Tuesday, 27 March 2012

'The Darkness II'

After about two months of dissertation crises, sadly dashed hopes, and some really bad Sasquatch horror, I needed this.

Set two years after the events of 2007’s The Darkness, developed by Starbreeze Studios, the sequel finds Jackie Estacado as don of his own criminal empire. He gets to eat at fancy restaurants, he meets exotic women and he lives in a mansion that sits on top of a skyscraper. The high life, then.

He does have one teensy tiny problem: that darn demonic entity known as the Darkness still calls Jackie’s body its home. Having used the Darkness’ powers to slaughter his way to his treacherous Uncle Paulie and avenge the death of Jenny Romano, his girlfriend, Jackie has since managed to bottle the Darkness up, keeping himself from unleashing violent tentacle carnage ever again. But when a mysterious cult with designs on the Darkness launches a full-on assault against Jackie, he’s forced to unleash the evil within himself once again to protect not only his organisation, but also his loved ones... both living and dead.

I shouldn’t type any more for fear of spoiling what is a rip-roaring story with shocks aplenty – full of real icantbelievedeyjustdiddat moments. But amidst all the fragmenting skulls and spurting arteries, there’s an affecting emotional quality that shows Jackie (now apparently voiced by Batman) still struggling with the loss of Jennie. If you’re wondering, then yes, The Darkness II has at least one scene that rivals the original’s To Kill a Mockingbird sequence.    

While Jackie manages to be a strong antihero, almost every supporting character follows that identikit Goodfellas stereotype. You’d expect this, but unless you’re actually in the mafia, then you’ll probably have a hard time finding any of Jackie’s allies even the slightest bit relatable. Even dear old Aunt Sarah, seemingly having undergone a personality transfer since 2007, delivers mostly profanity-laden dialogue. I guess she’s endearing like that.

No, the best character here has got to be your faithful Darkling companion. Sporting a cockney accent, he crushes heads, rips out throats, gouges eyeballs, urinates on corpses, and is altogether awesome for it. This marks one of the few times where a comic relief sidekick actually works.

Starbreeze didn’t return for the sequel, so the developers of Dark Sector (that one with the glaive from Krull), Digital Extremes, were called in to continue Jackie’s story. This means change.

The first thing you’ll notice is the striking new visual style. Even four years later, the original’s grim photorealistic looks still stand out as some of the best in console gaming. In keeping with The Darkness’ comic book origins, that’s all been replaced by a colourful, don’t-call-it-cel-shaded paintjob that’s low on fine detail but high on lavish style. At times it honestly feels like you’re walking through a graphic novel, and only adds to the immersive experience. Yes, it’s a jarring shift at first, but it doesn’t take long before the comic trappings win you over. So don’t start freaking out like a rabid Zelda fan in 2001.

More important are the changes made to the game’s structure. Taking a leaf from their classic Riddick game, Starbreeze gave The Darkness a quasi-free roaming feel where you wandered around a small city environment, taking short side-missions from various characters while heading from one main plot point to another. Digital Extremes, meanwhile, have opted for a far more linear approach. Aside from the mansion, which acts as a hub filled with interactive characters, the story progresses in a linear fashion. Levels task you with getting from A to B, between which you cut a swath through hordes of enemies, along with the occasional boss encounter (another new, if a little forced addition). While this does result in an arcady vibe, it suits the game’s frantic pacing well. Very little of the original’s downtime returns, and you’re quickly thrust into the next violent set-piece.

And it works because, in contrast with its predecessor, action is what The Darkness II gets right most of all. Guns now feel like instruments of death instead of the peashooters you used in 2007. Even the lowly pistol means business, while a close-up shotgun blast tears off limbs with bloody aggression. Like with the Starbreeze original, though, the true joy of combat doesn’t become apparent until you mix gunplay with Darkness powers.  Digital Extremes have streamlined this aspect too, with your two fellow demon heads serving their own specific roles. The right head acts as a conventional melee attack, allowing you multi-directional slashing manoeuvres, leading to much dismemberment and decapitation. The left head, meanwhile, acts as a grabbing tool (I call him Bitey). Pool cues, car doors, industrial fans – you name it – can be used as javelin-like weapons to impale/dice enemies, or handy shields to provide some extra protection. If an enemy is weak enough then you can grab him too, whereupon you can perform a messy execution. These animations range from a simple head-ripping, to chestbursting and even pulling their spine out via an orifice you don’t usually see one emerging from (the Predator could learn a thing or two from this). This isn’t just a gory spectacle, as you’re granted benefits like a health or ammo refill depending on your choice of fatality.

These powers and more can be upgraded through a simple skill progression tree using the points acquired from killing sprees, so go nuts. Given the game’s relatively short length, it’s unlikely that you’ll unlock everything by the time the credits roll. That’s not a flaw, mind you, as a New Game + mode is unlocked upon completion, so you can revisit past levels and unlock new skills, adding replay value.

Enemy AI was a massive bugbear many had with the first Darkness, so you’ll be pleased to hear that it has been tightened. Some foes, shock horror, even take cover now. But they still aren’t the smartest bunch, and can usually be ripped apart with ease. Still, I wouldn’t call The Darkness II a cakewalk. The challenge is ramped up upon the gradual appearance of more powerful enemies, some of whom use shoulder-mounted torches against you (surely the bane of Jackie’s existence), while others pack whips that can snatch guns right out of your hands. When you’re faced with large numbers of these guys, it can all become overwhelming as you’re forced to go scampering into cover with your weapons taken and your powers nullified. Aside from these frustrating difficulty spikes, you’re given a fair and satisfying challenge throughout.

One element that naturally remains the same is Mike Patton’s demented performance as the Darkness itself. Just like before it’s a raging mess of insanity, with Patton constantly sounding like a Lovecraftian Entity that’s just had the misfortune of stepping on some Lego.

Starbreeze set the bar pretty high with their first take on The Darkness, but Digital Extremes has reached said bar and, at least in places, managed to surpass it. That winning combination of mature plotting and gore-fuelled action makes a triumphant return, proving to be just as effective as it was four years ago, while throwing in plenty of new improvements and surprises thanks to the new development team. And while it may be short (most gamers won’t have a problem blasting through this within six hours), it’s a wild ride that you’ll definitely want to revisit.              

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

25 Years Later - 'Lethal Weapon'

I’m not sure where the Buddy Cop sub-genre truly began. Obviously, Michael Mann made a big impact in 1984 with Miami Vice. Before that, Nick Nolte and Eddy Murphy managed to find a begrudging respect for each other in 1982’s 48hrs. Looking even further back to 1967, Sidney Poitier had to work with Rod Steiger’s racist police chief for In the Heat of the Night. Hell, while we’re at it, how about Holmes and Watson?

The point is Lethal Weapon wasn’t the first Buddy Cop film. But it’s often credited as “the one that started it all”... and it’s not hard to see why. Richard Donner’s original series opener is filled with all the required elements to get a modern action film labelled as cliché ridden. It’s Christmas, you’ve got two mismatched cops: one recently bereaved, the other not too far off retiring, they’ve got a small army of drug dealers with bad hair to take down, and there’ll be at least one kidnapped daughter to rescue. Nothing special at all. Yet, a whole twenty five years (okay, okay, and a couple of weeks) later, it still stands tall as a classic entry in the annals of action cinema.

The main reason for this? Just about everything, I’d say. It all starts in the brain box of a certain Mr. Shane Black. I don’t know what inspires a twenty-three-year-old to pen a film like Lethal Weapon, but I bet it’s something pretty special. This was a screenplay where Everything. Just. Flowed. Using his signature informal style, along with the most basic of descriptions, Black was able to provide crystal clear imagery, highly sympathetic characters, snappy dialogue, varied Los Angeles settings, well judged action sequences; and he delivered it all in a purely cohesive manner. Best of all, the script still works as an excellent companion piece to the film. If you can find it online, then do give it a read.

With Martin Riggs, Black created one of the very first “human” action heroes. Beforehand, they’d all followed the same emotionally blunt, archetypal tough guy persona popularised by Harry Callahan. But Riggs cried. Let alone putting a gun to his head, tears were a big deal in 80s cinema. Here’s a guy who, to put it simply, is emotionally broken. Constantly flitting from charming to furious, much of Lethal Weapon is spent toying with the prospect of Riggs finally snapping and doing god-knows what. And that’s why Roger Murtaugh is so important. Much calmer and far more reserved, he’s the vital counterbalance: there to act as a (understandably grumpy) surrogate father figure to Riggs; someone who can rein him in and prove that life is still worth living for. But only the perfect human element could bring them to life. So it’s by some miracle (namely casting director Marion Dougherty) that Mel Gibson and Danny Glover ended up in their respective roles.

Something clicked. This is chemistry like you rarely get the chance to see. Much like their characters, Gibson and Glover seemed made for each other. You don’t see two actors doing a good job, you see two friends having a great time; and this obvious bond would only strengthen across three sequels. It’s arguable, but Riggs may be Gibson’s career-best performance (it even helped land him the role of Hamlet). He effortlessly combines wide-eyed craziness with the required amount of evident inner torment – presenting a genuine human time bomb. Glover was a natural choice for someone getting too old for this stuff, bringing across the cranky veteran, the loving family man and the suffering friend all at once. Put together, they’re a wonderful combination. Many Buddy Cop movies live or die based on the strength of their bromance, and thankfully these two delivered the man-love in spades (no one ever gives me a bullet for Christmas).   

In the shadowy pair of General McAllister (Mitch Ryan) and Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey), Riggs and Murtaugh faced two very dangerous adversaries. As acting uber-villain, Ryan gives McAllister a natural air of commanding menace, rocks a prominent turtleneck sweater, and makes the most of his limited screen time. Think what you may of Busey, but once he was one of Hollywood’s go-to guys for action heavies (a la Richard Lynch and Henry Silva). Although a physically imposing hulk of nastiness, it’s surprising how Mr Joshua is probably one of Busey’s most low-key roles – a far cry from his snarling turns in Predator 2 and Under Siege, no matter how many lit Zippo lighters you hold under his arm. The Buse isn’t truly set loose until the climax, when he gets to rampage across L.A. with an assault rifle, dodging Mel’s attacks while heartily expressing his distaste for the holiday season. Amazing.   

The bickering duo’s road to their nemeses is littered with memorable set-pieces. Mention Lethal Weapon to someone and there’s a solid chance they’ll immediately remember Riggs’ encounter with that suicide jumper, Murtaugh’s tense desert standoff, the chase down Hollywood Boulevard, or the final, rain-soaked confrontation with Joshua. All great, tightly constructed segments. But the real driving force behind Lethal Weapon isn’t its action scenes. It’s the human element where this film’s true magic shines through. This is a character piece, first and foremost, and whether it’s Riggs’ emotionally draining suicide attempt, Murtaugh’s constant jovial wrestling with his family, or the first time they share dinner together, there’s plenty to remind us of how Lethal Weapon goes the extra mile in setting itself apart from other action films.

Many 80s movies in particular are remembered for their music, including such synth-heavy works as Beverly Hills Cop, Manhunter and Fright Night to name but a few. Lethal Weapon’s soundtrack is special, however, as it combined the talents of three big name musicians. Powering the film’s emotional scenes was Eric Clapton’s guitar – getting right to the heart of Riggs’ emotional woes. David Sanborn’s saxophone provided a bluesy quality to Murtaugh’s many world weary moments. Last, but by no means least of all, Michael Kamen’s rousing orchestral talents bolstered the many action sequences, and portions of his score were more or less reworked for Die Hard the following year. With all three working together in harmonious unison (across the whole series, no less), the music of Lethal Weapon is quite a unique beast. Though, to be honest, you’ll have a hard time finding anyone who can listen to that ending credits song with a straight face.

It may be a little fanboyish of me to call Lethal Weapon perfect... so I won’t. But I can only nitpick. At times, it does feel as though the actual plot takes a distant backseat to the leads’ developing relationship, which in turn results in most supporting characters being swept under the rug (cough-TOM ATKINS-cough). Also, for a Big Bad, I do think McAllister may have benefited from a slightly meatier role. And has it really aged all that gracefully? Apart from the aforementioned song and turtleneck sweaters, there aren’t too many frightening holdovers from the neon decade. Well, except for that glorious mop hanging off Gibson’s scalp. Seriously, he’s like 80% mullet in this one.

It’s worth remembering just how dark this opening Lethal was compared to the sequels. Yes, they all had their dark moments (the whole last act of 2, Murtaugh’s downward spiral in 3 and just about anything involving Jet Li in 4), but with an increasing emphasis placed on expanding the action and comedy, none of them matched the original’s thematically gloomy nature. There was comic relief scattered throughout, but it was used as a tool to briefly take us away from all the harsh violence and real human drama that occupied a large majority of the film. In fact, despite being “the one that started it all”, it often feels like a disservice calling Lethal Weapon a standard Buddy Cop flick.

What it is, is a thriller that isn’t afraid to put characterisation and plot development in front of overdone action and violence – a trait that sadly continues to become less and less frequent in similar genre pieces today (though films like Drive show it’s yet to be forgotten). It’s also a case where all the right elements just so happened to merge. The writing was excellent, the performances were pitch-perfect, the action always excited, the sound design was masterful, it had a strong emotional core, and it was all held together under Richard Donner’s assured directorial banner.

Lightening in a bottle? That’s one way to put it.