***THIS REVIEW OF THE FIGURES CONTAINS MOVIE PLOT SPOILERS! READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!***
I wanted to make sure that I gave NECA's incredible THE HATEFUL EIGHT clothed figures the proper attention they deserve to coincide with the BLU-RAY/DVD release. When the package with the figures arrived here at AFJ Headquarters, I was completely taken aback and felt like Charlie Bucket winning a Golden Ticket. Not only am I a huge Tarantino fan, I had made sure to see the film at the only location in New Jersey that was showing the official PANAVISION SUPER 70 ROADSHOW complete with faux leather pamphlets about the movie and an old school overture and an intermission to stretch your legs, use the restroom, or refill your 120 ounce soda. My buddy Jon is an avid film Junkie and we were both totally stoked to see QT's new opus in this expansive film format. And let me just say, it was absolutely glorious with magnificent Colorado majesty and lush, untouched land making you want to throw away your iPhone and just set up a tent and look at stars. The super-wide 70 MM film was captured brilliantly by frequent Tarantino cinematographer, Robert Richardson, who managed to shoot the wide-open spaces with the same intimacy he gave to the confines of "Minnie's Haberdashery" near Red Rock, Wyoming where the film is set. Add in what I thought was one of Quentin Tarantino's most wicked screenplays yet and the haunting Oscar-winning musical score of the legendary Ennio Morricone and THE HATEFUL EIGHT was one of my favorite films of 2015. The cherry on top of this glorious and extremely bloody sundae was that NECA produced a limited run of 3000 sets of clothed action figures given the care and detail matched only by my late bubbe who knitted my afghan blankets as a kid.
The film is in my mind, one of the sharpest and cleverly orchestrated narratives that Tarantino has yet to come up with. And that is saying something from the director that threw the traditional three-act movie, beginning/middle/end, on its head back in '94 with the electrifying PULP FICTION making the director a household name. As the years have gone by, QT has continually pushed the boundaries of film-making creating his own unique universe where die-hard fans will immediately point to connections in all 8 (or 9, depending on who you ask) films that he has directed. What I loved about THE HATEFUL EIGHT is that save for a few scenes, the majority of the over three-hour film takes place in one room. So to be able to pack so much into just the one setting as he did over 20 years ago on RESERVOIR DOGS really shows the strength of the script Tarantino wrote. And to think the film almost did not happen after an early draft of the screenplay was leaked online early in January of 2014 causing Tarantino to rethink the project altogether.
As someone that has been a reviewer of not only film but TV, toys & comic books since college, THE HATEFUL EIGHT was Tarantino at his down and dirty best. It is at its heart, a mystery movie, a genre that the director has never really tackled. I was so invested in the characters from start to finish, it was as if I was playing the board game CLUE but for money. While not all of the eight, well, really nine hateful characters get a ton of screen time, they are still riveting. The ebb and flow of the narrative with different perspectives, chance encounters, coincidences, and dumb luck make for an amazing "whodunnit" film. The violence is nothing new nor is the language as, without those two hallmarks, it really would not be a Tarantino film. While the over three hour running time, unfortunately, caused the film to find only a handful of theaters in the domestic market that could show the feature AND have the proper equipment to display it as the director intended, so it only made $54 million, just $10 million more than its production budget. Worldwide it collected another $100 million making it a modest hit at best according to Hollywood bean counters.
However, I think that the film really got the shaft (not Richard Roundtree's iconic role but I am betting QT would love that 70's reference pun), because it was really a movie for film Junkies by the biggest film Junkie. A film for purists, who would make the trip to a far off theater for what was truly a throwback film filled with old plot devices implemented into a post-Civil War drama that on paper, doesn't sound all that interesting. But you would be dead wrong because even on my second viewing of the film, I was looking all over the place for little things I missed; clues to unravel this massive web inside a maze. Its an unpredictable stagecoach stopping in a brutal winter storm at the 7-ELEVEN of its day with the North & South still fighting it out as they wait out the storm.
The toys from NECA, like the movie, are an absolute can't miss and it is one of the few occasions where I have seen the dreaded eBay scalpers prices on some of the figures going for double or even triple the retail amount and saying, "yeah, I can see that." The figures, like the movie, are just that damn good and New Jersey-based NECA spares no expense. Let us do the AFJ breakdown of each of the eight figures in the case AND the surprise figure that NECA sprung on collectors in March in the form of "The Writer & Director" Quentin Tarantino figure.
1. MAJOR MARQUIS WARREN "THE BOUNTY HUNTER" Played by Samuel L. Jackson
While the figures from DJANGO UNCHAINED came and went do to controversy, this is a much clearer representation of SLJ as he is playing a character that is not older like Stephen. Major Marquis Warren is "The Bounty Hunter" desperately in need of a lift to Minnie's Haberdashery as a winter storm is brewing and he has three dead bounties in tow. He manages to hitch a ride from the stagecoach of John "The Hangman" Ruth and as it turns out the two have actually met already. Major Warren carries a personal letter written to him by the now-deceased President Abraham Lincoln. He was pen pals with the President during the Civil War! And John Ruth has a real soft spot for that. However, all is not as it seems with Major Warren. Finding out the truth about Warren's "Lincoln Letter" is one of the greatest McGuffin's in recent cinema history.
The figure is absolutely stunning with the Major's signature hat and duel pistols accessories. The facial likeness to the hardest working man in show business, Samuel L. Jackson, a Tarantino staple, is absolutely brilliant. Right down to the flecks of grey in his beard and his eyebrow scowl, its clear to even the casual moviegoer that this is Samuel L. Jackson. Together with what appears to be a poncho from the 1800s, you get warm just looking at this craftsmanship. Not only does it look handmade, it feels handmade. As the main cog in the wild narrative, nailing Major Marquis Warren's likeness was essential as he and Kurt Russell are the biggest name stars in the film. And the mobility on all of the figures, starting with Major Warren, is just enough for pose-ability and not too much where every single joint has a hinge or balljoint.
2. JOHN RUTH "THE HANGMAN" Played by Kurt Russell
John Ruth aka "The Hangman" is also a bounty hunter but he believes in bringing in his bounties alive. The reason? Everyone in the chain of command in the bounty hunting game should get their fair share and that includes the men who get paid to put the noose around the wanted necks of the damned to death criminals that are brought in by Ruth. He is a man of principle who is transferring "The Prisoner" Daisy Domergue with himself handcuffed to his prey. Ruth is weary of any other bounty hunters because it is a cutthroat business where people steal other people's bounties all the time as its a cash business when the law didn't care who brought them in or how they got there. However, Ruth has heart and heart is his downfall because it is upon recognition of just who Major Marquis Warren is that he lets him hitch a ride on his stage. His soft spot for Warren's "Lincoln Letter" is his Achilles heel and even reading it again on the journey to Minnie's damn well brings the grizzled veteran of bounty hunting to tears.
I am a huge Kurt Russell fan and I think that this is one of his best roles of the 21st Century. He manages to give a heartless bounty hunter a human pulse who has a respect for his business that maybe once existed, but not so much anymore. Not since John Carpenter's THE THING have we seen Russell all shaggy-like and the figure does not disappoint. The facial sculpt captures the screen legend who has been a Hollywood staple since his teens. You can see the wisdom and age lines on the figure as if the figure is going to blink any second. "The Hangman" comes with shotgun & pistol accessories but the real winner here is the old-school pipe that looks like something out of a Sherlock Holmes tale. And to be honest, even the pipe is built to last. One thing about NECA that I love is that they leave nothing to left to chance for the Junkies to point out a detail they left out or accouterments that should have been included with a figure. Take a look at the close-up above of John Ruth's face to see what I am talking about as far as how NECA goes the distance in the painstaking detail. The oversized bearskin coat looks big enough to wear and manages to translate how difficult it was to travel or survive in the cold back then. And you gotta love the Daniel Boone style hat that Ruth dons which looks like its half babushka half 60's Western TV show kitsch. An absolute winner of a figure for one of Russell's most complex characters to date.
3. DAISY DOMERGUE "THE PRISONER" Played by Jennifer Jason Leigh
Jennifer Jason Leigh really had been off my radar for a while and the role of Daisy Domergue "The Prisoner," was set to go to actress Amber Tamblyn. However, Leigh landed the role and really stuck the landing scoring an Oscar nomination out of the gig and a bump back into the spotlight. Daisy is an absolute piece of work, a hellion with a secret caught by the famed bounty hunter John Ruth set for the noose. Half of the time onscreen, she is cuffed to "The Hangman" and the other half she is spewing bile and bleeding at the hand of many punches to her face by Ruth. Her fate reminded me a great deal of the ending of Harvey Keitel's in RESERVOIR DOGS and there are a bunch of similarities between that film and this one in my opinion.
I am fairly certain that there never have remotely been talks of creating an action figure for a Jennifer Jason Leigh character. Although I like to think that a two-pack of 6-inch figures of both her mall working teen, looking to lose her virginity and a bikini-clad Phoebe Cates from FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH were on more minds than my own at some point, especially with the current pop obsession of all things the '80s. So seeing a strong female character like Daisy's in action figure form is a refreshing change from the norm even if she truly is a hateful and reprehensible character. They really captured the grit and spitfire of the set to be hanged character and managed to make the beautiful 54-year-old actress (wow, I feel old) into a black-eyed devil. Again, a home run with the facial sculpts that is just wrought with emotion. Her blonde yellowish locks and another signature hat somehow manage to be the focal point over the flowery print dress she is wearing. It's a strange juxtaposition as I would never think Daisy would be caught dead with anything that has flowers on it. But the details on the figure are just dazzling and she comes with the old-time shackle handcuffs as an accessory. I really like how NECA pulled this one off because Daisy is so integral to the film's narrative. And there is definitely something about the hats and what they all stand for. I haven't figured it out yet...
4. GENERAL SANDY SMITHERS "THE CONFEDERATE" Played by Bruce Dern
Veteran actor Bruce Dern is a real piece of work as General Sandy Smithers "The Confederate," a lost leader of men off to bury his son. However the mystery of Smithers and his past clashes directly with Major Warren whose side eventually crushed the General's beloved South. Now old and broken with not much time left, happenstance has put him another situation where the stakes are black and white and again he comes up short.
I have been a Bruce Dern fan, not for his early work or his fathering Laura Dern, but for his work as the big bad John Gillon, in my favorite con film of all-time, DIGGSTOWN. This character could most certainly be a descendant of Gillon's who once was used to running the show, is now put, by force, into submission by someone quicker, faster & smarter. The action figure of Dern has Sandy Smithers still wearing his Confederate overcoat as if the war is still going on. The ornate stitching and craftsmanship of "The Confederate's" is a mix of old-school MEGO styling peppered in with new world digital specs that manage to capture every last detail. Again, the sculpting of the face had my jaw-dropping. It knocked me out with its absolute spot-on accuracy right down to the age spots! I would love for this to be made into a Custom John Gillon but then I would need a Custom "Honey" Roy Palmer and then a Custom Gabriel Caine. You almost expect for the back of the figure to have a string to pull so you can hear Dern's signature Southern rasp which to this day I've only seen one comedian pull off, and that was Jim Carrey. Congrats Mr. Dern, you are officially now a part of the popular culture landscape with your very own action figure.
5. CHRIS MANNIX "THE SHERIFF" Played by Walton Goggins
Character actor Walton Goggins absolutely killed it as the newly appointed Sheriff for Red Rock, Wyoming, Chris Mannix, and manages to make it to the end of the film which is always a feat in a Tarantino outing. His wily humor and almost politician-like acts of taking sides to survive to make him come out on top outclassing Hollywood royalty in his portrayal of the freshly minted Sheriff. He is in a remarkable position where he has some kind of connection to the core characters and their motives. He says whatever the hell is on his mind and his performance, to be honest, deserved an Oscar nod or some kind of recognition from the industry.
I like the brittle, sharp likeness of the SONS OF ANARCHY actor because he genuinely is a difficult face to get right. In the roles I have seen Goggins, he is a bit of a chameleon and since he has not topped the Hollywood A-List just yet, its a difficult actor to immediately identify as, "Hey that's the guy from (fill in Movie or TV show here). Still, its a heck of a lot better than anyone else could do and I like that NECA at least took a chance when they easily could have including a big star like Channing Tatum as one of the eight. It's not much of a spoiler at this point, but yes, Tatum is perhaps the most important character in the film but you've got to wait and see just why, how, where and when. It's kind of a running gag in the film, both spoken and unspoken, that since he does not have his Sheriff's badge yet, it's difficult to address Mannix with the proper respect. So the figure obviously does not include a badge since let's be honest folks, no one rides off into the sunset from Minnie's Haberdashery. As a figure AND film Junkie, the die-hard's will recognize Goggins mug and that's all that matters. After all, these are museum, boutique-style figures above the grade of classic J-Card figures that you see at big-box chains. The artistry of Mannix' outfit is one that Johnny Cash himself would be proud of. "The Sheriff" is a man in black just waiting for that shiny badge and I thought that the jacket, belt & button scheme on this costume design was really sharp looking. And you get a pistol accessory to boot. I honestly think that if Goggins continues with these kinds of performances, this won't be the last action figure that NECA makes of him.
5. JOE GAGE "THE COW PUNCHER" Played by Michael Madsen
The actor that shot to a cult icon as Mr. Blonde in Tarantino's RESERVOIR DOGS over 20 years ago is back as Joe Gage, "The Cow Puncher." The quiet character is one that is completely aware of the situation at Minnie's and is patiently waiting for it to unfold. I am actually jealous of those who have yet to see the film as since I picked up the BLU-RAY, I have been picking out little clues that I did not pick up on throughout the over 3-hour journey of the film's story. "The Cow Puncher's" origin is one that does just that, he punches cows, or at least that's his cover.
What's strange to me on this particular figure is that any Tarantino enthusiast can tell its Michael Madsen. There have been plenty of Mr. Blonde figures out there for over a decade. However, his features are somewhat distorted and cartoon-like here and that simply maybe because of one ironic fact which is that it is pretty obvious when looking at 21st Century Michael Madsen in comparison with 20th Century Michael Madsen, that he has had a little work done on his face. So it's kind of like that old joke about having a twister on the back of your neck to tighten up the face. As far as I'm concerned, I think NECA did the best that they could with their source material. The New Jersey-based toymakers were able to capture Madsen's leathery skin and to be honest, the guy just looks like he would do just fine in the Old West. This is the one character that really has that stereotypical cowboy look that Hollywood has jammed down our throats for a century but that's okay here because with "The Cow Puncher" Joe Gage, it completely works. Even the ornate leather vest and an oversized pistol on the figure seem to point out that anything that Joe Gage does is bigger than big even if talking incessantly is in his character. The odd-looking turquoise and reddish-brown undershirt is an odd choice for what seems like someone that wouldn't be caught dead in those colors. However, it really pops on the figure and the fact that NECA can make a figure of an actor post-plastic surgery is a big deal in my book.
7. OSWALDO MOBRAY "THE LITTLE MAN" Played by Tim Roth
Tim Roth is one of those actors that anything he does, big or small, I always love. He's a classic scene-stealer and I find that he actually flourishes in an ensemble piece over the traditional leading man type. He's quirky and an everyman that has played every part you can think of and is master at chewing the scenery for all its worth. "The Little Man" is the mischievous type and of all of the Hateful Eight, he was my number one suspect for something. I didn't know what, but my radar went off immediately when I saw him. He sticks out like a sore thumb here as a guy that just doesn't belong. Whether it's his funny accent or because he looks like he'd be the last one picked if rounding up a posse was needed, "The Little Man" is an Old West riddle and a strange, almost funny presence among those at Minnie's.
I think that the Oswaldo Mobray figure is one of my favorites outside of Major Warren & John Ruth. He is outfitted like a British librarian stuck in some kind of time travel story. The bowler hat is a perfect fit for Roth's small frame and this figure is easily the smallest of the Eight. Again the facial likeness is so dead-on that you can almost see the mustache wax. "The Little Man" is the sharpest dressed character inside Minnie's and NECA spared no expense on this luxurious grey overcoat and pinstripe pants. I should say, that the mobility on all of the figures in the line are really excellent for the type of figures they are. That is to say, showcase pieces. And I mean that in the best possible way.
8. BOB "THE MEXICAN" Played by Demian Bichir
I honestly had never heard of Demian Bichir before this film and this was the other character I immediately was fixated on as being out of place. He tries to just stay in the background but his massive frame makes him the Right Tackle of the bunch and its hard to ignore the weight he carries both physically and metaphorically. This is not a man to be trifled with and his low, calm, almost childlike voice is that of a man that is up to no good. But without evidence, there's no reason to suspect him except that a Mexican man being in ice-cold Wyoming is just "off" for the time period.
This figure is outstanding capturing the massive Bob as he practically is too big for the windowbox case! He's just that enormous with his coat that weighs more than "The Little Man" altogether. The faux sombrero/fedora is matched perfectly to the impressive beard on the character/figure. The signature here that really works is that like in the film, his left eye is slightly closed and his right, barely open as well. But something about that left eye was imposing on-screen and it translates here on the action figure. "The Mexican" knows his way around cattle and is equipped not only with a pistol but also a knife. This really is a very sharp looking figure and even more impressive when you take in the film a few times to see the accuracy given to all of the characters costume designs and 3D facial renders.
9. QUENTIN TARANTINO "THE WRITER & DIRECTOR"
A bonus figure that just arrived after appeared out of nowhere. I finally scored this one over the weekend and caught it before it skyrocketed up to $55 so it is a nice nod to those lucky enough to get a complete set of THE HATEFUL EIGHT figures. It's kind of a wink that you are in on the joke that QT is playing on you in the film knowing that like most of his films, you have no idea what direction he is taking you in.