Tag Archive: Rob Cohen


The Rat Pack (1998): Grade: B

rat_packIs this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime? The Rat Pack is not available for rent via Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime.

Directed by: Rob Cohen

Written by: Kario Salem

Starring: Ray Liotta, Joe Mantegna, Don Cheadle, Angus Macfadyen, William L. Petersen, Zeljko Ivanek, Bobby Slayton, Deborah Kara Unger, Veronica Cartwright

The undefine-able nature of the term “success” lends itself to an endless array of interpretations. The most conventional definition of the term is an accumulation of material wealth (money, property, cars, houses, clothing, etc.). On the opposite end of that spectrum are those who define success as the attainment of knowledge. Still, there are those who define “success” as the freedom to do whatever you want. In addition to accumulating material wealth (worth about $100 million by the time he died), singer/actor Frank Sinatra had this last freedom in abundance. The world was certainly Frank Sinatra’s oyster – the perennial bachelor playboy was limited only by the bounds of his ambition, which seemed to be boundless in 1960, at least in the way he was portrayed in the HBO biofilm, The Rat Pack.

By 1960, Frank Sinatra was enjoying a rebirth of his career. His Oscar win for his performance in From Here to Eternity revived Sinatra’s career in 1953 and ever since then, the singer/actor’s career thrived in both music and film. Sinatra was a regular mainstay in Las Vegas, and he, along with his Rat Pack friends (Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, & Joey Bishop) personified cool. However, in the late 1950’s and 60’s, Sinatra’s ambitions turned his attention to a new arena: politics. Sinatra’s interest was motivated by his desire to gain the media’s respect for him, to elevate himself from being perceived as merely a nightclub singer with mob ties, and he, along with the rest of this county, was smitten with John F. Kennedy’s youthful optimism for this country. The Rat Pack chronicles Sinatra’s (Ray Liotta) involvement with the Kennedy family, his role in getting JFK to the White House, and his relationship with his fellow Rat Pack members (Don Cheadle as Sammy Davis, Jr., Joe Mantegna as Dean Martin, and Angus Macfadyen as Peter Lawford).

Biopics are among the toughest genres to make. A person’s life obviously does not neatly fit within a screenplay’s 3-act structure. What we usually end up with is a movie about a person’s life or an event in which key moments are taken from that life/event, condensed together, and shoehorned into a 3-act structure. Consequently, a lot of details are left out, glossed over, and existing facts are exaggerated to make the film more dramatic. Aside from knowing the members of the Rat Pack, I am totally unfamiliar with their lives and interactions with each other so I cannot attest to how accurate The Rat Pack is. However, given the little I have read about them, I am going to assume everything in this movie is generally true.

Starting with the performances/portrayals, Ray Liotta never seems to get a fair shake despite having given some memorable performances in his career (Goodfellas, Field of Dreams). Most critiques I have read/heard about Liotta’s portrayal of Frank Sinatra in The Rat Pack is that he merely channels his Henry Hill character from Goodfellas. I totally disagree and such a gross oversimplification of Liotta’s performance is unfair. In fact, I was more impressed with Liotta work than what Don Cheadle and Joe Mantegna did in this film. The latter two actors were nominated for Golden Globe awards (with Don Cheadle winning) whereas Liotta was not nominated. Frank Sinatra was by all accounts a complex man. He loved women (particularly Ava Gardner), a high-class lifestyle, and he was fiercely loyal to his friends (both his Ray Pack comrades and his mobster benefactors). Not being content with just being a popular matinee singer from Hoboken, Sinatra ambitiously ventured into film and television acting before setting his sights on gaining access to the political circles in Washington, D.C. At the same time, Sinatra’s career ambitions seemed to always be dogged by his mobster connections, and he seemed to never gain the respect he deserved because of this.

Frank Sinatra was also known for his dedication to achieving racial integration, a view not shared by most in his circles, and his support for those who were blacklisted in Hollywood for their communist ties. The best and most touching moment in The Rat Pack is a scene between Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. in which Sammy announces to Sinatra that he plans to marry his white girlfriend, actress May Britt. Sinatra knew the repercussions of Sammy’s decision, especially to his friend JFK’s electoral chances, but Sinatra continued to support his friend anyway. In this scene, Liotta beautifully conveys both Sinatra’s fierce support for Sammy Davis, Jr. and his sympathy for what his friend would endure for marrying a white person.

Except for having Sinatra’s blue eyes, Liotta may not resemble the Chairman of the Board, but his clearly earnest portrayal of the singer/actor makes up for this. The actor nicely captures the confidence, swagger, and charisma Sinatra was known for. Liotta also does a fine job displaying the naivety Sinatra had about his relationship with the Kennedy family. Sinatra was so enamored by the hopes and dreams JFK inspired in the country that he seemed to willfully ignore the slick political machinery underlying JFK’s campaign to take the White House. Just like the loyalty he gave to his mobster friends that helped him gain fame, Sinatra expected JFK to do the same after he helped him win the presidency. You deeply sympathize with Sinatra when he discovers that he’s merely been a pawn in toward fulfilling JFK’s political ambitions.

Don Cheadle won the Golden Globe award for his performance as Sammy Davis, Jr. A few short years after The Rat Pack was released, Cheadle co-starred in the 2001 remake of Oceans 11, the film that originally starred the Rat Pack. It goes without saying that Don Cheadle is unable to deliver a bad performance. I mean, he even survived Swordfish! Here, Cheadle comfortably fills into the shoes of Sammy Davis, Jr., a man just as complex as Frank Sinatra. Davis, Jr. owed much of his career to Sinatra because without his friend’s help in performing in previously whites-only clubs, Davis, Jr. may have never achieved the success that he did. Davis, Jr. was also a huge advocate of the civil rights movement, and he was not afraid to push back against the establishment to live his life the way he wanted to live it (e.g., marrying white actress May Britt). At the same time, Davis, Jr. recognized that he needed to also toe the line at times and play to society’s stereotypes so that he could pave an easier way for a future generation of black entertainers. Cheadle captures the mannerisms and dialect of Sammy Davis, Jr. without resorting to a caricature of the singer. Unfortunately, the film does not explore the singer’s relationship with the Rat Pack as much as I would have liked it to. It seems there was more friction between him and his cohorts than the movie reveals. Worth noting is the song and dance number where Sammy sings “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” to a group of Klu Klux Klan members.

Finally, we get to Joe Mantegna, who stars as Dean Martin. For the most part, Martin stayed out of the politics and drama that Sinatra was involved in. With a large family to support, Martin focused exclusively on his career even though he remained cold and distant with his wife and kids. The film does not give a whole lot for Mantegna to do here other than appear and sound like Martin, which he does very well. There are a few, brief glimpses of Martin’s family life, but other than that, Dino spends the majority of this film as a supporting character among the rest of the Rat Pack. I was surprised that Mantegna, and not Ray Liotta, received a Golden Globe nomination.

The Rat Pack is rounded out by a few more notable actors who, more or less, give serviceable performances. Angus Macfadyen plays another Rat Pack member, actor Peter Lawford. Lawford was essentially a bag boy/messenger for Frank Sinatra and the Kennedys. He hated the fact that he was used by all these people (Sinatra used him to get close to the Kennedys and the Kennedys used him to control Sinatra), but he could never muster enough courage to stand up to anyone. Macfadyen almost has a thankless role here playing a spineless man who lacked any self-worth. William Peterson (CSI) plays JFK and Deborah Kara Unger plays Ava Gardner, Sinatra’s ex-wife and lover. Neither actor elevates their performance above a caricature, especially Peterson, who is unconvincing as JFK.

The Rat Pack features some very good performances, but what ultimately stands out is the film’s gorgeous production design by Hilda Stark Manos, who also earned a Golden Globe for her work on this film. I don’t know whether or not the sets accurately portray what Frank Sinatra’s house and office looked like, and nor do I care because the 1950’s space age look of the sets is absolute eye candy to behold. Watch for one particularly nice shot where an FBI agent is sitting inside his car outside of Sinatra’s restaurant and behind the car is a huge Coca-Cola billboard.

One can easily dismiss The Rat Pack as nothing more than your typical TV bio movie and to a large extent, this film does amount to this. Director Rob Cohen presents the story in the same straightforward manner that we have seen so many other TV bio flicks. The movie does not give us anything more than a simple recital of the facts from one dramatic event to the next. At the same time, the marriage of Washington and Hollywood during this period is fascinating enough to make you not care so much about the director’s failure to take this film to another level of insight. With that said, I would have done anything to see Martin Scorsese’s depiction of the Rat Pack, a movie which he was developing for a long time. All in all, even with all its faults, The Rat Pack is an entertaining and educational watch that contains some very good performances.

It was May of 1993 and my friends and I had just graduated from high school. We couldn’t wait for the summer movie season to begin and it was promising to be a good one. As I flipped through the Life section of the San Jose Mercury News one day, I ran into an ad for a test screening of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. What better way to start off the summer films than with a biopic of Bruce Lee’s life? Much of our excitement in seeing Dragon stemmed from Brandon Lee’s (Bruce Lee’s son) mysterious death a few months before on the set of The Crow. Due to his son’s death, public interest in Bruce Lee was very high and although tragic, Brandon Lee’s death was huge publicity for Universal. I think public interest in Dragon would have been high even without Brandon’s death, but the tragedy added a lot more fuel to the public’s interest.

My friends and I piled into the car and drove out to the Winchester Century Theaters. We were clearly not the only ones in San Jose trying to get a ticket. Upon our arrival at the theater, we were met with a line that snaked completely around the building. Bruce Lee apparently had a shitload of fans and they had easily managed to sell out the theater. Given the lackluster alternatives playing on the other screens, our only other viable choice that day was Dave. Given how prepared we were to see an action movie that day, Dave wasn’t quite the replacement we were looking for. Dejected, we returned home and I eventually ended up seeing Dragon on HBO.

Dragon is less a quality film and more of a guilty pleasure that makes for a highly entertaining experience. I was never a fan of Bruce Lee films while growing up. Sure, like anyone in the world, I definitely knew who he was. To me he was the kung fu guy who made funny noises and who faced off against Chuck Norris in a movie. However, I didn’t know anything about Bruce Lee’s life and career. Dragon looked to be my
introduction to the martial artist. The film follows Bruce Lee’s life through childhood, his young adult years spent in the Bay Area, his marriage to Linda Lee Caldwell, and his television and film career. It stands out among other Hollywood biopics because it’s an insightful look into Hollywood’s portrayal and attitude toward Asians. I could tell that
the director, Rob Cohen (The Fast and the Furious, Stealth, Dragonheart, The Mummy III, and XXX) had a deep respect and appreciation for Bruce Lee and he was not afraid to show specific instances of racism in Hollywood. For example, there is a memorable scene where Bruce Lee and his future wife go out on a date to see Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Lee becomes uncomfortable and angry when he sees Mickey Rooney’s racist portrayal of an Asian landlord and how everyone inside the movie theater is laughing at the joke. In a probably more controversial scene, we see the ABC network’s decision to cast David Carradine instead of Bruce Lee in the show Kung Fu despite the show being Bruce Lee’s creation. The film deals with Bruce Lee’s struggles to become accepted in his adopted
country in the U.S. while also introducing it to his Chinese culture. Unfortunately for Lee, his ambitions and dreams were restrained by American attitudes toward Asians and, as a result, he could not attain the level of success he was otherwise sure to achieve. Dragon effectively shows you all of this and because of how it handles these aspects of Bruce Lee’s life, the film rises above most other Hollywood biopics.

Besides the rich biographical material, the film’s success strongly hinges on the mesmerizing and powerful performance from Jason Scott Lee (no relation to Bruce Lee). There is no valid reason why Lee was not nominated for an Academy Award for his performance. For an actor to take on the near-mythic persona of Bruce Lee and ably embody not only Lee’s character and spirit but to also pull off his physical talents is
an incredible achievement. This was one of those classic Hollywood success stories where a single movie creates a movie star overnight. Before Dragon, Jason Scott Lee had appeared in small parts here and there (NOTE: He was the hysterical Asian skater in Back to the Future II). He was basically an unknown actor, which was perfect for his casting in Dragon because he didn’t have to overcome the kind of audience expectations that he otherwise would have to deal with had he already been a movie star. In Dragon, Lee somehow seems to channel Bruce Lee in his mannerisms and physicality. In fact, I was so convinced by Jason Scott Lee’s performance that when I first saw Enter the Dragon (which was after seeing Dragon), I could not help but picture Jason Scott Lee playing the character instead of the real Bruce Lee. Sadly, Lee’s career didn’t go very far after Dragon, but I have read that he continues to practice Bruce Lee’s martial arts technique and he is now a certified instructor.

Another standout performance in Dragon is from Lauren Holly (Jim Carrey’s ex-wife). She plays Linda Lee Caldwell, Bruce Lee’s wife. Holly’s character looks like the all-American girl next door, which is a huge contrast to the man she married. Against her mother and society’s expectations, she follows her man and supports him to the end. Even though this film is obviously about Bruce Lee, considerable time is spent on Linda Lee as well. After all, Bruce Lee’s life revolved around his wife and children so it makes sense that a lot of time is spent covering Linda Lee’s life as well. I liked that Holly doesn’t play the typical housewife role. She is an active participant in her husband’s career success, especially during the early years of their marriage when Bruce Lee was launching his martial arts dojos. Holly’s best scenes are in the first half of the film during the courtship years where she must deal with her mother’s disapproval of dating an Asian man and where she’s exposed to Bruce Lee’s culture.

Dragon certainly takes some creative license in telling Bruce Lee’s story. Dates, places, and particular facts about Bruce Lee are changed for dramatic reasons. The filmmakers seemed to have a particular idea of how they wanted to portray the man and details of his history are changed to fit that. Overall, however, the changes do not amount to
anything significant and the totality of Bruce Lee’s story is generally accurate. If you’re looking to show your children a martial arts film that doesn’t pander to the lowest common quotient of intelligence (i.e. Karate Kid remake that’s in theaters now), try this film out as well as Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Call me old-fashioned, but I find it irresponsible for a filmmaker and a studio to release a film that glamorizes illegal street racing. I’m fully aware of the never-ending debate as to whether the movie industry has some sort of social, ethical, and moral responsibility towards its audience, but to a certain degree it does. Illegal street racing puts lives in danger and for a film like The Fast and the Furious to portray it in the slick and cool manner that it does is shows what callous assholes Rob Cohen and Universal are for making the film.

Ok, I’m off my soapbox and I can now begin telling you how surprisingly fun The Fast and the Furious is (even though that would make me a hypocrite in light of what I just stated above). The Fast and the Furious is a fast-paced, stylish-looking, all-California B-action film that harkens back to the car chase films of the 70s, the cult classic Point Break, and even to some extent the James Dean classic, A Rebel Without a Cause. When this film came out in the summer of 2001, I never expected to like it as much as I did. In fact, I had every expectation that I would end up hating this movie. After all, with the exception of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, director Rob Cohen doesn’t exactly bring to mind top-quality cinema. It was with much surprise that I ended up enjoying the hell out of this movie and thats saying a lot given how bad this movie could and SHOULD have been.

The Fast and the Furious revolves around illegal underground street racing. The film was inspired by an article that was written about the movement, which continues today around the country. Paul Walker is an undercover cop who is sent to infiltrate a suspected group of thieves who heist big-rig trucks. The group is led by Vin Diesel, who is joined by his sister (Jordana Brewster), his girlfriend (Michelle Rodriguez) and a couple of other guys. They run a garage as a front where they fix up and outfit cars to race in street competitions. Walker gains Vin Diesel’s trust and joins his gang. He learns about the underground culture and begins to personally get involved in it as well, which eventually tests his loyalty to the badge.

The story isn’t anything original. If you’ve seen Point Break, then you have a pretty good idea what The Fast and the Furious is about. Instead of surfing, you have street racing. But you know what? It still holds up as a good story. If you go into this knowing its a B-action movie and nothing more, you’ll buy into the story. This movie could have easily relied on showing the audience a bunch of street races strung together with fast cuts and fancy visual effects showing cars doing crazy shit. Fortunately, the director doesn’t show you a lot of racing and what he does show you serves the story’s purpose. The sequels, on the other hand, all made the mistake of relying too much on action and not enough on story. Now for you car aficionados who have a hard-on for rice rockets or whatever the fuck you call them, there are plenty of wheels for you to stare at. One thing this movie is definitely not in short supply of is cars.

At one time, Vin Diesel was widely considered to be Hollywood’s next big action star. His career was on a meteoric rise with Saving Private Ryan, The Boiler Room, Pitch Black, The Fast and the Furious, and the shitty XXX. However, after a string of expensive flops, Diesel’s career began to sputter and pretty soon we began to see less and less of him. He’s not the type of actor I typically care for mostly because he looks like the kind of guy who feels fine being relegated to dumbed down action movies. However, for all the tough guy facade he puts up, he’s an astonishingly good actor who commands a strong screen presence. There is no doubt he has movie star appeal with his looks, humor, and charm. Arguably, his character in The Fast and the Furious is most representative of Vin Diesel’s image.

Paul Walker was another actor I could care less about when I first heard his name and saw his face. Everything that seems to come out of his mouth sounds like its being read off a teleprompter. Walker looks like he just came off the faux reality show The Hills and now he wants to be an actor. He’s never going to win any awards for acting, but a movie like The Fast and the Furious perfectly fits him. Walker belongs in these slick, B-style action films where he’s surrounded by people who act bad, but look good. I’ll say one thing about him, though. Had Captain America been made a couple of years ago, Walker would have been the PERFECT Captain America (and for the record, I think Chris Pine should have gotten the role). In this movie, Walker is as believable as a cop as Keanu Reeves was believable playing an FBI agent in Point Break. However, you don’t see these kind of movies for believability.

One actress I’ve grown to really like over the years and who appears in The Fast and the Furious is Michelle Rodriguez. Her breakout role came shortly before she was cast in this film. It was a small indie movie called Girlfight and Rodriguez displayed a tough girl tomboy image that has since become a sort of trademark for her. She was most recently seen in Avatar, playing a role very reminiscent of James Cameron’s Velazquez character in Aliens. Here, you can tell she’s still new to this acting thing and her lines come off as wooden. However, it doesn’t really matter here because most of the actors with the exception of Vin Diesel give the same level of performance.

The Fast and the Furious is the only film in the series thats good. The two sequels that followed it were basically horseshit despite their box office success. This is not the type of movie I normally even bother to check out, but I did and I was happy I did. Its the perfect California movie with its focus on cars, hot women, and racing. Its also the kind of summer film that I don’t see as much these days as we’ve been overtaken by endless remakes and sequels. Most of you who read this blog have most likely seen this, but if you haven’t, make sure to check it out and make sure you see it with a bunch of friends.