Tag: thriller (page 1 of 6)

Tweaking the Masquerade

Courtesy Highmoon

I’ve had vampires on my mind lately. Between writing the draft of Cold Streets, seeing the season finale of True Blood (that’s another post entirely…) and chatting via Twitter with Justin Achilli, I’ve been wondering how Vampire: the Masquerade might be improved. I don’t see Vampire: the Requiem as an improvement, merely a sequel or perhaps another permutation of the game. It’s not strictly better, in my opinion, nor is it discernibly ‘worse’, it’s just different. Masquerade has been my jam for many a year, and I still remember games played within that world fondly. I do think some things could be done to make the setting more interesting, however, and allow for more character exploration and nuance without sacrificing atmosphere.

Get Rid of the Sabbat

As much as I appreciate a good villain, the Sabbat really aren’t good villains. Whenever the idea of blatant rule of humans by vampires comes up, it’s always a bad one. In a game where the notion is to explore mature subject matter such as temptation, the degradation of humanity in the face of power, and what it means to be a monster wearing human skin, an establishment of monolithic evil undercuts the purpose. You can still have dramatic tension and meaningful moments of powerful self-discovery, along with power-mongering, scheming, seduction, and betrayal, without needing to conjure a boogeyman that likes skinning babies for fun. The Sabbat are completely unnecessary, superfluous to the crux of the gameplay, and actually kind of silly when you think about it.

That said, while the antitribu can easily bite the dust I still appreciate the two major clans involved with the Sabbat. So what becomes of them?

Refine the Tzimisce

The fact that the vampires of the Tzimisce bloodline exhibit a mentality and behavioral code far different from any other creature is a lot more interesting to me than their role in the aforementioned Sabbat. When I think Tzimisce, I think classic figures such as Dracula or Elizabeth Bathory. They’re the kind of creature to hide in plain sight, to prey upon those who least suspect them, and cloak their predatory nature with designer clothing or Stepford smiles.

In short, I think the Tzimisce should live in the suburbs.

Think about it. In classic tales the vampire always has a secluded, sprawling manor house. You really don’t know there’s something weird going on until you step inside. A cunning Tzimisce, in my mind, would wear a human skin the way you or I wear slacks to a day job – as soon as you get home, you change into something more comfortable. Sure, it’s fun to dress in fetish clothing and march around to Rammstein, but it’s not very subtle or nuanced. And since subtle and nuanced is what I prefer to go for, that old viewpoint of the Tzimisce needs to go the way of the Sabbat. Instead of shaking a mailed fist at the Camarilla for foiling their plans once again, I much prefer the image of a Tzimisce living a quiet, genteel life of grabbing meals and experimentation subjects out of golf clubhouses, high-end cocktail parties, and corporate gatherings, available to impart some ancient secrets on the curious and the daring… for a price. Some may still maintain chambers of horrors under their gated communities, and others may simply prefer to read a good book by the fire after an evening meal. Don’t limit the clan to a single stereotype; establish some parameters and let the player fill in the blanks as they see fit.

They would tend to stay out of the cities because of the Tremere, which I’ll get to in a moment.

Isolate the Lasombra

Without the Sabbat, what becomes of the Lasombra? One of my absolute favorite clans, their powers over shadows and penchant for manipulation behind the scenes makes them excellent schemers and hidden threats. As much as a member of the Lasombra might crave power, it often takes the form of having influence over the supposedly powerful, rather than being in charge themselves. An ideal Lasombra, in my mind, is not the kind to bark orders at neonates like a drill sergeant. They’re more (you guessed it) subtle than that.

They’ve always been good rivals for the more traditional political leaders of the Camarilla, the Ventrue and the Toreador. My inclination is to underscore that by, in essence, putting a single Lasombra at the opposite end of a chessboard from a given city’s Prince. The Lasombra test those in power, evaluating their worthiness through challenges, manipulations and even threats. Not direct ones, of course, but threats manufactured to see what the Prince and their city are made of. If the Prince proves themselves worthy, reward them by manipulating others in the city to their benefit (and the Lasombra’s); if they don’t, engineer their replacement. This change could make the Lasombra out to be some kind of dastardly arch-villain, and some of them may lean that way, but again, the notion is to establish unique parameters and let people fill in the blanks themselves. Sure, some may go for the Moriarty or Hannibal Lecter angle, playing up the superficially antagonistic role, but others may approach the city as an experiment, a giant living Petri dish in which the behaviors, reactions, and merits of those in control are to be tested. Still others may see themselves as performing a vital service for the Prince, ensuring they remain in power. Hell, why not conspire with the Prince directly if the Lasombra in the city considers them worthy? There are possibilities here, more than might be afforded by the Sabbat.

Galvanize the Tremere

Justin posed this question: why aren’t the Tremere the good guys? If order is good for society and vampires, and chaos is bad, why is an ordered clan like the Tremere seen as a bad thing? “When you hear about the Tremere ‘searching for an artifact,’ you immediately conclude, ‘someone has to stop them!'” The Tremere are usually seen as gaming for political positioning, trying to get one up on the Ventrue or the Prince or somebody else who’s in power, and while this is traditionally vampiric behavior, with its structure and clear hierarchy, I think the Tremere are more suited for another role entirely.

Basically, I’ve always though the Tremere would make great cops.

There’s a lot of ways this could go. The Tremere in one city could operate like detectives from L.A. Confidential or Law & Order, while in another they are essentially the Gestapo. But the overarching mentality of the clan would be to protect the Kindred of the city, safeguard the innocent, and enforce the Traditions. They have powerful tools to investigate crime, pursue offenders, and bring them to justice. Instead of using these powers to get an edge on other Kindred, they could be used for a greater good, which in and of itself becomes an edge. And the dynamic within the city remains fluid. Some may respect the Tremere and what they do, while others harbor a deep hatred for authority figures and especially cops. And there are a slew of stories in which cops go bad; a corrupt Tremere would be an anomaly, but would also be a dangerous quantity. If a Lasombra gets some dirty on a Tremere, or the Giovanni name the right price, how will the Tremere’s clan mates find out and deal with them? And what about a member of the Tremere going undercover to investigate whispers of conspiracy among the other clans?

Some things to think about when it comes to vampire storytelling.

Book Review: Headhunters

It’s easy to assume that threats to national security and integrity only come from foreign shores. Dressing terrorists, the boogeymen of our time, in the clothes and skin color of minorities softens the reality. There will always be dissidents, malcontents, and flat-out crazy people within our own borders, working inside our own systems, either to dismantle something they see as wrong or just to get themselves ahead somehow. Fighting these threats can be a dirty, underhanded, downright soulless affair. But if the country’s integrity is to remain intact along with its security, some men must make sure certain lines are never crossed. Simon Parks is one of those men, and he is our subject as the protagonist of Charlie Cole’s Headhunters.

Courtesy Charlie Cole

Simon works for Blackthorn, a deep-cover internal anti-terrorist group working in the United States to combat domestic terrorism. While most of his duties are concerned with finding new talent for this work, his job keeps him at the office for very long hours, even days at a time, and his wife decides to leave him over it. In an attempt to get her back, Simon inadvertently causes a fatal car crash, leaving him a widower and his children without a mother. Heartbroken, he resigns from Blackthorn and tries to start life over in a new city, as a headhunter for a different firm. But his old boss isn’t about to let a resource like Simon go without a fight, not while there’s still work to do, and Simon’s new boss is not all he seems, either. Intrigue comes at Simon from all sides, with what’s left of his family caught in the crossfire.

Novels like this work or fall apart based primarily on the construction of the protagonist. A driven, stoic, nearly super-human badass (or a team of them) can carry an empty summer action flick, but not so much a modern thriller. Thankfully, Cole gives Simon a great deal of humanity and humility. He questions his actions even as they’re being undertaken, apologizes several times to friends when they become involved in his life and its trials, and continually reminds the reader that he’s “just a guy.” While it’s a realistic reaction to the sort of shenanigans that occur to Simon, he doesn’t have the difficulties Jack Ryan did in early Tom Clancy novels. He’s perfectly competent as an unarmed combatant, marksman, and strategist, even as doubts gnaw away at him.

It’s pretty clear that this is a debut novel, with some of the plot developments easy to predict and some of Simon’s abilities and resources seeming too good to be true. However, Cole has a background in the areas within which the story takes place, and while I’m certain artistic license has been taken throughout the novel, none of the flaws make the novel difficult to read or hard to believe. Simon has enough bravery to carry the action, enough humanity to invoke sympathy, and enough humility to avoid becoming insufferable. The story moves at a good pace, action scenes pop with a good dose of realism, there’s plenty of twists in the tale, and Charlie even threw in a bit of romance, presented tastefully and at the right times to allow us breathers between the tension.

Fans of tales such as 24 and The Bourne Identity will be right at home here. Charlie Cole is looking to be a decent successor to Clancy and Ludlum, and Headhunters is a fun and engrossing read. He has plenty of room to grow, which is actually exciting. As good as Headhunters is, his next yarn should be even better.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Dirty Harry

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

[audio:http://www.blueinkalchemy.com/uploads/dirty_harry.mp3]

In an ideal world, police officers are sworn to serve the public trust, protect the innocent and uphold the law. Even in our fiction, even when they’re no longer fully human, we’d like to think that there’s some sort of compassionate protection between those of us abiding by the law and those driven to defy it. And in our minds, these men and women are paragons of virtue, living embodiments of justice, the sort of good-souled citizens that chase down purse-snatchers and rescue cats from trees. We don’t like to think of them doing things like beating a suspect bloody in view of the public or abusing their power to assault the innocent even if they’re irate. But they often do, and such a policeman who does these sort of bad things, for good reasons or no, is the one introduced to us at the titular character of 1971’s Dirty Harry.

Courtesy Warner Bros

His full name is Inspector Harry Callahan, and his fellows in the precinct call him ‘dirty’ due to the habit of nasty business falling into his lap. The man can’t even eat a hot dog without running into a bank robbery he has to foil. The main thrust of the narrative is Callahan’s chase of a serial killer calling himself ‘Scorpio’. It takes quite a bit to track this maniac down. However, when Harry’s over-zealous pursuit of Scorpio when the killer kidnaps a little girl leads to the villain’s release on a technicality. Harry must take the law in his own hands if he wants to see justice done to the murder, even if it means dirtying his hands further and perhaps even ending his career.

Until this film, Clint Eastwood was mostly known for spaghetti westerns and a stint on Rawhide. It would be Harry Callahan that catapulted him to stardom. The detective would be quite good not just for his acting career but also helping him develop as a director, though his first time behind the camera actually came the same year with Play Misty For Me. He’d go on to be a highly successful and iconic actor as well as an acclaimed, thoughtful and powerful director, but in 1971 he was busy setting the foundation for all sorts of future cop dramas and their actors, from Charles Bronson to Bruce Willis.

Courtesy Warner Bros
At least he has nice shades.

And make no mistake, this flick’s very much a product of the ’70s. A good deal of its content is nowhere near what we would consider politically correct today. The presence of blood so fake I was wondering if they used ketchup or hot sauce is counterbalanced with nudity that goes over the line of tasteful into gratuitous territory. There’s some casual racism, a soundtrack from the creator of the Mission: Impossible theme best described as ‘groovetastic’ and more drab suits with hideous patterns than you can shake a magnum revolver at. None of these things, however, caused as much a stir at the time as Dirty Harry’s behavior.

He breaks into places without a warrant, beats information out of suspects while they scream for lawyers and doesn’t think twice about executing someone in cold blood. This staightforward portrayal of personal justice had many critics at the time calling the message of the film ‘fascist’. But Harry does not exist in a vacuum. Not only is he driven to these ends by the actions of someone truly depraved and irredeemable, he is fully aware of how these things can and do affect him. When he’s got Scorpio under his heel, his expression is of a man tortured by the knowledge that he may be too late to save a little girl’s life. And in the end, when all is said and done, he tosses away his badge, knowing that his actions have served nobody but himself, and protected no one.

Courtesy Warner Bros
The famous handgun.

It’s this strong if morally ambiguous internal compass of his, coupled with his fortitude and excellent skills at delivering snark that made Dirty Harry into an iconic character. He’s cited as an inspiration for multiple film series, including Death Wish, Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. Pretty much any iteration of hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners vigilante justice can be traced back to his actions, from the Boondock Saints to modern interpretations of the goddamn Batman. And while Arnold and Sly may run around battlefields with bulging muscles and big machine guns, a single slender man in a suit with a revolver can be ten times as compelling and chilling, especially if that man is Clint Eastwood and that revolver is the Smith & Wesson Model 29 chambered in .44 magnum.

Even if it wasn’t a landmark piece of work, Dirty Harry is still a good watch. It is definitely showing its age in some places, from the width of its steel sedans to the archaic radio equipment Harry and his partner have to deal with. However, Eastwood carries much of the film’s drama, action and even humor, and would do so in future films. For fans of thrillers, cop films and examinations of absolute powers of justice in the hands of one man, Dirty Harry is definitely recommended. You’ll definitely have a better understanding of why would-be macho cops sometimes squint their eyes and ask punks if they feel lucky.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Taken

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

[audio:http://www.blueinkalchemy.com/uploads/taken.mp3]

I’m afraid we must again lament the fact that the movie of the week is not available on Netflix Instant. However, the lamentations are for different reasons. Last week I covered a classic action comedy steeped in supernatural tea which would make for a quick laugh and a good time when necessary. Taken, on the other hand, is what you should reach for when your brain needs a direct injection of adrenaline.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Liam Neeson is cast as Bryan Mills, a retired CIA prevention specialist trying to patch up his relationship with his 17-year-old daughter. Being 17 and a little spoiled, she absconds with a friend to Europe to follow U2 on tour. Bryan warns her that precautions should be taken but Kim isn’t really interested in such things as much as she is hot rock stars and playing her parents against each other. All that changes, however, when mysterious men break into the Parisian home of her friends’ cousins with intent to kidnap the girls. Fortunately, Kim’s on the phone with her dad. Preparing her for the worst, the phone is picked up by one of the kidnappers. Bryan says the following:

I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you… and I will kill you.

You can guess what happens next.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
Yeah, kidnapping the girl doesn’t make Daddy happy.

Casting Liam Neeson in this role was a stroke of genius. Imagine if most other Hollywood actors had taken on this two-fisted unfettered covert operative on a roaring rampage of rescue. From Mel Gibson to Matt Damon, it would have been very difficult for most of them to pull of the consistent, cultured restraint that informs every word Bryan says and every move he makes. It’s this behavior, this very focused and very direct method of executing action, that has caused comparisons to arise between this character and 24’s Jack Bauer. And we simply wouldn’t have that without Liam Neeson. He’s fantastic in this role.

He’s also what holds the whole affair together. Without his electrifying performance, there wouldn’t be much to Taken. I mean, I had to liven up the plot description with some of Liam’s lines. The story’s as straightforward as they come and you’re likely to see most of the turns coming well in advance. But let’s face it, you’re not here for nuanced and deep storytelling, you’re here to watch Liam Neeson make the Paris underworld cry for its mommy.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
And if Daddy ain’t happy…

That isn’t to say that Taken is dumb, by any means. It’s a dead simple premise, sure, and most of the characters are obstacles of one type or another for Liam to overcome with a good punch to the throat. But the way in which the action is executed, the composition of its shots and the lack of shaky-cam acrobatics keep the film grounded, all the better to conduct the aforementioned electricity. The abduction doesn’t happen for a good 20 minutes into the film, and all that time is character building for Bryan in a very smart way. It’s like seeing a lion at the zoo when it’s close to feeding time, the great beast pacing back and forth with barely contained ferocity while still looking majestic. Taken is what happens when that cage is opened after the lion’s been poked and prodded a little by fat, annoying tourists.

There are some who might say that it’s mere wish fulfillment for fathers who have become estranged from their children and long for the means to prove themselves in a crucible other than long court proceedings and awkward visitation incidents. There’s also the fact that Liam Neeson, a white Western European man, is going after Albanians and, at one point, an Arab or two. There are probably some unfortunate implications that can be read into that. However, this is played less for a feeling of jingoistic vengeance than it is for… well, people in Bryan’s way who are too dumb to move when he kicks down the door. Color, creed, sex and money mean nothing to this man; come near his family and he will ruin your life, which may not be very long past meeting the man. Meet the man yourself by watching Taken. This character played by this man single-handedly pulls the movie out of the sea of similar action-thrillers and lets it stand on its own as an interesting character piece as well as a very satisfying thrill ride that I highly doubt would leave you disappointed.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! The Hunt for Red October

Logo courtesy Netflix. No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

[audio:http://www.blueinkalchemy.com/uploads/red_october.mp3]

I’m aware that some of you may have been born around or after, say, 1995. That terms like ‘Soviet Union’ and ‘Cold War’ are entries on Wikipedia or chapters in a history book rather than memories of an ominous time. I’m not sure if public school still conduct ‘weather drills’, but when I was young we were herded into the hallways and taught to sit against the wall with our heads between our knees. We didn’t know for certain – well, some of us didn’t – but in later years it became clear that nuclear war was the most likely disaster for which we should be prepared. Doomsday weapons lurked in the imaginations of many writers of fiction, and it was Tom Clancy who showed us what a responsible person would do with such a weapon, in The Hunt For Red October.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

The weapon is the largest ballistic missile submarine ever built, the Soviet Typhoon-class. The Red October is the newest of that line, equipped with a new propulsion system that renders it silent. Let me repeat that: it’s a submarine roughly the size of a World War 2 aircraft carrier armed with hundreds of nuclear warheads to be showered on a major metropolitan center, and nobody would see it coming. Taking her out on her maiden voyage is Captain Marko Ramius, a haunted man with years of experience, a loyal crew and a fresh grudge to nurse. When he takes Red October away from her planned course, everybody assumes the worst. Everybody, that is, except for a slightly nerdy CIA analyst specialized in fighting sailors like Ramius: Doctor Jack Ryan.

Tom Clancy wrote the book in ’84, and this film adaptation came to us in 1990. Most of the narrative remains intact, and the characters behave as described. A few were cut along with a couple superfluous sub-plots, but you wouldn’t know it given the pace and tension of this fim. It moves smoothly, delivers memorable characters and goes to some interesting places, a journey unhindered by the minutae of submarine warfare.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Trust me, there is nothing “minute” about a Typhoon-class submarine.

Oh, there’s plenty of warfare to be had. Hunts through underwater canyons, games of chicken deep underwater with torpedoes, sabotage and intrigue; everything you need to make a good submarine war film is here. The film wisely dispenses with some of the technical details, however, which Clancy used to make his novel nice and thick. By using these volumes of text as a reference and information for visual stylization rather than as a means to directly inform the audience of the goings-on, director John McTiernan makes pehaps the nerdiest form of modern warfare an exciting thing to watch.

This is the same John McTiernan, after all, who brought us the seminal action movie Die Hard. He shows his skill and diversity in Red October, directing a taut Cold War thriller with the same adeptness and wisdom as he does a run-and-gun action flick. He gives the characters time to breathe and grow, then contracts the scene into a tight, tense atmosphere perfectly. The score of Basil Poulidorus and the presence of actors like Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, Scott Glenn, Sam Neill, Stellan Skarsgaard and the late Robert Jordan deepen and empower the experience, coming together to make a great thriller. He also executes a very clever transition from subtitles to spoken English, helping underscore a message the film conveys which I’ll touch upon in a moment.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
“Sean, you’re not even going to try and do an accent, are you?”
“I’m Sean Connery, Sam. I don’t
need to do an accent.”

Red October does have a few rough patches here and there. The speaking members of Red October’s crew don’t necessarily pull off convincing Russian accents. Sean Connery in particular clearly remains a Scotsman even when he’s speaking Russian. This doesn’t take that much away from his performance, other than perhaps a little good-natured chuckling at the fact that he’s not even bothering with an accent. The plot isn’t necessarily all that complex, relying less upon screenplay slight-of-hand and more upon smart dialogue and canny scene construction to keep the audience interested. And it’s highly likely you won’t just be interested. I’ve seen this movie several times, and re-watching it recently still had me on the edge of my seat in some scenes despite me knowing the outcome.

It’s doubtful that The Hunt For Red October would be made today the way it was in 1990. While it might still have a good plot and good characters, there was an atmosphere to it in the early 90s that was undeniable, that lent additional weight to its message and meaning. In the course of the film, the message comes across that Americans and Russians, despite an ocean of both seawater and cultural disparity between them, are not so different. In the days when the Soviet Union was barely staying together and the Berlin Wall was coming down, it was important for Americans to not just be given this message but also to embrace it, to help those in Russia seeking a new way of life stay on their feet as the regime that had caused so much suspicion and oppression began to crumble around them. Both the Americans and the Soviets had so many other things to which they could have applied their energies, rather than spending it on pointless arguments, hyperbolic hate and decades-long dick-measuring contests. Thank the Maker we’re so much more enlightened in this day and age, eh?

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
This photo is nowhere near as impressive as the actual shot in the scene this is taken from.

Sarcastic soapboxing aside, I think this is definitely a film worth your time. It belongs on your Netflix queue if you enjoy a gripping thriller, Sean Connery or Sam Neill in snappy black uniforms, some very nerdy in-jokes, great use of several tropes or submarine warfare. It works on a lot of levels, builds atmosphere extremely well and remembers that levity and touching moments are just as important as explosions and military jargon. Even if just for hisorical study and reference, I highly recommend The Hunt for Red October. And no, it’s not just because I have half the lines memorized.

It’s not my fault some of them are so damn memorable.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

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