Justice League: The World Ain’t Saving Itself

Warner Bros. and DC Comics’ attempts to emulate Marvel and Disney’s success with an interconnected cinematic universe of superheroes has met with mixed results, to say the least. They started off reasonably well with Man of Steel in 2013, before stumbling with Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad in 2016. They scored their first major hit with Wonder Woman earlier this year, and were hoping for another big hit with Justice League, the superhero team-up movie that is DC Comics’ version of the Avengers.

Image: Warner Bros.

Well, they’re back to the mixed results, since Justice League earned middling reviews and underwhelming box-office returns. It’s still a fun action-packed romp, but behind-the-scenes drama may have prevented it from being an Avengers-sized hit.

The movie is a flat two hours long, apparently a result of a Warner Bros. mandate that the film not exceed two hours in length, after Batman V Superman was criticized for being overlong at two and a half hours. The shorter running time of Justice League means that the pacing is better and the movie has a good sense of momentum, but the downside is that the characters aren’t as fully fleshed-out as they might have been given more time to develop them.

The movie was also subject to extensive reshoots, which were directed by Avengers maestro Joss Whedon after original director Zack Snyder stepped away from the film for a time for personal reasons. This means that Justice League was essentially directed by two different directors, although only Snyder is credited. Fortunately, the new scenes are integrated well enough that it didn’t seem to me that parts of the film were directed by different people, although I’m sure fans will have fun trying to figure out which scenes were shot by Whedon. I think Whedon was brought in to film mostly new dialogue scenes to help flesh out the characters and their relationships a bit, since “relationships” are not exactly one of Zack Snyder’s strong suits.

Snyder gets a lot of hate, much of which I think is undeserved. People just love to hate the guy for whatever reason. I think that he has a talent for eye-catching visuals and is a good director of kinetic action sequences, but the characters in his films don’t resonate as strongly as the visuals and action scenes. One of the best descriptions I’ve heard of Snyder’s work is that his films are full of great moments and memorable images, but good individual moments don’t necessarily add up to a great movie. This is a good description of Justice League as well, regardless of which director directed which scenes.

Image: Warner Bros.

But who are the characters in Justice League? There are six, and the identity of one of them could be considered a spoiler, since Warner Bros. kept him out of the film’s marketing materials. So, spoiler alert, I guess, although this character’s appearance will not come as much of a surprise for anyone familiar with comic books. When we last Superman, he was dead, killed by the monster called Doomsday at the end of Batman V Superman. He gets resurrected in Justice League, and I’ll keep the details of his resurrection a secret, although I will say that I thought it was handled pretty well, and that it was well-integrated with the rest of the film’s plot.

The other five characters, and the ones that the marketing focused on, are Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. We already know Batman and Wonder Woman, but the other three are making their big-screen debuts (not counting their brief introductory cameos in earlier films). The movie has a lot of weight on its shoulders, since it has to establish these characters and set up a villain that will take their combined efforts to defeat, especially with the truncated two-hour running time.

When the first Avengers movie came out back in 2012, it had a distinct advantage over the Justice League movie. In that film, we were already familiar with the characters, since we had seen them in previous movies. Even the film’s villain, Loki, was someone we already knew well. In Justice League, three of the main characters are essentially new to the film’s universe (again, not counting those earlier cameos), as is the film’s villain.

That villain is named Steppenwolf, and he’s…underwhelming. He’s basically a harbinger of interdimensional doom who wants to unleash hell on earth and looks like he walked off the cover of a heavy metal album. He has an army of flying bug-eyed creatures called parademons and, look, the whole thing is pretty silly. The plot feels very compressed and viewers who aren’t familiar with the comic-book lore may very well wonder what the hell is going on. And while the big picture is clear (good guys must defeat bad guy before he unleashes hell on earth) the details are hazy.

Fortunately, I did like the good-guy characters. The movie has a better grasp of Batman (played again by Ben Affleck) than Batman V Superman did (Batman doesn’t kill anyone this time around), and Wonder Woman (the excellent Gal Gadot) is great. Aquaman (played by Conan the Barbarian Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (played by Ray Fisher) are fun characters, and the movie pokes fun at Aquaman’s much-mocked ability to communicate with fish. But the character who steals the movie is Barry Allen, aka The Flash, played by Ezra Miller.

Image: Warner Bros.

The Flash is easily the funniest character, and Miller steals every scene he’s in. Barry is a guy who really wants to do good in the world and is super excited to hang out with Batman and Wonder Woman and the gang, but he’s the first person to admit he may be in a bit over his head. “It’s great that you guys are ready to go in and do battle, but I’ve never done battle before,” he tells Batman. “I’ve just pushed people and run away.” The movie’s best lines all belong to him, and I’m looking forward to his solo film, although it’s still a few years away.

The special effects and action sequences are top-notch, which isn’t too surprising since Zack Snyder always delivers films that look and sound great, even if he struggles in other areas. There are a lot of fun superhero battles, and the movie has a much brighter color palette than previous DC Comics movies, which is nice to see. The characters look great and the costumes, weapons, vehicles and the like are badass, especially Batman’s awesome vehicles and Bat-tech. I also loved Barry’s wide-eyed reaction to seeing the Batcave for the first time: “It’s like a cave…a…bat-cave!”

The movie is much lighter in tone than Snyder’s previous DC films, which were heavily criticized for being too dark. There are a lot of jokes and funny moments (most of which belong to Barry) as well as a very funny scene involving Aquaman and Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth. I also got a kick out of Barry’s first meeting with Wonder Woman. “Hello, Barry, I’m Diana,” she says to him. Clearly smitten, he says to her, “Hello, Barry, I’m Diana. Wait, that’s not right.” It’s good to see Snyder having more fun with these characters.

Image: Warner Bros.

Justice League may not be up to the high standard set by the rest of this year’s comic-book superhero films, but I still enjoyed it. It’s hard to say how much the behind-the-scenes shakeups impacted the movie (there are several scenes in the trailers that aren’t in the film), but I still had fun with it. Maybe the Blu-ray release will include the director’s cut or something and we’ll be able to see some of the stuff that was left out. I still enjoyed Justice League overall, and while Wonder Woman remains the best movie in DC’s interconnected superhero universe, Justice League is quite a bit of fun, and 2017 was a much better year for DC movies than 2016 was, which is a relief.

Coming up next is something a bit different. For the past couple weeks I’ve been playing a lot of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. It’s a game full of Nazi-killing and ridiculous sci-fi shenanigans, but underneath all that is a game that cares deeply about its story and characters, and has a surprising amount of real-world relevance, despite the ludicrous robot-laser-space Nazis. Join me next week for a discussion of one of the most provocative video games to come around in quite some time. See you then.

Advertisements

The Foreigner is Jackie Chan’s Version of Taken

Martin Campbell is a director who seems to specialize in revitalizing old warhorses. He did it in 1995 with GoldenEye, which was the first James Bond film since 1989’s License to Kill and was also Pierce Brosnan’s Bond debut. Campbell did it again in 1998 with The Mask of Zorro. He revitalized James Bond again in 2006 with Casino Royale, Daniel Craig’s first Bond movie (and still my number-one favorite Bond film). Campbell did it yet again in 2010 with Edge of Darkness, Mel Gibson’s first starring role after a long absence (and several well-publicized offscreen meltdowns). In 2011 Campbell made Green Lantern, which…well, the less said about that one the better. But with The Foreigner, Campbell has made a return to form.

Image: STX Entertainment

This time it’s Jackie Chan getting the Martin Campbell Old Warhorse Revitalization Treatment. An alternative name for this phenomenon would be Taken Syndrome, referring to Liam Neeson’s 2008 surprise megahit which proved that people will go see movies starring aging action stars.

The circumstances are a bit different, since before Taken Neeson was not known as an action star. The same cannot be said for Jackie Chan, whose willingness to perform fearless and death-defying stunts in his films has rightly become the Stuff of Legend. The Foreigner also stars Pierce Brosnan in a villainous role. The combination of Campbell, Chan and Brosnan feels just right, and I quite enjoyed The Foreigner.
The film’s plot will be immediately familiar to anyone who has ever seen an action movie. Chan plays Quan, a restaurant owner living in London whose teenage daughter is killed in a terrorist bombing in the film’s opening. Killing Quan’s daughter will of course turn out to be the worst (and last) mistake the culprits ever make, since like Liam Neeson’s character Bryan Mills in Taken, Quan turns out to have a very particular set of skills, as well as a tragic backstory that both serve as strong motivation to find and punish his daughter’s killers.

It’s a familiar plot (the 2002 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Collateral Damage had nearly the exact same setup) but an effective one. Pierce Brosnan plays Irish Deputy Minister Liam Hennessy, a man who, let’s just say, has fingers in many pies. After seeing Hennessy on TV and learning that he is a former IRA member, and since a group calling itself the Authentic IRA claimed responsibility for the attack that killed his daughter, Quan becomes convinced that Hennessy knows more than he is letting on.
Long story short (and I don’t think this is much of a spoiler): Quan is exactly right, and Hennessy is up to his ears in it. I won’t go into more detail than that, but it doesn’t take long before Quan has Hennessy running scared and hiding out in the countryside. This does not deter Quan and he takes up residence in the surrounding woods and wages a guerrilla war against Hennessy, which includes setting Rambo-esque traps in the woods that come in quite handy when Hennessy sends his henchmen into the woods after him.

Image: STX Entertainment

Jackie Chan is great in this movie. He’s 63 years old but is still pretty spry, and the fight scenes are excellent. The trailers for the movie would have you believe that the movie is a non-stop action thrill ride, but the truth is that it’s more of a political/conspiracy thriller with some really great action scenes. The plot gets a bit muddled at times but I was still able to follow it without too much difficulty. In addition to a strong physical performance, Chan also does a great job at nailing the more introspective and emotional aspects of his character. The scenes of him mourning his slain daughter are genuinely affecting.

The movie also knows how to make the most of Chan’s presence, and keeps him offscreen for much of the movie. While Quan wages his guerrilla war against Hennessy, we spend most of that time following Hennessy as he becomes increasingly paranoid, so when Quan makes his move it comes as a surprise to the audience as well as to Hennessy and his men. Even when Chan isn’t onscreen, his character’s presence is strongly felt. It’s very effective filmmaking.

Brosnan is also excellent as the duplicitous Hennessy, and speaks with an Irish accent that feels genuine. I mention this because Irish accents are easy to overdo, but Brosnan and the rest of the actors who play Irishmen speak with Irish accents that sound real, so the film never comes across as campy or exploitative. And yes, I realize that Pierce Brosnan is himself Irish, but I thought it was still a point worth mentioning.

The Foreigner is undeniably similar to other thrillers, but the strength of the performances and strong sense of realism raise it above the level of other campier films. I thought that Martin Campbell’s 2010 movie Edge of Darkness with Mel Gibson was ok, but the pacing of that film was sluggish and the plot was hard to follow. The Foreigner is much better in both of these areas and to me feels like a more complete and well-rounded experience. The villains in Edge of Darkness were members of a shady evil corporation, whereas The Foreigner’s villains are shady evil politicians. The movies are similar but The Foreigner ultimately comes out on top. It’s not perfect but I really liked it.

It’s October, which means that I have to write about at least one scary movie. Fortunately for me (I think), there’s one coming out this Friday which looks like it will fit the bill. That movie is The Snowman, a twisted Scandinavian crime thriller starring Michael Fassbender and based on a bestselling novel. The early buzz for the movie has been mostly bad, but I’m going to check it out anyway. I guess I’m still feeling brave after surviving IT. Tune in next week for a review.

Blade Runner 2049 is as Good as Belated Sequels Get

Confession time: the first time I saw Ridley Scott’s seminal 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner, I didn’t much care for it. Please don’t judge me too harshly.

This could be because I saw it on TV and it was probably edited to some extent. This could also be because the version I saw was the original theatrical version, which most fans of the film agree to be inferior to later versions. But I think the most likely reason of all was that it did not conform to my expectations. I expected a rollicking, action-packed thrill ride. What I got instead was a dark, moody, slow-burning sci-fi noir. It wasn’t what I wanted at the time, but I have a much greater appreciation for it now. Scott’s Blade Runner is a stone-cold classic and has been hugely influential on generations of filmmakers and writers.

The idea of a sequel coming out some 35 years after the release of the original film could lead to understandable skepticism. We all know what happened with that last Indiana Jones movie, after all. But I am happy to say that the new film, Blade Runner 2049, is an excellent sequel. People have called it one of the best sequels ever made, and it’s hard to disagree.

Image: Warner Bros.

The new movie was directed by the brilliant French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. I haven’t seen all of his films, but the ones I have seen (Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival) were all excellent. Villeneuve is one of the best directors working today, and he has delivered another near-masterpiece with Blade Runner 2049.

Villeneuve’s film stays true to Scott’s beloved original in tone, style, and content. The cinematographer was the great Roger Deakins, and the movie looks amazing. It brilliantly recaptures the iconic look of the original movie while also providing new environments and landscapes that fit right in with the world these films have created. If Deakins doesn’t finally win an Oscar for his work on this film, then the Academy Awards are officially Dead To Me.


Image: Warner Bros.

But aside from the eye-popping visuals, the film is rich in ideas and emotion. One of the main questions the original film presented was: what does it mean to be human? If it becomes possible to one day create synthetic beings so lifelike they’re virtually indistinguishable from real people, who’s to say those synthetic beings aren’t human? HBO’s Westworld recently pondered similar questions, and they’re as relevant and intriguing now as they were when the first movie was released in 1982.

Much has been made of Harrison Ford’s return to the world he helped create, although (this could be considered a minor spoiler) he doesn’t actually appear in the new movie until it is more than half over. Most of the movie rests on the shoulders of Ryan Gosling, and he is more than up to the task of carrying the film. Gosling’s performance here is superb and absolutely Oscar-worthy.


Image: Warner Bros.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, here’s a quick recap. The original movie took place in 2019, and followed Ford’s character Rick Deckard as he attempted to track down four rogue replicants. Replicants were created by the Tyrell Corporation to serve as off-world slave labor, but after a series of violent rebellions, they became outlawed. Blade Runners such as Deckard were cops who specialized in tracking down and “retiring” replicants.

Gosling’s character, known simply as K for most of the movie, is a Blade Runner hunting down replicants in 2049, thirty years after the events of the original film. I’m not going to go into much detail about the plot, since I really want to avoid spoilers. Suffice to say that K’s background is complex and is an integral part of the film’s plot. It becomes necessary for him to track down Deckard, who hasn’t been seen for thirty years. When we do finally meet Deckard, he’s tired and worn out. It’s some of the best acting Ford has done in recent years. He does a great job capturing Deckard’s cynicism and world-weariness, and is soulful and sympathetic.


Image: Warner Bros.

In addition to Deckard and K, the rest of the characters are equally fascinating. Robin Wright plays K’s no-bullshit boss Lieutenant Joshi, Jared Leto plays a creepy evil industrialist named Niander Wallace (who now owns the company that makes replicants and has made a fortune producing a new, more obedient series of replicants), and an actress named Sylvia Hoeks plays Wallace’s main henchwoman, disarmingly named Luv. Despite her name, she is not to be messed with, and provides a fierce adversary for K as he attempts to locate Deckard.

There’s also the lovely Cuban actress Ana de Armas as a character named Joi (pronounced like the word joy), who is, for lack of a better word, K’s companion. No, not that kind of companion. She offers him support and guidance despite, let’s just say, not being entirely human. I found the relationship between K and Joi to be quite fascinating, and genuinely moving at times.

There’s a lot more I could say about the plot, but I’m not going to because this is a movie you should experience for yourself. I will say that I loved the film’s plot. The filmmakers did an incredible job of telling a story that feels like a logical evolution of the original film, instead of just a flimsy excuse to make another movie and make more money. Blade Runner 2049 is a movie made with immense care and attention to detail. It feels completely faithful to the original.

I wouldn’t call either Blade Runner movie an action movie. Both movies are deliberately paced, and while there are fights and chases, the emphasis isn’t on the action scenes. Both films have a long way to go and are in no particular hurry to get there. The new movie is nearly three hours long, but it didn’t feel that long to me. It immediately sweeps the viewer up into the vivid world it creates, and it’s the kind of world that is thrilling to explore, but you probably wouldn’t want to live in it.

Every aspect of this movie is Oscar-worthy, from the production design to the writing to the acting to the directing to the special effects to the cinematography. Every one of those things from the first movie became iconic, and it’s easy to see the same thing happening with the new movie. Denis Villeneuve and his team did an incredible job crafting this film, and they have made Blade Runner 2049 every bit as emotionally resonant and thematically rich as its esteemed predecessor, which is no small feat.

Coming up next, in The Foreigner Jackie Chan will show us that it doesn’t matter if you’re in your sixties, you can still kick ass.

Gentlemen Are Still Badasses in Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Matthew Vaughn is one of the best action directors working today. His films Kick-Ass and Kingsman: The Secret Service have some of the most exciting, well-shot and well-choreographed action sequences in years. His latest film, the sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle, has all the kinetic action of his previous films, but his flaws as a storyteller have never been more apparent.

The first Kingsman movie introduced the titular spy agency, a clandestine group of gentlemen badasses who wore finely-tailored suits and also just so happened to be lethal killing machines. The first film showed the training of Eggsy, a Kingsman recruit with a lot of potential. Eggsy eventually became a full-fledged Kingsman agent and helped save the world from a megalomaniac bent on cleansing the world by killing most of its population.

It was a very fun movie that was a big hit when it was released in 2014. Now the sequel is here, and it’s a mess. Mind you, it’s a fun mess. But it is still a mess.


Image: 20th Century Fox

Let’s start with the characters. There are too many of them, and the movie has no idea what to do with most of them. There are returning characters from the movie. The movie doesn’t know what to do with them, and promptly kills many of them off. There are new characters. The movie doesn’t know what to do with them, and promptly shunts many of them off to the side for most of the overlong 141-minute running time.

Colin Firth was the star of the first Kingsman movie, and watching the debonair, Oscar-winning English actor kick ass was an unexpected joy. Sadly, his character was killed off. But what do you know, he’s back for the sequel! This isn’t a spoiler, he’s in all the trailers. How did he survive? I won’t spoil it, but I found the method of his survival to be awfully…well…convenient. My guess is that the filmmakers weren’t expecting Firth’s character to be such a hit, so they scrambled for a way to resurrect him in the sequel. It’s great to see Firth again, he’s great, but the new movie’s writing is sloppy.

Director Matthew Vaughn has no one but himself to blame for the movie’s sloppiness, since he co-wrote the screenplay. The movie’s marketing made a big deal out of the new characters, played by well-known actors such as Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, and Halle Berry. But these characters have very little to do. Tatum in particular is barely in the movie. He has one big scene, then disappears until the end. I wondered if his role was supposed to be bigger but there were scheduling issues or something which prevented it. The movie initially positions him as an American version of hero Eggsy, then promptly drops him for most of the movie. Tatum’s character, heavily featured in the film’s marketing, is an afterthought.

As for the plot, it’s far-fetched to say the least. If the first Kingsman movie strained the limits of credibility, the second one obliterates them and it is impossible to take anything in the movie seriously. Case in point: the villain, Poppy Adams, played by Julianne Moore. Poppy easily takes home the title of “Most Cheerful Villain of the Year.” She has her own plan for world domination, which involves contaminating recreational drugs such as marijuana and heroin so that they paralyze and eventually kill people who use them. She’s obsessed with the 1950’s and lives in a 50’s-inspired utopia in the middle of the jungle in Cambodia. She’s completely ridiculous. She’s quirky but not scary, no offense to Julianne Moore, who does what she can with a weirdly-written role. Poppy spends literally the entire movie in her jungle utopia, and never registers as a credible threat. Samuel L. Jackson’s character in the first Kingsman movie was much more intimidating and memorable.


Image: 20th Century Fox

Still, early in the movie Poppy does manage to obliterate most of the Kingsman organization in one fell swoop. Surviving members Eggsy (played by Taron Egerton) and Merlin (played by Mark Strong) realize that they need help, and this leads them to the discovery of the Statesmen, the American cousins of the Kingsmen. Where the Kingsmen are exaggerated versions of everything British, with their finely-tailored suits and impeccable manners, the Statesmen are exaggerated versions of all things ‘Murican.

You know, ‘Murican, like “American” with a thick southern drawl? The Statesmen are headquartered in Kentucky and are fond of lassos, revolvers, and cowboy hats and boots. Most of them have southern accents and all their agents are named after alcoholic beverages. Channing Tatum is Tequila, Halle Berry is Ginger Ale, and Jeff Bridges, the boss, is Champagne, or just Champ for short. There’s also Agent Whiskey, played by Pedro Pascal, a Game of Thrones alumnus whose character only lasted for one season before being killed in one of the most infamously gruesome deaths on a show known for killing main characters in grisly ways.

This movie is insane. It’s hard to put into words the sheer insanity that this movie puts on the screen. It has to be seen to be believed. The movie has an all-star cast, but there is one man who steals the entire movie. This is a bit of a spoiler, since this person’s involvement was kept pretty minimal in the film’s marketing.

Two words:

Elton.

John.

Yes, Sir Elton steals the movie. It turns out that Poppy has kidnapped him and forces him to perform songs for her at her jungle lair. He’s not very happy about it and yells a lot of f-words. Also, Poppy’s hideout is guarded by two robotic dogs named Bennie and Jet, who are programmed not to kill Elton John.

It’s hilarious.

It’s also utterly absurd.

And did I mention Poppy’ rather bizarre way of indoctrinating new henchmen? It involves making them eat hamburgers made out of, uh, other henchmen.

So, yeah.

This movie is batshit. It’s the most batshit movie I’ve seen all year. The plot is a ridiculous mess, most of the characters are underused, and it’s a good twenty minutes too long.

But at the end of the day, I still had fun with it. Was I entertained? You bet I was. Matthew Vaughn’s screenwriting and storytelling could use some work, but his direction of the action scenes is top-notch. The first scene of the movie is a ten-minute car chase through the middle of London involving cars armed with miniguns and a bad guy with a robotic arm, and it only gets crazier from there.

The climactic battle at Poppy’s jungle hideout is one of the most joyously fun action scenes I’ve seen all year. It’s set to Elton John’s classic song Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, which has always been a favorite of mine. Watching two Englishmen in bespoke suits battling an army of henchmen in a 50’s-inspired jungle utopia while Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting plays in the background is something I didn’t know how badly I needed until I saw it. Thank you, movie, for giving me back a piece of myself that I didn’t even know I was missing.


Image: 20th Century Fox

Look, this movie is a clusterf*ck on an epic scale, but hot damn if it isn’t still fun. Its flaws are legion but I still enjoyed the hell out of it. It’s a guilty pleasure, for sure. I hope Matthew Vaughn keeps making movies this fun, although it would be nice if he sharpened up the writing a bit.

Coming up next is a movie that’s a bit obscure, but it’s one that I really like. I’m not seeing any new movies this weekend, so I’m going to take a look at a film from last year that it is an underseen gem. It’s a movie called Anthropoid. If you’ve never heard of it I’m not surprised. It’s a World War II film about the plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, one of the main architects of the Holocaust. There’s going to be some dark stuff, but hopefully I can convince you to check out this underappreciated movie. See you next week.

Mitch Rapp: American Assassin

Before his death in 2013 at the age of 47 from cancer, Vince Flynn wrote 14 bestselling books, 13 of which starred ultra-badass counterterrorism agent Mitch Rapp. Flynn’s first book was published in 1997, and his first Mitch Rapp book was published in 1999. It took Hollywood a while to make a movie based on Flynn’s work, and the first one, American Assassin, was released last week.

I love the Mitch Rapp books. Rapp is a no-bullshit, take-no-prisoners kind of guy. He never met a terrorist whose kneecap he didn’t want to put a bullet in. He doesn’t give a damn about the constantly-debating politicians in Washington. He will do whatever he has to in order to stop terrorists from killing innocent people.

Image: Lionsgate

This attitude frequently puts him in conflict with the politicians, which leads to much of the drama in the books, aside from Mitch kicking terrorist ass, which he does prodigiously. But he’s not just a meathead who is good at killing bad guys. He has a tragic backstory and a fascinating personality, and I cared about him a lot as I read the books.

One of my favorite parts of the books was Rapp’s developing relationship with his girlfriend and later wife Anna Reilly, a reporter he rescues from a terrorist attack and subsequently falls in love with. Flynn lets their relationship develop over several books, and in Flynn’s seventh novel Consent to Kill, which is one of my all-time favorite books and one of the best espionage thrillers ever written, (book spoiler alert) I was genuinely heartbroken when Anna was killed by a bomb that was meant for her husband. Killing his wife turns out to be the worst mistake the bad guys could have possibly made, as it leads Mitch to unleash an unstoppable tidal wave of unholy vengeance upon them.

By the way, that terrorist attack Mitch rescues Anna from? That was at the White House. Vince Flynn told the story of the White House being invaded by terrorists in 1999, well before Hollywood got around to making not one but two White House invasion movies in 2013. So yeah, Mitch Rapp is a badass, as was his creator.

The new film, American Assassin, is based on Flynn’s novel of the same name. Although it was published in 2010, making it one of his later books, it is the first chronologically and serves as the origin story for Mitch Rapp. So it makes sense that it would be the first to be adapted for film. I can’t say exactly how well the movie follows the story of the book, since I read it several years ago, but it does a commendable job of capturing the feel of Flynn’s books.

Mitch is played in the film by Dylan O’Brien, a 26-year-old actor known mostly for the YA sci-fi series The Maze Runner, as well as the TV series Teen Wolf. I was a bit skeptical of O’Brien’s casting, since he seemed like a bit of a heartthrob for teenage girls, but he does good work in the role. He doesn’t quite have the charisma of Daniel Craig or Matt Damon, but then, Mitch Rapp was never much in the charisma department. He’s a man of action, not words. Mitch’s teacher and mentor Stan Hurley is played by the great Michael Keaton, who has a lot of fun chewing scenery and being a crusty, cantankerous badass.


Image: Lionsgate

In the movie’s opening scene, Mitch is on vacation with his girlfriend in Spain. He proposes to her and she accepts. It seems like an idyllic scene, until gunfire breaks out and Mitch’s girlfriend and many other people are killed by terrorists, and Mitch himself is shot multiple times. It’s a tense, effective scene, and effectively establishes the mood of the film.

Eighteen months later, Mitch lives a solitary life and is consumed with vengeance. He frequents an internet message board where he makes contact with the Jihadist cell responsible for the attack that killed his girlfriend, and is able to infiltrate them. The CIA has gotten wind of this and takes out the cell before Mitch can exact his vengeance.

He is then drafted into a black ops unit codenamed Orion and sent to Stan Hurley for training. The rest of the film’s plot involves nuclear weapons in the hands of people you really don’t want to have nuclear weapons, and a rogue operative with the (rather unoriginal) codename Ghost, played by Taylor Kitsch. I’ll be honest, the plot didn’t blow me away. It followed some predictable twists and turns, most of which didn’t offer any big surprises. But it was serviceable. I don’t know how closely the movie’s plot followed that of the book, since I read it several years ago. But the movie’s story gets the job done in a solid if unspectacular fashion.

There’s quite a bit of action in the film, all of which is well-executed, although the movie doesn’t have a standout action sequence that really stuck with me. Still, the film’s action is solid, and it is always a thrill to see one of your literary heroes given life on the big screen, even if the adaptation is flawed. The movie is R-rated and doesn’t pull any punches with regards to the violence or profanity. This is as it should be, since Mitch Rapp has always been an R-rated guy.


Image: Lionsgate

There’s a torture scene late in the film which is brutal, but also kind of hilarious because Michael Keaton gets to go for it and just go full-on crazy. It’s one of the best scenes in the film because of Keaton’s performance, and reminded me quite a bit of the infamous torture scene in Casino Royale. It’s brutal, but hard to look away from, and even has moments of dark, brilliant humor.

I saw the movie with my dad, since he was the one who got me hooked on the books in the first place and we are both big Mitch Rapp fans. While it’s not the best spy thriller ever made, we both enjoyed it, and a good manly time was had by all. The plot is ho-hum but the action and the performances are solid, and I think it will satisfy fans of Flynn’s excellent books.

Coming up next, we’ve got even more spies and assassins, but this time with tongue lodged firmly in cheek. It’s the return of everyone’s favorite gentlemen badasses in Kingsman: The Golden Circle.

The Hitman and The Bodyguard

The Hitman’s Bodyguard is a title that immediately raises a question: why would a guy who kills people for a living need a bodyguard?

The movie’s answer to this question involves constant gunfire and profanity, and I enjoyed the hell out of it. Call it a guilty pleasure. There were a couple times during the movie where I thought to myself: “I probably shouldn’t enjoy a movie with this much killing and swearing, but damn if I’m not having a good time.”

Image: Summit Entertainment

Ryan Reynolds plays the bodyguard, sorry, I meant “Triple-A-rated executive protection agent”, named Michael Bryce. At the beginning of the movie, Michael seemingly has it made: he’s wealthy, lives in a slick modern house, wears fancy clothes, has an array of shiny weaponry and a beautiful girlfriend named Amelia, played by Elodie Yung, best known for playing Elektra in Netflix’s Daredevil series.

Michael’s idyllic existence falls apart when his latest client is assassinated on the airport runway, and some time later Michael is living out of his car and protecting coked-up attorneys, and longs for his old life back. He blames everyone but himself for his problems, especially Amelia, whom he blames for selling him out and allowing his client to be killed.

Meanwhile, Amelia, an Interpol agent, is put in charge of the protection detail for recently-captured Darius Kincaid, a legendarily prolific hitman played by Samuel L. Jackson, our foremost artist of the f-word. Amelia needs to get Darius to The Hague so he can testify against deposed dictator Vladislav Dukhovich, played by the great Gary Oldman, who is utterly wasted in the role. More on that later. A violent shootout with Dukhovich’s henchmen promptly leaves Darius’ entire protection team dead except for himself and Amelia. Suspecting a mole in Interpol and with nowhere else to turn, Amelia reluctantly calls Michael for help.

From there, the movie becomes a series of shootouts and car chases as Michael and Darius race to get to The Hague before time runs out and Dukhovich is released for lack of evidence. There is a ton of action in the movie, and I enjoyed every action-packed scene. Dukhovich may have been deposed, but he still has an army of loyal henchmen that he sends after Darius and Michael, which leads to nonstop mayhem.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard is an unapologetically R-rated movie, and Jackson gets plenty of opportunity to use his signature 12-letter epithet. This is the sweariest movie I’ve seen in a theater this year. Atomic Blonde was up there in terms of Swears Per Minute, but The Hitman’s Bodyguard has it beat by a country mile. The movie was directed by Patrick Hughes, who directed The Expendables 3, which I found dull and overlong. Fortunately, this movie is more briskly paced and doesn’t take itself too seriously.

There are a couple of moments that clash with the comedic tone, like when Dukhovich kills a dissident’s wife and child in front of him. While something like that shows how much of an evil bastard Dukhovich is, it feels out of place when the rest of the movie is meant to be breezy and funny. Still, this is a highly entertaining movie with lots of funny moments. Jackson and Reynolds have great chemistry and their bickering is a lot of fun to watch.

It’s not the most original movie, admittedly. There have been plenty of movies that pair a fast-talking criminal with an uptight do-gooder, like 3:10 To Yuma, 16 Blocks, and Reynolds’ own 2012 hit, Safe House. Still, it’s a formula that works. You feel some doubt about who to root for, since the criminal is more likable but is, you know, a criminal, while the do-gooder wants to do the right thing but also seems like he’s got a stick up his you-know-what.

Every character in the movie has a lot of baggage, and the movie might have benefited from being a bit more trimmed-down, but at least the conflicts are relatable. Michael blames Amelia for selling him out, while in reality she didn’t and resents him for blaming her for something she had nothing to do with. Michael blames everyone for his problems except for himself, and as the movie progresses and with Darius’ smartass assistance, he begins to realize that he needs to take responsibility for his own life, and that he’s still in love with Amelia. That might sound cliched, and I suppose it is, but at least it’s relatable.
And I can’t forget to mention Salma Hayek, who plays Darius’ wife Sonia. She’s as foul-mouthed as her husband, and is really damn funny. It’s too bad that she spends most of the movie confined to a prison cell, since she’s such a hoot that I wanted to see more of her.

Also underused is Gary Oldman, a brilliant actor who doesn’t seem to be trying very hard in this movie. In his defense, he doesn’t have much to work with. Dukhovich is barely in the movie, and he’s less of a character than a MacGuffin, something that serves to drive the plot forward. It’s a shame, because I’m a huge fan of Gary Oldman. It’s such a waste to get an actor of Oldman’s caliber to play the Russian bad guy, and then give him almost nothing to do. Oh, well. I’d rather have a movie with an underused Gary Oldman than a movie with no Gary Oldman at all. Seriously, it’s mind-blowing this guy has never won an Oscar.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard is not a perfect movie by any means. It’s tonally inconsistent and some of the characters are sadly underused, but it is still a lot of fun for fans of action and foul-mouthed comedy. It’s a but overlong, there was one point where I thought it was about to end and it kept going for quite a bit longer than I had expected, but once I adjusted my expectations I kept having fun.

And I have to give a shoutout to this hilarious poster, which spoofs the Whitney Houston/Kevin Costner movie The Bodyguard.

Image: Summit Entertainment

Love it.

The Dark Tower Beckons You

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

Thus begins Stephen King’s sci-fi/fantasy epic Dark Tower series. It’s such a great first sentence. It pulls you in and makes you wonder who these people are, and why one is chasing the other. It’s such an evocative sentence that King wrote eight books from it.

For a while, it looked like the man in black fled across the desert, and Hollywood followed. This is because a film adaptation of the Dark Tower saga has been in the works for years, with multiple directors and stars attached. The version that ended up being made was directed by Danish filmmaker Nikolaj Arcel, and stars Idris Elba as the gunslinger and Matthew McConaughey as the man in black.
I’ve only read two of the eight Dark Tower books, so I’m no expert, but I have a passing familiarity with the series. King loves to fill his books with references to his other books, and his multi-dimensional Dark Tower series encompasses pretty much all of them. Fittingly, the film is full of references to other Stephen King works. I caught references to The Shining, Misery, It, Christine, Cujo, The Shawshank Redemption, 1408, and Mr. Mercedes. There were probably some that I missed, too.

Image: Sony

The film has had a long road to cinemas. There was some controversy regarding the casting of Elba as the gunslinger, since Elba is black and in the books the character is white. But King himself has stated he doesn’t care if the character is portrayed as black or white, and Elba is a good enough actor that his casting never bothered me. Also, there was the announcement that the film would be a sequel of sorts to the books, which sounded…odd. But then, how else are you supposed to adapt eight richly-detailed books that span several thousand pages into a film? Some liberties have to be taken, although adapting such a complex and beloved book series is always a risky proposition.

And the results in this case are mixed. The film got terrible reviews and scored a modest box-office opening. It’s not a terrible movie, but it could have been a hell of a lot better.

The movie’s audience surrogate character is 11-year old Jake Chambers, who has been having vivid dreams about a man in black attempting to destroy a tower and bring about the end of the world, and a lone gunslinger who seeks to stop him. The world has been suffering from a string of severe earthquakes, and Jake can’t help feeling that the earthquakes and his dreams are somehow related.

Long story short: he’s right. I try to avoid spoilers for brand new films, so I won’t go into too much detail, but Jake ends up traveling through a portal into another world, where he meets Roland, the gunslinger he had seen in his dreams. From Roland, Jake learns about the Dark Tower, which stands at the center point of the universe. The man in black wants to destroy the tower, the destruction of which would allow monsters from other dimensions to invade and destroy us. Or…something like that.

The movie’s main problem is that it feels too conventional. The setting of the books is a dreamlike sci-fi/western that’s kind of like a cross between the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and the spaghetti westerns of Clint Eastwood. The world(s) of the film don’t feel nearly as unique. The book’s protagonist is an interdimensional cowboy/knight who wields revolvers forged from the steel of Excalibur. That’s probably the coolest sentence I’ve ever written, but the movie doesn’t live up to the coolness and weirdness of the books, instead feeling like a somewhat generic sci-fi thriller.

Image: Sony

That’s not entirely a bad thing, since the movie is entertaining enough, but it’s a shame that it doesn’t have more personality. There are some fun, exciting action sequences (Roland can do some badass things with those revolvers) but the plot feels rushed and the stakes don’t feel high enough. Part of this is due to the surprisingly brief 95-minute running time of the film. The advantage of the short running time is that there is no fat: everything in the movie has a point. The disadvantage is that the characters and conflicts aren’t given enough time to breathe. Roland and the man in black are supposed to be eternal enemies, but the movie gives all of one scene to establish their antagonism, so their enmity doesn’t register as strongly as it should.

But Elba and McConaughey are both very good. In my post about Atomic Blonde I talked about my theory of coolness, which is that coolness speaks for itself. Both Elba and McConaughey are perfect examples of that. They are cool as hell, and so are their characters in this film. Elba is a grumpy badass with a heart of gold, while McConaughey seems to relish playing an evil multidimensional sorcerer who kills people simply by telling them to stop breathing. How would it not be fun to play those characters? The young actor who plays Jake is named Tom Taylor, I believe making his big-screen debut. He’s very good, and there are some genuinely sweet and often funny interactions between Jake and Roland. There are also some funny fish-out-of-water moments when Jake brings Roland into our world, which reminded me of Gal Gadot and Chris Pine in Wonder Woman.

You’ll probably hear a lot about how this movie is terrible and it ruins the legacy of King’s books and it sucks and it’s the worst adaptation ever and so on and so forth. I think that kind of hyperbolic nonsense is a load of hogwash. The movie isn’t an abomination. It has entertaining sequences and performances, but the direction is lackluster and the truncated plot can’t help but feel rushed. Its biggest sin is that it takes the surreal, dreamlike quality of King’s novels and turns them into a run-of-the-mill sci-fi thriller. It’s an entertaining way to spend 95 minutes, but it doesn’t have much staying power. A prequel TV series in reportedly in the works, so we may not have seen the last of this series on the screen. Given the sprawling nature of the story, it seems like a better fit for TV anyway. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Coming up next is…well, I’m not sure. I was going to write about Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, but it’s not playing near me so I’m going to have to put that on hold. I’ve got some other ideas I’ve been kicking around, so I’ll probably go with one of those. Tune in next week to find out which one I picked.