Movie Review: Lucy (2014)

September 12, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Lucy is a big deal in Taiwan. About half the movie was shot in Taipei, which is why locals have been so supportive by flocking to see it by the truckloads, turning the sci-fi action flick into the No. 2 film at the domestic box office for 2014 (behind — you guessed it — Transformers: Age of Extinction). The film’s reception in Taiwan has been somewhat muted. Some people say it’s awesome, while others have given it the lukewarm “It’s OK.” No one in the country really wants to say it. So I will. Lucy sucked.

Our eponymous protagonist, played by Scarlett Johannson, is a young woman living in Taipei who becomes an unwilling drug mule to some Korean gangsters. During her ordeal something happens, opening up her brain capacity from the normal (mythical) human 10% and accelerating it towards 100%. If you’ve seen the trailers you’ll know some crazy stuff goes down. She doesn’t just become a smart gal. She becomes a freaking superhero who would shit all over the Avengers if they ever met in a dark alley (and yes, that includes the Black Widow).

It sounds like a cool idea, and writer and director Luc Besson (who is also very popular in Taiwan) clearly thinks so too. But for a movie about an unfathomably intelligent being, Lucy is remarkably stupid. Stories about maximizing human brain capacity are not novel — Bradley Cooper gave it a shot in the flawed but vastly superior Limitless back in 2011 — but in Lucy the enhanced brain functions are taken to a whole new level, giving her ever-expanding supernatural powers like telekinesis, super-hearing, mind-reading, shape-shifting, tapping into electronic signals, controlling gravity, expert marksmenship, time travel, etc — you name it, Lucy can do it. And you thought the stuff Johnny Depp could do in Transcendence was ridiculous.

So basically, any semblance of real science goes out the window. The film is more or less a superhero action flick, and everything about it — from the tone of the film and its completely over-the-top action scenes to the way she transforms after gaining her powers — tells us not to take things too seriously. And yet, Lucy lacks the elements of what makes a superhero movie good. The problem lies with the complete lack of character development, or rather, the reversing development in her character. Lucy started off semi-likable, but the more powerful she grew the less human she became. She loses her morals and emotions. She essentially (and quite literally) turns into a machine — and we don’t give a shit.

When a film fails to make any emotional connection we start looking for something else, and in this case it’s the action. Lucy is adequate in this regard but nothing special. There is one scintillating car chase scene through the streets of a major city, but apart from that there’s not much we haven’t seen before. One of the reasons the action fails to truly excite is because Lucy becomes so powerful that she has no enemy who could provide the film with some much-needed conflict or tension. There’s no formidable foe or arch nemesis to give us the type of showdown a movie like this demands.

Worse still, Lucy has a distinct dearth of humour for a Luc Besson film. There’s a little bit of the usual cheekiness, perhaps, but there are no laughs to be found in Lucy, which is strange given the film’s farcical nature and tone. As for the performances, Johansson and Morgan Freeman are about as good as you could have expected, while the special effects are admittedly seamless, though both are things we tend to take for granted these days.

Unfortunately, my gripes go deeper than that. For all the hoopla about filming in Taiwan, it turns out that those scenes could have been shot anywhere. So we see some shots of the busy Taipei streets and various angles of Taipei 101. Big deal (sadly, for some Taiwanese audiences, that’s enough to make the movie great). We actually have no idea what the heck Lucy is even doing in Taiwan. We know she lives there and she appears to be a student, but that makes no sense because she doesn’t know a lick of Mandarin. Moreover, the antagonists in the movie are Korean. We don’t know what they’re doing in Taiwan either. They don’t speak English or Mandarin. It just makes the whole Taiwan setting extremely pointless.

I consider myself quite a careless viewer in that I don’t usually notice holes in movie storylines, but in Lucy they were jumping out at me because they was so obvious. For example, when Lucy goes into a Taipei hotel to look for a Mr Jang, the receptionist connects her over the phone and acts as a translator between the two. The problem is, the receptionist is speaking Mandarin to Mr Jang and/or his henchmen, and we find out later that they’re all Korean! Or when Lucy is in Taiwan and tells Morgan Freeman that she’ll be at his place in Paris in 12 hours — except a direct flight from Taipei to Paris is 12 hours and 35 minutes, and she’s not even at the airport! And I haven’t even talked about how Lucy apparently loses most of her teeth at one stage, only to have them apparently all grow back (so she’s got Wolverine powers too?) or how she kills a whole bunch of innocent people for trivial reasons (or no reason at all), and yet spares all the bad guys who are hell bent on tracking her down and annihilating her. Just really careless, sloppy stuff.

Having said all that, I didn’t loathe Lucy, or at least not as much as I think I should. The film actually started off relatively strong and was packed with a decent level of intrigue, but the further along it went the more preposterous and — pardon my “political correctlessness” — retarded it became. Apart from all the batshit insane stuff Lucy was doing, the film was filled with trite philosophical BS pretending to give meaning to the story, complete with Terrence Malick Tree of Life-style random snippets of micro-organisms, (copulating) animals and outer space. And if that’s not crazy enough for you, the Akira-esque ending almost makes Muholland Drive seem logical

All of the above combines to make Lucy a trippy, messy, cheesy experience where the enjoyment level is heavily dependent on how much nonsense you can stomach. If you go into it knowing you’re about to see the dumbest action movie of the year rather than the intelligent sci-fi it appeared on paper, you might even find the silliness endearingly fun. For me, however, Lucy was just one big clusterWTF that’s neither clever nor funny, rarely exciting, and only passably entertaining.

1.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: 3 Days to Kill (2014)

May 21, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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When I first saw the poster for Three Days to Kill, I was pretty certain that it would be a Taken ripoff with Kevin Costner as the Liam Neeson character and Amber Heard as his daughter. She gets kidnapped or something and he has three days to use his considerable abilities — ie, killing people — to get her back. I was wrong, but maybe it would have been better than what it turned out to be.

As it turned out, Three Days to Kill is very different to what I imagined. Kevin Costner is a CIA “lifer” sent into retirement due to dire health reasons and tries to rekindle his broken relationship with his estranged wife (Connie Nielsen) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), who are both living in France. So who the heck does Amber Heard play? A CIA assassin who coaxes Costner to complete one final mission in return for an “experimental drug” that could save his life. So the film is essentially a father-daughter bonding movie (they have three days to spend together, hence the title, but it’s also a pun because his mission is to kill someone — get it?). There are action sequences and all, but the heart of it is about a dying man doing his best to make it up to his family.

The screenplay is co-written by French master Luc Besson, and you do get a sense of his influence through the dialogue and the occasional use of humour. The director, on the other hand, is none other than McG, best known for the Charlie’s Angels films and Terminator Salvation, so in that respect you know expectations ought not to be so high. The technical aspects of it, including the action, are well executed, but the film falls way short in its desire to generate any genuine emotion from the family conflicts.

Kevin Costner, who has re-emerged as of late in supporting roles, does his best here as a poor man’s Liam Neeson. You can kind of see him as an ex-CIA killer, and you can definitely see him as an old, dying man whose prime left him a long time ago. Hailee Steinfeld, who was nominated for an Oscar for True Grit, is not bad either as the typical teenage daughter, but there’s not much we haven’t seen before from characters of this type.

The WTF award goes to Amber Heard. Seriously, it’s one of the weirdest roles I have ever seen. She is introduced as a serious CIA assassin in the very first scene, but for the entire movie she does — wait for it — absolutely nothing. She just stands and observes from a distance, showing up every now and then in tight outfits for no apparent reason other than to provide (sometimes unintentional) comic relief. I thought her job was to kill people — but then why is she getting Costner to do her job for her? And why does she have access to a test drug? None of it makes any sense.

In the end, I don’t really know what they were trying to do here. It’s commendable that there is an actual story here rather than just an attempt to rip off Taken, but having said that the father-daughter relationship by itself did not have enough substance or originality to keep the film afloat. The action was adequate but nothing special, and while the black humour and one liners were welcome it was fairly standard stuff from Luc Besson. It’s not terrible, and I did find some moments entertaining and fun, but at best 3 Days to Kill qualifies as no more than a solid DVD rental.

2.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Taken 2 (2012)

October 21, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

The moral of the story is simple: don’t f*&% with Liam Neeson.

After getting a thorough ass-whooping in the first film, which I declared was one of the best action films of the past decade, those pesky Albanians did not learn their lesson. The father of one of the human traffickers wanted revenge, and he was going to make Bryan Mills pay with a lot more inept henchmen. Bad idea.

I may sound like I’m teasing, but I actually enjoyed Taken 2 a lot. It was impossible to live up to the original anyway, which surprised just about everyone with its brutal efficiency and the total badassness of Neeson’s Mills, a former CIA operative who can kill you in just about every way imaginable. True, Taken 2 is a lazy and completely unnecessary sequel that is even more far-fetched than the original, and let’s face it, was made with only $$$ in mind, but it still manages to thrill by re-captivating some of the magic of the original.

The premise ofTaken 2 is about as unimaginative as it gets: the father of the dude whom Mills electrocuted in the first film in Paris promises to avenge his son’s death. Mills is in Istanbul for freelance security work and is visited by his ex-wife (Famke Janssen) — who is conveniently having “problems” with her second husband — and their daughter (Maggie Grace, who is surprisingly convincing as someone young enough to be going for her driver’s licence). Nasty henchmen try to “take” them all (and succeeds with two of them, hence Taken “2” — get it?), unleashing the killing machine in Mills once again.

Taken 2 steals shamelessly from its predecessor without really attempting to do anything new or different. Liam Neeson shows off some incredible secret agent brains in addition to killing enemies with guns, melee weapons and his bare hands, and Maggie Grace has a much larger role, but that’s about it. Director Olivier Megaton (surely that cannot be a real name), whose previous efforts include Columbiana and Transporter 3, replaces Pierre Morel, but I didn’t really feel that much of a difference in style. There are gun fights, hand-to-hand combat and car chases galore, all of it happening at break-neck speed after the predictable initial set-up.

The script, written again by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, is lazy — there’s no way to deny that. It assumes we know what Bryan Mills is and what he and has family have been through, and character development is essentially provided through flashbacks to the first film. The bad guy is pretty pathetic and is driven only by revenge, but at the same time he has some strange reasons for not wanting to kill Mills when given the opportunity. The Albanians also sometimes speak to each other in what I presume is Albanian, and at other times in English with Eastern European accents — none of it makes much sense.

But on the other hand, there’s nothing quite like watching the captivating Neeson — who is 60 years old in real life, by the way — run around beating up and killing a whole bunch of bad guys. It’s brainless entertainment but it’s fun and exciting while it lasts.

In other words, if you enjoyed Taken, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy parts, or at least elements, of Taken 2. It’s no secret that the film was cashing in on the success of the original, which is vastly superior in every way, but watching Liam Neeson go on a rampage for an action-packed 91 minutes is still preferable to the majority of action films these days.

3.5 stars out of 5!

PS: If there is going to be a third film, which is highly possible given the loose ends in the script, I’ll definitely be watching.

Movie Review: Lockout (2012)

July 14, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Taken in space? I’m sold.

That, at least, was the advertised premise of Lockout, a sci-fi action movie co-written by French master (I use that term loosely) Luc Besson. Some time in the future, the US government decides to send its worst prisoners off into a maximum security prison in space, where they will be put under “stasis” (ie, sleep), for the duration of their sentences (I suppose to save money?). Somehow, the president’s daughter (Maggie Grace) ends up there, prisoners break loose, and there’s only one man that can save the day — Snow (Guy Pearce) — a former CIA operative arrested for murdering an undercover colleague.

Sounds pretty exciting, right?

Lockout hasn’t gotten many decent reviews but it’s not as bad as people have made it out to be. While Guy Pearce is not necessarily the man you would picture as a badass CIA operative (after all, he only recently played possibly the oldest man in the world in Prometheus), the Aussie actor is clearly the standout of the film. He oozes screen presence and actually looks the part, all buffed and toned. But it’s his ability to hit the mark on all of Snow’s awesome one-liners that makes Lockout an occasionally enjoyable ride. Even if the action doesn’t quite get there for you, the humour might.

Speaking of the action, that’s where Lockout struggles to differentiate itself from other films of the genre. The fight scenes are surprisingly meek and there’s not a whole lot of creativity. There is one combat scene that makes use of the space concept, but that’s about it. There’s almost not much of a climax, or at least one that is worthy of a mention. It’s a shame because it essentially wastes the fact that they are in space! Space!

The special effects also don’t provide much to talk about. In fact, while there are a few “outdoor’ shots, almost everything takes place inside the prison, so those expecting an spectacular spacecraft battles are likely to be disappointed.

The biggest problem with Lockout might be the villains. It’s a space prison with the worst mankind has to offer, but there aren’t any memorable baddies. They may be crazy or menacing but no one has any…personality. If you think of a film like Con Air, chances are you’ll remember an assortment of interesting bad guys. In Lockout, it never really feels like the bad guys were given a chance to do anything.

Despite all the complaints, I didn’t think Lockout was painful to watch. It could have been so much more, but instead it ended up just being an average sci-fi/action film boosted by a great comedic performance by Guy Pearce.

3 out of 5

Movie Review: Columbiana (2011)

February 2, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Apparently, allegedly, supposedly, Columbiana was originally envisioned as a sequel to The Professional (otherwise known as Leon), you know, Natalie Portman’s debut as a pre-pubescent assassin wannabe who is rescued and taken in by a super lone assassin played by Jean Reno.  It’s kind of got cult classic status now and is a personal favourite of mine.

But let’s face it, even though it will get the fanboys all hot under the collar, the idea of a grown up Natalie Portman who has fulfilled her dream of becoming an assassin was always going to suck and piss all over the legacy of the original film.

And so I’m glad they didn’t go down that route.  Instead, Columbiana as a similar premise, except with Zoe Saldana (Avatar, Star Trek, The Losers) in the lead role as a little girl who is determined to become an assassin after her family is wiped out by drug lords in Columbia and she escapes to America to live with her uncle.  Fast forward a few years and Saldana has become the real deal — a super svelte, sexy, kick-ass assassin who is intent on tracking down and annihilating all those involved in her family’s demise.

As an action film, Columbiana does produce some thrills and clever ideas.  Saldana looks the part and, because the film is co-produced and co-written by Luc Besson (the man behind The Professional), the style is slick and has that unique “Besson feel” to it — I’m thinking classics like The Fifth Element, Nikita, Taken, Taxi — all films he has been involved with in some capacity).  The gun fights, hand-to-hand combat and in especially the chase scenes are all done extremely well.

That said, when all said and done, Columbiana will likely go down as one of the more forgettable Besson-related films.  There’s just nothing in this film that feels fresh or special, and the storytelling by director Olivier Megaton (Transporter 3 — and said to be at the helm of the much anticipated Taken 2) leaves a lot to be desired.  It was choppy and uneven and simply not engaging.  I actually got a bit bored during the slower scenes.

But I will say that I found the action-packed scenes of Columbiana enjoyable when I was watching it.  As a Zoe Saldana vehicle and popcorn movie, it delivers, but don’t go in expecting a whole lot more.

2.75 stars out of 5

 
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