Movie Review: The Gunman (2015)

August 19, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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It seems every old geezer in Hollywood is turning into an action hero these days. The latest star to follow the Taken path trailblazed by Liam Neeson is Sean Penn, who is no spring chicken at 54 years of age.

Being that it is Sean Penn, there is of course a political slant to it. The plot, therefore, revolves around US mining interests and peacekeeping efforts in the Congo. Penn plays Martin Terrier, a government operative who does something unspeakable for his country and is then forced to disappear. Eight years later, Terrier’s past catches up to him, and a lot of ass-kicking is required for him to make it out alive.

What separates The Gunman from all the Taken wannabes in recent years is that it’s actually directed by the guy who brought us Taken, Pierre Morel. It’s a blessing and a curse because we know what Morel’s capable of but it also sets expectations very high.

The Gunman was almost universally panned by critics, receiving only 17% on Rotten Tomatoes and 39% on Metacritic. Many of the criticisms are valid. The plot, while interesting on its face, is not exactly well developed and fails to make the most of what should have been an intriguing opportunity. There is a fairly lame and unconvincing love triangle between Penn’s character and one played by Jasmine Trinca, an Italian actress two decades younger than him, as well as Javier Bardem’s cookie-cutter jealous a-hole. It also has its fair share of action cliches and is far too long for a movie of this kind at nearly 2 hours.

But you know what? I actually didn’t mind it. Penn is convincing as a man with a very particular set of skills, and he clearly put a lot of effort into transforming his physique just so he could show it off for a couple of seconds. His on-screen presence, physicality and acting chops make him a formidable action hero, badass but also with the right amount of resourcefulness and vulnerability.

The action sequences are Taken-esque, meaning they are done really well — brutal, bone-crunching, visceral, and often heart-pounding. There may be too many boring drama moments, but when the action is on it’s really on.

I’m not proclaiming The Gunman to be a superior action thriller; it’s just that I think it is much more serviceable than it has been made out to be. Sure, it’s not Taken, but it’s arguably better than many of the wannabes.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

August 15, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I was somewhat ambivalent about seeing The Man From UNCLE, the new Guy Ritchie spy flick based on the 1960s TV series of the same name.

Sure, there were exciting names attached — Henry Cavill (Superman), Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger/Winklevii), Hugh Grant and Alicia Vikander (no doubt the “it” girl in Hollywood right now) — but it just felt like this would be one of those films that would slip under the summer blockbuster radar. Promotional efforts haven’t felt particularly aggressive, hype has been virtually non-existent, and reviews have been generally positive albeit unspectacular.

But I did what I do, and that’s to watch as many movies as I can. With neutral expectations going in, I can report that The Man from UNCLE is a nice change of pace from the typical excesses of big action films in recent times. It’s more style than substance, but there sure is a lot of style, and it’s laid back attitude renders it a relatively relaxing popcorn experience. If you feel the need to unwind, this is the film for you.

The story is quite straightforward: Cavill plays an American superspy and Hammer plays the ace of the KGB. At the height of the Cold War, the two are forced to team up to bring down international terrorists led by Australia’s own Elizabeth Debicki, who may be building a nuclear bomb. The key to their mission is a young wan who must be the most beautiful, glamorous East German mechanic in history (Vikander), whose father is believed to be working on the bomb.

And so begins a fun-filled ride with three attractive people who are thrown together against their wills but have to find a way to make it work and complete their mission. From a big picture perspective it’s not hard to see where it is heading. The two spies start off as despised rivals programmed who want each other dead (it is the Cold War, after all) and there is plenty of mistrust threatening to tear the mission apart, but eventually they put differences aside and combine their impressive talents, Avengers-style, to kick some terrorist ass.

However, it feels like Ritchie is well aware that you already know about this cliche, so instead of trying to deviate from this path, he embraces it by making the journey as good-looking, stylish and fun as possible, and importantly, not taking things too seriously.

Consequently, the film gives off a very relaxed, cheeky sort of vibe, not dissimilar to the Oceans Eleven franchise, where it feels like the characters are always in perfect control of the situation and rarely get their feathers ruffled no matter how tense things are supposed to be. There’s pros and cons to this type of experience. On the one hand it’s fun and you are repeatedly impressed by how cool and suave the heroes are, but on the other there is rarely any genuine tension because there’s never a sense of mortal danger.

I’d just had a long week at work and recently watched the terrifyingly tense Austrian horror flick Goodnight Mommy, so I didn’t really mind just sitting back and enjoying the show as a relaxing popcorn adventure that won’t raise the pulse too much.

In line with laid-back tone, the film makes good use of light humour and sharp dialogue, most of which is witty banter between Cavill and Hammer (they even sound like a comedy duo) as they try to one-up each other in abilities as well as gadgets to prove the superiority of their country. Some of it is inherently hilarious because technology considered cutting edge in those days is of course unfathomably archaic now. At the same time, it’s refreshing to see an era not dominated by technology, such as the opening scene where Cavill had to navigate the streets of Berlin with an old-fashioned map (!).

I get the feeling that the film is targeted more towards older audiences. For starters, young people are likely to never heard of the TV show on which the film is based and most of them won’t even understand just how tense the Cold War era was. There’s plenty of vintage fashion and vintage cars, and a throwback sensibility I suspect people used to modernized non-stop action can fully appreciate.

Speaking of the action, it’s decent even by modern standards. It is again more style than substance and obviously nowhere near as relentless as say Mission: Impossible 5 or Fast & Furious 7, though it was never meant to compete with those films. As with everything about it, this film that takes things at its own leisurely pace, and proudly so. Tonally, there are uneven moments that struggle to keep away from the farcical, though for the most part the film stays true to Ritchie’s vision.

In any case, The Man from UNCLE can always lay claim to having the best-dressed cast of the year. The performances of the star trio are also fantastic — Vikander in particular is smooooooooking — and they genuinely appear to be enjoying themselves, resulting in great chemistry that fuels the movie with a jovial atmosphere. I find it amusing that they got a Brit to play an American, an American to play a Russian, and a Swede to play a German. Only Hugh Grant gets to play his true nationality.

I think, or at least I hope, there is a place for films like The Man from UNCLE in today’s cinematic landscape. While it won’t blow anyone away, there is an elegance and sophistication I find charming about it. Considering how badly it could have gone, I feel the adaptation ended up about as well as it could have gone. I’m excited to see how they will take it to the next level in the sequel.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

July 30, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

rogue nation

We all know he is crazy. But when it comes to making crazy action blockbusters, there’s no superstar in the world equipped with more charisma and intensity to do the job than Mr Tom Cruise.

Despite having hit the big Five-O since Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, the surprising smash hit that turned out to be the best in the franchise yet, Cruise returns in fine form for Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the first film financed by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. It’s a slick, wild, fun and funny experience, a fantastic popcorn movie that appears to have taken a page out of the Fast & Furious franchise by building on the success and familiarity of the predecessor with even crazier action stunts you’ve never seen before.

Cruise returns as IMF agent Ethan Hunt, who finds himself going head-to-head with his most formidable nemesis yet, Solomon Lane, the head of the mysterious Syndicate terrorist group, played by Sean Harris (who looks like Mason Verger from Hannibal even though he has no facial injuries). Returning are his comedy relief sidekick Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), last entry’s William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and good old Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames). New to the cast are Alec Baldwin, head of the CIA, and Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson (who earned a Golden Globe nomination for The White Queen in 2013), in my opinion a true superstar in the making.

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who previously collaborated with Cruise on the underrated Jack Reacher and was also a writer on the excellent Edge of TomorrowMI5 kicks off with a spectacular opening sequence that is basically declaring to its audience that they are in for a treat. And from there, the film takes us on a heart-thumping ride around the world, filled with cool gadgets, technology you never knew existed, fast cars and loads of stunts to push action — and credulity — to the edge.

Not everything makes perfect sense and people never seem to get hurt — or even scratched — despite the most brutal of crashes, falls and collisions, but as is the case with the last few Fast & Furious flicks, MI5 embraces its insanity and outrageousness to the fullest, and in doing so becomes a form of surreal enjoyment that few films of the genre can match.

There are admittedly some pacing issues as there are times when the film slows down too much for my liking, though the set action pieces — in particular one involving an underwater sequence and another involving a motorcycle chase — are absolutely fantastic and rank right up there as the best of the franchise.

Tom Cruise, say what you will about him, can still get it done as Ethan Hunt. It’s no different to the type of intense performance we’ve seen countless times, and despite turning 53 this month, Cruises hasn’t lost a step. Equalling his impressiveness is Rebecca Ferguson, who isn’t necessarily a knockout beauty but is shockingly convincing as Ilsa Faust, a British agent/terrorist. The 31-year-old actress exudes an air of confidence and vulnerability that makes Faust a fascinating character you’re not sure if you can trust, and manages to keep all the difficult action scenes authentic because she makes you believe she is capable of possessing those skills.

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Tom Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson

Simon Pegg gets a very meaty role this time, both in terms of screen time and humour, though sadly neither Jeremy Renner nor Ving Rhames get to show much of what they can do as they are largely confined to operational logistics. Alec Baldwin, on the other hand, is a welcome addition who makes CIA chief Alan Huntley a much more interesting character than he otherwise would have been.

Full credit too to Alibaba, basically China’s version of eBay, for keeping MI5 essentially free of “Chinese characteristics.” In recent years, most high-profile films involving Chinese investment always force in some cheesy Chinese elements or actors, but in this film you almost forget that. They don’t go to China, there’s no mention of China, and the only Chinese actress in it — played by Zhang Jinchu, basically a less famous Zhang Zhiyi — has a tiny role that you barely even notice.

I do have a bit of a complaint about some of the close-range combat sequences because the use of quick cuts get a little too liberal to be coherent at times, but apart from that Rogue Nation is an exceptional action film I had a blast with. It’s not quite on the level of Ghost Protocol, a surprising revelation no one expected to be that good, though that could also be because expectations this time around are might higher. Nonetheless, it’s easily the second best entry in the MI franchise and I hope they keep making more as long as they are this awesome.

4 stars out of 5

PS: Yes, they apparently do plan to make a sixth film.

Movie Review: Spy (2015)

July 10, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I won’t lie. I initially had zero interest in Spy, the new comedy directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat) and starring his favourite collaborator Melissa McCarthy. The poster just made it look generic and lame, and I always thought Feig’s earlier films were overrated.

Just shows we shouldn’t judge a movie by its poster or preconceived notions based on the past. Because Spy is really funny. Hilarious stuff. Laugh-out-loud gags with a progressive slant. In my opinion it’s easily the best film either Feig or McCarthy have been involved in.

It doesn’t have a mindblowing plot — McCarthy plays a former teacher-turned-CIA-agent who acts as the eyes and ears of the agency’s top spy, played by Jude Law. She’s meek and awkward and disappointed with how her career change has turned out.

Naturally, an opportunity arises in which she is thrust into dangerous undercover field work, and this brings out the hidden beast in her as she tries to track down a lethal nuclear weapon.

All the kudos in the world for having McCarthy as the undisputed female lead and a kickass spy, an absolute rarity in sexist, beauty- and weight-obsessed Hollywood, but none of that would have mattered if Spy turned out to be a stinker.

Fortunately, Spy smashes the six-laugh quota for a decent comedy with ease thanks to a variety of factors. First and foremost, McCarthy, who gets the opportunity to show her range by playing essentially two personalities — the meek, and the snarky one we’re used to seeing from Bridesmaids and The Heat. 

In the former, she’s funny in the hesitant, awkward manner she’s very capable of pulling off. However, she’s at her ripping best in the latter, firing off quick-witted, sharp, acidic one-liners and well-placed profanity to elicit the chuckles. I always found this crude version of McCarthy funny, but too much of it felt grating and exhausting. Feig’s decision to give us half a film of it ended up being perfect; just the right amount of familiar McCarthy.

Rose Byrne, who seems to be in absolutely everything these days, once again displays her  ample comedic chops as the stuck-up villain with the posh accent. She’s not afraid to make fun of herself and go head-to-head wih McCarthy in the profanity stakes; I believe this could be as funny as she has ever been.

Jude Law, who has been out of the limelight in recent years, returns as a James Bond spoof of sorts, probably a nod to the fact that he was almost picked to be the iconic spy years ago. He’s clearly aged and appears to have gotten some plugs, though the charisma is still there. He gets to joke around the least as the tongue-in-cheek straight-man of the comedy but takes the role in stride.

Up to this point, Spy is already a fairly decent comedy. What takes it to the next level, however, is the presence of Jason Statham. As the most bankable martial arts action star of today, Statham has only been on the fringes of comedy, and by that I mean wisecracks and one-liners in between beating people up on screen. He finally gets to show off his incredible self-awareness and untapped comedic timing in Spy as a disgruntled rogue agent who steals just about every scene he’s in.

Statham’s character is British, but he’s also crass, profane, arrogant, mysognistic and hyperbolic. He reminds of a hardened version of Kurt Russell from Big Trouble in Little China. His hilarity is undeniable, and it adds an edge to the film I doubt anyone else could have offered.

I thought after Kingsman: The Secret Service the year’s best action-comedy had been set in stone, but now I’m not so sure. Spy isn’t nearly as stylish or visually impressive, but it’s much more of a pure comedy in that it generates bigger and more frequent belly laughs. I had an unexpectedly good time.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

May 31, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

Mad Max

It’s kinda shocking that I’ve never seen any of the original Mad Max films with Mel Gibson. Too campy? Too 80s? Too Aussie? (All baseless assumptions, by the way). Whatever it is, I’ve never really felt the urge to watch them. And so I wasn’t all that hyped up when I heard the the franchise was receiving a reboot 30 years later, surprisingly with original director George Miller returning and the super likable Tom Hardy replacing the now-super unlikable Gibson.

But rave reviews and strong word of mouth got me thinking that, against all odds, Mad Max: Fury Road might actually be a good film.

Well, I was wrong. Because Mad Max: Fury Road is a bloody modern masterpiece. In my memory it will surely go down as one of the best movies of 2015, one of the best action movies of the decade, one of the best Aussie movies of all-time and one of the most visionary post-apocalyptic movies ever.

You don’t need to know anything about the previous films; you don’t even have to know the premise or who Mad Max is. That’s the first fantastic thing about the movie — almost everything about the world in which the story is set is revealed by showing as opposed to telling. There’s no narrator, no scrolling introductory text — and yet from the very first scene it manages to immerse you into this strange and terrifying new future. The opening sequence introducing us to Mad Max is insanely tense and horrific, but it’s also a slick lesson in world-building and storytelling.

And so I won’t say much about the plot except to note that the narrative focuses on three main characters. There’s Max Rockstansky (Tom Hardy), a loner constantly battling inner demons and fighting for survival. There’s Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a warrior on a deadly mission of redemption. And there’s Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a pale-skinned “War Boy” brainwashed into worshipping a ruthless dictator (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who apparently played a different character in the original trilogy).

In an era when most action movies are predictably conventional and follow familiar arcs — whether it’s superheroes, long-running franchises or Taken/Bourne imitations — Mad Max: Fury Road stands out for being something completely different. The film is essentially a long, exhilarating car chase with one jaw-dropping action sequence after another. That said, don’t be mistaken in thinking it is anything like the Fast and Furious franchise, which relies on a mix of old and new star power and having to constantly one-up itself in the crazy stunt stakes. Fury Road is more raw, more strangely grounded despite its over-the-topness, more brutal, more unabashedly bizarre, and far more creative. Frankly, I’d never seen anything like it, and the film’s combination of thrills, suspense and horror blew me away.

That said, Fury Road also turned out to be a lot more emotionally involving than I had expected. Granted, it’s still predominantly style over substance, but there’s something about it — whether it is the strong characters, the brilliant performers or the construction of the narrative — that elevates its dramatic elements above your average action flick.

Speaking of performers, George Miller hit the jackpot with the trio of Hardy, Theron and Hoult. Max is a man of few words and spends a good portion of the movie in a face-blocking mask, making Hardy’s performance even more impressive. To be fair, he has had some mask experience after playing Bane, but it’s the quiet magnetism and emotions he exudes that turns Max into a hero you can easily root for.

As good as Hardy is, Max is actually more of a sidekick to Theron’s Furiosa, who absolutely owns the movie. Apart from sporting the best shaved head since Sinead O’Connor, the Oscar winner turns Furiosa into the heart and soul of the movie, a badass whose quest for redemption drives everything that happens.

And if you thought Theron had uglied herself up for Monster, then you ought to see Hoult as Nux — powdery skin, bald head, skeletal features and perpetually chapped lips. Amazingly, he still looks better than most people, though the sacrifice for his art is impressive. Without giving too much away, Hoult’s charm and willingness to do whatever it takes makes Nux an unusual and intriguing supporting character that might not have been nearly as interesting without his jittery, frantic performance.

As for the rest of the cast, the physically imposing Keays-Byrne leads a cast of grotesque villains, and balancing them out is a group of hot models led by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Zoe Kravitz. It’s good to see other Aussies such as Nathan Jones, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton and Megan Gale getting some burn. I like that Miller just let everyone speak in their native accents (maybe no one can do the Aussie accent properly), and yet the diverse mix of pronunciations is never jarring or feels out of place.

In all, Mad Max: Fury Road is a revelation. It’s one of the most visually stunning films I’ve seen in a long time, from the sandy Australian landscape to the visceral violence and the uncomfortable characters to the gritty machinery. While I’m sure there are plenty of special effects involved, the CGI never overwhelms like it does for many action films these days. The performances are top notch, and the story is simple but effective. At exactly two hours, the length is close to perfect for a film of this kind, though there were times when I felt a little burned out from the endless sand and moving parts. Minor quibbles aside, this is an unexpected masterpiece. It’s hard to see how the planned sequels could top this experience or provide something fresh to prevent familiarity fatigue, but after what I’ve just witnessed it’ll be hard to bet against George Miller again.

5 stars out of 5

 
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