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Movie Review: Bullet to the Head

Bullet to the Head is a long-awaited match-up of Hollywood veterans, Walter Hill and Sylvester Stallone. Walter Hill directed Arnold Schwarzenegger in Red Heat and Bruce Willis in Last Man Standing, so it was only fitting that he complete The Expendables 2 triumvirate with Sylvester Stallone in Bullet to the Head.

Stallone's had a good run of form rebooting Rocky and Rambo, with a tongue-in-cheek tribute to action men with The Expendables, which is about to become a trilogy. The Italian Stallion's used to playing tough guys and with that sucker punch accent and brute physique who can blame him? He brings his old school charm and experience to Bullet to the Head, but unfortunately it's not enough.

Bullet to the Head is a loose adaptation of the graphic novel, Headshot (Du plomb dans la tĂȘte). Part buddy movie and part crime thriller, the film lies somewhere between Rush Hour and one of those stone cold straight-to-video WWE actioners in a story, which sees a hitman (Stallone) and detective (Kang) join forces to take down a common enemy.

The Rush Hour buddy movie dynamic draws a New Orleans-based Italian-American and a Washington D.C. detective of Korean descent together, much like Hill's 48 Hrs. As the tag team gets into gear, there are several comedic moments resulting from mistrust and prejudice. However, they don't have Jackie Chan's legs or Chris Tucker's motormouth to play up the action comedy, making this one more about getting down to business.

Bullet to the Head is better than most WWE action hero vehicles. The casting alone is an improvement as Sylvester Stallone's mere presence, Sung Kang's equal opposite contrast and Jason Momoa's intimidating physique and cold-blooded determination carry much of the story. Add some solid action set pieces and better-than-average production values and you've got yourself a gritty little crime thriller.

Hill adds some flair to the action scenes ranging from Eastern Promises style hand-to-hand bath house combat to a firefighter axe duel that wouldn't be out-of-place in The Expendables. It's a trigger-happy foray into the criminal underground as a yin-yang double team get payback in style.

Bullet to the Head is mostly entertaining thanks to Stallone's star power, some decent "haven't we seen this somewhere before" crime drama, some mood-lightening buddy movie comedy and some well-worked action set pieces. However, everything is undermined by an out-of-sync conclusion.

While it's refreshing to watch an action thriller of this calibre without Jason Statham, Bullet to the Head has a sting in its tail. The 'it is what it is' rule can only go so far and after coasting along at a good pace, Bullet to the Head fails to execute in the third act. The co-lead chemistry is disavowed like a bad one night stand and one of the central characters is hijacked by his evil twin, the end.

The bottom line: Unfinished

Movie Review: Dead Man Down

The original The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo duo, Niels Arden Oplev and Noomi Rapace, have teamed up again for Dead Man Down. While another revenge-fueled crime thriller in the style of Guy Ritchie and Jo Nesbo, Dead Man Down has more artistic appeal in the vein of Killing Them Softly. The mix of gangster grit and borderline cheesy girl next door romance is propelled by a serial killer plot line as an anonymous middle man taunts a crime lord with a puzzle.

While there are some notable similarities with The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo in terms of casting, genre and style - this film cleverly composes a three-way story that draws you into a tangled web of deceit and revenge. It may take some time to settle into the cold-blooded world of Dead Man Down where guns do the talking and violence begets violence, but once the game plan is revealed it's a yippee-ki-yay thrill ride with a twisted romance at its core.

Noomi Rapace's career-defining role as Lisbeth Salander still has some hooks in the actress. She has an inner strength, which explains why she was a worthy substitute for Sigourney Weaver in Prometheus. Yet, this is a better "Hollywood" debut. In Dead Man Down, Rapace is a crutch to Colin Farrell, delivering another willful role as a broken woman intent on retribution. Her scarred face, self esteem and dark edge echo Salander, yet she's more restrained and feminine as Beatrice.

Farrell's no stranger to the genre and fits in perfectly as a slick thug. He's usually charming and suave in most of his roles, so it's quite refreshing to see the actor tripping into some awkward moments with Beatrice. Oplev breaks with Hollywood finesse, anchoring the environment and characters with human error and off-balance humour. Farrell's stern, brooding, hard-boiled performance as Victor takes on a new light as Beatrice becomes more involved in his life.

Dominic Cooper delivers one of his best performances in recent memory as Darcy. He contorts his body in such as way that the usually dapper actor is almost unrecognisable. Cooper is complex and sympathetic as Darcy, a friend of Victor's and a sniffer dog turned detective on the trail of the sinister inside man. Terrence Howard is equally as reliable, playing Alphonse with pretentious swagger in the grip of festering paranoia. You get the impression that he wasn't the first choice for the role, but his unavoidable likability does add another dimension.

The plotting is heavy and there are several moments where Dead Man Down seems like it's on the verge of collapsing from the weight. However, it manages to stay aloft thanks to its fine cast and some deftly handled twists. There's enough content to have warranted a TV series, yet Oplev's style gives Dead Man Down its own sense of style and purpose. Dead Man Down delivers Jo Nesbo retribution, Guy Ritchie characters, Die Hard action intensity with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seriousness. It's flawed, but intricate, exciting and entertaining enough to keep you riveted.

The bottom line: Cold-blooded

Movie Review: Little One

Little One is the story of a mother, who takes a young girl under her wing. The story is simple, yet the circumstances are not. A six year old girl has been left for dead in the veld near a middle aged woman's home near an informal settlement. After saving her life, an inextricable and life-changing mother-daughter bond is formed between the rescuer and victim.

The story is truly heartbreaking and there's a tensile emotional undercurrent that drives this simple, yet beautiful film. The endless reserve of love this mother has for this abandoned child is inspiring and you can't help but be drawn into this contemporary take on the Good Samaritan. In our violent and ruthless society, we find someone who is able to rise above as justice runs its course.

While Little One deals with the rape and brutality of a child, it does so after the event. Roodt doesn't take away from the severity of the crime or its affects on the victim, instead he chooses to show the flip side by focusing on the guardian angel. Her selfless act and unconditional love for the child lead to transformation in both of their lives.

Darrell Roodt (Yesterday, Cry the Beloved Country) has created a quietly powerful crime drama that blends the authenticity of South Africa's socio-economic conditions with the sincerity of a heartfelt and redemptive love story. Little One can be likened to the cinema of Iran, engaging in life-affirming storytelling that cuts across age, race and culture. We can all identify with Little One and journey with ordinary people behaving in extraordinary ways.

Lindiwe Ndlovu is the life force of Little One. While probably best known for her comedic TV roles, she's seamless as Pauline, concerned with more than simply conveying an accurate dramatic performance. In much the same way as Precious, you can sense a beauty that goes beyond circumstances. She embodies a naive and spirited character in a performance that works for and against Little One, lifting the film's standards and showing up some of her supporting cast.

Mutodi Nesheshe delivers a solid supporting performance as Detective Morena. There may not be much in the way of exposition, but he represents the frustration of the justice system - determined to serve, yet unable to protect. It would have been fascinating to see the same story with a greater focus of the crime from his perspective.

Young Vuyelwa Msimang's performance as the title character may be sheltered by bandages and behind-the-head shots for most of the film, but she's there to represent every child. Her performance is instinctive and its a matter of letting the love in. Roodt uses her character to create deeply moving and symbolic scenarios involving her rehabilitation and reintegration.

One of the film's drawbacks is the character and casting of Pauline's husband, Jacob. While Luzuko Nqeto's performance is sincere, it's difficult to believe his character's day and night transition. He's stereotyped as an abusive and disconnected husband, who just wants his dinner on time. The actor has a comic edge, amplified by his features, that ultimately make him likable. This shines through, affecting the integrity of the drama and creating some unintentionally discordant moments.

Little One's simplicity may not hold everyone's attention. This is a quietly powerful drama that taps you on the shoulder to get your attention. Beautiful cinematography and symbolism make for a visceral experience that could be likened to walking through a gallery of South African photo-journalistic imagery with the subjects as your guide.

The bottom line: Powerful

Movie Review: Iron Man 3

Iron Man surpassed expectations, while Iron Man 2 hovered below them. Just when we thought the Iron Man saga needed a bit of oil, The Avengers knocked any signs of rust off the rocket-powered Tin Man with Robert Downey Jr. stealing the show once again (with the Hulk's permission). So the excitement around the May Day release of Iron Man 3 has been building and with Robert Downey Jr. starring, what could possibly go wrong?

Iron Man 3 fuses a number of Iron Man comic book storylines together to create a plot in which Tony Stark is forced to rely on Tony Stark and less on Iron Man. After a moment of sheer arrogance almost destroys the gifted billionaire's empire, Stark's forced to rely on his wits and intellect to gather momentum against the machinations of a terrorist order led by a tyrant known as the Mandarin.

In Iron Man 3, Stark has shied away from the public to focus on his work and Pepper, leaving less time for rock stardom and AC/DC. The biggest change must surely be that Iron Man and Iron Man 2 director, Jon Favreau, has made way for a comeback from renowned Lethal Weapon and Last Boy Scout screenwriter, Shane Black. It's a surprising but welcome move. Black brings his chemistry from directing the unpredictable Downey Jr. in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang with a wealth of buddy action movie experience. There appears to be no bad blood, as Jon Favreau made himself available to advise Black on the Iron Man universe, whilst reprising an integral role as Happy Hogan.

Robert Downey Jr. is back to his usual tricks as Tony Stark, toying around with his new Iron Man suits, while wielding his massive ego. Gwyneth Paltrow finally gets an actual role as Pepper Potts and Don "War Machine" Cheadle is back as James Rhodes. The new supporting cast includes: Rebecca Hall, who could be Gwyneth Paltrow's sister, Guy Pearce - an underrated actor who deserves more cult credit and Sir Ben Kingsley in a sinister role as The Mandarin.

From bringing the Iron Man suits to life to simulating the annihilation of Stark's mansion, the visual effects are literally a character in Iron Man 3. Shane Black uses CGI extensively, yet there's a good balance of real vs. unreal to keep the environment within reach. Add the third dimension and you've got a truly immersive experience that pushes the boundaries of what's possible with an array of complex characters played by actors who are able to anchor the reality of the Iron Man universe.

This sequel is an extension of Tony Stark's personality... it's charming, entertaining, funny, surprising and somewhat unpredictable. Fortunately or unfortunately, it's not as smart as him. The emphasis is on entertainment, the good ole popcorn blockbuster kind. Thanks to lightning pacing and regular laughs, you only really get a chance to assess the size of some of the plot holes after the explosive 130 minute odyssey is done.

Iron Man 3 falls somewhere between Iron Man and Iron Man 2, you could even say it was a blend of the two. The superhero's trajectory mimics Iron Man from having to use some MacGyver ingenuity to rise from the ashes, while the villains, setbacks and showdown have some parallels with Iron Man 2.

The cheeky wink-wink comedy makes fun of the genius billionaire's flaws, while giving him the opportunity to let some great one-liners fly. Having Iron Man 3 land post-Avengers does have its problems, but the writers have done their best to acknowledge Stark's involvement without having to call in a favour from the team... come on, it's Christmas time.

So there are some gaping plot holes if you take a step back, but Iron Man 3 is too fun to get sidetracked by story discrepancies. The surprise twists are half the fun, as Shane Black taunts the audience, without a trail of breadcrumbs. While first-rate visual effects power the action and solid performances keep us locked into the saga as Stark recharges and avenges. It's one of those blockbusters that teeters between a 7 and 8... without the 3D experience it's a 7.

The bottom line: Entertaining

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