Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Super Mario Bros. (1993) Review

Over the course of this century, film adaptations of comic books and novels have exponentially grown in both quantity and popularity.  Video game-based movies, however, have yet to achieve that same status, and what should be a simple and easily profitable concept has shown time and time again to be a disappointing endeavor as many of them are of poor quality and usually deviate from the source material in a way that is both alienating to fans and confusing to general audiences.  The history of video-game movies is a troubled one, and it all started in 1993 when Hollywood took its first stab at the medium through Super Mario Bros.

In the bustling metropolis of New York City, a pair of brothers, Mario (Bob Hoskins) and Luigi (John Leguizamo), maintain a plumbing business that has found itself in trouble recently due to the rise of the Scapelli Construction Company.  On their way to a job, their van breaks down, and when Mario goes to get water for the radiator, Luigi finds himself in a conversation with a woman named Daisy (Samantha Mathis), who is trying to keep her archaeological site open but faces the threat of closure from none other than Scapelli.  After offering her a ride back to her work-place, Luigi works up the guts to ask her out on a date, to which she agrees.

At dinner, the two are accompanied by Mario and his girlfriend Daniella (Dana Kaminski), but unbeknownst to them, they are being watched by a pair of men, Iggy (Fisher Stevens) and Spike (Richard Edson).  The duo came from a dimension where dinosaurs evolved into humans, and the ruler, King Koopa (Dennis Hopper), is looking for Daisy as she is the long-lost heir to the throne and holds a rock capable of merging his world with that of ours.  Once finished, Iggy and Spike mistakenly follow Mario and Daniella back to her place, and when Mario leaves, they sneak in and capture her, while Luigi and Daisy head back to the dig site.  As they examine some of the findings, pipes burst as the result of sabotage by the Scapelli Company, so Luigi gets Mario's help to close off the leak.

Having just returned from delivering Daniella to Koopa, Iggy and Spike seize the opportunity and grab Daisy, leaving the brothers to chase after them.  Their pursuit leads them beyond Earth and into the world of the dinosaurs, known as Dinohattan.  To Koopa's pleasure, the princess has been captured, but they lack the rock, so a search is issued to find a pair of plumbers.  What they don't know is that while navigating this strange world where beat-up cars ride on electric rails and crime is rampant, the stone is taken from Mario and Luigi by a bouncer named Big Bertha (Francesca Roberts), so when the brothers are captured and jailed sans rock, the king is furious.  Luckily for the duo, they manage to break out, but not before pinning Koopa in a device that de-evolves humans, which causes the ruler to gradually morph into a T-rex as the film progresses.

As one can tell by the vivid summarization, the film drastically deviates from the source material in a way that anything people know about the games, whether it be the characters, setting, items, etc., is either present in name only, has been radically altered, or, in rare cases, is true to the source material.  At its core, Super Mario Bros. does follow the set-up of the games, a princess is captured by an evil ruler, and Mario and Luigi must go and rescue her, but instead of taking place in the colorful world of the Mushroom Kingdom, its set in a sprawling, gritty metropolis that is more Blade Runner and Mad Max than a cheery Nintendo game.  However, the city does play host to a multitude of references from the franchise.

For example, several buildings in the downtown section of Dinohattan are named after creatures from the games including Hammer Bros., Thwomp, Bullet Bill, and Wiggler.  There are also appearances by Toad (Mojo Nixon), which is the name of an activist who spends his time singing anti-Koopa songs and not referring to the race of little people with mushroom heads, Yoshi, the little dinosaur capable of swallowing its prey whole, and the Goombas, Koopa's army of big, reptilian creatures with tiny heads and low intelligence.

One could spend all day listing off the number of stark contrasts between this movie and the games it is based off, but what about the quality of the film itself?  Sadly, Super Mario Bros. is not a good movie, while the look of the flick is interesting, if bizarre, and it is entertaining for how off-the-wall the picture is, its biggest issues are a lack of commitment to a single tone, and dull characters.  When the film begins, it starts off as a buddy comedy with Mario and Luigi trying to keep their business afloat, in fact, unlike the games, which don't really play up the plumbing angle of the brothers, the film makes it a major aspect of their characters, which is commendable.  Regardless, when the two arrive at Dinohattan to save Daisy, Super Mario Bros. tries to make the situation as serious as possible, but instead finds itself floundering back-and-forth between comedic and dramatic to no success.

Yet, for as much as the movie struggles to keep a focus throughout its one hour and forty-minute runtime, one aspect it does get right is Mario and Luigi's partnership.  Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo do a good job at portraying the titular duo, with Mario being the tough yet protective big brother and Luigi the active but reckless one, and there's some fun banter between the two.  On that note, the film deserves credit, to a certain degree, for addressing the matter of what their last name is, as in one scene in the police station, it's revealed that it's none other than "Mario."  Besides the heroic plumbers, Dennis Hopper's manic performance as King Koopa is great to watch.  Even though he's not portraying a giant, fire-breathing turtle and instead a man who dresses like Donald Trump and sounds like Dr. Evil, Hopper does a lot to bring the character to life.

It's a shame that the remainder of the cast lacks that same spark those three actors have, but they do.  As Daisy, Samantha Mathis spends most of the film looking and sounding bored, while Fisher Stevens and Richard Edson fail to deliver any laughs as the bumbling duo of Iggy and Spike.  In fact, Daisy herself is one of the movie's other weak links.  Her character is painted out to be a tragic figure, since her mother was killed after she abandoned her daughter at a church, and her father (Lance Henriksen in a five-second cameo near the end) was de-evolved by Koopa into fungus that has spread all over the city.  Thus, whenever she does have a scene or is in conversation with Koopa or his assistant Leena (Fiona Shaw), it's supposed to be taken seriously, but as an audience, we don't buy it since those moments are often followed up by scenes where Mario and Luigi get into hectic car chases or try to get the rock while evading the Goombas or receiving assistance from unlikely sources.

Of course, the movie's puzzling attitude is the result of a troubled production, as the studio, Lightmotive Pictures, wanted a light-hearted family picture, so much so that the initial script was reminiscent of the games.  However, when directors were found in the form of Rocky Morton and Annabel Jenkel, a married couple best known for the cult TV series Max Headroom, they envisioned a product that was a dark, cyberpunk thriller with a dinosaur twist.  The result was a production littered with constant rewrites of the script and a crew and cast who were less than fond of the people making this picture.  Many of them have expressed their disappointment with the movie, most notably Bob Hoskins.  In an interview with The Guardian in 2007, Hoskins expressed the following:
"The worst thing I ever did?  Super Mario Brothers.  It was a f---in nightmare.  The whole experience was a nightmare.  It had a husband and wife team directing, whose arrogance had been mistaken for talent.  After so many weeks their own agent told them to get off the set.  F---in nightmare.  F---in idiots.

Looking past the behind-the-scenes drama and confusing nature of the writing and characters, the effects and aesthetics of the world created are well-done and are an interesting sight to look at.  The visual effects for when someone is de-evolved or the sequence where Mario is sent through the space between dimensions stand out as the most unique, although some of the animatronic work, particularly for the Goomba minions and tiny dinosaurs scattered about Dinohattan look primitive by today's standards.  Meanwhile, the soundtrack, composed by Alan Silvestri, is solid, with the best track being the upbeat, jazzy theme that is heard whenever Mario and Luigi are onscreen.  Though there are times when the score does sound reminiscent of Silvestri's earlier work, such as Predator and the Back to the Future trilogy.

One part dystopic, science-fiction action-adventure, one part dramatic tragedy, and one part slapstick comedy, Super Mario Bros. is a textbook example of how to not properly do an adaptation, yet also a fascinating watch because of it.  Is it bad?  Yes, but when compared to future video-game movies such as Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, the Resident Evil movie series, and more, it's certainly nowhere near as terrible as those other products.  It's a mess, but an entertaining one.

Final Score: 4/10

Interview Quote: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2007/aug/03/2

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Mercenaries 2: World in Flames (Xbox 360) Review

Whenever a beloved individual passes away or a recognizable place closes, there is much grief and disappointment amongst the community, as well as numerous tributes and payments of respect for what they did when they still existed.  In 2009, Pandemic Studios, a company best known for creating the original Star Wars: Battlefront series and the first two Destroy All Humans games, was shut down when the company that owned them, Electronic Arts, laid off several of their own employees and development teams.  The year prior, Pandemic released Mercenaries 2: World in Flames, a sequel to 2004's Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction.  Whereas the original game took the open-world style of Grand Theft Auto and set it in war-torn North Korea, the sequel shifts the focus to sunny Venezuela, a place rife with destructive opportunity.

After selecting from one of three mercenaries, including Matthias Nilsson, Jennifer Mui, and Chris Jacobs, the story begins proper when your selected soldier-for-hire arrives at the mansion of businessman Ramon Solano, who has asked the mercenary to find and locate a rogue general named Carmona, who is hiding on a remote island off the coast of Maracaibo.  Once he's captured, the mercenary returns to Solano to claim their pay.  Instead, the man reveals to the protagonist that by capturing Carmona, he can carry out his plan to take over Venezuela and rule it with an iron fist.  After escaping the madman's mansion, the mercenary decides to enact revenge on Solano, first by working with different groups to gather intel, and then finding and eliminating him.

Featuring a plot so basic you could simplify it down to one word, revenge, as well as characters who are defined more by their stereotypes than actual personality traits, Mercenaries 2 provides players with a reason for the ensuing wanton destruction, and not much else.  Regardless of who is chosen, the narrative unfolds the same way every time, with the only significant difference being that you'll hear a new batch of repetitive one-liners from your selected character.

To free Venezuela from the grip of a tyrannical businessman and achieve payback for being betrayed and not paid, the mercenary will formulate their own base of operations from the ruins of Solano's mansion and in turn, work with a multitude of groups, each of whom has their own agenda.  The five organizations, whether it be a petroleum company, a resistance movement, the U.S. army, or China, will give the player contracts to carry out and numerous side tasks to accomplish in one's spare time.  By working with them, cash can be earned and new items will become available for purchase as the game progresses.  The contracts are varied in their objectives, and involve doing things such as rescuing hostages, liberating towns from the Venezuelan army, and blowing up targets to kingdom come.

Not all missions are a total cakewalk as later assignments can be challenging affairs due to the amount of heavy firepower one will encounter, but by amassing a healthy stockpile of weapons, vehicles, and airstrikes to order for delivery, you can even the odds.  Meanwhile, the list of things to do outside of contracts is staggering; from freeing outposts of Venezuelan control to completing races to taking out high-valued targets and capturing people of interest, the game is loaded to the brim with things to do.  Additionally, a wide selection of firearms and other goods encourages the player to experiment with how to approach combat situations, and when in doubt, a good, old-fashioned artillery strike can easily clear a blockade of tanks.

Yet, as a mercenary, your ties to those you align yourself with are tenuous at best, so each faction has a meter dictating the strength of their partnership.  If you start attacking allies or hurting civilians within their line of sight, nearby soldiers will attack and attempt to call their boss to let them know about the mercenary's actions.  Such a factor plays an important role in regards to the high-valued targets you can find and eliminate, as many of them are often individuals from one of the factions the mercenary is helping.  If one of them becomes hostile, you can gain back their respect by paying a hefty fee.  Luckily, the inconsistent AI will result in plenty of cases where you're more than capable of murdering comrades or blowing up a building of theirs and getting away scot free for it.

At its best, Mercenaries 2: World in Flames is a frenetic, action-packed experience that gladly revels in its anarchic mayhem through massive explosions and state-of-the-art firepower, but the multitude of bugs and insipid behavior of civilians, allies, and enemies alike often sours the fun one might be having in a play session.  The glitches can be minor, such as vehicles or NPC's getting stuck in the environment or objects randomly floating in mid-air.  Then there are the more criminal ones, like calling in a supply delivery and the helicopter pilot doesn't show up, or destroying a building, only to witness a bizarre implosion that takes place as the structure collapses.

In addition to those and freeze-ups that can occur, the incompetent intelligence found here ranks up with the likes of the original Dead Rising and Aliens: Colonial Marines with how terrible it is.  Although life in a war-torn country would be a bad experience for anyone, apparently, for many civilians, it's too much.  The mercenary may be freely cruising on the open road or weaving through the streets in the city, only for a pedestrian to spontaneously run out in the middle of the road and become roadkill.  Meanwhile, the soldiers, both good and bad, should all be sent back to boot camp since they often miss more than they hit, and do other inane actions such as throw a grenade, only for it to bounce on a wall and explode in their face.  Additionally, if an ally is on a turret, chances are they will gladly shoot up a vehicle, even when the people inside are long dead and it's now on fire and on the verge of exploding.

Despite the numerous technical inequalities, the visual quality of the title is good, with varied environmental designs and impressive destruction/particle effects.  Sound, though, is uneven.  The guns sound visceral and the soundtrack combines a classical orchestra with Latin music motifs to create a unique and memorable mixture.  The same can't be said for the voice acting, which is average at best, and get ready to hear twenty variations of lines including "It's the mercenary!"  "Is that our vehicle?"  "The mercenary is here, attack!", as you progress through the game.

Mercenaries 2: World in Flames is a game with many ups, yet just as many downs.  The core gameplay is the title's biggest strength, with onscreen mayhem that is a sight to behold and a wealth of content that will keep players coming back for more.  On the flip side, the lack of polish evident through the bugs and other faults do a lot to try and derail one's enjoyment.  Like an action flick from the 80's, its ridiculous nature and high levels of adrenaline keep the experience entertaining, but there's no denying that it's not perfect.

Final Score: 6/10