinely evil characters anymore. Instead the conflict is between three generations of fathers and their sons. Jaeger Clade is a stereotypical manly man adventurer with a long handlebar mustache. Searcher Clade is his less adventurous son who cares more about botany. I completely forgot Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal previously played father & son in The Day After Tomorrow. Quaid is almost unrecognizable, but I’d recognize Gyllenhaal’s nasal voice anywhere. Stop me if you’ve heard this one, Searcher doesn’t want to be like his father and Jaeger never listens to what he wants. On their latest expedition in the arctic, Searcher makes an important discovery, but Jaeger chooses to continue his adventure and leave his team behind.

The discovery is a bioelectric green energy based plant called Pando. Strange World takes place in a fictional mountainous land called Avalonia. 25 years later, Pando is farmed by Searcher and his family who use it to power their civilization. Farming is no more exciting in a futuristic society as it is in real life. Avalonia looks like the 50’s, but it’s filled with advanced technology like hovercrafts. Though Strange World isn’t centered around a specific culture, it does feature an interracial family. Searcher is white, his wife Meridian is black, and their teenage son Ethan is biracial. There’s also a three legged dog named Legend since disabilities need to be represented somehow. I do love seeing interracial families since I myself am biracial with a white father and black mother. Unfortunately, I have a hard time appreciating it since it was only included for diversity sake. Calling attention to them kissing several times in front of their son feels especially manipulative. Meridian is a strong-willed pilot who barely makes an impression even with Gabrielle Union as her voice. Despite all the unique names in the movie, Ethan has the least exciting name.

Disney continued to pat themselves on the back when they announced Ethan as the first openly gay character in a Disney animated movie. Openly gay comedian Jaboukie Young-White practically voiced the same kind of character in the Baymax! shorts. Ethan has a crush on another boy named Diazo and it’s so forced that it’s actually painful to watch. Trying to be awkward and relatable is cringy regardless of the character’s orientation. Ethan continues to talk about his crush throughout the movie, despite it having no relevance to the plot. You’d think it would be a source of conflict, but Ethan’s parents and the grandfather he never met are all unquestionably supportive of him. Instead, Searcher is afraid Ethan’s adventurous spirit will turn him into his father. The chance for adventure comes along when the President of Avalonia arrives with a special mission. Callisto Mal is yet another generic strong female character for Disney voiced by Lucy Liu. She’s an old friend of Searcher who leads an expedition to find the reason why Pando is dying out.

Naming their airship Venture is a not so subtle reference to King Kong. The crew includes Dopinder himself Karan Soni as a significantly less funny nerdy crewmember and a bunch of other unimportant redshirts. Since the cast isn’t limited to one ethnicity, Alan Tudyk voices an actual character. Duffle pilots the Venture and gets immediately killed just like Wash from Firefly. Ethan is a stowaway on the airship that Meridian ends up piloting. They end up journeying to the center of Avalonia in the titular Strange World. The red and magenta landscape is not as exciting as Journey to the Center of the Earth. Everything seems random from moving cliffs to red dragon-like creatures. Searcher and Legend end up seperated, while Ethan does some exploring on his own. They run into giant carnivorous creatures called Reapers, but Searcher is rescued by his father Jaeger who somehow survived over 25 years stuck in the Strange World. He uses a flamethrower on the Reapers and leads his son across acidic oceans in the hope of finding the airship to escape.

Meanwhile, Ethan runs into an amoeba-like creature that he names Splat. As silent Disney sidekicks go, Splat is no Magic Carpet. Splat initially leads Ethan to the Reapers, but he changes his mind after he shows him kindness. All three generations are united when the women come to their rescue. Jaeger gets along with his grandson, but Searcher continues to hold back. They end up playing Ethan’s favorite card game Primal Outpost which spells out the moral of the movie. Since Strange World has a not so subtle environmental message, almost all the heroes end up looking bad. Searcher and Jaeger eventually see eye to eye when they use Pando to attack the creatures. Ethan starts to have second thoughts and he ends up making an unexpected discovery with his dad. SPOILER ALERT! The twist is kind of obvious when you notice how much Strange World resembles the inside of a body. Hence the Fantastic Voyage inspiration.

Splat and the rest of the creatures are basically antibodies and Pando is a virus attached to the heart. Jaeger leaves once again and Callisto has the Clades locked up, but they still aren’t the villains. When they escape, the Pando is destroyed and they’re forced to live in a world without the energy source. In the end, all three generations grow closer inside and beneath Avalonia which is actually a giant World Turtle. Strange World is somewhat reminiscent of pulp magazines, but the comic book aesthetic is only around in the beginning and end. I might’ve liked the movie a lot more if they stuck with the much more unique 2D pulp animation accompanied by the catchy “They’re the Clades” adventure tune. Instead Strange World looks like every other round glossy computer animated Disney movie from the last decade. Character animation, clothing, and locations are technically well rendered, but nothing impressive. Strange World is a serious wake-up call that Disney hopefully learns from.

97. Strange World

The Clade family explore the center of the world

But Why Male Models?

Zoolander 2, or Zoolander No. 2 took a number 2 on the franchise. Since the first movie is a cult favorite, it was only a matter of time before Ben Stiller made a sequel. Despite growing interest, I didn’t watch Zoolander in time to see Zoolander 2 in theaters. The very negative reception caused me to reconsider. Any minor problems with the original are even worse in the sequel. The tone is set when The Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good collapses, Matilda is killed, Derek loses his son, and Hansel is disfigured. Zoolander eventually pulls himself together by redoing a lot of the same jokes and recreating versions of “Blue Steel.”

Owen Wilson is given a bigger role as Hansel, but the barely funny orgy joke from the first movie is redone to an uncomfortable degree. Despite being married to Stiller, Christine Taylor only cameos as the ghost of Matilda. Instead Penélope Cruz plays sexy Interpol agent Valentina who deals with a new conspiracy. This time it’s pop stars who are being killed because of a convoluted cult seeking the Fountain of Youth. Derek Jr. is a mini Zoolander who ends up stuck in his father’s mess. Will Ferrell eventually returns as an imprisoned Mugatu who was behind everything. Kristen Wiig really earned her Razzie as an over-exaggerated fashion designer.

The first movie broke reality when Zoolander used “Magnum” as a weapon, but the sequel’s climax is absolute nonsense. Though the biggest problem with Zoolander 2 is every celebrity who desperately needed a paycheck. There are more actors, singers, models, and fashion icons than there are funny moments. A brutally murdered Justin Bieber is just the tip of the iceberg. Billy Zane has a much bigger role and Sting replaces David Bowie as the prominently featured aging singer. Fred Armisen’s head is disturbingly placed on a kids body, but the most baffling creative choice is having Benedict Cumberbatch play an androgynous model. Zoolander 2 isn’t what I’d call PC, but it is really, really, really ridiculously bad.

Zoolander 2

Derek Zoolander, Hansel, and Valentina work together

Preceded by: Zoolander

Highway to the Danger Zone!

Top Gun: Maverick soars higher than anyone could’ve expected. Top Gun is an 80’s classic, but it was never a big favorite of mine. So I wasn’t sure how to feel about a sequel over 30 years later. Tom Cruise initially shot down the idea until his mind was changed around 2010. Original director Tony Scott was replaced by Oblivion collaborator Joseph Kosinski after the former’s death. Although Top Gun: Maverick was pushed back several times, it all worked out when it became the unexpected highest grossing movie of the year. Making Maverick the second Pandemic era movie to cross a billion dollars after Spider-Man: No Way Home. A superhero movie makes sense, but Maverick really earned its recognition. In the age of Mission: Impossible, Tom Cruise went out of his way to film real ariel stunts in real fighter planes. I saw Maverick on my birthday and I was blown away.

Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is still captain after over 30 years in the Navy. Ed Harris and John Hamm are his newest superiors. Maverick is currently a test pilot for a top secret supersonic jet called “Darkstar.” They hooked me with “Danger Zone,” but I was immediately won over when Maverick reached Mach 10. Though it is another legacy sequel, Maverick isn’t non-stop fan service. We get a shot of Maverick riding a motorcycle, but there’s also much deeper character motivations. As suggested at the end of the first movie, Maverick becomes an instructor at Top Gun. Iceman is now a Navy commander who has a strong friendship with Maverick. Val Kilmer has a surprise appearance that managed to make me cry. Since Kelly McGillis hasn’t aged as well as Cruise, Charlie is replaced by Jennifer Connelly as the Admiral’s daughter who was briefly mentioned in Top Gun. Penny Benjamin is a single mother bar owner who rekindles her relationship with Maverick. The Oscar winning “Take My Breath Away” is replaced by the Lady Gaga song “Hold My Hand.”

The only other song callback is “Great Balls of Fire” sung by Goose’s son Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw in a bar. Miles Teller is the spitting image of Anthony Edwards right down to the mustache. Maverick deals with the death of his best friend while trying to protect Rooster. Though Meg Ryan doesn’t make an appearance, his mother is a big part of Maverick’s motivation. The other flight students are more likeable than most next generation sequel characters. Glen Powell as Hangman is the perfect cocky pilot who redeems himself. Monica Barbaro as the only female pilot Phoenix is in no way heavy handed. At least she balances out a mandatory game of sweaty beach football. Despite the advancement of drones, pilots are still necessary for a dangerous mission. Unlike the first movie, I was able to follow the mission very well. Pilots have to maneuver a trench in order to hit a small target while avoiding enemy fire. Like the first movie, the enemy is never explicitly revealed, but it leads to an exciting climax. There’s an 80’s charm to the original, but Top Gun: Maverick is a vast improvement.

Top Gun Maverick

Maverick flies

Preceded by: Top Gun

Justice is Coming

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back gave Tom Cruise an excuse to run. At this point, Cruise continued to push the boundaries with the Mission: Impossible franchise. He never needed to go back to Jack Reacher, but it is a long-running book series. Never Go Back is the 18th book written by Lee Child. Edward Zwick replaced Christopher McQuarrie as director since the latter was busy with Mission: Impossible. The story isn’t controversial like the first Jack Reacher, but it is cliché.

After years of drifting, Reacher returns to Army headquarters only to find himself caught in a Military conspiracy. Major Susan Turner joins Reacher on the run when her life is threatened. Cobie Smulders is a suitable replacement love interest, but she is very similar to Agent Maria Hill. Since none of the original cast returns, Aldis Hodge is the latest Military captain out to find Reacher and Turner. They’re joined by Danika Yarosh who may or may not be Reacher’s daughter Samantha. I like Reacher’s sarcasm, but his possible daughter is more annoying.

The conspiracy involves the usual drug trafficking and/or illegal weapons transfer. Patrick Heusinger is the nameless ex-Military hunter out to kill them. The action is consistent with Reacher continuing to take out several adversaries and ruthlessly killing his last enemy. It wasn’t enough to keep it going since Reacher was rebooted as a TV series with the more size appropriate Alan Ritchson. After the failure of Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, it’s safe to say Tom Cruise will never go back to the franchise.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Jack Reacher fights off criminals

Preceded by: Jack Reacher