Disney has really carved out a genre for itself: the underdog sports story as cultural melting pot, complete with the Middle American white coach/scout/father figure whose preconceptions are overturned by scrappy kids who overcome every hurdle with heart and hard work. That guy was Jon Hamm in Million Dollar Arm and Josh Lucas in Glory Road. In McFarland, USA, also inspired by a true story, he’s a high-school football coach whose temper has landed him at an underfunded school in a largely Mexican-American town in the California desert. “Are we in Mexico?,” his daughter asks, as they drive past sad little homes of cracked stucco and sun-parched dirt yards. It gets a laugh, but makes a point: This is a Third World neighborhood within our borders. For that I give the film some credit. It gives a big-screen face to an American culture generally relegated to the margins of mainstream movies. Too bad it belabors as many stereotypes as it challenges.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD, On Demand) is prequel and reboot all in one, with Chris Pine taking on the role of the young CIA analyst Ryan as he takes his first field assignment under the command of Kevin Costner. Pine is the fourth Ryan in the fifth Ryan film, but this is the first one that isn’t adapted from one of Tom Clancy’s novels. It’s an original story and it takes the US / Russia tensions out of the Cold War of Clancy’s first books and into the Putin era, with Kenneth Branagh as a Russian financial tycoon plotting an act of economic terrorism on the U.S. Which is why Jack Ryan, a former Marine and a graduate of the London School of Economics, is sent in for this very specialized mission.
Branagh directs this one too, wrangling a complicated production with more efficiency than personality. For that he has Pine, just fine as the brainy American patriot, and Costner, perfect as the veteran soldier and father figure mentor, and Keira Knightly as well, playing Ryan’s fiancée who gets pulled into the mission when she shows up to surprise Jack. The surprise is on her when she finds out he’s a covert agent and she’s a target.
The supplements are on the Blu-ray: Commentary by director / co-star Kenneth Branagh and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, four featurettes, and deleted and extended scenes with optional commentary.
Non-Stop (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, On Demand) continues Liam Neeson’s unexpected career reboot as an aging action hero. This time he’s an alcoholic air marshal who is targeted by hijackers and then framed for a series of murders that take place at 20,000 feet. Which turns out to be pretty easy when you can peg your target to overreact on cue and send it viral from passenger cell phone video.
Neeson gets to play the compromised hero set up as a patsy, and who gets a shot at redemption when he defies his place in the bad guys’ script, but it’s no Taken. Director Jaume Collet-Serra put Neeson through his paces in Unknown and does the same here, unleashing him on a script that is not much more than a series of plot twists and evil genius scheming with so many moving parts that it could only work in the movies. Julianne Moore is a fellow passenger with a second act revelation that is a screenwriter’s gimmick with no satisfactory payoff and Michelle Dockery is a stewardess who knows a little of Neeson’s backstory and his problems with the bottle, but Lupita Nyong’o (an Oscar winner for 12 Years a Slave) is shamefully wasted in a nothing role. Collet-Serra comes up with some inventive ways to shoot the enclosed space and keep it all roaring ahead, but this is one of the action films that is deviously clever but not all that smart.
Blu-ray and DVD with the featurette “Suspense at 40,000.” The Blu-ray also includes the bonus featurette “Non-Stop Action,” plus bonus DVD and UltraViolet Digital HD copies of the film.
When did Liam Neeson, that Oscar-nominated rock of an Irish actor who starred in Schindler’s List and Michael Collins, become the toughest action hero of the day?
When actors pass 50 they generally transition into, let’s say, less physically demanding roles. You know, fathers and mentors and sturdy authority figures offering sage advice to the younger folk doing all the running around. But at age 55, Neeson took the lead in Taken as a retired special agent who cuts a violent swath through the French underworld to find his kidnapped daughter. He’s since led The A-Team, battled a pack of wolves in The Grey, and gone continental badass again in Unknown and Taken 2.
It turns out that old dogs can indeed learn new tricks and this month he’s got competition. While he takes on hijackers in a transatlantic flight in Non-Stop, a title that could just as easily describe Neeson’s reinvigorated career, Kevin Costner heads back into the field as a veteran Secret Service agent on the trail of a terrorist in 3 Days to Kill.
The Hatfields and the McCoys turned the most famous family feud in American history into a personal war right out of a Shakespeare tragedy. The names themselves have become an instant cliché understood by everyone, even while the actual history behind it was forgotten in all the satirical appropriations of the story for movies and TV comedies.
Hatfields & McCoys (Sony), the most watched program ever on The History Channel, is a fine attempt to create engaging drama while remaining true to the history. Handsome and well-produced (with Romania quite effectively standing in for the wilds of Kentucky and West Virginia), and anchored by a superb cast led by Kevin Costner as “Devil Anse” Hatfield and Bill Paxton as Randall McCoy, it steers clear of the clichés and the distortions to dig into the complicated history of the infamous blood feud.
The roots go back to the Civil War — Anse and Randall fought side by side for the Confederacy but other members of the McCoy clan fought for the North — and the grievances in the post-war years that escalated into violent clashes and legal confrontations. These aren’t the backwards hillbillies of so many comic incarnations but rural folk with strong clan allegiances who tangle the law and the state governments into their fight, each maneuvering to get the stamp of legal approval on their campaign. And yes, there is a “Romeo and Juliet”-styled romance between a Hatfield son and a McCoy daughter, another real-life strand in the story, but even that is just another complication that stirs up indignation.