MIKE AT THE MOVIES: Three Big Movies for the Small Screen


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During a recent interview with NBC commemorating the release of his Oscar-winning Best Picture The French Connection 50 years ago, director William Friedkin speculated that within a few years, the movie-theater business would shrink from 30,000 screens to about 1,000. The only films receiving theatrical releases, in his opinion, would be superhero movies. Everything else would be streamed on Netflix or Amazon or HBO.

If he’s right, films like his – a gritty police drama with arguably the greatest chase sequence in film history – would premiere on a smartphone or smart TV. I watched The French Connection recently on my 42-inch HDTV, and the film holds up amazingly well. However, much of my enjoyment came from the vicarious memory of seeing it the first time in a darkened theater. The sounds and images engulfed me in a way that watching a film in the palm of my hand never could and probably never will.

Still, Friedkin might be on to something. The past month has seen three big movies made for the small screen: a stylish, revisionist Western with an A-list Black cast; an apocalyptic sci-fi drama starring Tom Hanks in Oscar mode; and a romantic comedy–heist featuring The Rock, Wonder Woman and Deadpool that, at $160 million, is the most expensive film production Netflix has ever bankrolled. Although each of these films has received a limited theatrical release in order to qualify for year-end Academy consideration, they were made to be streamed and net a boatload of new subscribers.

The R-rated Western The Harder They Fall (Netflix), directed by British music impresario Jeymes Samuel, gives us a dream cast of color in a story that is one part history and two parts Hollywood. Idris Elba, Jonathan Majors, Zazie Beetz, Regina King, Delroy Lindo and LaKeith Stanfield are the headliners, playing variations of real-life personages (outlaw Rufus Buck, cowboy Nat Love, saloon diva Stagecoach Mary, bank robber Treacherous Trudy Smith, fabled lawman Bass Reeves and gunslinger Cherokee Bill, respectively) from the post–Civil War West.

They’re tangled in a revenge story that seems ripped from the pages of a dime-store Western. Nat Love is out to kill the man who killed his parents when he was a kid. That man, Rufus Buck, just broke out of jail and is intent on getting even with the townspeople of Redwood, who sent him away and stole the money he stole. He reassembles his gang of cutthroats and gunslingers to take over the town until he gets what’s his. Bass Reeves is the lawman on his trail, leading a ragtag posse to bring Buck back to justice, dead or alive.

There are shoot-outs, showdowns and robberies aplenty, directed with style and levity by Samuels, who cut his teeth making music videos and obviously knows where to place the camera to keep the action popping. He gets quality performances from actors who seem to enjoy cutting loose with each other, playing dress-up in the kind of Hollywood Western they grew up watching. The Harder They Fall is bloody good fun.

Finch (PG-13) is Apple TV’s most ambitious film to date. This glimpse of an apocalyptic world scorched by solar flares stars Tom Hanks and – well, Tom Hanks. That’s it. He has a stray dog named Goodyear, a computerized gizmo on rollers called Dewey that acts like R2D2, and a clumsy robot self-named Jeff (voiced in robot-speak by Caleb Henry Jones) that Finch has crafted to care for Goodyear after Finch has quit this mortal coil.

Director Miguel Sapochnik, working from a script by Craig Luck and Ivor Powell, presents a visually stunning world that is as arid as anything in Dune. The first half of the film (the better half) takes place in what used to be St. Louis. 

When Finch ventures from the safety of his bunker to scrounge for canned goods and dog food, he must wear a space suit to protect himself from 150-degree temperatures and deadly UV radiation. An electrical storm that threatens to wipe out his power supply sends him and his surrogate family scrambling to San Francisco.

When the story hits the road, however, the film hits a few potholes. Sapochnik wrings sentiment from nearly every scene as Finch prepares his ungainly progeny to literally drive into an uncertain future. Hanks does his best to keep things real. I can’t think of another actor who could pull off this kind of performance without drowning in pathos. Finch is worth watching just because of him.

Red Notice (PG-13) teams three of the most likable movie stars working today – Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Gal “Wonder Woman” Gadot, and Ryan “Deadpool” Reynolds – in a stylish jewelry heist that takes pains to remind us of just about every jewelry-heist movie that has ever come before. In fact, it references so many other movies, including Pulp Fiction, that you might need to brush up on your film history to get all the jokes.

Writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Skyscraper, Central Intelligence) has an easy touch with actors and a gift for comedy. He lets his cast members be themselves: Reynolds riffs nonstop with wisecracks; Gadot looks gorgeous in whatever she’s wearing; and The Rock rolls through every scene like a force of nature.

The story, such as it is, involves three priceless eggs that Marc Antony had made for his ladylove Cleopatra and that the three stars are intent on stealing out from under each other. The action jumps from Rome to Bali to Russia and back, before concluding in the jungles of South America, but the locales are like the plot: there merely to justify the budget.

Red Notice is amusing, but hardly worth the $160 million it cost to bring it to our television screens. Netflix should ask for a refund.

In another lifetime, Mike Orlock wrote film reviews for the Reporter/Progress newspapers in the western suburbs of Chicago. He has also taught high school English, coached basketball and authored three books of poetry. He currently serves as Door County’s poet laureate.