The reason we typically watch crime/action movies is for the slick style, the gonzo action, and the over-the-top characters cutting loose in the most violent of manners. We watch these movies to capture that whiff of cool, something flashy and entertaining with its eye-popping combo of sight and sound. Think Snatch, and Drive, and Atomic Blonde, and what appears to be the upcoming James Gunn Suicide Squad sequel. By these standards of stylized violence and colorful anti-heroes, Netflix’s Gunpowder Milkshake falls too flat to be duly satisfying.
Sam (Karen Gillan) is a hired killer working for the secretive order, The Firm. Her handler (Paul Giamatti) has accidentally assigned her the son of a commanding mobster who now demands vengeance. Her lone way to keep the protection of her employers is to kill a man who robbed them, which she does, but then regrets her actions. The troubled man had stolen the money to pay the kidnappers ransoming his daughter, Emily (Chloe Coleman). Sam decides to get involved and save this girl, and in doing so loses protection. The scornful mobster sends teams of goons to track Sam and kill her, forcing her to find refuge with her absentee mother (Lena Headey).
The problem with playing in this stylized sandbox is having little to back up the attitude and style. Admittedly, those two aspects go far in a sub-genre dominated by appearances, but if you just have tough-looking shells of characters posturing and acting tough, it doesn’t matter how much style you dump onto the screen, it will only distract for only so long. The characters in Gunpowder Milkshake are so powerfully bland and all adhere to the same lone character trait. They’re all glib and badass and brusque and smug and fairly boring. It’s like somebody took the John Wick universe of clandestine killers and copied and pasted the same default personality.
If everyone is super cool, and super deadly, and super nonchalant, then you need to put even more work into making the characters stand apart. They’ll need specific quirks, competing goals, faults and obsessions, some key nub of characterization even if its superficial (a guy with one eye he’s insecure about it, etc.). With Gunpowder Milkshake, there’s nothing to work with. The screenwriters made this so much harder on themselves. I guess we’re merely supposed to be won over by the casting and the imagery of these bad ladies holding powerful weaponry. The protagonist is boring. She is the familiar hired killer who grows an inconvenient conscience. That’s an acceptable starting point but the moral growth is hindered when her young charge, the little girl that forces her paradigm shift, wants to be her apprentice to learn to kill people. The fraught mother/daughter relationship resorts to a lot of “I didn’t want this life for you,” “It’s the only life I’ve known” roundabout conversations, and neither furthers our understanding of either side.
With all that being said, there are moments of bloody fun that can be enjoyed. There’s a middle portion of the movie that gave me hope the film had transformed. At one point, Sam is indisposed and unable to use her arms, which dangle without any muscle control. She’s about to be beset by angry if bruised bad guys and must plan what to do. The resulting clash is a burst of creative choreography and an excellent demonstration of Sam’s resourcefulness and drive. Watching her dispatch a dozen armed men so indifferently, always knowing where and when to turn and dodge is not nearly as entertaining or engaging as watching her struggle and solve a problem. This sequence is extended and makes clever use of its location and the elements that would be available. Then we go a step further, as Sam and her youngster must drive a car to flee except the uncontrollable arm problem persists. Sam will pump the pedals and give directions while Emily sits on her lap and turns the steering wheel. This made me excited. We had organic complications and potential solutions that involved both characters having to rely upon one another. That is solid screenwriting and finding a way to spice up an ordinary parking garage chase sequence. By the end of this sequence, my hopes started to dwindle because Sam reverted to her earlier super cool, impervious version. She knew every exact move to make, and the small-scale car chase started losing my interest even with the extra driving dynamic. I wish the filmmakers could analyze how these sequences differed to better harness that creative surge.
The concluding act of Gunpowder Milkshake is a deluge of false climaxes and waves of bad guys that never pose any discernible threat. It all feels too repetitive and like a video game. This group of people need to be killed, and then this next group of people need to be killed, and then this next next group of people need to be killed, and I just started getting bored. There is the occasional fun burst of violence and style, but the enemies are stock and dispensable, so it doesn’t feel like it matters what the numbers are. Whether it’s a dozen or a thousand, nothing really seems to matter because our super team of badass women will never be stopped. If you’re going to establish the protagonists as so far ahead of their competition, then work needs to be done to provide another outlet for audience interest. Use that time to explore the peculiarities of the cracked-universe world, like in the John Wick franchise. Use that time to meaningfully push the characters toward personal confrontations with one another. Alas, it’s all slapdash style with the same dead-eyed cool stare from start to finish (with the noted exception above). The entire final act could have been five minutes or fifty. It’s filler violence until the director tires out.
The cast is blameless and eminently watchable. I’ve been a fan of Gillan’s since her early Doctor Who days, and it’s been fun to watch her come into her own with the major spotlight afforded from franchises like Guardians of the Galaxy and Jumanji. She’s more than capable of kicking ass and looking cool doing so but this is the thinnest of characters. Once Sam chooses to put her safety at risk to save an innocent girl, it’s the end of her character growth. I suppose you can argue everything she does from there further proves the lengths she will go to solidify this important choice. Gillan deserves a worthy star vehicle. It’s fun to watch Angela Bassett, Michell Yeoh, Carla Gugino, and Headey push back with a grin against the misogyny of the overconfident wicked men who wish to do them harm. I wish they were better integrated into the world to have more significance other than as old allies who double as a weapons depot. There’s only so many guns-in-books jokes you can have before it too feels overdone.
For fans of stylized violence, there may be enough cooking with Gunpowder Milkshake to meet out its near two-hour investment. The neon-infused, candy-colored production design and cinematography can enliven moments. The actors are fun to watch. Some of the fighting is brutally choreographed and cleverly executed, like the sequence where Gillan has no control over her arms. It’s got slow-mo violence set to wailing pop music tracks. If you’re looking for a pretty movie with some style, then it might be enough. If, however, you’re looking for a movie with interesting characters with memorable personalities, well-developed action with variance, and a story with a nice array of twists and turns and payoffs, then maybe look elsewhere.
Nate’s Grade: C+
If you ask anyone who their least favorite Avenger is, every one of those participants will have the same exact answer: Hawkeye. If you ask that same group who is their second least favorite Avenger, chances are that a clear majority are going to next say Black Widow. The character has been part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) since 2010 in Iron Man 2, a full decade of idling to gain her solo movie to the point it became a long-running question in the fanbase. Then they killed the character in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame and then also announced she would be getting her solo movie, and the fanbase said, “Wait, now?” Delayed a full year thanks to COVID-19, Black Widow is Marvel’s first theatrical release in almost two years and will likely benefit from some low expectations and eagerness to get back to the big screen spectacle of summer movies.
It’s not Black Widow’s fault that she’s paired with a super soldier, essentially Batman in a flying suit, a nigh indestructible god, and a giant raging id monster. There’s a significant gap between that upper tier of the super powered Avengers and the two non-powered members, Lady with Guns and Guy with Bow and Arrow. It’s hard to compete with all of that, and the glimpses we’ve been given with previous MCU movies haven’t exactly been the most nuanced or dimensional for Black Widow (remember her dubbing herself a “monster” because the state took away her ability to bear children?). We’ve had hints about past troubles and regrets, but it’s never been explored with any significance… until now.
Taking place shortly after the events of 2016’s Civil War, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run from American authorities. She reunites abroad with her estranged sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh), who has recently broken free of the chemical mind control of the sinister Widows program. Yelena and Natasha were living as sisters for three years as a cover family of Russian agents, with Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz) as their parents. They were whisked back to Russia, separated, and thrown back into the Widow program where they were trained to be elite assassins by Dreykov (Ray Winstone, barely flirting with a Russian accent). The combative sisters are being chased by S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, other killer Widows still under the chemical-induced mind control, and Dreykov’s best hunter, the ruthless Taskmaster, a masked warrior who can learn and mimic the moves from other fighters. Natasha and Yelena decide the only way to stop Dreykov is to reunite their old family once again.
I’m a little confused by the general indifference Black Widow seems to have generated from critics and fans because I thought, while with some flaws, that this is still a good movie that I would say is on the cusp of being above average for the MCU’s already high bar. Perhaps, again, this movie is benefiting from lowered expectations. I wasn’t going in with too many demands considering my personal investment with the Black Widow character was minimal prior to her sacrificial death. I wanted a fun movie that provided further insight into her character, considering this would likely be the last time we see Natasha in the MCU. I was surprised how emotionally engaged I became with her movie. While the action is fine, it was the dramatic parts that really grabbed me. This is the first MCU movie where I was looking forward to the breaks in action more than the actual action. The pre-credits flashback (to mid-90s Ohio no less) sets up this fractured family dynamic that serves as the core of the movie, the question over whether these relationships ever really mattered on a deeper level or whether each person was simply playing their assignment. It makes for intriguing drama about vulnerable characters sifting through the small measures of happiness they’ve had and the difficulty of reaching out to people that are important to you. Natasha is in a delicate yet reflective place considering her isolation. The movie is structured like a Jason Bourne-style spy caper, jumping from one locale to the next, but it’s more of a family drama about hurt people reconciling and reconnecting. On its own terms, it’s a real family movie.
There are some major themes and some serious subjects with Black Widow and they are well handled and tied to the character journeys. The opening titles, set to a melancholy cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” covers human trafficking. This is a story about the systems of abuse, primarily abusive men demanding control from throngs of women, and it’s about overcoming abuse and establishing support systems. For Natasha, she made some hard choices to defect to S.H.I.E.L.D., and many others have suffered because of her decision to escape. Many women could not escape their tormentors, and the level of control only became more methodical. Yelena talks about being conscious of everything but unsure what parts of you are really your own doing, and this seems eminently relatable about victimhood. The movie is about breaking free of unhealthy relationships, coming into your own control, and finding healthy families even if they are troubled and a work in progress. That’s why the family moments resonated as much for me. Real attention was given to the supporting characters in Natasha’s orbit.
To that end, the villains exemplify the themes by design, especially Taskmaster serving as a literalization of Natasha facing off against the sins of her past, much like in 2017’s Logan where Old Logan fought young Logan. Fans of Taskmaster from the comics may well be disappointed by the adaptation because the character was very sardonic and, in here, never utters a word (there is a certain Deadpool-in-X-Men Origins: Wolverine reminiscence). More could have been done but the villain represents the consequences of abandonment. I appreciated that even until the final moment, the villain could be redeemed and meant something more than simply another masked heavy to be blown apart. Dreykov, on the other hand, is just a typically awful abuser and his lack of definition fits. He’s a general stand-in for the toxic control of men accustomed to power and the dismissal of female agency. He’s dull but more a designated symbol.
The traveling Black Widow family van is the real draw of this movie. I have been a Florence Pugh fan since her star making turn in 2017’s emotionally disquieting Lady Macbeth, and I welcome her and Yelena into the MCU with open arms. Pugh (Midsommar) is terrific and full of sarcastic wit, at one point criticizing Natasha’s familiar three-point “superhero landing.” She’s also convincing in all the action and gunplay. Even better, there are several dramatic scenes that allow the talented actress to tap into her prowess. She could make me cackle, then the next minute impress me with the finesse of her leg-swinging attack movements, and then the next make me feel something as she tearfully reflects that her cover family was the best years of her life (as the youngest, Yelena had no idea until they ran off that they were all Russian agents). Her combustible yet affectionate relationship with Johansson imbued so much more emotional investment into the Black Widow character for me. Harbour (Hellboy, Stranger Things) is inhaling any available scenery as a past-his-prime Russian super soldier still holding onto his glory days as a communist answer to Captain America (he eagerly asks Natasha if Cap ever mentions him, so hopeful it’s adorable). He’s a regular source of comedy but also has a credible paternal warmth to him as he tries to don the mantle of fatherhood like a costume that no longer fits quite as well. Unfortunately, Weisz (The Favourite) isn’t on screen as much as the other members of the family unit but I still greatly enjoyed watching her finely attuned deadpan delivery.
From an action standpoint, Black Widow will mostly suffice but there is little to really get the blood pumping. The chases and fights are entertaining without delivering anything new. The third act involves an extended set piece with characters plummeting from the sky amid fiery debris. It’s at least visually interesting and the action high-point of the movie. Under director Cate Shortland (Lore, Berlin Syndrome), the action is easy to follow even as it escalates into big video game carnage and explosions. The lack of development in the action would be more of an issue for me if the non-action elements, the story and acting, weren’t as involving. I feel like Shortland was hired for the dramatics and performances and character moments, less so the explosions.
It took eleven years, one more thanks to COVID, but Black Widow finally has her starring vehicle and the MCU is finally back on the big screen (or your home screen via Disney Plus and thirty additional dollars). I watched the movie with my girlfriend and cheerfully noted it would be the first theatrical Marvel movie we watched during our year-plus courtship, thus a real milestone in modern geek dating (we’ll have many opportunities ahead as there are six more Marvel movies scheduled between now and summer 2022). I was surprised how much I enjoyed Black Widow once it had reassembled its family dynamic and I hope to see the extended Romanoff family members in future MCU editions. It’s a late but welcomed swan song for Natasha Romanoff and her checkered past. For the first time, I felt for her character, and part of that was the result of enjoying her family nucleus and the pathos they brought. Black Widow is a serviceable action movie with fun characters and potent dramatic interactions with heavy, well-realized themes. I’m baffled by the general critical indifference (I have a lot fewer qualms than I did with 2019’s Captain Marvel). It’s the rare big movie where the quiet moments are the high-points, and twenty-plus movies in, that’s at least something new from the juggernaut that is the MCU.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Amazon’s new movie, The Tomorrow War, is the costliest original blockbuster of the summer, and it’s skipping theaters entirely. The $200 million-dollar sci-fi movie was originally slated for theatrical release in December 2020, then pushed to summer 2021, then sold to Amazon streaming for the cost of its production budget. It’s easy to grasp the excitement of its premise and how it could translate into engrossing escapism. At the 2022 World Cup, a flash of light transports a team of future soldiers who need enlistments. In a matter of months, the world will be facing a war between alien monsters, and by 2050 we will be on the verge of losing for good. Dan Forrester (Chris Pratt) is a science teacher/ex-veteran who is conscripted into the future war, along with some other unlikely soldiers, and thrown into the future. His tour will last one week and then he’ll be sent back to 2022, if he survives, and only twenty percent come back.
Perhaps it was the allusions or homages to Starship Troopers, but I found the first act and the action before the action to be the most interesting part of The Tomorrow War. I was hoping with its time travel premise of a future war fought by the past that there would be some attention paid to the world building and implications of its premise, at least before it became hunting down monsters and shooting in corridors, and thankfully the movie actually takes some sweet time to lay its foundations before being conscripted itself into action movie spectacle. Much like Starship Troopers, we have people unprepared for a war against an alien species and essentially being tossed into basic training as cannon fodder for the military industrial complex. I enjoyed that the screenplay by Zach Dean (Deadfall) actually plays out some of the larger effects that its future confirmation would stir. Effectively, humanity knows that in thirty years it’s all over. There is a definitive end date. Knowing that thirty years is all civilization has remaining would cause all sorts of global, social, and psychological upheavals. Why bother going to school if it’s all over in thirty years? Why try and start that business if it’s all over in thirty years? Why start a family if your children will be doomed in thirty years or less? Society would be irrevocably changed, and sectors and populations would refuse to go back to the way things were, and instability would flare up with generations sore over their lack of Earthly inheritance.
That’s just one factor that gets attention during this first 45-minute section. The nature of the future conscripting people of the past to fight their war has plenty of political commentary about generational conflict, proxy wars, and how the poor are disproportionately affected with less choice. The soldiers being taken from the past are older and an unorthodox pool of candidates that wouldn’t meet contemporary military recruitment standards. This is because the people being sent to fight are already dead by the time 2050 rolls around to avoid any time paradox concerns. There are interesting implications here. It’s like their own governments are saying, “Well, you’ll be dead anyway, so you might as well die now rather than much later and maybe you’ll provide a more immediate need other than taxes. Thank you for your service, now die.” Again, the psychology and ripples of that can be fascinating. I’m skeptical why more 2022 Americans are not disputing why they should fight 2050’s war with their own flesh and blood. I suppose I wanted this intriguing premise to be played out more in the span of an ongoing TV series, something along the lines of the elegant existential bummer of HBO’s The Leftovers. As a feature, The Tomorrow War gets beaten into blockbuster shape to become another noisy sci-fi spectacle, but the potential of its premise and the bombshells of its world-building deserved even more deliberate consideration.
When the action picks up, The Tomorrow War follows a predictable path of alien invasion military thrillers. Dan’s unit must go into enemy territory and retrieve an important thing before the aliens overrun the facility as well as before the Army firebombs the block. There are many ticking clocks built into the plot mechanisms, from Dan’s week-long sojourn into the future ticking clock, the overall “humanity’s last stand” ticking clock, the ticking clock of getting needed lab components before destruction, the ticking clock of synthesizing a magic alien cure, and there’s likely others I haven’t even noticed. That cluttering of urgency extends also to its personal exploration of two sets of frayed familial relationships, father/daughter and father/son across three generations. It’s simply too much and detracts from more time and attention being given to the elements that demand the most development. The father/daughter relationship has the most meaningful drama considering it covers multiple periods of time and pushes Dan into thinking more critically about sacrifice and legacy. The broken father/son relationship between Dan and his absentee dad (a buff J.K. Simmons) is unnecessary and put on hold for too long and then hastily tied together. The Tomorrow War is an unlikely candidate of having too many conflict elements and points of urgency that they can dilute one another.
This also gets into an extended third act that feels entirely tacked on. After a critical climax, I grabbed my remote to pause the movie with the belief that things were wrapping up shortly. I was shocked to see I still had another 30 minutes left to go. The mountain-set final action set piece feels like a late studio addition rather than an outgrowth of what was established in the screenplay. Strangely, the characters don’t seem to be acknowledging the reality of cancelling out the alien-invasion nightmare future with their actions. If Dan has the magic elixir to thwart aliens, and goes back to 2022, then he can prevent the billions of eventual deaths. I suppose that does nothing for those in 2022 that got zapped into 2050 and died in the line of duty, but it spares everyone else from 2023 onward. I started yelling at the screen that preventing the terrible future meant good things.
As far as the quality of action, it’s a cut above thanks to director Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie), making his live-action film debut. I’ve noticed with other directors who primarily got their start in the realm of animation that they have such a great command of filling up the screen. Brad Bird, Travis Knight, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, and Tim Burton, all of them have an extra artistic sense of how to use the space of the frame to immerse the viewer. I greatly appreciated that many of the sequences where the soldiers fight the alien monsters use long takes and clear editing. There’s one scene where soldiers are trying to wrangle a monster as a hostage and all the fighting and buckling is impressively presented with sufficient distance so we can see the soldiers react and go flying. The introduction of the alien monsters is drawn out of the shadows, but from that moment onward the movie presents the monsters clearly, and I enjoyed the squid-meets-feline creature design enough that I welcomed more closeups. There’s also a horrifying and darkly comic tech mishap where the future accidentally zaps its new recruits into 2050, but instead of re-materializing five feet above the ground it’s 100-plus feet high, so we watch people hurtle to their awful deaths. McKay can replicate standard studio action movie grist seen in plenty of other big-budget blowouts (there are multiple examples of characters slow-motion jumping out of the way of explosions), but more often McKay has a natural eye for visual compositions and how to bring out more with his sci-fi spectacle.
One of the bigger miscues of the movie was the hiring and prominence of Pratt (Jurassic World) as the lead. He’s got the presence and build to be convincingly ex-military, but he’s not a good fit for an everyman, let alone a family man everyman scientist. He’s a high school science teacher going through personal malaise because he feels like he’s meant for something bigger (what’s bigger than saving humanity, guy?) and this ordinary life just ain’t cutting it. Except Pratt can do charming and affable, he can even do heroic, but this part does not play to the actor’s strengths, so Dan often comes across as plain and bland. He’s stuck as the square-jawed straight man for the movie and is boring once he goes into action or thinking mode.
I wished the movie had been retold from the point of view of Charlie, played by reliable comic Sam Richardson (Veep, Werewolves Within). He’s a welcomed voice of panic and reason among the avalanche of sci-fi, science, and military jargon. He’s a widower, losing his wife on her own tour of duty, and he feels greatly out of place. The actor is so amusing and the character so unexpectedly entertaining that I wish Pratt’s hero had bit the dust early as a meta head-fake (think of Seagal getting killed off early in 1996’s Executive Decision) and we were left to follow Charlie as humanity’s unexpected savior. Along the conversation of waste, Betty Gilpin (The Hunt) is shortchanged as Dan’s wife in 2022 world. They introduce a plot point that family members can be conscripted in place, and then there’s the transport glitch that kills all but a few, so I assumed that an actress of Gilpin’s kick-ass capability would find herself in the future fighting too. Alas, dear reader, Gilpin is just here to be the concerned wife at home waiting for her man to return.
The Tomorrow War is an original story though it’s built from older, recognizable parts, a little Independence Day here, a little Alien there, and a dash of Edge of Tomorrow. It’s derivative but it still has its own points of interest, chief for me is the world building and premise. The action is solid and filmed well. The scope of the special effects fits comfortably in the blockbuster studio range. It’s a good-looking movie with plenty of action and enough time travel quirks, though your attention may also flag as the movie lurches to a protracted close with its extended third act. It does more right than wrong as blockbuster spectacle. I think it had offshoots of better potential that could have been tapped, but as a big screen entertainment ported to your smaller home screen, The Tomorrow War is destined to win fans with lowered expectations and 140 minutes of free time.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Final Fantasy is an exciting venture in the history of animation. It’s the second video game to be turned into a feature film this summer, though exponentially better than Tomb Raider. It took the makers of Final Fantasy four years and the creation of new technology to capture what will be a benchmark in animation for years to come.
The story concerns a future Earth where aliens have crashed and invaded long ago. These “phantoms” are slightly invisible energy creatures of different size and roam around various areas with the ability to suck the life force or soul from a human being. General Hein (James Woods) is trying to convince the Earth council to allow him to fire a satellite called the Zeus Cannon to obliterate the alien menace. In opposition to Hein is Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) who believes with his adventurous pupil Aki Ross (Ming-Na) that the Zeus Cannon will obliterate the “spirit” of Earth. Their solution it to collect eight spirits in whatever forms they might be including plants and small animals to gather together and… do something that will send the alien life force repelling.
Now I know Hein is supposed to be the bad guy as he’s a military man complete with the evil looking black leather cloak, but I couldn’t help but find myself agreeing with his logic. He wants to use something that has already been proven to kill the aliens whereas these two new age scientists want to collect a bunch of plants and animals and have their collective spirits ward off the interplanetary menace. I’d stand in my chair and say thank you to Hein when he dismisses the doctor’s plot. I know that Aki and Sid are the heroes and of course whatever theories they have will be proven true, but hell, I found myself agreeing more with General Hein than these two.
Complicating matters Aki is infected with a piece of the alien phantom that is slowly taking control over her body. Along in her quest to discover the final spirits is aided by a military commander Grey (Alec Baldwin) and his company of men. Turns out Grey and Aki are former sweethearts, so of course expect them to reconcile before the end credits.
The plot consists of something that could be an average episode on Star Trek: Voyager but does meander along at times. The dialogue is typical sci-fi buzzwords like “Fire in the hole” “The perimeter’s been breached” and the sort. Final Fantasy does have great excitement to it and some terrific action sequences better than most anything this summer. The ending is a disappointment as all the action hinges on two globs of energy propelled against one another. Globs or energy are not exciting. I thought we would have learned this by now.
Final Fantasy is a landmark in animation. Never has so much detail been put into a movie and pulled off so amazingly well. To the nit-pickers out there the animation isn’t exactly the Holy Grail of photo-realism, but it’s closer than anything ever before. At times the characters come off as too plasticy (like Jude Law in A.I.) and tend to move too much, notwithstanding that their mouths don’t always follow the words coming out of them. Put aside these small grievances and what you have is stunning animation that makes one constantly forget it is animation. There are numerous moments of eerie precision like when a character’s nostril flares and their nose scrunches up in response, and the movement of every one of Aki’s 60,000 strands of gorgeous hair, to even a kiss between two characters. Even inanimate objects like a crumbled wall, a glass of alcohol, or a gun and its rounds are given startling accuracy. Backgrounds and scenic vistas are beautifully rendered with great care. There has been nothing ever like Final Fantasy before and it is the first movements toward an exciting area in animation.
The discussion must be raised can actors be phased out by computers now and will they ever? No, never. Actors can portray nuances that computers will never be able to master. Despite some actors best attempts to prove otherwise, we will always need actors. Now that you have the near photo realism one might be led to question what is the greatness of creating a fully realistic looking CGI tree when one can just be shot on film for millions of dollars cheaper. The all CGI world will not replace the real world of film making.
The mediocre story can be excused by the awe-inspiring animation. Despite the clunker of a plot Final Fantasy is entirely enjoyable because it always gives the viewer something to sit in wonder and take in. There’s always something to mesmerize the eyes on screen.
Nate’s Grade: B
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
There was a time where the world wondered whether 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was going to put actors out of business. The Columbia/Sony animated feature, the first the studio released theatrically since the second Care Bears Movie, was a big technological leap. Square Studios, the makers behind the extremely popular video game RPG series, opened a new studio stationed in Hawaii to enter the realm of Hollywood, and they devoted four years and countless hours of processing to create photo-realistic visuals. This was still at the dawn of CGI animated features taking over the landscape and the leap was impressive. None other than Roger Ebert wrote in his review that he considered the movie a milestone along the lines of the first talkies. Before its release, there was scuttlebutt whether or not this was the wave of the future and actors would be replaced with computer versions, never mind that vocal actors were still being employed. The lead “actor,” Aki, was depicted in a swimsuit on a Maxim cover as an icky promotion. The 2002 movie S1mone satirizes this concept further, with Al Pacino fed up with temperamental industry actors so he secretly uses a photo-realistic computer program instead.
I don’t really know why people got so worried. There are nuances that humans can convey that machines cannot, but even beyond that distinction, it’s simply a lot cheaper to hire an actor, put a costume on them, and record them than to build a model from scratch in a computer and toil for hours just to get the right look of the character raising an eyebrow. The listed budget for Spirits Within is $137 million, though has been rumored to be as high as $170 million (even more than Waterworld). For reference, the budgets of other 2001 movies include $125 million for the first Harry Potter, $93 million for Jurassic Park 3, $100 million for the Tim Burton Planet of the Apes, and $93 million for The Fellowship of the Ring. Even if you view Spirits Within as paving the way for motion-capture animated movies, the kind Robert Zemeckis spent a decade of his career slaving over, even those were eventually deemed too expensive for their returns. I think we can, at least for the time being, put this question to rest. Beyond the complexity that real actors can bring to performances, there’s the ease and cost that cannot be beat by a computer. Maybe in time this will change but for now rest easy Tom Hanks. You’re not going anywhere.
Twenty years later, the animation that once inspired awe now feels dated and surpassed. That’s the nature of the speed of technological advancement; even the company had to redesign scenes from the movie as they finished because the tech improved dramatically over the four-year development process. The visuals of the movie have become the norm for modern-day video games. There are aspects of the animation that are missing or just unable to be fully formed at the time. The faces look too slick and plastic, absent grooves and pores and imperfections that provide texture to people’s faces. The human appendages move like rubber. The hair seems to flow like it’s captured from a bouncy shampoo ad (apparently a fifth of the processing power went to animate the lead heroine’s 60,000 follicles). The character’s mouths look to be wired shut and unable to articulate their words. From a 2021 standpoint, the animation looks more like an extended video game cut scene from late 2000s. Its innovation has become commonplace.
It should be no surprise that the script went through numerous rewrites. All the attention for Sony and Square was on the technical achievements and much less so on the story, which I guess they assumed would come together at some point. The project began with the Final Fantasy writers coming up with the initial plot, which would make sense until you realize the RPG fantasy series isn’t known for its sense of realism or cohesion. The plot of Spirits Within is not very in keeping with the more fantastical Final Fantasy series world. Screenwriter Jeff Vintar (I, Robot) was asked to read the script because the studio reportedly did not understand the project at all. His analysis was that they should completely start from scratch. The studio asked if he wanted to rewrite the script and gave him three weeks. His words were translated from English to Japanese and then back into English, which left something lost in translation a couple times over.
It’s surprising that the movie is even slightly coherent with everything it’s been through. It’s still a mess of a plot, with aliens having crashed onto Earth and made parts of the planet uninhabitable by their presence. They’re also revealed to be ghosts. So… alien ghosts. And there are eight horcruxes, I mean, um, spirits that need to be found to… something. The screenplay, under all of its laborious mutations, is really about a military team and a pair of scientists collecting MacGuffins and trying to use dreams to thwart a fascist from using a doomsday laser. It is simultaneously overly simplistic and overly complicated and quite silly. The villain, voiced by James Woods, even gets the full Nazi wardrobe but his viewpoint seems logical considering he’s pitted against scientists saying they need to break through to the “spirit of the Earth.” It’s hard to take their claims and wild speculation seriously in this more realistic world. Apparently, there was a plot development where Aki was revealed to be pregnant and her unborn child was the eighth and final spirit needed. You can still see its place in the plot. Reportedly, this storyline was cut because it was deemed “too Japanese” and I have no idea what that means.
The real reason to ever watch The Spirits Within has come and gone. It’s now a footnote in animation history and a mild curiosity at best. I suppose you can still try and think how cool everything must have been to experience in 2001, and then your mind will wander because the nonsensical story will do little to hold your attention. It was such a financial disaster that Square Studios closed down and the company went back to focusing on video games full time with the occasional CGI direct-to-DVD movie (2004’s Advent Children and 2016’s Kingsglaive). Square Studio did make one of the CGI animated segments for 2003’s Animatrix, a concept paving the way for other ambitious animated anthologies like Netflix’s Love, Death, and Robots. The entire emphasis of this expensive production was slated onto its visual decadence, but the story was muddled, confusing, trite, and alien to the source material and the fanbase it was appealing to. I want to give my 2001 self a high-five because I’m happy that even at 19 years old in my original review I could see the evident faults of the mediocre storytelling as well as the arguments for replacing real actors with virtual facsimiles. Back in 2001, I said Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within had the benefit of always giving the viewer “something to sit in wonder and take in.” Twenty years later, that lone benefit has all but disappeared. Conversely, video games have become so much more ambitious, artistic, and emotionally engaging since 2001. So skip the movie and just play a game instead.
Re-View Grade: C
William X. Lee is an Ohio filmmaker who has found credible success on his own terms and over decades, a fact that deserves celebration. The writer/director knows the business of filmmaking as a genre specialist and has even become an adjunct professor of film at two different universities. With his many years on the fringes of the indie business, I expect Lee has a lot of wisdom about the particulars of the industry and finding a market that is welcoming to content that can be messier in execution. His latest movie in pre-production is called Bulletproof Jesus and, sight unseen, I legitimately love that title with my every fiber. His 2020 film, Black Wolf, literally involves a 58-year-old man having to track down and kill his high school bullies, all of whom miraculously grew up to become terrorists. That sounds hilarious. I believe Lee’s personal story is compelling and acknowledge that genre filmmaking could use more voices and visions from under served perspectives. However, the results on film show indifference or even disdain for accessible storytelling and entertainment value. Black Mamba is a 2019 supernatural action revenge available on Tubi, as many of Lee’s films currently are for free, and it’s indicative of the man’s sense of style and storytelling, both of which I have plenty to talk about in excrutiating detail.
Kyiera Stone (Angela D. Williams) was killed by local criminals. She’s brought back to life by angels who give her a second chance to exact revenge. Kyiera is pitted against an endless assembly line of villains that all want to return Kyiera to her state of decay.
I may sound like a scold, but it is near inexcusable that this movie is two hours long. Far be it from me to instruct a creative how much time they need to tell their story, but you have to think about an audience when you intend a platform for your efforts. What is going to keep someone glued to that screen and justify their investment in every one of your minutes? This is the kind of movie that can barely creak over the 80-minute feature-length finish line, and to push forward to two hours is excessive without an engaging story that needs that extra room to grow.
There is no real plot to speak of beyond our main character coming back to life to wreck vengeance. The movie is patterned after Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, itself patterned over hundreds of genre movies, but it’s like Lee said, “Well, why stop with five bad guys to overcome when you can have 100!” Black Mamba (also the code name for the lead in Kill Bill) is stuffed to the breaking point with villainous characters and some of them are even being introduced with ten minutes left. The critical hit involves like a half dozen bad guys, and then there are more bad guys, and then hell is introducing its own bad guys, and then there’s like a fighting champion from hell, and witches, and I stopped caring because every scene played out exactly the same. The settings may vary, the person might be different, though with a cast list of rogues as long as this one good luck keeping them straight, but the scene plays out exactly the same. Some evil character gets the jump on Kyiera and within a minute she will kill them. That’s it. That’s all there ever is in these confrontations, many of which are hilariously short-lived. At no point will you fear or doubt Kyiera because she never seems to be in danger of losing. It makes the entire two hours extremely boring and repetitive. It also makes the majority of its two hours expendable. Rare is a two-hour movie where I could legitimately say that you could cut it down by 90 minutes, and yet that is the case with Black Mamba. It’s a movie of treading water.
Some of this could be mitigated by providing characters with big personalities, memorable flaws or quirks, or even interesting killing utensils, but Black Mamba feels more like a ramshackle improv fest where actors are entering scenes as “characters” with props or costumes they just assembled off-screen. I love genre movies and I love the way characters can be written for genre. Watch the TV series Justified because it is a masterclass in writing for character. Every character, even the bit-part villain of the week, is written with a distinct voice, an identifiable trait, an angle, something to make them stand out and feel more like a flesh-and-blood person in the stylized, hard-boiled universe of the show. The movie’s extended running time could have devoted scenes to showing why we should fear certain characters, their killing techniques that we would then anticipate seeing how they are applied to our heroine. Think of every movie you can with crazy killers and you see them apply their killer skills early because that’s how you get to fear them. Just being told, “so and so is deadly,” without seeing them in action is dull. In Black Mamba, often characters are over explaining things for the sake of the audience or seeming to narrate what is happening on screen. The dialogue is filled with profanity because it feels like nobody knew what else to say from scene to scene. There aren’t any tense exchanges and showdowns or clashes of viewpoints. It’s all just yelling, boasts, and non-clever insults.
The story doesn’t make much sense. There are angels that bring back Kyiera because it’s “not her time,” but then they want to use her in a celestial war? Was she lied to by the higher authorities in order to manipulate into an ongoing and endless war between heaven and hell? Is this a high-concept version of Munich and Kyiera is being used to perpetuate endless conflict regardless over culpability? No, well at least I doubt it. The larger workings beyond our heroine are left vague and seemingly shifting. The first thirty minutes could have been consolidated to ten to introduce the premise of Kyiera dying and being resurrected, but then there’s nary a section that couldn’t be consolidated, like the litany of interchangeable supporting characters.
Halfway through the movie, we suddenly jump to hell and it doesn’t really alter the direction of the story but only provides more witnesses to commentate on the action. This is where Esmerelda comes in. She’s the queen of hell and played by Dawna Lee Heising, a 65-year-old actress who got her (un-credited) start as a stripper in Blade Runner and has a long list of campy T&A roles in low-budget genre fare. She feels like the production’s big “get” and so she gets a lot of unnecessary screen time. The character is annoying and the entire addition of hell as an environment feels tacked-on. I thought I knew who the big bad final boss was, and then hell is introduced with its own cadre of damned killers, and I didn’t know who the final boss should be. There’s no feeling of a direct line for Kyiera’s goals. Think again to Kill Bill as a prominent example. She had a small list, each name crossed off brought her closer to her biggest target, but each became harder to accomplish and more personally reverent as she climbed the ladder of revenge. There was a feeling of progression and payoff as The Bride worked through her bloody vengeance. With Black Mamba, she’s inundated with one face after another, but you never feel progression because the movie only feels like it’s stuck in a Sisyphean loop of disposable foes. The structure of this movie doesn’t have the groundwork to provide forward momentum.
The first thing you’ll notice about Black Mamba right away is the choice to up the contrast so high that it may hurt your eyes at time. There are times where the color contrast is so extreme that it obfuscates what is happening on screen. You’ll see faces disappear into shadow in a room, and not in a way that feels intentionally ominous, and every time a character is driving outside it looks like an atomic bomb is going off in the background. It’s chiefly a distraction and an ugly one and one that feels like it was done to make the footage look more like a grungy grindhouse movie of old. Going for a specific visual aesthetic is a fine marker, but when it harms the clarity of what is happening then maybe it’s worth revisiting. There are simple things that could have been done to better orient the viewer. The color contrasts and color palette could have better been paired with specific locations so that the audience knows exactly where they were or whose story they were following, much like in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic. We even literally have the denizens of hell as one frequent setting, so why not crank the contrast high and more fiery in colors, favoring oranges and reds, and then go for a cooler color palette for action on Earth? Or even have a section that isn’t contrasted to death? It’s a stylistic choice that grates severely.
I would be forgiving of some of the obvious technical limitations for a low-budget indie aiming for the feel of other classic low-budget indies, except that, reportedly, Black Mamba had a budget of $250,000. When I read that I burst out in incredulous laughter. Maybe it was a decimal error, or maybe Lee was very generous and paid his sizeable cast and minimal crew handsomely, or maybe there are other reasons why a quarter of a million dollars does not, in the slightest, look to have been translated onto the finished product. Where did all that money actually go?
I’ve been watching enough micro-budget indies in my pursuit of reviewing homegrown cinema that I feel more adept at better gauging a potential budget. There are locations to consider, though Black Mamba seems to reuse a lot of empty warehouses, alleyways, and church parking lots, and there is action to consider, though Black Mamba uses a lot of plug-in special effects and limited fight choreography, and there are actors to consider, which Black Mamba has in excess, and there is the general professionalism of the look and sound of the movie, which Black Mamba is definitely lacking. There are persistent sound issues (the louder yelling is so screechy and high-pitched that I had to cover my ears) and there is a dearth of editing coverage. Apart from the fight scenes, it feels like every scene was designed with one shot in mind to connect directly to the next. This can make things awkward in conversations that would flow better with alternate angles rather than one person with their back to the camera or in extreme close-up. I geuss it just didn’t matter or they didn’t have the time, and yet with the budget being reportedly a quarter of a million dollars? This movie feels far more like a $10,000 budget indie than $250,000. To be blunt, I have watched movies with budgets under $15,000 look and sound much better than this quarter-million-dollar movie.
I thought about watching other Lee original movies available on Tubi but I only watched about 15 minutes each of 2017’s Six Feet Below Hell, 2016’s King Killer, and 2008’s Kill Every Last One. I don’t think I could take watching all of these movies even for objective review purposes, each of which appears to have the same faults and high contrast value as Black Mamba (one of those films is an astounding 133 minutes long!). While designed to be sold, these movies do not feel designed to actually be watched and enjoyed. There are no real characters to fall in love with, conflicts to draw intrigue, or well-developed plots to thrill and surprise. These movies feel like empty product to line an endless array of schlock DVD shelves.
This brings me to my final complaint registered at Black Mamba. More than halfway through the movie, yet another character is introduced, this time a formidable fighting champ from hell. Upon hearing the man’s name, the queen of hell falls onto the floor and begins gyrating in pleasure, moaning the man’s name and declaring him to be an amazing god among men. This character is played by none other than… the writer/director himself. I almost walked away from the movie at that point. It’s difficult to critique something like Black Mamba. The people involved don’t seem to have any aspirations that what they were making was serious, and yet maybe they should have taken it more seriously. Because of the punishing two-hour length, because of the repetitive and stretched thin plot, because of the over population of unmemorable and disposable characters, because of the technical flaws that still persist after a decade of filmmaking, because of the lack of accessibility for providing an engaging story and characters for an outside audience, and because of its reportedly sizeable budget, I regret to deliver my first failing grade for an Ohio-made indie. I wish Mr. Lee and his team well but this is assuredly a case where if you’ve seen one of the man’s movies, you’ve seen every one of the man’s movies, and unless you were in these movies, you shouldn’t watch them even for irony.
Nate’s Grade: F
The cast and crew of Infinite were taken by surprise when their corporate overlords decided to shuttle the big-budget action movie to its fledgling streaming service, Paramount Plus. Fortunately for me, I had just purchased a yearlong subscription plan because I wanted to watch Bar Rescue whenever I pleased, so I was one of the lucky ones to gain access to this first “Paramount Plus Original Movie” as it quietly premiered. It might be for the best after all. Infinite is a high-concept action movie by committee that feels so lacking in just about every critical department.
Evan McCauley (Wahlberg) is a man suffering from schizophrenia, or so he believes. He has strange visions in his head from past historical time periods and he instinctively knows how to forge a samurai sword. He’s interrogated by Bathurst (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who recognizes Evan as an ancient foe that he has fought through multiple past lives. Bathurst wants to kill Evan before he can remember who he is and stop Bathurst’s evil scheme. Evan is rescued by Mora (Sophie Cookson, Kingsman) who informs him that he is one of the Believers, a group of immortals who get reincarnated after each death. They’re waging a secret war against the Nihilists, lead by Bathurst, who want to obliterate the world rather than be reborn into it again. Evan must relearn his many pasts and help the Believers recover a hidden doomsday weapon his past self hid.
You’d be forgiven if you thought you had watched Infinite before, perhaps in a past life, because it’s so highly derivative. The story runs on two very well-worn tracks of science fiction storytelling, the Chosen One plot and the Secret War plot. You’ve seen variations on both in plenty of familiar sci-fi action movies, comic books, and the central pillars for countless Young Adult titles. Think about being told this statement: “Your ordinary life has been merely an elaborate cover, and you’re no ordinary person but secretly a powerful and important [fill in the blank] and there’s been a war going on in the shadows between [fill in the blanks] and you’re the key to solving this ages-old conflict.” I bet many of you can already think of similar titles that apply. There’s Harry Potter and Highlander and The Matrix and the Assassin’s Creed series and even more specific examples like Wanted, where it too features a sexy woman rescuing our lead in a sexy car and fending off bad guys while she informs him of his secret true calling. Even Ejiofor was in a strikingly similar movie just last year, 2020’s The Old Guard. It’s all so vaguely familiar at every moment that you’ll question whether it’s all built from spare parts.
Then there’s the added reincarnation angle, where people have amazing skills that they never knew they possessed (The Matrix, Wanted) and souls going from host body to host body (Cloud Atlas). In fact, David Mitchell, the author of Cloud Atlas, essentially wrote this very story in his 2014 novel, The Bone Clocks. In that novel, we learn that there are two factions of immortals who are reborn after every death, one group that preys upon the souls of mankind and another trying to defend the innocents. That book explores a lot more in the realm of identity (characters are reborn in different genders and races), time, and purpose than with Infinite, which settles for a recycled B-movie doomsday plot that even video games are getting tired of now. If past lives and reincarnation is just another disposable gimmick for super powered beings duking it out over a cataclysmic MacGuffin, then why bother with the existential possibility of the premise?
For a movie that takes so much time to spit out clunky exposition, Infinite is fairly incoherent and, occasionally, self-defeating. When you’re entering any new territory, there’s going to be a learning curve. Imagine how Neo learned about his misconception of reality, the war and history with the machines, and his capabilities he was opening himself up to. Exposition is best done in portions equally spaced out and tied to action, so our characters can learn through doing and failing and then succeeding. With the gimmick of past lives, it could open up such intrigue and possibility about human potential as well as the difficulty of these immortals finding one another across the globe for centuries, restarting with every rebirth (a fact explored in The Bone Clocks). It also would lend itself to characters being reckless with action movie stunts because, at worst, they die and take a twenty-year or so timeout before getting back into the action. Nothing of real interest happens with the past lives gimmick. The movie treats it as a shortcut to give its characters superpowers, and by tapping into those memories, now they have all these crazy super abilities that no mortal could accomplish in merely a single lifetime (sorry Bruce Lee). Imagine if in The Matrix, instead of Neo learning and training that they just uploaded everything into a Chosen One 3.0 security patch they downloaded (yes, he downloads skills, but we see the process demonstrated as visual progression). It’s boring to watch. The movie even could have explored more about these past lives, experiences, and lessons learned rather than in kaleidoscopic flashbacks. For the entire premise, Infinite seems so strangely limited in scope.
Then there’s the plot device that destroys the scheme of the villains. The Nihilists are tired of the eternity of being reborn and stuck with the accumulation of their memories. Bathurst says when he begins anew in the womb, he is a fully cogent adult brain and it’s nine months of torture. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the only interesting component in the entire movie that relates to the reincarnation premise. The Nihilists want to destroy all life so then they can never be reborn again, though this still seems theoretical. They have also developed a special device that will store a person’s consciousness onto a computer hard drive or microchip, supposedly stopping that consciousness from being reintegrated into a new host body. If this is the case, why isn’t Bathurst and his Nihilist fellows taking advantage of this? They’ve already developed a solution that works and doesn’t involve the destruction of all life on the planet. I don’t even know why Infinite introduces this absurd plot mechanic considering the damage it does. I guess it was an attempt to raise the stakes with immortals where death isn’t permanent, but for the purposes of the movie, a death means they are taken out of this present fight for the fate of the world. The stakes are still there. The implications are also nebulous, as they talk about souls as currency but can human souls be downloaded onto a portable technological deice? This entire plot device is silly in conception and even worse in execution, with big swirly bullets that also glow as they zip along.
Wahlberg (Spenser Confidential) is on autopilot for the entire movie. He’s laconic and nonplussed and without any hint of humor or fun to be had. His under-performance is compensated by the overacting of Ejiofor (Doctor Strange) in a disastrous dynamic that reminded me of the 2011 Oscar hosting performance by the tandem of James Franco (under performing) and Anne Hathaway (over performing). At least Ejiofor is holding my attention with his high energy level and a maniacal glee that reminded me of James Bond villains. The problem is that nobody else is delivering this same arch level of camp. Everyone else in the cast is trying to play things so icy cool and nonchalant, and it just makes all the characters feel like boring robots.
And yet all of this could be forgiven if Infinite had some memorable and exceptionally exciting or well-developed set pieces to entertain. Much can be excused or mitigated if an action movie delivers upon its action. Alas, Infinite cannot escape the orbital decay of its lack of imagination. The derivative nature extends to the action, which consists of a series of rote chases and gunfights. There is one sequence that had promise for the scale of its destruction, a car chase through the different floors and levels of a police building. It’s viscerally entertaining to watch all of the many things gets smashed while raising the question just how fragile concrete walls are constructed to be in downtown metropolitan architecture. This is also the moment that Evan is brought into the new world, which means it’s all downhill from here. Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer) is an action genre veteran and can be counted on for some degree of style to jazz up the proceedings, but he can only do so much with sequences lacking points of interest and tension. Infinite would play better as campy nonsense, but it won’t acknowledge this identity.
Given how derivative everything appears, it’s surprising Infinite is based on an original work, the self-published 2009 novel The Reincartionist Papers by D. Eric Maikranz. The author offered his readers ten percent of his advance for whoever helped get him to sell the film rights to Hollywood (true to his word, Maikranz paid out in 2019). Already, this is more entertaining to me than anything provided in the 106 plodding and incoherent minutes of Infinite as a movie. The high-concept premise is reduced to a lazy shortcut for superpowers for a group of know-it-alls trying to act cool and strut while delivering exposition by the truckload. The action is stifled, the characters are dull, and the world feels so sprawling but without needed definition. This could have been any combination of Chosen One and Secret War story elements. What about Harry Potter battling the bullet-curving killers from Wanted? Or what about Neo facing off against the ancient society of werewolves and vampires in sleek lather catsuits? Or an immortal special ops crew that must track down other immortals before they can do lasting harm? This mix-and-match formula belies how truly interchangeable the story elements are with Infinite. It closes on voice over by Wahlberg that genuinely made me guffaw. Looking to the future, he says, literally, “Well the possibilities are… infinite.” For this hopeful film franchise, I strongly doubt that.
Nate’s Grade: C-
It turns out we went to war in 1941 not because of Japanese aggression, Hitler’s dominance in Europe, or the protection of freedom and democracy. Sorry kids. The real reason we went to war was to complicate and then clear up Kate Beckinsale’s love life. At least that’s what director Michael Bay and screenwriter Randall Wallace would tell you with their indulgent epic Pearl Harbor.
We open in Tennessee in the 20s with two boys who dream of being pilots. Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett) grow into strapping young lads who flash their hot dog flyin’ skills at basic training, which brings them chagrin from superiors but admiration from peers. Rafe falls in love with a young nurse named Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), who goes against ARMY rule and passes Rafe in his eye exam portion when he has a slight case of dyslexia. But he’s just so cuuuute. The romance builds but Rafe feels like he’s grounded when all he wants to do is fly, and volunteers to fight in the RAF over in Europe. He promises he’ll be back to see his lovely Evelyn. Of course he gets into an accident and everyone assumes that poor dyslexic Rafe is fertilizing a lawn somewhere with his remains. Hence Danny slowly but surely develops something for Evelyn in their periods of mourning, and the two consummate their puppy love with a tango in parachute sheets.
All seems well until Rafe returns back from the dead throwing a wrench into Evelyn’s second date parachute plans. Thus the Hollywood favorite of the love triangle endures until the end when the two fly boys enlist in the Doolittle attack against Japan, months after the ferocious attack on Pearl Harbor. The real purpose of the Doolittle attack was not militarily but merely for morale. The real purpose it serves in the movie is to shave off an end on our love triangle.
Pearl Harbor allows us to follow a group of youthful and innocent starry-eyed kids from training to combat. Each seems pretty much exactly the same to each other. It’s near impossible to distinguish which character is which. It’s like the screenwriter didn’t even have the gall to resort to cliche supporting character roles, and he just made one character and duplicated it. The only one who was noticeable for me was the character of Red (Ewen Bremner, julien donkey boy himself), but that was simply because the man had a speech impediment. We also have our handful of young nurses alongside Beckinsale, and I had an easier time distinguishing between them; everyone had different hair colors.
If you look in the pic, or the credits, you’ll see that two of the nurses would turn out to be Jennifer Garner (Alias) and Sara Rue (Less than Perfect), both stars of ABC shows, and ABC is owned by, yep, Disney. Coincidence? Probably. When they ran this on TV they actually advertised Jennifer Garner above Kate Beckinsale. That reminded me of when Seven ran on TV shortly after Kevin Spacey had won his well-deserved 1999 Best Actor Oscar for American Beauty, and they gave him second-billing in the advertisement over Morgan Freeman, the movie’s true main character.
Affleck has a hayseed Southern twang, but seems to mysteriously disappear for long stretches. Hartnett seems to talk with a deep creak, like a door desperately trying to be pushed open. Beckinsale manages to do okay with her material, but more magnificently manages to never smear a drop of that lipstick of hers during the entire war. We could learn a lot from her smear-defying efforts. Gooding Jr. is pretty much given nothing to work with. I’m just eternally grateful he didn’t go into a usual Cuba frenzy when he shot down a Zero.
Michael Bay has brought us the ADD screenings that are the past, loud hits of The Rock and Armageddon. Teamed up with his overactive man-child producer Jerry Bruckheimer once more, Pearl Harbor is less Bay restrained to work on narrative film as it is Bay free-wheeling. His camera is loose and zig-zagging once more to a thousand edits and explosions. Bay is a child at heart that just loves to see things explode. When he should show patience and restraint he decides to just go for the gusto and make everything as pretty or explosive as possible. This is not a mature filmmaker.
Despite the sledge hammer of bad reviews, Pearl Harbor is not as bad as it has been made out to be. The love story is inept and the acting is sleep-inducing, unless when it’s just funny. It doesn’t start off too badly, but twenty minutes in the movie begins sinking. The centerpiece of the film is the actual Pearl Harbor bombing that clocks in after ninety minutes of the movie. The forty-minute attack sequence is something to behold. The pacing is good and the action is exciting with some fantastic special effects. The movie is bloated with a running time a small bit over three hours total. Maybe, if they left the first twenty minutes in, then gave us the forty minute attack sequence, followed by a subsequent five minute ending to clear up our love triangle’s loose ends… why we’d have an 80 minute blockbuster!
Pearl Harbor doesn’t demonize the Japanese, but it feels rather false with their open-minded attempts to show both sides as fair minded. It gets to the point where they keep pushing the Japanese further into less of a bad light that it feels incredibly manipulative and just insulting. It seems like the producers really didn’t want to offend any potential Pacific ticket buyers so the picture bends backwards to not be insulting. The only people who could be offended by Pearl Harbor are those who enjoy good stories. Oh yeah, and war veterans too.
The cast of Pearl Harbor almost reads like another Hollywood 40s war movie where all the big stars had small roles throughout, kind of like The Longest Day for the Pepsi generation. Alec Baldwin plays General Doolittle and is given the worst lines in the film to say. Tom Sizemore shows up as a sergeant ready to train the men entering Pearl Harbor. He has five minutes of screen time but does manage to kill people in that short window. Dan Akroyd is in this for some reason or other, likely because Blues Brothers 3000 has yet to be green lighted. John Voight is easily the most entertaining actor to watch in the entire film. He gives a very authentic portrayal of President Roosevelt. I still find trouble believing it was Voight under the makeup.
The blueprint for Pearl Harbor is so transparent. They took the Titanic formula of setting a fictional romance against a disaster, with the first half establishing characters and our love story, and then relegating the second half to dealing with the aftermath of the disaster. It worked in Titanic (yes, I liked the film for the most part), but it doesn’t work here. Pearl Harbor is a passable film, but the mediocre acting, inept romance, square writing, and slack pacing stop it from being anything more. Fans of war epics might find more to enjoy, especially if they don’t regularly have quibbles over things like “characters” and “plot.” To paraphrase that know-it-all Shakespeare: “Pearl Harbor is a tale told by an idiot. It is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Nate’s Grade: C
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Believe it or not, there was a point in time where people actually considered the possibility of Michael Bay making an Oscar contender. It seems mostly absurd now but at the time there was a benign sense of hope with the production of Pearl Harbor, the most expensive movie greenlit at the time ($140 million) and whose ultimate costs would exceed $200 million. The blueprint for the movie is easy to spot, borrowed heavily from the success of another risky and very expensive movie about sinking ships, James Cameron’s Oscar-winning blockbuster Titanic. If you’re looking for a movie to follow, you could certainly do worse than the highest grossing movie ever (at the time). There was great speculation and buzz about the movie, for its immense production scope, for the reported ambitions, for the prospect of Bay trying to make a serious movie, albeit a serious movie that still included a healthy helping of his usual explosions. There were similar rumors of disaster courting Titanic, then the first production to go over $200 million, and that turned out fine. Well, as should be obvious especially twenty years after its initial release, Michael Bay is no James Cameron in the realm of filmmaking and action storytelling.
Upon its release Memorial Day weekend in 2001, Pearl Harbor opened to a critical drubbing and general audience indifference. It failed to live up to whatever hype or hope had been attached, though it did snag a Guinness World record for most explosions if you value that honor. Bay has never since attempted a “prestige picture” again, resorting to the comfort of doing what he knows he can do well, showcasing large robots punching each other in between pretty explosions. I don’t know what the real legacy of the Pearl Harbor movie should be but I think, twenty years later, it’s a mediocre attempt to recapture something of a past, whether that was the movies of the 1940s or a very very specific movie from 1997 that rhymes with Smitanic. It’s too bad Pearl Harbor is still a three-hour shrug of a movie.
A full 90 minutes is devoted to setting up the nascent characters and history before that fateful attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, and that’s the first major misstep for the film. Much of the emotional involvement is built upon a romance that simply does not work in any capacity. Ben Affleck plays Rafe, a dyslexic pilot who charms Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), a nurse who decides to help him cheat his medical exams. The first 45 minutes demonstrates their abbreviated courtship and romance through a series of cute moments that fail to coalesce into something more meaningful. And if you think that was rushed and abbreviated, after Rafe is believed to be dead, it’s about ten minutes before his best friend and fellow fighter pilot Danny (Josh Hartnett) is starting to fall in love with her and impregnating Evelyn in no time at all. Then Rafe returns, shocker, and everyone is upset with each other and confused, which is exactly what the Japanese military was waiting for, now knowing this is the ultimate time to strike its big assault.
I read that Bay rebuffed some of the more persistent criticism about the fetid romance, saying he and screenwriter Randall Wallace (Braveheart, We Were Soldiers) were aiming to replicate the romances of 1940s movies. To me this sounds like an inartful dodge. The romance in Pearl Harbor is not a throwback to a decade of movies that brought us Casablanca and The Shop Around the Corner and The Lady Eve, classic romances that knew how to pull your heartstrings and still register emotions to this day regardless of being over 70 years old. I think when Bay says he intended the romance to be older, nostalgic, he means simpler, and that’s just an insult to modern audiences as well as film audiences from the 1940s. This romance is just poorly written, not simple. Part of it relates to the chemistry between the three actors, which seems waterlogged, but most of the failure falls upon the shoddy character interactions. This is a movie devoted to having characters exclaim and explain things on screen rather than show you. Instead of watching characters fall in love over time, loosening and relaxing, flirting and deliberating, we just have characters declare feelings over the course of a few months of time. We’re supposed to feel conflicted when Evelyn finds comfort with Danny, but why should anyone care? Was anyone deeply invested in the relationship she had with Rafe? The other problem is that Danny is never even given a chance. His courtship is ridiculously short on time, and in fact his character drops out of the movie for what feels like twenty minutes before coming back to mourn Rafe’s loss. One of the guys says about Evelyn, “She’s got to be with someone, so it might as well be you.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement there, and also that’s pretty misogynistic thinking, my man.
So much hinges on the romance and yet so little of it seems to carry as soon as the explosions kick in. Once the Japanese aerial assault begins, it’s all chaos until it’s over, and then it becomes about getting some measure of retaliation with the Doolittle raid for Act Three. The romance is, for all intents and purposes, put on hold for over half of the movie. It’s like the movie cannot make up its mind so it leaves it to the Japanese to clarify who Evelyn should end up with. When the entire emotional investment of the movie is predicated on a romantic triangle, and you don’t feel any semblance of human emotions for any combination, you might as well scorch the whole thing and have every participant make the ultimate sacrifice for God and country. This is why Pearl Harbor staggers because its love story does not put in the necessary work. I felt no more tension for Rafe or Evelyn in the bombing than any other nameless extra running for their lives.
As far as spectacle, Pearl Harbor can keep you entertained. Bay still knows intimately well how to stage scenes of multitudinous violence and chaos (his real lifelong romantic partner). The Pearl Harbor bombing is the absolute highlight of the movie and impressive in its scale. The shot of the bombing of the six American warships took six months of coordination to merely rig the 700 sticks of dynamite and cord for a shot that lasts all of 12 seconds. The production built the world’s largest gimble to simulate the top of the U.S.S. Oklahoma capsizing. The scale and scope of the attack is impressively massive and gives a real sense of how overwhelming this surprise attack was on the isolationist American military. The chaos that normally follows a Michael Bay action scene, where geography and mini-goals are lost, can actually be a virtue when communicating the surprise attack. You can get lost in all the noise and smoke. There are some moments that are just strictly movie silly, like a squadron of Zeroes chasing after individual people to shoot, or Tom Sizemore firing a shotgun while fighter planes zoom overhead. It’s little reminders that you’re watching a big screen entertainment of war rather than a realistic and jarring portrayal of the horror of combat. Bay only has one viewpoint when it comes to the military, to sacrifice, and to masculinity, so the tragedy of lives lost is only ever served upon the altar of a jingoistic reverence for military power. I would have preferred an entire half of the movie following the plight of the nurses trying to triage all the wounded and save who they could with dwindling supplies and even less time. That movie doesn’t get made by Bay. There aren’t enough explosions in that kind of movie and too much emphasis on realistic human suffering.
I’m also confused about the movie’s political apprehension. It bends over backwards to portray the Japanese generals as honorable and morally conflicted, which is better than mustache-twirling stereotypes, but this is still the aggressor country that had already invaded and occupied China. All of the good intentions of being more even-handed with the Japanese, perhaps to fight against anti-Asian demagoguery or even solely from money reasons, get supremely muddled when Bay decides to make the Pearl Harbor bombing even worse than it was in reality. The Japanese took great offense that in the movie their planes are seen attacking hospitals and civilian targets, something that never happened according to history and witnesses on both sides. Bay reportedly included the extra attacks because he wanted the attack to seem more “barbaric.” What is the point of better trying to represent a group of people and make up extra barbarism?
Looking back at my original review from 2001, I believe this was a watershed review for me. I wrote over 1200 words and it’s more in keeping with my current reviews than my early reviews. I find the analysis to be more critical than my early reviews where I was more likely to settle for puns and scant broadsides. This review has a few of those, but I also found myself nodding along with much of it even twenty years later. There are some marvelous turns of phrases, like “A Longest Day for the Pepsi generation” and Harnett’s voice sounding like a stubborn door refusing to stay open. There’s a punchiness to the writing that I recognize and admire, and it’s like I can see myself developing and finding my critical voice at this early juncture, which was almost two years into my beginnings as a fledgling film critic in Ohio. This one feels like a step above. I couldn’t end this analysis better than I did back in 2001, so I’ll quote my then 19-year-old self to close out both reviews: “To paraphrase that know-it-all Shakespeare: ‘Pearl Harbor is a tale told by an idiot. It is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’”
Re-View Grade: C
Wrath of Man is the least Guy Ritchie movie of Guy Ritchie’s career. It’s a crime movie, yes, and based upon a 2004 French film, but it’s absent his trademark big colorful Cockney personalities, ironic coincidences and upheavals, and broad slapstick violence. It has some narrative shuffling on board, as you can’t have a Ritchie heist movie where he’s not cross cutting between characters explaining the steps of the heist and enact it simultaneously, but Wrath of Man has far more in common with a lean, stripped down crime thriller like Heat than Snatch or Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Even a fun caper like 2015’s Man from U.N.C.L.E. felt like a clear distillation of his signature style into a new mod studio setting. This movie doesn’t feel like a Guy Ritchie movie. There is style, sure, but it’s far more gritty and less self-consciously flashy. It’s a solid vengeance tale, a pulpy though confusingly structured B-movie, a crime story with a message about anticlimax, and a sign that Ritchie can restrain himself when his film project calls for it.
In an opening scene, we watch an armored truck robbed and both drivers are executed. The repercussions of this will echo throughout the story. H (Jason Statham, reuniting with Ritchie for the first time since 2005’s Revolver) is a new hire for that same armored truck company, escorting large sums of money. He and his partner, Bullet (Holt McCallany), are held hostage by armed thieves and H methodically dispatches them, killing them all. Who is this man? He’s someone trying to find the culprits behind the opening robbery for his own personal reasons of vengeance, and that means setting up tantalizing traps for would-be robbers and working his way across Los Angeles to determine who is going to feel his manly wrath.
This is a darker and more somber vengeance movie where the violence has more weight to it. Everything feels heavier in Wrath of God. Even though this is strict B-movie territory, Ritchie does a commendable job of making the violence feel real and dangerous. It’s not cartoonish. There are recognizable genre moments, like too-cool interrogations, but this feels closer to a version of our own world where violence isn’t cool but awful. That may sound like the opposite of a recommendation, and I can hear someone say, “Why would I want THAT in my Jason Statham thriller?” Fair point, but the visceral nature of this depiction of crime makes the thrills feel more earned and less fleeting. The musical score by Christopher Benstead (The Gentlemen) is heavy dread personified for the entire two-hour running time. I was surprised how involved I found myself getting as the movie progressed, and during a climactic shootout I was feeling palpable nervous tension. I didn’t know who was exactly going to make it out alive, but I also wanted the “bad guys” to be taken down, but I was uncertain whether any of this would happen. Wrath of Man is an efficiently calibrated thriller when the action heats up. It doesn’t do anything special but what it does is build its moments with compounding dread. You’re waiting for bad things to happen, and you should expect bad things to happen, but you don’t quite know if they’ll happen to characters you like or don’t like, and that pumps up suspense. I was honestly surprised how invested I was during that shootout despite the limitations of characters as genre placeholders. The action and confrontations are chilly and ruthlessly efficient.
It’s the structure that’s the real villain here. I’m exaggerating a bit but there are significant structural curve balls that attempt to make Wrath of Man more unpredictable and I think take away from its overall impact and coherency. We see the opening robbery from three eventual perspectives, the drivers inside the truck, the perpetrators, and the bystander victims. We’re also shifting perspectives from chapter to chapter, but I’m not certain that all this fancy narrative shuffling is actually worth the strained effort. I’ll agree it keeps things unpredictable, but any movie where beginnings and middles are rearranged would achieve that same effect. Our first segment presents a mystery, but then it’s answered immediately in the next segment. The third segment answers another mystery, and it’s here where I started feeling like these answers weren’t quite worth the efforts to get there. There’s a notable anticlimactic design to much of the reveals, and while I believe it has ripe thematic purpose (more on that later), it also removes degrees of satisfaction that you can take from the movie. When you find out who H really is, you’ll be like, “Oh. Okay.” And from there he seems like an unkillable superhero. And when you find out who is responsible for the opening robbery, you’ll likely be like, “Oh. Okay.”
The problem is that these answers aren’t nearly as satisfying because the people are so one-dimensional. The gang involved in the robbery, and responsible for H’s tragedy, are just one-note dudes and with a super obvious liability they keep on their team that takes away from their so-called professionalism. By taking characters in and out for long portions of the movie, we can lose track of meaningful supporting characters but also it limits the dramatic appeal. If we knew who hit that robbery early, and how they’re reacting, we might feel more conflict when they come head-to-head again with H in the climax. Or we might be better off simply not knowing them at all for as much time as they are given. Getting such shrift characterization, and with an obvious psychopath on board, feels like a half-hearted shrug. Likewise, knowing H’s tragic back-story later into the movie doesn’t really produce much more than had the movie opened with that information. It feels like Ritchie and company have recognized the limitations of their mystery and rearranged the pieces just to provide some extra questions for an audience to grapple with longer. I enjoyed early on discovering just how capable H was, and I enjoyed how the movie doesn’t pretend the obvious isn’t apparent (“Your shooting was… unambiguously precise”). However, this is Jason Statham, so we already know he’s going to be more than capable on the job.
I wanted to talk about the emptiness of the movie, and I don’t mean this as a pejorative assessment but in the themes. It’s about greed and pride and vengeance and, ultimately, it’s about how little any of these motivating factors add up. This is a gloomy movie about bad people, each with a reported reason for doing the bad things that they do. There’s been a million “crime doesn’t pay” messages in movies, but this is one of the few where I felt the futility of it all. By the conclusion, as innocent people are being killed by not-so-innocent people, and then they are just as easily dispatched by even less innocent people, I kept thinking of Marge Gunderson’s inability to reconcile criminal behavior during the end of the brilliant movie Fargo: “And all for a little bit of money? There’s more to life than money, ya know?” I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that H does get his vengeance at long last in the movie’s resolution, but by that point I felt like it didn’t even matter. Sure I still wanted the antagonist to be toppled, but after such mayhem and such loss of life, and all for a little bit of money, the anticlimactic nature of the ending felt purposely designed. The movie has been leading up to this moment and yet when it comes, it’s not quite what we would have hoped. That intentional emptiness is meant to convey the hollow nature of vengeance as well as a nihilistic approach to crime movies. It kind of works but also it works because the movie didn’t do much work making this antagonist memorable or multi-dimensional so that I could relish his eventual smiting. It feels, in some ways, like the grimy B-movie equivalent of Matt Damon getting clipped at the end of The Departed (spoilers?).
Wrath of Man is a solid vengeance thriller with some heavier themes and some weightier violence, but it’s still a movie where Jason Statham cleans shop. It’s still going to scratch those very basic demands but I applaud it for trying to be a little something more. It succeeds in some areas, like tone and theme and thrills, and doesn’t so much in others, like the non-linear narrative and too many one-dimensional characters. Ritchie demonstrates some artistic growth taking just a few fateful steps outside his cocksure and gaudy signature style. I would welcome more Ritchie signature movies akin to Snatch, but I would also welcome more well-oiled thrillers where Ritchie sublimates his style for the good of the story and mood. Either way, I’d just be happier with more good Guy Ritchie movies (and a sequel to The Man from U.N.C.L.E., please).
Nate’s Grade: B
Despite an expensive redo into the editing bay for the supersized Justice League 2.0, this is director Zack Snyder’s first movie in four years and the aftermath of his family tragedy, and it’s the first with that sweet sweet Netflix money. Army of the Dead has an easy concept that seems silly as well as questionable why we haven’t seen this kind of movie before. The world loves zombies movies. The world loves heist movies. Why have we waited until 2021, in the year of our Lord, for a zombie heist flick? Our long drought is finally over and Netflix has answered our collective prayers. When I watch a movie described as “zombie Vegas heist” then I know what I’m hoping for, chiefly a fun, goofy, and well-developed action thriller, and that’s what Army of the Dead provides.
Las Vegas is ground zero for a zombie outbreak. The U.S. government has cordoned off the Vegas strip and contained the zombie virus. The president plans to drop a nuclear bomb and eradicate the zombie plague once and for all. That means there’s still time for one last score. A wealthy businessman wants to hire Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) to put together a crack team to break into a casino vault and steal $200 million before everything gets nuked. Scott gathers a crew of Zombie War vets, specialists, a guide to sneak them into the quarantine zone, and his estranged adult daughter who watched dad out mom down after she became a zombie. Together they’ll venture into certain danger to hit a jackpot.
It’s easily Snyder’s most laid back and straightforwardly enjoyable movie since his debut feature, 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake. It’s a movie that knows what we’re here for and provides a colorful band of characters with big personalities and over-the-top bloody violence. I can’t say that I genuinely cared about whether anyone lived or died in the movie, as many are so disposable that I forgot they were in the group, but I missed their presence when the time came to say goodbye. I enjoyed that two characters as outwardly different as Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) and Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) could become best bros, and their chummy dynamic became one of my favorite aspects of the movie. The actual heist component of the movie amounts to less than the perilous journey to get to the giant vault, and the exaggerated booby traps reminded me of Indiana Jones temples. It was just the right splash of ridiculous to make me laugh. This is a movie designed to simply push the right buttons for a schlocky good time. Its opening montage sets the tone with famous Vegas staples falling victim to zombie mayhem. Early on, it’s Snyder assuring you that he’s not taking anything too seriously and that neither should you. There are moments where Snyder just throws out nonsense just to mess with the viewer, like a scene where Vanderohe theorizes that the skeletal corpses might actually be them and they are trapped in a loop, complete with matching edits to link up their clothing and jewelry to make you wonder. I turned to my girlfriend in disbelief; could this actually be happening? It doesn’t at all, but just the fact that Snyder devoted time for this throwaway sci-fi head fake amused me. I almost wished Snyder had given us more of these throwaway joke exit ramps. At one point, a character gets locked in a vault, and I hoped for a brief moment Snyder would frame the film like it’s suddenly evolved into the zombie’s own Ocean 11, where now the zombies need to put together a crack zombie team to break into the vault for some delicious brains. I appreciate that Army of the Dead prioritizes entertainment on all of its fronts.
Snyder and company have also put more deliberation into their world building. Most zombie movies just present a wasteland of the undead, a sea of hands and teeth that serve as a swarming obstacle but without any more thought. In Army of the Dead, the movie presents the beginning of a zombie civilization with a hierarchy. There are zombie alphas and zombie drones and the potential for zombie babies, maybe, but there is the beginning of something we fully do not understand. It reminded me a lot of the 2007 I Am Legend. I liked that the zombies weren’t as dumb as we often see them, and I also liked that the movie presented the possibility of the zombies being open to collaboration. In order to travel through the territory, the zombies demand a payment from the traveling parties, and this understanding and begrudging truce makes these creatures far more interesting than an army of drooling brutes. I liked that even the leader has learned he should be protecting his head from projectiles. There are some solidly constructed suspense sequences here, like where the team has to slowly creep through rooms filled with “hibernating” zombies, taking great pains not to touch them as they pass. It’s immediately accessible and different, as well as working with further world building. I also appreciated that one character who was left for dead went down fighting like a champion. It almost becomes a joke just how far this character keeps fighting, like they’re pushing against being just another disposable stock character in a genre movie. It’s impressive. The action set pieces are fun and well developed and make use of the different expertise from our assorted heist team.
As a zombie movie, the violence is impressively gory and fun in its visceral splatter effects. With one big exception, there is a clear emphasis on practical effects and physical makeup prosthetics. The zombies at their different states of decay look great, as do their alpha higher-ups, enough to distinguish an easily recognizable class system that also portends further analysis. The deaths can also be gruesomely entertaining. Watching the sticky expertise of the gore wizards makes it even more perversely pleasurable and it’s often played for dark laughs. Two characters having to clear through the smashed remains of a smooshed zombie is gross and grossly funny. While I acknowledge that the recreation of a desolate and desiccated Las Vegas strip is an obvious computer effect, the major CGI addition to the movie is the zombie tiger (that used to belong to Siegfried and Roy) and it doesn’t look terribly great. Part of this is how unnatural it’s destined to fatefully appear, but the zombie horses looked great, though that was a practical costume placed upon a real horse. At least Snyder and company recognize that if you introduce a zombie tiger, you better guarantee it eats somebody and somebody we really don’t like so we can fully enjoy the experience.
There are a few issues that detract from the overall enjoyment of Snyder’s escapist entertainment. When the movie goes sentimental between daddy and daughter, it doesn’t really gibe with the rest of the film. I’m not upset that the movie ever attempted an emotional core to ground our investment in these characters, but there’s a reason you don’t see a tearful heart-to-heart in heist movies, let alone in movies with undead Elvises. I found the daughter character to be a nuisance. She falls under that character mold of the person who insists on tagging along to fulfill some personal goal and who inevitably gets people killed for no reason. The daughter’s goal is to rescue this one stubborn lady who ventured into the zombie quarantine, but this comes to nothing and, infuriatingly, gets many of our group killed trying to save her. Had she never tagged along, many of these people could have better survived, especially since her “expertise” did not save the day at any juncture. Therefore, her very presence was a net negative to the group, which helped drag down my opinion of the whole father-daughter drama.
I also found the overall style of the photography to be distracting. Working for the first time as his own director of photography in a movie, pitting himself in the middle of the action and manning his own camera, Snyder is more directly involved in making sure you see what he wants. However, he utilizes a very shallow depth of field, which obliterates much of the background as a blur. This can work in moments of suspense where seeing beyond waves of zombies can make them feel immense and overwhelming, but when it’s everything including people standing shoulder-to-shoulder exchanging exposition in a warehouse? Not as helpful. This singular focus, or limited focus, can get annoying and feel like an artifice that Snyder simply cannot let go of. It feels like the cameras got stuck on this mode and the filmmakers just said, “Oh well.” While Snyder has deigned that color shall exist in this movie (unlike in Justice League), the color palate is still drained and resembling an overused Instagram filter that cannot be undone.
As a side note, originally this movie featured comedian Chris D’Elia as the helicopter pilot of the crew and then Netflix spent millions to digitally erase and replace him with comedian Tig Notaro after it was revealed D’Elia was the latest in a long line of sexual abusers in Hollywood. Notaro filmed all her scenes sans one in front of a green screen and if you never were told otherwise you wouldn’t have known. Bravo to Snyder and company for going the All the Money in the World route and replacing a creep with a beloved actor that should have been hired in the first place. Notaro, it must be said, is also sarcastically great in the film. Her scene where she openly discusses arranging for their corporate babysitter to get axed is a highlight.
Netflix has big plans for Army of the Dead. A prequel starring the Dieter character, and directed by the actor playing him, has already been filmed, and an animated series is also in the works. The studio sees this franchise as a creative well they want to tap dry, and I’m sure the movie will prove popular on the streaming giant and only lead to further network expansion. I think Snyder feels somewhat liberated by making his first movie without superheroes in a decade. He’s always been a first-class visual stylist but his command of narrative and character can be sketchy, hence 2011’s woefully miscalculated “feminist” passion project, Sucker Punch. I think Snyder is best when he keeps things lighter, sillier, schlockier, and absent larger themes and messages meant to make people think deeper about the human condition. Being a filmmaker who understands they work best in the land of shallow blockbusters isn’t some acceptance of limitation or failure. It’s an acknowledgement of where one’s skill set best matches up. I don’t begrudge Snyder as a filmmaker, though I question whether his interpretation of superheroes can escape the shadow of his love for Objectivist philosophy. I think it’s no coincidence that his two best movies, and least problematic, are both his zombie action movies. So bring me more of the Army of the Dead universe. Bring me more Zack Snyder at the helm. It keeps him busy, it keeps me entertained, and it keeps him away from making more four-hour long superhero movies.
Nate’s Grade: B
If I told you I had a movie where Angelina Jolie is on the run from a team of assassins and under the backdrop of a raging forest fire, you’d likely be intrigued. Then if I said that it was co-written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, one of the best screenwriters working today who excels at taking muscular genres of old and providing uncommon depth and poetry, then you might say, “Why aren’t we watching this right now?” Those Who Wish Me Dead, based on the book by Michael Koryta, is Sheridan’s second directing effort after 2017’s excellent Wind River, and while I would not classify it as a bad movie, it is easily Sheridan’s weakest film to date. There’s so much amazing potential here with these plot elements, this cast, and this rising filmmaker, and to only produce a square, straightforward 90s action throwback feels deeply unsatisfactory. There could have been so much more.
We follow Hannah (Jolie) and her team of Montana forest fire fighters. She is still recovering from a recent tragedy where she was unable to save campers from a fire. She’s been reassigned to a lonely lookout tower to deal with her guilt and PTSD. Along comes Connor (Finn Little) whose father is being hunted down by a team of hired assassins (Aidan Gillen, Nicholas Hoult). His father is killed but Connor escapes, finding refuge with Hannah and wary of trusting anyone new. The two of them make a trek to find help while the killers narrow their search and start a forest fire to provide a very attention-grabbing distraction for the local authorities.
The problem with the plot description I just provided is that there really isn’t much more to anything. You can probably see the progression of Hannah’s character arc immediately, having to confront her past trauma through combating the forest fire and saving this young boy’s life to make amends mentally for those she could not save in her past. The Sheridan of his past work would recognize that familiar arc and provide extra nuance, commentary, and make the character more emotionally resonant. Unfortunately, this version only produces a lead protagonist that is, shockingly, disposable. You could have eliminated the entire character of Hannah from this movie for all the personal significance she provides for this story, and that stunned me. We don’t really get insight into he beyond generic observations. She doesn’t really bond with this kid in any meaningful way. She doesn’t really teach this kid anything generally useful for his own safety. This is the type of relationship dynamic where the adult teaches the kid some means of defense, and then in a pivotal moment in Act Three, the child uses that technique to save themselves or the adult. It’s textbook (think: Face/Off with the butterfly knife as but one example). This movie doesn’t do that. In fact, once this kid hands over to Hannah the “unseen paper carrying dead dad’s important information” then he also comes across as disposable. I guess he’s still a witness to murder but the valuable intel seemed more pertinent to thwart. The fact that these two characters can arguably be removed from the story, either entirely or far earlier, is not a good assessment of their value added.
The competing storyline with Jon Bernthal (The Punisher) is surprisingly the one that feels most attached to the events of the plot and could have been its lead vehicle. He plays Ethan, a small-town sheriff’s deputy who happens to be Connor’s uncle. Ethan also has a pregnant wife, Allison (Medina Senghore), and they both take up a generous amount of screen time. There’s a good reason for this because they’re the best part. The loving yet pointed interactions between the two of them are the best example of characterization evident in the movie. When Allison is confronted by the assassins, she’s sees through their law enforcement disguise easily. When the bad men want to torture her to get key information, she manages to subdue them and escape, all while being seven months pregnant. In two short scenes, this woman proves more capable and fearless and badass than our lead character.
It’s easy to see a version of Those Who Wish Me Dead where the Ethan character and his drama completely cover the same narrative territory that Hannah offers. Ethan’s wife is pregnant, the baby is due soon, and yet Ethan feels scared and unsure about whether he has what it takes to be a father. He comes across a young boy on the run from big trouble and protects him, and over the course of their shared experiences, he bonds and discovers paternal capabilities within himself, he teaches the kid a thing or two about defense, and he becomes more self-assured about his own personal future. Admittedly, you could say that’s a simplistic character arc, but is the one presented any less simple where we watch a person haunted by trauma confront that trauma by the end? My point in this revisionary hypothetical is that this version would be more aligned with the plot elements that seem to get the most care and screen time. I know it’s based on a book, but it clearly feels like Sheridan has shown what parts he cares about more so embrace those parts.
It’s also quite easy to identify the parts of the movie Sheridan did not care as much about. There is a surprising sloppiness to much of the setup here, where key connecting information is excluded from the viewer perhaps out of a sense of trying to be ambiguous but also perhaps out of a sense of general indifference. I was confused why the assassins blew up a house in their opening moment, what information Connor’s father had stumbled upon, and even who these killers were and what their connections were with an unexpected Tyler Perry cameo where he appears to be their boss or handler or buyer or someone. The plotting can also be disappointingly redundant, as Hannah and Connor fall into a frustrating pattern of leaving the lookout tower, going back to the lookout tower, leaving the lookout tower again, repeat. Perhaps most egregiously, the raging inferno doesn’t even seem to matter. How can you make a movie about a forest fire where the forest fire barely matter in the scheme of things. It exists as an immovable obstacle but more so as a means of emotional catharsis for Hannah’s prior trauma. Far too often it feels like the fire is practically standing still, watching the actors from afar and not wanting to interrupt, and then at the very end, it’s comically overcharged, zooming at super speeds to compensate for its earlier lazy pacing. There aren’t any real specific survival scenarios tailored to the circumstances of a forest fire, which means this movie could have easily been a flood or earthquake or any disaster or none at all.
Those Who Wish Me Dead reminds me of the vanishing mid-level thrillers that Hollywood used to crank out on a near weekly basis. That’s probably also part of the reason it feels like a throwback to an earlier time, a time where a big star could be thrown into a disaster and given evil-doers to topple and we’d all gladly gobble it down with a heaping helping of popcorn. Perhaps that unassuming nostalgia will prove enough for some people, especially in the wake of a year of minimal big screen blockbusters. There are still moments here that feel like the Sheridan of old, but too much of this movie cannot escape the gravity of being a dull action movie without anything to say and without characters to invest in. It’s not even that the movie is too simple, because simplicity can be its own virtue, but that it’s underwritten, with characters that could be exorcised completely from the narrative, and a batch of villains lacking entertaining personalities or memorable menace. It’s hard not to feel like everyone’s talents involved were wasted somewhat on something so basic, which is even more baffling when you again recognize those fantastic story elements. Chases. From assassins. Into a forest fire. There’s an obvious movie to be had there. Unfortunately, Those Who Wish Me Dead doesn’t capitalize.
Nate’s Grade: C