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The tagline reads, "They took his family, now he'll take their lives." Obviously your basic revenge movie plot, which can go either way according to who's making the movie. In this case, Jeff and Joshua Crook, the directors of 2005's surprisingly good GHETTO DAWG 2: OUT OF THE PITS, are behind the camera, and their latest film ROCKAWAY (2007) is an intense, blood-drenched action flick that's even better.
Nicholas Gonzalez plays Trane, a war hero whose tour of duty in Afghanistan is cut short by the brutal murder of his wife and newborn son. Back in the states, he hooks up with his boyhood pal Dave (Ricardo Chavira), who lives under the boardwalk at Rockaway Beach in Queens, and discovers that the old neighborhood has been taken over by ruthless Latino drug dealers and pimps in league with the Russian mob. The grief-stricken Trane grimly swears revenge on whoever killed his family, whoever ordered it, and everybody in between--all the way up the food chain to the feared Russian gang boss, Sergei (Vitali Baganov).
With that set-up in place, Trane enters the old neighborhood like a shark and goes about his task with reckless determination. He hooks up with the top Latino thug Juju under the pretense of having fifty pounds of heroin to sell and is taken to meet Sergei's second-in-command, Ivan, a stone-cold killer who resembles a cross between Charles Bronson and a large rock. It isn't long before Trane has the two factions at each other's throats while he relentlessly picks them off one by one.
With a compelling story and realistic characters to work with, the Crook Brothers (who also wrote the screenplay) set up a series of bone-crunching, bullet-riddled action sequences that have all the flamboyant style of a Robert Rodriguez shoot-em-up but with a harder edge. Deft use of optical wipes, split-screen, and other devices keeps things interesting on a cinematic level, while the violence is as visceral and splatteriffic as a George Romero film.
But the tragedy that motivates Trane isn't just an excuse for funny one-liners and comic-book exploits. We're constantly reminded of his inner pain and the toll that his descent into savagery is taking on his humanity, especially when he discovers that his own sister (sexy Delilah Cotto) is working for Juju. Trane's no indestructible Superman, either, and like anyone else, he's capable of screwing up. When this happens, he suffers a major setback that is both incredibly shocking and grueling to watch.
As played by Nicholas Gonzalez, Trane is an admirable character that we can root for all the way. Mario Cimarro and Manny Perez are both scary and comical as Juju and his vile toady Antwan--much of the sparse comic relief in the film revolves around Juju's anal-retentive obsession with his car ("Drive it slow...SLOW," he keeps warning a frustrated Antwan). The standout, though, is Oleg Taktarov as Ivan, whose cold-blooded exterior masks a surprising depth. He's not your standard one-dimensional villain.
As for that major setback I mentioned--I didn't see how Trane's quest for revenge could continue after that point. But it makes the final confrontation between him and the actual killers of his wife and son even better. This sequence is full of visual surprises and stylistic indulgences that could easily have been botched in lesser hands, yet the Crook Brothers pull it off in a way that is reminiscent of Sergio Leone or Hong Kong action cinema.
ROCKAWAY is one of the most gripping and effective action films I could hope to see this year. Even the last shot is emotionally resonant, leaving a final impression that most films of this kind wouldn't even try for.
Added: Friday, March 07, 2008
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