SKYSCRAPER: Duct Tape Will Solve All Your Problems

I’m a big Dwayne Johnson fan, but I’ll be the first to admit that it’s difficult to separate the man himself from the roles he plays. When I see Dwayne in a movie, I usually think of him as Dwayne instead of the name of the character he’s playing. I read a review of Dwayne’s latest movie that said Dwayne may not be much of an actor, but he’s one hell of a movie star.

I agree completely. Dwayne’s latest effort, the aptly-named SKYSCRAPER, is deeply derivative and doesn’t have an original bone in its body. It’s Die Hard meets The Towering Inferno, and the debt Skyscraper owes to both pictures is so obvious that the movie’s marketing team released posters that directly reference those films.

Universal/20th Century Fox

Loving homage or blatant rip-off? A strong case could be made for either one.

Regardless of Skyscraper’s obvious lack of originality, I still found quite a bit to enjoy here. Dwayne plays Will Sawyer, a former member of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team who lost a leg in a hostage-rescue mission that went wrong and is now a security consultant. He’s been hired by a rich businessman named Zhao to assess security for Zhao’s massive new building the Pearl, located in Hong Kong. The Pearl is 220 stories tall and is the largest structure ever built. As you can probably imagine, this leads to a lot of potential security problems.

These problems come to the forefront when Will becomes involved in an elaborate scheme by some nefarious individuals, who set part of the building on fire. The residential upper levels of the Pearl are not yet open to the public, so wouldn’t you know it, the only civilians in the building when the bad guys enact their plan are Will’s wife and kids, who are trapped above the fire line and are therefore unable to leave the building. When all of this starts to happen, Will is not in the building, so his number-one priority is to find a way to get into the building to save his family.

Getting into the building is more difficult than it sounds, because Will can’t just take the elevator. The 96th floor is on fire and his family is on the 98th floor. Will has to find a way to enter the building above the 96th floor. The way he does this is thoroughly implausible if not outright impossible, as is everything else that happens in the movie. But, as is his way, Dwayne can make the viewer believe that he is the only person on the planet capable of doing the things his character does.

Most of the things his character does are ridiculous. Will has a prosthetic leg and the movie finds creative ways of using it. There’s even a fight scene where a guy knocks Will’s prosthetic off and one-legged Will still wins the fight. It reminded me of that old joke about the one-legged guy in the ass-kicking contest. If that one-legged guy were Dwayne Johnson, he would still win the ass-kicking contest hands down, regardless of how many limbs he may or may not have.

At one point, Will ties a rope around his waist and duct tapes his hands and feet to help him shimmy down the side of the Pearl, which is ludicrous but still fun, and something that I kind of admire for its sheer audacity. The Burj Khalifa sequence from Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is another obvious influence on Skyscraper, but hey, if you’re going to rip something off, at least rip off something good.

Universal

Adding to my enjoyment of the film was the fact that I liked Will’s family. His wife Sarah is played by Neve Campbell, best known for 90’s hits like Wild Things and the Scream franchise. Sarah is tough, smart, and resourceful, and since she’s also a veteran combat surgeon she can hold her own in a fight, and even helps save the day at a crucial moment. I don’t know the names of the actors who play Will’s kids Henry and Georgia but I liked both of them. They’re not irritatingly screechy like kids in movies tend to be and are both cute and likable. The family members who need to be saved are often stock characters in these kinds of movies, but I appreciated that Skyscraper at least tries to give them some personality.

There’s one more thing I want to talk about but be aware that this will contain spoilers. In an odd coincidence, I read the classic Sherlock Holmes story A Scandal in Bohemia the day before I saw Skyscraper, and the villain’s plot in Skyscraper is identical to something Sherlock Holmes does in that wonderful Conan Doyle story.

In the story, Irene Adler has a photograph that would be very damaging to the King of Bohemia were it to see the light of day. The King is desperate to retrieve it but doesn’t know where she’s hiding it and comes to Holmes for help. Holmes engineers a situation where he leads Irene to believe her house is on fire, and he watches as she goes straight to the thing she values most: the precious photograph. Holmes knows that in the event of an emergency a person will seek out the one thing that is most valuable to them and uses this knowledge to get Irene to unwittingly expose the photograph’s hiding place.

The villain in Skyscraper does the exact same thing. He sets the Pearl on fire knowing that Zhao, who has dirt on him that’s kept on a futuristic-looking hard drive, will go straight to the hard drive’s hiding place. It’s a clever motivation for a villain in a modern big-budget action movie, and one I might not have recognized had I not read A Scandal in Bohemia the day before I saw the movie. Holmes truly is timeless.

I liked this movie. It’s fun. There are a lot of fun, explosive action scenes and nonstop suspense, and I was never bored while watching it. It has the good sense to be less than two hours long and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Will Sawyer is no John McClane but he’s a likable fellow and I enjoyed spending time with him and was engaged in his quest to save his family. The two things that people seem to have an issue with about this film are its derivativeness and its implausibility. I don’t deny that these are present, but neither of them bothered me. I went into the theater expecting to be entertained, and I was. I left the theater satisfied. What’s not to like about that?

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RAMPAGE is Exactly What You Think it is

RAMPAGE is a deeply silly movie, and I enjoyed it immensely.

The movie is based on a series of arcade games that started in the 80’s. I never played any of them but from what I can tell they’re mostly plotless, and are simply concerned with letting the player control giant monsters and wreck lots of stuff.

This is totally fine, but presents problems for an adaptation, because there is no plot. The movie invents a plot that is profoundly silly and wildly implausible, and makes for a movie that is absolute tons of fun. I had a blast with RAMPAGE, despite its many obvious flaws. This is one of those movies where I was having so much fun that the movie’s problems didn’t bother me at all.

Images: Warner Bros.

Here’s my attempt to explain the ludicrous plot. The movie invents an evil corporation called Energyne which is run by two complete dipshits who are conducting some kind of genetic research that is so dangerous it has to be carried out in a space station. This inevitably goes horribly wrong (“The test subjects have gotten loose!” is one of the first lines of the movie) and canisters of dangerous experimental goo end up falling to earth. This is a movie where plot devices LITERALLY FALL FROM THE SKY. And wouldn’t you know it, various wild animals find those canisters and begin to transform into giant mutant creatures. This leads to the titular RAMPAGE, and yes, I will be capitalizing the word RAMPAGE every time I write it, so you might as well get used to it.

One of the animals exposed to what I will call the Genetic Goo of Doom is an albino gorilla in the San Diego zoo named George, who is best friends with Davis Okoye, played by none other than DWAYNE “THE ROCK” JOHNSON, one of my favorite actors. I freaking love the guy. He’s got charisma for days.

His character Davis is a former special forces soldier turned primatologist, which is a resume that I’m pretty sure no actual human being has ever had. The man is a true pioneer. He rescued George from poachers when he (George) was a cute l’il baby gorilla, and the two are best friends. They communicate using sign language, and some of George’s language is a bit, shall we say, colorful. By which I mean that he is rather fond of flipping the bird. As with every animal specialist in every movie ever, Davis gets along with animals better than he does with humans.

So when Davis gets to work one day and discovers that George has grown several feet and killed one of the zoo’s grizzly bears, something is obviously awry. Meanwhile, a wolf elsewhere in the United States has discovered one of the canisters of the Genetic Goo of Doom, and promptly slaughters an Energyne security team sent to bring him in. There’s also an alligator in the Florida Everglades who gets exposed to the Genetic Goo of Doom, although the movie keeps this particular creature mostly offscreen until later in the film.

Soon, George breaks out of the zoo and is apprehended by shady government agents, among them an agent named Russell, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan from The Walking Dead, who says things like “Assholes like us gotta stick together” with a Southern accent. He’s pretty great, because he’s initially positioned as an antagonist but ends up having more to do than being a generic government bad guy, and gets several funny moments.

There’s also a disgraced geneticist who used to work for Energyne, and whose research is largely responsible for creating the monsters. She’s played by Naomie Harris, a very talented actress whose talents are largely wasted in the movie. She does her best but there’s not much to her character. One thing I noticed is that she always has utterly flawless hair. Even right after she wakes up in the morning, hell, before she’s even had time to put pants on, her hair is absolutely gorgeous. That must be some kind of superpower.

Then there are the two evil corporate dipshits I alluded to earlier. They’re siblings whose names escape me. One of them, and the only one who has any brains, is played by Malin Akerman, an actress perhaps best known for playing Silk Spectre in Watchmen (a movie which Jeffrey Dean Morgan also starred in). The other is some idiot played by some guy, whose incompetence and stupidity are mainly used as sources of comic relief. They’re both soulless and shallow characters, whose only concern is money.

They activate some kind of beacon designed to lure the monsters to their corporate headquarters in Chicago so that they can capture them and, uh, make money off them somehow. The movie isn’t super clear on this, nor is it clear why they think that luring three giant unpredictable creatures to their corporate headquarters in the middle of one of the most highly-populated cities in America is a good idea. Clearly, critical thinking is not something these two are particularly good at. They also have actual RAMPAGE arcade machines in the middle of their office, which is something I’m sure that rich CEOs do all the time.

I talk a lot in my movie reviews about tone and the tone of RAMPAGE is all over the place. There is a tremendous amount of violence for a theoretically family-friendly movie, much of which is played for laughs. People are squashed, trampled, blown up, swallowed whole, and chucked off buildings. I admit I did find some of this funny, which is probably due to my own rather warped sense of humor, but parents with small kids might want to think twice before taking their kids to see this one.

The movie was directed by Brad Peyton, who previously worked with Dwayne Johnson in the movies San Andreas and Journey 2 The Mysterious Island. Peyton does a good job with the destruction scenes and the special effects are quite good, and it’s a lot of fun to watch the trio of monsters climb buildings and create mayhem, even if the considerable amount of collateral damage is glossed over. The entire movie is so insane and over-the-top that I couldn’t help but find myself swept away in its tidal wave of monsters and mayhem, anchored by a characteristically charismatic performance from my good pal Dwayne Johnson. He’s such a badass that getting shot partway through the movie doesn’t seem to bother him at all.

I’m not going to lie, RAMPAGE is a very dumb movie. It is also a very enjoyable movie. It’s surprisingly violent for a PG-13 rated blockbuster, and can even come off as a bit mean-spirited at times. But I had a ton of fun watching it and would happily watch a sequel.

Also, the wolf flies. Because of course it does.

Next week is going to be good, with the return of HBO’s Westworld on Sunday and Avengers: Infinity War on Friday. Expect posts about both of them very soon.

Tomb Raider 2018 is the Best VIdeo Game Movie Ever Made

The title of this post makes what might seem like a bold claim, but let’s be honest: the standards aren’t very high.

Even video game-based movies that I enjoy like the Resident Evil movies and the Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider movies aren’t what I would call good movies. They’re mindless fun and I enjoy them for what I feel is their considerable entertainment value, but they’re all just as stupid as hell.

2018’s Tomb Raider is more of a gritty reboot in the vein of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy or the Daniel Craig Bond films. The new movie takes most of its cues from the 2013 Tomb Raider game, which itself was a gritty reboot of Lara Croft, a dark and violent tale that was one of my favorite games of that year. Its sequel, 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider, was arguably even better, and the new film combines story elements from both games. So if the names Yamatai, Himiko, and Trinity mean anything to you, then you probably have a good idea of what the movie’s plot will entail.

Images: Warner Bros./Square Enix

Lara is played this time around by Alicia Vikander, an Oscar-winning Swedish actress. We first meet Lara as she’s getting her butt kicked in an MMA match, which gives the viewer a good look at Vikander’s amazing abs. She got in incredible shape for the movie, and she gets plenty of opportunities to show off her toned physique. I hope I don’t sound like a pig for saying this, but sex appeal has always been a big part of the appeal of Tomb Raider, and Vikander is very sexy.

She’s also a damn good actress and gives a performance that gives Lara a lot of empathy and personality. In the games, she’s not just a sex symbol anymore, and this applies to the movie as well. At the beginning of the film, she’s making a meager living in London as a bike courier. She’s the heir to a large corporation, but she refuses to accept her inheritance because that would require her to declare her father legally dead, which she is not prepared to do. Her father disappeared years ago and she is determined to find out what happened to him, which is her main motivation throughout the film.

Her search lead her to discover her father’s hidden research into Himiko, a mythical Japanese queen who was said to have power over life and death. She finds a recording left by her father in which he instructs her to destroy his research, but of course she doesn’t, and follows his trail to Hong Kong. There she meets Lu Ren, a ship captain she convinces to take her to an island she believes to be the island her father was searching for. They are promptly shipwrecked and wind up in the clutches of Mathias Vogel, the leader of an expedition on the island to unearth Himiko’s tomb. It turns out Mathias knew Lara’s father, and his research was the final piece of the puzzle required to locate Himiko.

Lara has just brought him exactly what he needed. Remember in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, where Indy’s dad gets mad at him for bringing the Grail diary with him when the Nazis capture them? It’s like that. Tomb Raider may not be the most original movie. It’s a bit derivative, and much of the film’s final act is very reminiscent of the Last Crusade’s final act, where the bad guys force Indy to go on ahead and solve the puzzles leading to the Grail. Pretty much the exact same thing happens in Tomb Raider. But hey, if you’re going to steal from another movie, at least steal from a good movie.

I liked this new Tomb Raider quite a bit. The acting is solid, with Alicia Vikander making Lara into a likable and vulnerable character who is also a force to be reckoned with in the action scenes. Tomb Raider is one of the most visually faithful video game adaptations. Vikander looks almost exactly like the Lara of the recent games, and the clothes she wears and the weapons she uses (like the bow and the climbing axe) look like they came directly from the games.

Several of the action set pieces come directly from the games as well, like when Lara finds herself in a rusted-out old airplane dangling precariously over the edge of a waterfall. There is plenty of fan service for fans of the games such as myself, and the film’s ending shows Lara with her hair in its trademark braid and acquiring her famous dual pistols, as well as setting itself up for a sequel. Vikander wouldn’t have been my first choice for the role of Lara but she nails it, and if there are any sequels she’s the right woman for the job.

The rest of supporting cast is also good. The villainous Mathias is played by Walton Goggins (I love that name) who is good at playing slimy sleazeballs. Lara’s father Lord Richard Croft is played by Dominic West (I love that name too), an actor with a voice I could listen to all day. Lu Ren the ship captain is played by Daniel Wu, from the badass AMC TV series Into the Badlands, which is a show loaded with top-notch kung fu action.

It is, of course, not a perfect movie. The first act is a bit sluggish, since it takes about 45 minutes for Lara to reach the island, and the pacing lags a bit in the early going. There are some underused characters too. Lu Ren seems like a cool guy and Daniel Wu is a good actor but once when they reach the island he doesn’t get much to do, and Kristin Scott Thomas is a very capable actress who is barely in the movie, which is too bad. But there are a couple of fun cameos from Nick Frost and Sir Derek Jacobi of all people, which helps make up for it.

The movie was directed by a Norwegian director named Roar Uthaug (another great name) who does good work with the material. It’s not perfect and has gotten a mixed critical reception, but I feel it’s a genuinely good movie despite its flaws and I had a lot of fun with it. If you’re a fan of the games you’ll find a lot to like here and will appreciate the various callbacks to the games, but even if you’ve never picked up a controller you’ll still find a fun adventure movie, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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.

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 Fate of the Furious is a Fun Movie with Problematic Writing

The Fast and Furious series has overcome humble beginnings to somehow become one of the biggest blockbuster movie franchises in recent memory. The eighth and most recent installment, The Fate of the Furious, was released in April and grossed a staggering $1.2 billion, which puts it at the number 2 spot on the list of the highest-grossing films of 2017 so far (only Beauty and the Beast has made more).

I saw the movie when it came out but I was in a bit of a funk at the time and never got around to writing about it. But since the movie just came out on Blu-Ray I thought it would be a good time to share some thoughts about it. Besides, given the fact that it made such an immense amount of money, most people who wanted to see it probably already have, so I figure the statute of limitations on spoilers has expired. This is my way of saying that the rest of this post will be chock-full of spoilers. You have been warned.

I like The Fate of the Furious. It’s a fun movie that delivers exactly what the fans of the series expect: nonstop over-the-top vehicular action and an emphasis on family and teamwork among the protagonists. So I can’t fault it too much for delivering on its promises. However…I do have some issues with the storytelling.

I might sound like a prude for saying that. After all, no one, myself included, goes into a Fast and Furious movie expecting Shakespeare. But while it is entirely possible to forget the storytelling issues and enjoy the movie for the solid piece of entertainment that it is, there are some glaring flaws with the writing that are hard to ignore.

Image: Universal

The movie’s trailers intentionally caused a bit of a stir by making it look like Dominic “Dom” Toretto, the unkillable protagonist played by Vin Diesel, had turned on his team and become the villain. He does work against his team for a good part of the movie, but he never goes full-evil. That’s okay, because he’s the main character of the series and the filmmakers would never kill him off or make him permanently evil, so clearly the film’s true villain, the dreadlocked super hacker Cipher (played by Charlize Theron) was manipulating him somehow.

Let’s backtrack a bit. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, Dom’s girlfriend and now wife Letty (played by Michelle Rodriguez) was presumed dead for a while, and during that time Dom shacked up with a Brazilian cop named Elena. It turns out that this relationship resulted in a child whom Dom was never aware of, and Cipher now has Elena and Dom’s baby son held hostage. This is the leverage she uses against him to make him do her bidding, which includes stealing an EMP device and a Russian nuclear football.

It’s a pretty decent twist, and since the series emphasizes family so much, it makes a degree of sense that Dom would risk so much and work against his team in order to save his son. I’m okay with that part, but it starts to get messy.

The movie re-introduces Deckard Shaw (played by Jason Statham), the villain of the previous film, 2015’s Furious 7. Deckard was one of my favorite villains of 2015, an unstoppable ass-kicking force of nature. The grudge match between Deckard and Dom felt like it had real dramatic stakes, but The Fate of the Furious retroactively undermines it.

Deckard reluctantly joins the team to help them catch Dom and Cipher, and this leads to some fun macho rivalry between Deckard and Dwayne Johnson’s character, the equally-unstoppable badass Luke Hobbs. But then the movie starts to try to make Deckard look like not such a bad guy, by revealing that he had won medals for valor while serving as a member of British special forces. He even starts to bond a little with Hobbs, and Hobbs appears genuinely upset when they hear Deckard has been killed by Dom.

But before this happens, Deckard explains that Cipher was the mastermind behind the team’s most recent adventures, hiring Deckard’s brother Owen (the villain of Fast and Furious 6) and other villainous characters in Furious 7. Remember in Spectre, when it was revealed that Christoph Waltz’s Blofeld was the mastermind behind the villains of the previous Daniel Craig Bond movies? I thought that approach worked well enough in that film, but in The Fate of the Furious it feels…rushed.

It turns out that Deckard is not actually dead, and that he and Dom (somehow) faked his death. And then, during the movie’s climax, Deckard and Owen (who got kicked out of a plane during the climax of Fast and Furious 6 and was last seen catatonic at the beginning of Furious 7, kicking off Deckard’s plans for revenge against Dom) infiltrate Cipher’s mobile command center to rescue Dom’s son.

If all of this sounds convoluted, that’s because it is. The movie ends as these movies usually do, with Dom and his team (which now includes Deckard) sitting down to dinner.

I have so many problems with this.
Image: Universal

First of all, this series has a tendency to take antagonists from previous movies and turn them into allies. Let us not forget that Dwayne Johnson’s character Hobbs started out hunting Dom and his team back in Fast Five. I’m fine with Hobbs joining the team, because who doesn’t want more Dwayne Johnson in their movies? Hell, I want Dwayne in every movie.

But it’s so much harder to accept Deckard (and potentially Owen) joining the team as well. Hobbs was never portrayed as a bad guy in Fast Five. Dom’s a criminal, Hobbs is a cop, his job was to catch Dom and by God that was what he was going to do. Hobbs was a guy doing his job, and even though his job was to catch Dom and his friends, Hobbs was never evil, and he became sympathetic towards Dom once he realized that there were far worse criminals around.

That makes sense as a character arc, but with Deckard is just doesn’t work. Furious 7 spent the entire movie establishing Dom and Deckard as the most bitter of enemies. Dom kicked Deckard’s brother Owen out of a plane, in return, Deckard killed one of Dom’s team members. But The Fate of the Furious undermines this by showing that Owen is apparently fine now, aside from some facial scarring he seems A-Okay despite having been kicked out of a plane that was going at several hundred miles an hour. Deckard’s grudge against Dom is therefore nullified, but Deckard still killed one of Dom’s team members. Dom seems willing to forget about this, and since the movie makes no mention of Dom’s friend that was killed by Deckard, I’m guessing the filmmakers wished the audience would forget about it too.

This also undermines the conflicts in Fast and Furious 6 and Furious 7. It makes it seem like Owen and Deckard were not that bad after all, despite both movies working hard to set them up as Really Bad Dudes. I mean heck, even if Owen was hired by Cipher to steal whatever the hell it was he was trying to steal in the sixth movie, he still drove a tank on a highway and annihilated several carloads of innocent people. Even if Owen and Deckard had been manipulated by Cipher to some extent, that doesn’t exonerate them of their past misdeeds.

You might argue that in a movie full of over-the-top action and people surviving things no actual human ever could survive, the storytelling issues aren’t that big of a deal, but for me, it’s the other way around. The Fast and Furious movies have always been about crazy action and stunts. Sure, some of it may be impossible, but after eight movies of death-defying mayhem, I can accept it. The plot contrivances, however, are much harder to swallow.

It also doesn’t help that it’s inelegantly done. Much of the final half-hour or so of The Fate of The Furious is composed of non-stop action, and for the most part it’s great fun. As much as I don’t like the whole “let’s make Dom and Deckard be friends now” angle, it is always a lot of fun to watch Statham kick ass, which he’s very good at. The scene where he battles Cipher’s henchmen with a gun in one hand and Dom’s son in a baby carrier in the other hand is one of the highlights of the movie (and also owes a clear debt to John Woo’s masterpiece Hardboiled).

But before this happens, the movie cuts back to show the audience how it transpired that Deckard was not killed earlier and how his mother (played by an uncredited and of course fabulous Helen Mirren) hatched a plan with Dom. I hate it when movies go away from exciting action scenes to show us people talking. It kills the momentum of the movie. I understand why the film is structured this way (so that the appearance of Deckard and Owen comes as a surprise) but for crying out loud, there’s got to be a better way of doing it than cutting away from the frenetic action scenes that are this series’ bread and butter. It interrupts the pacing and always feels like the filmmakers patting themselves on the back for being so clever, but to me this sort of thing always feels contrived.

My other main issue with the movie is Tyrese Gibson. I HATE Tyrese Gibson. The guy is an absolutely terrible actor and his character Roman is an irritating, obnoxious, loudmouthed asshole who does his best to ruin every scene he’s in. What’s worse, every director of every Fast and Furious movie seems to think that he’s hilarious and gives him way too much screen time for his incessantly smug mugging (smugging?). I REALLY wanted him to die during the movie’s climax, although I was sure it wouldn’t happen and sure enough, it didn’t. GAH. I HATE HIM.

Anyway, Tyrese Gibson rant over. Despite its profoundly flawed and somewhat lazy storytelling, The Fate of the Furious is still a fun movie. Even though I spent most of this post dissecting its many problems, I don’t want people to think that I hate it. I don’t. It’s a fun movie that delivers what fans want, and I can watch it and enjoy it as long as I don’t think too much about it. Maybe I’m my own worst enemy here and I need to stop thinking so much (DAMN YOU CLASSICAL EDUCATION) but I can still enjoy the movie as a fun piece of popcorn entertainment, even if it ultimately fails in its aspirations to be much more than that.

Thanks for checking out this spoiler-filled discussion of The Fate of the Furious. I hope it didn’t seem like a rant, except for the part about Tyrese Gibson. That part was definitely a rant. Next up is Christopher Nolan’s epic-looking war movie Dunkirk, which I’m very excited about. Tune in next Wednesday for a review.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – Ghost Pirates and Zombie Sharks

Disney captured lightning in a bottle in 2003 with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. The movie defied all expectations for a movie based on a theme park ride and was a hit with critics and audiences alike. It made a ton of money and even earned Johnny Depp an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Now, fourteen years later, we are on the fifth installment of the franchise that started out so well but quickly succumbed to blockbuster bloat.

I don’t think the Pirates sequels are as bad as their reputation suggests. They’re deeply flawed and none of them quite managed to recapture the magic of the first movie, but there are things I like about them. My least favorite is the fourth film, On Stranger Tides, which suffered from lackadaisical pacing, an inconsequential plot, and what I felt was a lack of exciting action. Fortunately, the new movie, Dead Men Tell No Tales, is livelier than its immediate predecessor, although unsurprisingly it still has its share of flaws. It does have the good sense to be shorter than the previous films, and at just over two hours it is the shortest film in the entire series, so at least it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Image: Disney

Let’s talk about Johnny Depp for a second. His portrayal of Jack Sparrow in the first movie was instantly iconic, and for all the issues the subsequent films had, Depp’s performance was not one of them. But in this movie, it feels less like Depp playing Jack Sparrow than Depp playing a guy playing Jack Sparrow. He’s become a caricature of himself. Remember Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder saying “I’m a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude”? It’s kind of like that. Depp had a way of purring his lines in the earlier films, and made the viewer think that he was always thinking several steps ahead, despite also appearing constantly inebriated. But in the latest film, he squeaks every line and is mostly a cartoonish buffoon. It’s hard to take him seriously as a protagonist anymore.

But on the plus side, I loved the villains in this movie. Javier Bardem, always an excellent choice to play a villain, plays Capitan Salazar, the spectral captain of a ship full of ghost pirates. The ghost pirates are extremely cool, and some of them are even missing body parts. These ghostly villains were the highlight of the movie for me, and Bardem in particular is fantastic. It’s not too surprising that Bardem steals the movie, since he neatly ran away with Skyfall and No Country For Old Men as well. Capitan Salazar is incredibly menacing, and his hair and parts of his costume appear to float around him, as if he were constantly underwater. He has history with Captain Jack and a deep hatred of all pirates, and doesn’t hesitate to kill whoever and whenever he wants. He and his crew can walk on water and unleash ZOMBIE SHARKS, which is a new one for this franchise.

Image: Disney

The rest of the plot revolves around a quest for the Trident of Poseidon, and if you rolled your eyes at that, I don’t blame you. In addition to Captain Jack and the Ghost Pirates (which would be a good name for a rock band), there are a few new characters in the mix. One is a young man named Henry, played by Brenton Thwaites, and saying his character’s last name would give away a major plot point, but he’s got his own reasons for wanting to find the Trident, which has the power to end all sea-related curses and gives its wielder power over the sea itself. There’s also a young woman named Carina Smyth, played by Kaya Scodelario, a woman of science whom everyone thinks is a witch because she’s so smart.

The new characters are a bit bland, the actors’ performances are fine but there’s nothing really special about them. But it’s always fun to see Geoffrey Rush as Hector Barbossa, the once-undead, once-actually-dead, once-evil, now-good former captain of the Black Pearl. Times have been good for Barbossa, he commands a fleet of ships and his flagship is adorned with golden skulls. His long, curly hair makes him look quite a bit like the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz, but Rush looks like he’s having the most fun out of anyone in the movie.

There is no shortage of creative action in the movie, which made me happy since the previous film, On Stranger Tides, didn’t have as much action as I would have liked, and what action it did have was played mostly for laughs. This movie is more engaging and moves more smoothly than the third and fourth movies, despite Depp’s bizarre performance and the somewhat cliched plot. It also fixes one of the biggest issues I had with the resolution of the third movie, At World’s End, although to say more would spoil it. But I am glad that the filmmakers resolved this plot point, since it always bothered me.

Dead Men Tell No Tales has its share of issues, but there’s fun to be had, and Captain Jack still has some tipsy adventures left in him. There’s a post-credits stinger that teases the possible return of a villain from the previous movies, so if this one makes enough money maybe we’ll be seeing him again, even though that wouldn’t make any sense from a plot standpoint. But it wouldn’t be the first time the series has brought previously-dead villains back to life, so who knows. In the meantime, I like to think the zombie sharks are still out there…

Image: Disney