42 posts categorized "thriller"


Fangs for the memories

The 3-Ds in "Fright Night" stand for death, dumb and dufuses.

Yet the remake of the 1985 comic-horror-thriller about the vampire next door slithers coldly and with a sick sense of purpose; like a snake on the prowl after dark.

Actually, Jerry (Colin Farrell), the handsome mysterious stranger who has just moved into a house in the Las Vegas 'burbs, is more like a shark.

Charley, the kid next door, finally snaps that Jerry (Yes, Jerry the vampire) must be a blood-sucker when his classmates, including former best bud Ed (talented Christopher Mintz-Plasse), fail to show up for school.

Normally, I am not in favor of remakes.  They are, however, here to stay.

At least the "Fright Night" re-do is in very good hands, even if it's a little cheesy-goofy.  Director Craig Gillespie ("Mr. Woodcock"), who guided Ryan Gosling through an extremely difficult performance in the outstanding dark comic-drama "Lars and the Real Girl," makes good use of his actors, his script and the gimmicky 3-D effects.

Gillespie wisely waits, waits, waits until just the right couple of moments to spring -- make that fling -- images into the audience.

Anton Yelchin ("Star Trek," Mel Gibson's son in "The Beaver") finds enough nuance in Charley to keep his startled character real enough.   

Farrell, on screen recently in "Horrible Bosses," was excellent in the hit-man comic-drama "In Bruges" (2008), a superb thriller almost no one saw.  Here he's a laid back vampire.  Laid back, that is, until night falls, hunger takes over and the fangs come out.

The real star here, though, is Scot actor David Tennant (the BBC series "Dr. Who").  Tennant, a relative fresh face in this country, acts circles around his castmates as Peter Vincent, a blow-hard "vampire killer" on stage on the Vegas strip who is drawn into the real fright fight.

The late Roddy McDowall, who played a TV "Fright Night" host in the original, would be proud, and perhaps a little jealous of this fast-paced remake with real bite.


Serkis goes 'Ape,' Franco not so much

Monkey see, monkey do a major banana pile of damage in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."

Like perhaps you, my first thought when I heard about a resurrection prequel to the "Planet of the Apes" cinematic library was something like, "Take your stinking paws off a new 'Apes' script, you damed dirty bottom-line profit guys."

All of that changed for me when it began to become apparent that the performance capture work in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is equal, if not superior to, James Cameron's sci-fi space adventure "Avatar" (2009).

Set in modern-day San Francisco, "Rise" predates the Charlton Heston "Planet of the Apes" primate-dominant sci-fi series of 1968 to '73 and Tim Burton's 2001 re-boot starring Mark Wahlberg and Helena Bonham Carter.

Scripted by the husband-and-wife team of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver ("Eye for an Eye," "The Relic"), the new adventure goes ape with man toying with the human mind and, as you can guess, screwing everything up.

Scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) thinks he's discovered a brain-restoring drug that will end the horror of Alzheimer's, which his father (John Lithgow) is suffering from.  Things go bad at the lab, though.  A dog-and-pony show for investors yields one dead prize chimp and a scrubbed cure for damaged human brain cells.

Without giving too much away, let's just say that Will takes his work home in the form of a baby chimp and continues his work in secret.  If movie scientists could somehow pay attention to what other movie scientists learned before, Will could have screened last year's "Splice" and saved himself -- and perhaps all mankind -- some major grief.

The baby chimp, inheriting "bright-eyes" smarts from his mama, is named Caesar and is portrayed in stunning motion-capture glory by great Brit Andy Serkis, the most amazing actor you probably have never seen.

Not his face, anyway.  In a motion-capture performance, the actor wears a suit covered with electrodes to monitor every body movement.  They are attached to the face as well, then the computer wizards electronically add the character's image around the human actor's performance.

When it's done right, as Serkis has done as Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, as the title character in "King Kong" (2005) and especially here, the process is quite spectacular.

The old "Planet of the Apes" films had significant things to say about big issues (man destroying his home planet, for instance).  The ape suits, however, took away from the impact of the story.

What director Rupert Wyatt ("The Escapist") and senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri (a four-time Oscar winner) do here is make great use of film making technology that has finally caught up to the visual needs of the story.

From this aisle seat, the only drawback is Franco as Will.  He was a dud as co-host of the Academy Awards earlier this year and Franco (an Oscar nominee for "127 Hours") is about as non-interesting here.  

I liked Freida Pinto OK as Caroline, the love-interest primatologist.  And Lithgow is fine as the mentally withering dad.

But Franco.  I don't know.  He seems to be slow-walking through this one.

Overall, however, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" lives up to the title.  And once you see the ending of this film, you'll likely have second thoughts about ever wanting to face a monkey on the Golden Gate Bridge.


'Transforming' monsters and movies

I'm sitting here wondering what the word "movie" even means these days.

It used to be much easier to discern.  A feature film was a combination of story, acting, direction, sound and some special effects (if necessary) that would occasionally erupt into something magical on screen.

"Transformers:  Dark of the Moon" is proof positive that eruptions still fill movie screens.  In fact, the grandly exploding fireballs and weapons of asinine destruction seem to increase in scope and intensity with each new weekend, especially in the summertime, when students and fan boys swarm to the latest barrage of pyrotechnics.

I thought I'd seen every source of material possible when the movie franchise "Pirates of the Caribbean" launched from a theme park ride.  There no longer appeared to be a need for a novel or a screenplay, or much acting, come to think of it.  Mugging into the camera became the name of the game.

But the theme park cinematic springboard was nothing compared to what's going on with the "Transformers" franchise, which is rattling the walls of your neighborhood cineplex as we communicate.

The "Transformers" series, you see, is inspired by clicky, clacky cars and trucks that can be maneuvered like kindergarten-level Rubik's Cubes into mechanical good aliens (Autobots) and very bad hombre aliens (Decepticons) that like to duke it out on Planet Earth.

The first two violence-riddled flicks were extremely successful at the box office, as I'm sure No. 3 will be as well.  Young movie-goers and aging fan boys have bought into the hype and often cheer as one giant former Chevy beats a former 18-wheeler into a bleeding pile of twisted metal.

Pardon me for coming from the position of a cynical old grouch film critic on this.  But I liked it better when kids played with toy Transformers (I prefer the term Go-bots) instead of movie studios toying with impressionable movie-goers and, perhaps (Just my theory) attempting to convince movie-goers that real plot development, accomplished acting and the like are Old School and thus something no longer of value.

We can accuse or thank producer/director Michael Bay for that, especially since he's called the shots on all three "Transformers" flicks.

Bay has no concept of when to cut an expensive special-effects laden scene.  So they drag on in the very definition of repetition for what appears to be forever, but turns out to be just an ungodly 155 minutes.

Mechanical space-alien blood flows freely in "Transformers:  Dark of the Moon."  And, guess what, it's red like ours.  I don't really grasp that concept.  I thought they would bleed oil, or maybe transmission fluid.  But I'm sure that's just something I missed in story exposition.  Oh, I forgot.  There isn't any (OK, there's a little).

The Transformers leave quite a mess behind as what appear to be generally American made cars and trucks morph into gear-grinding warring foes.  Despite their advanced technology, the Autobons and Decepticons battle with giant swords more than you might expect.

Shia LaBeouf is back for the third paycheck, excuse me, starring role as Sam Witwicky, friend of the good Go-bots.

Megan Fox, however, has been banished from the fold for, according to published reports, saying some unkind things about her director.  So in slinks Victoria's Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as Carly, Sam's new girlfriend.  Actually, she holds her own with the sparse dialogue in her first feature film and likely will return if she doesn't bad mouth Mr. Bay.

Sitting through more than two hours and a-half of clanking heavy metal like this, I tend to look for something positive; an oasis in a desert of destruction as it were.

That can be found in the scenery-chewing performances by excellent veteran actors John Malkovich ("Burn After Reading"), Frances McDormand (a Best Actress Oscar winner for "Fargo") and John Turturro ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?").  Somehow, Turturro has managed to brighten all three "Transformers" as an eccentric human element.

A movie like this must be judged not as a literary work turned into a motion picture, but for what it is.

I have no problem with that.  My lament is this:  "What is it?"


Raiders of the lost art

I believe it's a film critic's duty to dive a little deeper into a movie than just to say, "Yeah, I liked it" or "It stunk".

For the most part, I did like "Super 8," the genre hybrid with equal parts sci-fi creature feature and a gushing valentine to kids stricken by the gnawing bug to make movies at a tender age.

I would not be fulfilling my obligation, however, if I didn't point out that writer-director J.J. Abrams, who called the shots on the "Star Trek" reboot prequel in 2009, grew up as a kid filmmaker.

And know this:  The near-legendary Steven Spielberg ("Jaws," "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial"), who also cut his cinematic teeth shooting 8mm flicks as a kid, is not only Abrams' champion and mentor.  Spielberg serves as a producer on "Super 8."  As noted in the press notes for the film, as such Spielberg and Abrams -- mentor and adoring (near-worshiping) protege -- spent countless hours sharing an editing room.

And, as it turns out, their creative force behind "Super 8" is joined at the hip.

Never mind that probably 90 percent of the target audience for this heartfelt coming-of-age teen adventure probably has no clue what Super 8 was.  Abrams and Spielberg know, and they force feed their loving memories of youth long past to audiences perhaps more interested in what's making a wrecked train boxcar shake and rumble than young artistes loading up an 8mm camera to make a zombie movie.

Anyone who knows Spielberg's impressive film library will be able to spot elements of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" all over "Super 8," and a little "E.T." as well.  

Abrams was a kid of 11 when Spielberg's "Close Encounters" hit movie screens in 1977.  Take a look at that one and you'll see Spielberg's stamp all over this one.  The "We're not alone" feel grows slowly as inanimate objects begin to move around.  The plot reaches a fever pitch as "Super 8" casts its heavy-handed spell.

Lonely, moody teen Joe Lamb (newcomer Joel Courtney) is mourning the sudden death of his mother when events beyond his involvement in a neighborhood film project begin to turn tiny Lillian, Ohio into a madhouse in the summer of 1979.

There's the aforementioned train wreck.  And, as often happens on a movie set (even a neighborhood one), Joe is falling for the leading lady, a feisty tomboy beauty named Alice.  Elle Fanning, who was very good as a pampered actor's daughter in "Somewhere," is even better here.

When Alice is asked to cry during a scene in the zombie movie, Fanning doesn't just amaze her teen colleagues, she brings a respectful stillness to a movie audience in the dark that is rarely perpetuated by one so young.

"Super 8" goes off the deep end a little when it comes to the surprise in the boxcar.  Remind yourself that Abrams produced the bouncy-cam thriller "Cloverfield" in 2008, though, and you'll have a better understanding of what drives this one.

This is a film rich in subplots, such as a feud between Joe's dad (Kyle Chandler of "Friday Night Lights"), a deputy sheriff, and Elle's father (Ron Eldard of "Black Hawk Down"), who's often at odds with the law.

The mother lode of riches comes from Spielberg's influence, however.  As the tension mounts, we get to see into a few houses of this Ohio steel town.  But not all of them.

The camera never takes us to the house where Richard Dreyfuss, or someone channeling his performance in "Close Encounters," is going crazy forging a model of Devils Tower, Wyoming out of mashed potatoes.


The new 'X-Men' has class, 'First Class'

Back before sequelitis hit epidemic proportions in Hollywood in the 1980s with the "Halloween," "Lethal Weapon" and "Indiana Jones" franchises, it was pretty much one-and-done for most big-budget movie stories.

Today's audiences, quite familiar with sequels, are witnessing the next step in prolonging bottom-line profit for tent-pole (blockbuster) flicks:  prequels.

The "Star Trek" and "Batman" franchises pulled off the out-with-the-old (tired stories, highly paid actors)-in-with-the-new (fresh stories, rising stars not yet demanding top dollar) re-tooling well enough.

Now comes the "X-Men" reboot, which I must tell you, is more fun and better conceived than most.

Gone are Patrick Stewart as telepath Charles Xavier/Professor X and Ian McKellen as Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto, of course.  Three treks around the mutant trail were enough for them, or for the filmmakers.  (See above about star salaries.)

James McAvoy (Xavier) and Michael Fassbender (Magneto) head the cast in "X-Men:  First Class," an ambitious, well-mounted origin sci-fi adventure sure to please comic book and franchise movie fans with equal fist-pumping approval.

That's because "First Class" lives up to its subtitle all the way.  The ensemble cast of mutants, beginning with McAvoy ( "The Last King of Scotland," "Atonement") and Fassbender ("Inglourious Basterds," "300") and continuing with Jennifer Lawrence (an Oscar nominee for "Winter's Bone") as shape-shifting Raven/Mystique and Kevin Bacon ("Frost/Nixon") as one bad mutated World War II Nazi, is about as first class as a prequel can hope to be.

Without giving too much of the plot away, let's just say that it unfolds mostly in the 1960s, a time of racial (and mutant) prejudice and Cold War unease.

Director Matthew Vaughn ("Layer Cake," "Kick-Ass") and a handful of writers (including Vaughn and previous "X-Men" director Bryan Singer) weave the emergence of mutants into known human culture and the growing Cuban Missile Crisis seamlessly.

As I've written many times in this space, filmmakers taking on projects that require outlandish special effects are limited only by their levels of imagination in this age of computer-generated visual magic.

Like most -- no, make that all -- big-budget productions that pre-order eye-popping effects (an anchor chain cutting a luxury yacht in half, for instance) then try to form the story around the bedazzlement, this "X-Men" overdoes it a little.

Overall, though, this origin adventure should keep audience members on the edge of their seats.  McAvoy, the Scottish rising star, is quite playful at first as a twentysomething Charles Xavier of privilege.

Flip that coin over and German actor  Fassbender is equally effective as Erik Lehnsherr, the metal-bender who will, before this adventure concludes, be called Eric and reply, "I prefer Magneto."

I prefer "X-Men: First Class" to many of the prequels that have come down the cinematic pipeline.
"First Class" is at the head of the 21st century reboot class from this aisle seat.


'Pirates' of the all-too-familiaran

Most comedy-slanted adventure-thrill movies are like theme park amusement rides.

The good ones are exhilarating the first time, exciting and fun the second time around and decreasingly OK each time after that.

In the case of Disney's cash-cow franchise "Pirates of the Caribbean" featuring the wobbly swagger of Johnny Depp as 
amusingly narcissistic pirate-with-a-heart-of-ghostly-booty Capt. Jack Sparrow, it is exactly like that.

That's because, as almost everyone on the planet is aware, "Pirates of the Caribbean" reversed the usual movie trend.

Instead of a popular movie re-tooled as an amusement park theme ride ("Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye," for instance), "Pirates of the Caribbean" launched as a popular theme park ride and then made the jump to movie screens with Depp out front in 2003.

"Pirates of the Caribbean:  The Curse of the Black Pearl" defied the odds (Really?  A movie out of an amusement ride?) and swashbuckled its way to exhilarating status, not to mention financial treasure.

Movie treasure tends to not remain buried for long, though.  So "Pirates" set sail with sequels in 2005 (subtitled "Dead Man's Chest") and 2007 ("At World's End").

The key word in the title of the 2007 model was "world."  No one said "At Franchise's End."

So this weekend the masses will no doubt line up for "Pirates of the Caribbean:  On Stranger Tides," the latest variance on a fading theme.  On as I prefer to put it adding a snake's hiss, the third s-s-s-s-s-s-sequel.

If "On Stranger Tides" came out of the moviemaking chute first, it would have been -- if not quite exhilarating -- plenty good as a comedy-adventure thrill ride.  

Depp, of course, owns the Capt. Jack Sparrow character so well that when his familiar face is slowly revealed hiding under a judge's wig, the audience greets him with anticipation and glee, as if he's a long-lost weird uncle returning home with expensive gifts.

"Pirates 4" is all about a race to find the Fountain of Youth.  Exceptional actor Ian McShane (Al Swearengen in the "Deadwood" TV series) joins the cast as legendary pirate Blackbeard and is, as you might expect, outstanding.

Penélope Cruz, an Academy Award winner (supporting) for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," cuts a wide acting swath as Blackbeard's daughter Angelica.  Cruz replaces the departed  Keira Knightley, and is not exactly anyone's definition of a helpless ingénue.

There's no lack of action, or cool pirates costumes or, of course, Depp mugging into the camera.  The beautiful but bloodthirsty mermaids are a welcome addition, actually.

And new director Rob Marshall (Oscar nominated for the musical "Chicago") keeps things sailing along at a decent pace despite the film's overlong voyage of two hours and 21 minutes.

The highly touted 3-D element, though, is not worth the cinematic E-ticket premium price.  All you'll get is a sword or two that appear to be thrust right at your nose.

"Pirates" also sails this time without Orlando Bloom as Will Turner and, more importantly, director Gore Verbinski, who called shots on the first three adventures.

And, oddly enough, the fourth time around is actually based on something other than a theme park ride.  This screenplay, once again written by "Pirates" regulars Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, incorporates Tim Powers' 1987 novel  "On Stranger Tides."

Once the screenwriters throw the usual "Pirates" suspects (Capt. Sparrow, et all) into the mix, however, the subtitle should read:  "On Familiar Rides."


Ronan excels again as survival child 'Hanna'

This "Hanna" isn't hard-hearted.

But the innocent looking teen home schooled in a frozen forest played by Saoirse Ronan knows how to gut a deer and take care of herself in extreme  circumstances.

That's just what Hanna runs up against in a fast-paced survival drama co-starring Eric Bana and directed by Joe Wright, who directed Ronan in "Atonement."  That was her breakout film of 2007.

In "Hanna," Ronan excels as a mystery girl fiercely protected by Erik (Bana) and sequestered in a log cabin deep in the snowy woods.

Erik is her protector, her educator and her sparring partner.  But as Hanna, quite familiar with hunting and hand-to-hand combat, matures, Erik tells her it's time to decide for herself what to do next.

Curious about life beyond the forest, Hanna makes a choice to let her whereabouts be known.  That sends Erik, a former CIA operative,  into deep hiding.

It also causes quite a stir at CIA headquarters.  A high-level CIA agent played by Oscar winner Cate Blanchett would like very much to see Hanna and Erik dead, it seems.

"Hanna" is a coming-of-age road picture that veers off the beaten path into unconventional territory, to say the very least.

As the pint-sized teenage lethal weapon fights her way to a reunion with Erik, she hitches a ride with a holidaying British family.  The world opens up for Hanna then; a first-kiss, the mystery of television and electricity.

Ronan, who turned 16 during the making of this film, is already an accomplished actress.   She earned an Academy Award nomination as the accuser in "Atonement" and carried Peter Jackson's surreal beyond-death drama "The Lovely Bones" in 2009.

In "Hanna," Ronan gets to flex her sparring muscles and her acting skill.  There is no question that she's up to the challenge.

Blanchett ("Robin Hood," an Oscar winner for "The Aviator"), who'll co-star with Ronan again in Jackson's "The Hobbit," is cold as ice in this one.  Her persona is so cold-blooded, in fact, that if Blanchett's character had scenes at the snow-covered cabin (beautifully shot in Finland), the frozen tundra would have no chance of thawing come summer.

Bana, the accomplished Australian actor of "Funny People," "Star Trek" and "The Time Traveler's Wife," does an admirable job of letting a young co-star bask in the acting spotlight here.  Bana's very good.  This just isn't his movie.

"Hanna" isn't a great film, but it is great fun.

Even though you'll be able to see the line coming a mile away Hanna utters at the conclusion of the inevitable confrontation near the closing credits, it's always a thrill to see acting this good in what would otherwise be a routine dramatic-thriller.


Stranger and stranger on a train

Think of "Source Code" as the pitch-black dark side of the Bill Murray comedy "Groundhog Day."

In each film, time repeats itself. For laughs in "Groundhog Day" (1993), featuring Murray as a TV weatherman/goof destined to repeat a dreaded assignment over and over.

Screenwriter Ben Ripley and director Duncan Jones vary the theme substantially with "Source Code" and come away with a time-repetitive sci-fi thriller that'll keep you on the edge of your seat, on the edge of your seat, on the edge of your seat.

Murray yukked it up repeating 24-hour cycles in "Groundhog Day." Decorated soldier and helicopter pilot Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is catapulted back in time over and over at eight-minute intervals. His assignment is an attempt to prevent a terrorist from blowing up a Chicago Metro train with a hidden explosive device. And, ultimately, much of the Second City itself with a dirty bomb.

A little tedious at first, "Source Code" begins to raise those little hairs on the back of the neck when Stevens -- anchored in a mysterious metal cubicle of some kind -- begins to unravel the mystery surrounding his circumstances. His only communication from the heavy metal cubicle is with Goodwin (Vera Farmiga of "Up in the Air"), a military officer who takes orders from a grim "guy in charge" (Jeffrey Wright as Rutledge).

On the train itself, Stevens plops into the body of a stranger, a stranger familiar with the girl named Christina (Michelle Monaghan of "Trucker") in the seat just across from him.

No one on the train is aware that this former soldier who took serious fire in Afghanistan is coming and going as he looks for the bomb and the bomber.

Director Jones doesn't make a big deal about being David Bowie's son. At least he doesn't in movie production notes. Jones doesn't need to. With "Moon," his fascinating, eerie first feature of 2009, and now this fast-paced, riveting thriller with a science-fiction twist, Jones' talent stands on its own just fine, thank you.

Gyllenhaal, an Academy Award nominee opposite the late Heath Ledger in "Brokeback Mountain," is quite serviceable here as a thinking man's action hero. Monaghan is adept as well at getting under the skin of her puzzled semi-romantic-interest character.

Technically, this is a film that excels. The visuals are sparkling. Also, the cubicle of whatever is constantly changing to reflect the lead character's fragile state of mind.

"Source Code" may perplex more than a little in the final reel. That's OK, though. It's delightfully offbeat, strange and daring up to that point and beyond.


Finally, McConaughey returns to drama

It's good to see Matthew McConaughey acting again.

I mean really acting, as opposed to yanking his shirt off in semi-entertaining comic adventures that, like the shifting sand in "Sahara," have little foundation as solid memories.

In the dramatic-thriller "The Lincoln Lawyer," McConaughey doesn't exactly return to a serious courtroom drama on the level of "A Time to Kill," the crusading lawyer drama of 1996.

Even though he's dressed like an adult -- suit and tie; appropriate courtroom attire -- this time, a bit of the McConaughey swagger remains evident as Mick Haller.  A Beverly Hills ambulance chasing attorney, although that's only implied, Haller operates out of the back seat of his chauffeured Lincoln Continental sedan.

There's a throwaway line or two about when Haller got his license to drive back.  I suspect that aspect of the character is better explained in Michael Connelly's bestseller of the same title.

The adaptation by John Romano ("Nights in Rodanthe") is a little sloppy on details, preferring instead to showcase Haller's coolness in a courtroom, on the streets where a motorcycle gang (led by country crooner Trace Adkins, no less) is prone to pull him over for some lawyer-client chatting and, of course, with the ladies.

This would be a much better thriller if "The Lincoln Lawyer" more closely mimicked -- Sorry, I mean paid homage to -- "The Verdict" and "Fracture," both of which deserve a slice of the profits.

Haller is a hard drinking attorney.  He has has made mistakes in the past, but is honorable enough to fight to try to make things right.  That's just like Paul Newman did in "The Verdict" in 1982, although the case details vary.

The other strikingly similar element is the old attorney/client tete-a-tete.  In this one, a wealthy client played by Ryan Phillippe is up on an attempted murder charge.  As the plot thickens, an all-too-common game of cat and mouse shows signs of becoming deadly.  

If you saw "Fracture" in 2007, you know that Anthony Hopkins admitted to shooting his wife in the head, then dared the assistant district attorney to do something about it.

"The Lincoln Lawyer" works best as an entertainment ride.  Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei ("The Wrestler," "Cyrus") works well with McConaughey as Maggie, his ex-wife and crusading assistant D.A.  (Small world, this.)

By the time the final gavel falls, it's quite apparent that McConaughey, who only takes his shirt off once, is well aware of where he's at.  More important, though, is where he might be going.

The hard-working Texan who began his career Richard Linklater's "Dazed and Confused," then sort of got that way in mid-career, finally appears back on track.

"The Lincoln Lawyer" is flawed cinema at best.  But sometimes, on a purely entertainment level, the old "Lincoln" purrs across the screen.


The normalcy invasion

An odd combination of sci-fi alien invasion thriller and grunt soldiers on the ground facing seemingly  impossible odds, "Battle: Los Angeles" excels at neither.

It does, however, provide enough rat-a-tat action to keep action-hungry film fans on the edge of their seats.

What is first thought to be small clusters of meteors heading toward Earth turn out to be alien invaders, of course.  Driven, and perhaps even fueled by sea water, they pummel Los Angeles and other major cities of the world with extreme firepower dished out mostly from the air.  

So who does director Jonathan Liebesman ("The Texas Chainsaw Massacre:  The Beginning") and screenwriter Chris Bertolini (co-writer of "The General's Daughter") send in to take on the invasion filling the sky over Santa Monica with drone gunships?

A platoon of Marines, that's who.  There's no "Pork Chop Hill" to climb, but a platoon buoyed by Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) turn this nearly two-hour barrage of us-against-them into a modernized version of "The Big Red One," plus or minus few hundred mechanical/humanoid soldiers from who knows where.

And, by the way, Aaron Eckhart as the battle-weary Marine who signs his retirement papers, then is brought back into the fray when the aliens stage their own Normandy invasion on the L.A. beach front?

Yep, that Aaron Eckhart.  It's the strong actor who used to grace sophisticated, gritty Neil LaBute dramas like "In the Company of Men" before he went mainstream as Harvey Dent/Two Face in "The Dark Knight."

Actually, Eckhart's not bad.  The notion of a platoon of gradually bonding Marines ("Retreat, hell!") taking on an invading air force is so far-fetched that at least acting with depth takes the audience's mind off the obvious shortcomings.

I had plenty of time to ponder one notion, though.  Given a jet fighter and the urgency Will Smith displayed "to get up there and whip E.T.'s ass" in "independence Day" (1996), this could have all been handled in about half the time.

Instead, "Battle:  Los Angeles" drags on and bogs down in its own smog; a smokescreen of elongated firefights mixed with mostly clichéd attempts to humanize the small circle of key characters.

Michelle Rodriguez ("Lost" on TV) and Michael Peña ("World Trade Center") add some credence as a displaced Air Force operative and a father desperate to protect his young son.

Bottom line, though, this has all been done before and better.  But when it comes to popcorn action-thrillers designed for mass, mainstream consumption, I've seen worse.