Liam Neeson has been bedeviled on an airplane. He’s been bedeviled on a train. At this point, Neeson is going to find trouble on every form of public transportation. The Commuter is the fourth collaboration between America’s favorite geriatric action star and director Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night). None of those movies had the success of Taken but several had some pleasures or an intriguing mystery or hook. The Commuter makes Non-Stop look like Agatha Christie in comparison.
Michael MacCauley (Neeson) is an ex-cop-turned life insurance salesman who commutes into New York City every weekday. He recognizes many familiar faces on the train, except for Joanna (Vera Farmiga), an expert on human behavior. She makes a strange offer: find a passenger by the code name of “Prynn” before the last stop and he’ll receive $100,000. The passenger, a high-value witness, will be less well off. Michael taps into his old cop instincts to deduce who might be the desired target. As each stop passes, he has less time to figure out the identity and decide whether he’ll go through with it all.
It’s impossible to ignore the fact that the plot is so bizarrely similar to 2014’s Non-Stop, with Neeson as a former cop trapped on a mode of travel, being harassed by a mysterious figure, and tasked with discovering the identity of someone on-board before it’s too late while he’s possibly being set up to take the fall. It’s almost as if the producers said, “Hey, let’s get the director of Non-Stop, the star of Non-Stop, and why don’t we just make Non-Stop but, like, on a train?” And then that man bought a new house in celebration of his genius. I look forward to the next entry in the Neeson-Stuck-on-Transportation Trilogy where he’s stalking a ferry approaching Niagara Falls and being blackmailed into finding hidden diamonds. The major problem, besides being so recycled that it could have been retiled Phoning It In: The Movie, is how nothing makes sense at all. With lower-rent genre thrillers, things don’t always have to make the best of sense. Even the best thrillers suffer from leaps of logic but are excused because of how engaged we are in the movie. With The Commuter, I was so detached from the movie that I was impatiently waiting to get off on the next stop, no matter what was waiting on the other side.
The villainous scheme is predicated on so many people doing so many stupid decisions that are far more complicated than they have any right to be. First, this villainous organization essentially looking for a witness on the train has been tipped off from an inside source in the FBI. Except this source cannot say what that witness looks like. Also, why is the FBI allowing such an important witness travel by his or herself minus protection and among the public? I know for a fact that there’s an FBI office in New York City. The FBI members picking the witness up also don’t know what this person looks like, which again begets stupidly bad communication. The bad guys are also pretty bad if they have to resort to such efforts to suss out a witness. Can’t they find somebody to hack a phone? The bad guys steal Neeson’s phone to limit his communication. Yet, as he does in the movie, he simply asks another passenger to use their phone. What was the point of all of that? The villains also immediately inform Neeson that his family has been kidnapped, allowing little room for raising he stakes. Why don’t they wait to see who gets off and leaves with the FBI and use a sniper to take them out? Maybe it’s not about killing the person but destroying the evidence, so in that case you do random bag checks from a train worker. That’s it. Then there’s the nickname given to the target (“Prynn”). Who gave birth to this nickname and why would the witness carry the one item in public that would confirm their identity? If that’s the case, why did any of the bad guys need Neeson? He seems best served as a patsy considering he acts like a maniac, at one point pointing a gun at people and making demands, before settling back and assuring the passengers he’s trustworthy. That’s what stable people do, naturally. Why should anyone believe anything this guy says?
Here’s an example of how dumb this movie is. There are a few characters introduced in the opening act that you know will come back again because of the economy of characters and because name actors don’t take do-nothing parts in genre fare (unless you’re Chloe Sevigny in The Snowman, apparently). I’m waiting for confirmation that one of these characters is revealed to be working with our nefarious villains. A character has a very specific phrase they share with Neeson. Then, upon figuring out who the sought-after witness is on the train, he or she relates their story about bad cops and how one of them used the exact phrase. Fine, as expected, but then Neeson doesn’t respond. It triggers nothing from him even though he had only been with these people hours ago. It’s only later when this same phrase is said for the THIRD time does Neeson finally connect the dots. If a magic phrase is going to be the trigger then why have this extra step? It just makes Neeson look dumb and it doesn’t speak well to the film’s opinion of its audience.
Regardless of how nonsensical a thriller comes across, as long as it delivers the suspenseful genre goods, much can be forgiven. This is another area where The Commuter doesn’t perform well. There’s one decent hand-to-hand fight filmed in a long take that has a solid visceral appeal, but other than that this movie takes turns either looking ugly or like its budget wasn’t simply enough. The location calls for very cramped and limited environment that will require some combat ingenuity that the movie just isn’t up to the task for. Watching Neeson stalk from car to car, playing his Columbo detective games with resolutely stock characters (Lady Macbeth’s breakout star Florence Pugh deserves better), is not as fun as it sounds, and it doesn’t sound that fun. Maybe if the rote characters were better drawn, if the evil scheme was a bit cleaner, if the hero was more morally compromised, then maybe the downtime wouldn’t be as boring. There’s a ridiculous derailing sequence and then there’s another twenty minutes after. Collet-Serra can only bring so much to the movie, and the script doesn’t have enough clever inventions or reversals to spur much in the director’s imagination. As a result, everything feels like a deflated by-the-numbers thriller that would be better appearing on late night TV.
Neeson (Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House) is on action autopilot as he settles into the shed skin of one of his past Collet-Serra performances. He’s gruff, he’s cunning, he’ll take your best and keep swinging, and as he reminds the audience at three separate points, he’s sixty years old. He can still offer simple pleasures, and if your only requirement for entertainment is watching Neeson punch people and things, then The Commuter will fulfill your needs. His character is supposed to be placed in a moral question of self-interest but there’s never any doubt. If Neeson was a corrupt cop, I think that would be a better character arc and starting point for a guy questioning selling out a stranger. I’m surprised at how generally wasted every actor is, notably Farmiga (The Conjuring 2), who is literally only in two scenes on screen (her role is mostly nagging phone calls). She’s the only person given a little personality. Perhaps that’s because we already know where her allegiances lie so the sloppy screenplay doesn’t have to keep her an inscrutable suspect to interrogate.
The Commuter is a dumb ride to the generic and expected, and then it just keeps going. If you’re really hard up for entertainment and have a love affair with Neeson’s fists, I suppose assorted thrills could be found, but for everyone else this is one to miss.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a twenty-year plus sequel that is way more fun than you would have expected for a twenty-year plus sequel. It’s updated to modern-day by ditching a living board game and instead transporting four Breakfast Club high school stereotypes into the world of an old school adventure video game. The biggest boost is the camaraderie and comic interplay of the four leads (Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black), each blessed with memorable moments to shine and a satisfying arc. The adults are great at playing as children-in-adult-bodies. The film does a good job of introducing the rules of its world while also explaining the mechanics of video games (cut scenes, life meters, re-entering the game), at the same time holding your hand through it all. The satire of video games is often amusing like the strengths/weaknesses discussion, and there’s a very good reason why Gillan is dressed in a skimpy outfit, which even the movie calls out. It’s a simple story told without subtlety but this movie is packed with payoffs and spreads them evenly throughout. The actors are truly delightful and this should be a breakout role for Gillan. She is very adept at being silly with physical comedy and has a wonderful bit where she tries to seduce some guards after some flirting coaching from Jack Black. Thankfully, Black being a self-obsessed teen girl on the inside doesn’t veer into transphobic/homophobic mockery. The awkwardness of the body swap scenario is never forgotten, which lends itself to consistent comedy and heart. There are a lot of great little moments and enjoyable set pieces. Jumanji is a tremendously fun movie that won’t insult fans of the original. If you’re looking for an unexpected amount of entertainment this holiday season, check out the Jumanji sequel and one of the year’s best comic teams.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Netflix has been fighting to get into the world of theatrical features. While its original series have met remarkable acclaim, Netflix still wants to draw filmmakers. There have been a few high-profile film buys like Brad Pitt’s War Machine, the live-action American Death Note, and it’s become Adam Sandler’s new home. Bright is a $90 million dollar fantasy film directed by David Ayer (Suicide Squad, End of Watch) and written by Max Landis (American Ultra, Dirk Gently). The big buzzy movie has been met with big derision from critics, some even referring to it as the worst film of 2017. After watching Bright, I think my friend Drew Brigner sums it up pretty well: “It’s not terrible, but it’s not great.” Slap that onto the poster, Netlfix.
In an alternate Los Angeles, humans exist side-by-side with fantasy creatures like fairies, elves, and orcs. Daryl Ward (Will Smith) is assigned a “diversity hire,” Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), the first orc on the force. Nobody wants to work with him. The humans are looking for whatever means they can of getting rid of the orc, and Ward’s superiors are looking for his assistance. Then one night on patrol, Ward and Jakoby come across a nightmarish crime scene. Bodies are burned in place. A woman is stuck in a wall. There’s one survivor, Tikka (Lucy Fry), an elf who has gotten hold of a magic wand. It so happens that magic wands are powerful weapons and only Brights can hold them. Word gets out about their discovery and every group in L.A. is after this powerful item. Ward and Jakoby have to escape gangs, orcs, corrupt cops, and an elf cult leader, Leilah (Noomi Rapace), who needs the wand to summon her Dark Lord back to dominate Earth.
For the first 48 minutes or so of Bright I was willing to give it a welcomed chance. The world building from Landis presented enough interesting wrinkles to keep me intrigued. The banter felt believable enough to fit into its desired genre. Edgerton (It Comes at Night) is engaging and charming as a good-hearted orc whose life’s dream is to be a police officer. He is viewed as a traitor by his own kind, so that makes us like him even more for what he’s willing to sacrifice for this precarious position. There’s a personal source of conflict between Ward and Jakoby that is introduced early for them to work through. There are magic police, which is kind of cool. The world feels lived-in with clever details even though it could have used more of that sense of living. Too often it feels like the only difference in this new L.A. are scattered creatures in different locales. Elves are the rich elite. Orcs are the poor and disadvantaged. I could have used more magical creatures in the mix. What about dwarves, wizards, dragons, anything? Still, Landis’ script was providing enough breadcrumbs to carry me along, building up to the wallop of finding the magic wand. It forces Ward to make a startling personal choice that will define the rest of the film. It took a while to get going, but I was still willing to give Bright the benefit of the doubt.
However, it’s after the 48-minute mark that Bright begins its disjointed descent and never truly recovers, disassembling at an alarming rate. What follows is a series of poorly developed, poorly shot action sequences as the characters bump into one violent group after another. The interesting plot development gets put on hold and the weaker elements begin taking greater significance. It wouldn’t be a fantasy film without a great prophecy, which comes into bearing in the most contrived of ways. Speaking of contrived, there is a coincidental rescue late in the second act that made me loudly groan. Then there’s redoubling back to previous locations presumably to save money on set design. Once the movie sets things in motion for the mad scramble for the wand, it just feels like one unrelated sequence after another to keep our characters on the run. Even with the fantastical world building, you’ll be hard-pressed to muster genuine surprise. That’s because all of the later plot turns are readily telegraphed, like the coincidental save. We’re told that only a Bright can handle a magic wand and anybody else that touches it will explode. First off, why doesn’t this make the magic wand a defensive weapon if you know how rare Brights are? If you know idiots are going to have grabby hands, why not slide it toward your enemies? Regardless, knowing that dichotomy, you know one of the two main character will be revealed to be a Bright during a climactic moment, because why else have it? Anticipating payoffs isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when you can anticipate all of them, then you’re in trouble. The most surprising aspect of Bright is how ultimately it’s still a formulaic buddy copy movie dressed up with some extra fantasy spectacle.
Another weakness that becomes more apparent as the film continues is the characters. Ward and Jokoby are pretty thinly sketched out with a few clarifying details. Ward is the lightly racist archetype who learns to accept his partner’s differences over the course of one long night. He’s pretty indistinguishable from the character Smith plays in the Bad Boys films. I suppose his prejudice and desire to better support his family is enough setup to question whether he’ll follow in the corrupt patterns of his colleagues. But after he makes his choice at that 48-minute mark, it’s like his character growth just stops. He still barks orders, he still quips one-liners, and he makes the big sacrificial gesture, but his character development is iced for a solid hour. Jakoby has more ground to cover and fairs somewhat better as the Jackie Robinson of the orc community. Except this guy seems way too inexperienced, clumsy, naïve, and simply not good at his job. In order to be the first diversity hire, I’m expecting this guy to have to go above-and-beyond to even be considered for a position. It reminds me of Shonda Rhimes quote where she says, as a black woman, “you have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have.” I didn’t believe Jakoby was the best candidate for shattering that orc-sized glass ceiling. The harassment from the other cops can be painfully juvenile as well, like tacking on a stupid middle school-esque “kick me” sign to his back. He wants to make more of himself and because of that dream he’s shunned by his fellow orcs and distrusted by humans. That perspective should be far more interesting than what we get with Bright.
The supporting characters fare even worse as bodies given momentary activity. Tikka is merely a plot device and not a character. She doesn’t even speak until close to 85 minutes into the movie, and it wasn’t really worth the wait. A toaster could have replaced her and the plot would remain relatively the same. She is the definition of a prop. She has no personality, no agency, and no goal beyond keep the powerful thing away from the villain. Because she’s a Bright she’s one of the few who can wield the magic wand, but even those rare occurrences are underwhelming. If this thing is as advertised, a “nuclear bomb that grants wishes,” then why doesn’t Tikka just utilize it to destroy the villains once and for all or at least help Ward and Jakoby? Poor Fry (The Darkness) just gets yanked around from scene to scene, shivering and generally looking frail. She’s got some killer eyebrows though.
Noomi Rapace (Prometheus) doesn’t have much to work with as the chief villain, Leilah. She’s an acrobatic murder machine who wants to summon the Big Evil Thing of Old, and that’s about it. Rapace does have a naturally elfin-looking face, so it’s solid casting. The other characters, especially the various antagonists, are just slight variations on heavies. No real personalities. No dimension. They’re just a video game stage of slightly different looking goons to be cleared before the next stage. Maybe there’s a larger point about the similar darker impulses all races are tempted by, but I think that’s giving the movie more credit than it deserves.
On that front, the racial commentary of this alternate L.A. is muddled, to say the least. The orcs are obviously meant to take the place of lower-class African-Americans in this newfangled City of Angels. However, what does the movie do with this? The orcs are judged to be troublemakers, prone to violence, and generally subhuman, with several people holding a thousand-year-old grudge over the mistakes of previous orcs. Under Ayer’s murky direction, the orcs easily resemble the black and Latino gangs we’ve seen in many of his police dramas. They’re meant to be an underclass. What does that make black people? There’s a tone-deaf joke in the opening where Ward yells, “fairy lives don’t matter” before swatting the winged nuisance to its death. I guess racism against orcs has replaced all other forms of intra-human racism. Landis’ script takes a hot button issue and drops the ball on making the commentary meaningful. Just think about what Zootopia did with its racial allegory on predators and prey. They took a serious topic and had something to say about it. Landis takes a serious topic and ignores the greater potential. By the end of the film, it feels oddly like Landis just took an old buddy cop story concept and grafted some incidental fantasy elements onto it and called it a full day.
Ayer doesn’t help matters by filming in his Suicide Squad-vision of drizzly grays, cool blues, lens flares, and lots of dim shadows. The very look of the movie is so downcast and the action sequences are too poorly developed and choreographed. The combat is very often close-quartered and the jumpy edits and slippery sense of geography make the brawls practically incomprehensible. The sequences don’t develop organic complications. It’s just the same concept over and over, get to that place, shoot the bad guys before they shoot you, repeat. The action also misses opportunities to connect with the character motivations and to derive mini-goals that can help spice things up. Bright has none of that. Even with the inclusion of magic and magical creatures! The best scene is an attack in a convenience store that gets closest to involving parallel lines of action with some organic consequences related to its specific setting. Otherwise it’s a lot of shootouts in locations you’ve seen in other grimy cop movies (alleys, warehouses, strip bars, etc).
Bright is the most expensive movie in Netflix’s history and they’re already reportedly developing a potential sequel. The world Landis has created has enormous potential. It’s unfortunate that it’s not realized in this first edition. It’s not as bad as some film critics have been harping about but Bright should have been much better. The characters are lacking, the world building feels unfulfilled, the narrative is predictable, the social commentary is simplistic, and the action sequences are dreary and unexciting. I think something like Bright might in the end be intended as a loss leader for Netflix, something they initially lose money on but ultimately draws in new subscribers. It’s almost the same cost for that canceled Baz Luhrmann series, The Get Down (at least got eleven episodes from that). Bright is an underdeveloped genre mash-up that might make you reach for a magic wand of your own, your remote.
Nate’s Grade: C
As I stated in my review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, “The first mission for Episode VII is to reset the course, to wash away the bad taste of the prequels that haunt many.” Mission accomplished, mostly, though the biggest criticism for J.J. Abrams’ resurgent sequel was how all too closely it hewed to the original plot beats of its own past. It was an overcorrection, a swing too far in the other direction and turned a reboot into “a loving homage that approaches facsimile.” I enjoyed the new characters, the next generation of Star Wars heroes, and wanted to see what would happen to them next. I just hoped the franchise could steer a course of its own. Having a talent as unique as Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) as the writer/director of Episode VIII certainly portends to that. The Last Jedi is a better movie, structurally and even emotionally than Force Awakens, but it’s flawed and definitely less fun and is driving so many fans to the dark side.
The First Order is crushing the last vestiges of the puny Resistance. General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is chasing the last ships of General Leia (Carrie Fisher) through the galaxy. Finn (John Boyega) is looking for Rey (Daisy Ridley) who is missing. He is teamed up with Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a plucky mechanic, to find a master code breaker to thwart the First Order’s tracking system so everyone can safely escape. Meanwhile, Rey has sought out the last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil), who agrees to train her just to teach her why the Jedi are wrong and he will not help the Resistance. She’s also been psychically linked to Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who is still struggling with his own identity as a pupil of the dark side. Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) has lost his faith in Kylo, who he feels is too weak to embrace his darkest impulses. Kylo believes he can convince Rey to join him, and Rey believes that Kylo can be saved and turned into an ally. The Resistance is looking to survive another day and rebuild their rebellion in the hearts and minds of the downtrodden.
I was hopeful Johnson would be able to tread safely away from the undertow that is the pull of Star Wars nostalgia, and he did so, both to the movie’s great benefit and oddly to its peril at different points. Episode VIII is not a repeat of the plot beats of Empire Strikes Back, though there are some thematic similarities that go along with a middle chapter in a trilogy, like separating the heroes, experiencing losses, etc. Clearly, once Johnson received the handover from Abrams, there were certain Star Wars storylines setup in Force Awakens that he had no interest in continuing. I won’t specify what they are for the sake of spoilers but Johnson definitely undercuts the expectations of extraordinary developments with ordinary, mildly indifferent responses. Certain characters fans may have thought would be more important are gone. It’s as if Johnson is saying to the audience, “Did that thing really matter to you? Who cares?” It’s not Johnson’s fault the fanbase spun off intense theories. He undercuts your expectations throughout. The characters are allowed to fail. The reported saviors don’t want the responsibility. By upsetting the balance of the force, if you will, Johnson has injected a sense of uncertainty into the Star Wars mix, a badly missing element ever since the original trilogy. When a major character looks ready to sacrifice his or herself, you start to believe that this genuinely may happen. When the characters finally fulfill their mission and track down their special contact, they’re denied their goal. You can tell Johnson is having fun with misdirection and, as one character says, “letting the past die.”
However, that same sense can also get Johnson into trouble. From a narrative standpoint, we’re not much further by the end then where we began. From an emotional standpoint, I don’t know if we’re that much farther either. There are elements you can clearly tell that excited Johnson, namely the Rey/Luke/Kylo moments. That relationship, dynamic, and hidden history is easily the best part of The Last Jedi. The decision to psychically link Rey and Kylo seems cheesy at first but works out beautifully, synching up the two force wunderkinds forces them closer and each one looks at the other as a potential kindred spirit. They each think they can save the other, and so it becomes a far more concrete battle over the soul of our characters rather than just a philosophical exercise. It opens up more of a literal dialogue between these opposites and deepens their chemistry. Luke might be following a typical hero’s journey/acceptance of the call, but it’s still an interesting path because he’s bitter and lost his faith in the moral primacy of the Jedi.
On the flip side, there are also elements where you can clearly tell Johnson had less excitement. The middle section involves a side mission onto an alien casino, and it feels like filler, especially with where it eventually goes and what it opens up about the world. I think it’s meant to showcase the exploitation of the underclass, the rich getting richer off war profiteering and the subjugation of civilizations. It doesn’t land and detracts from the other, more interesting storylines. The cutsey comic relief characters inserted to sell toys are not overpowering but they clearly feel like a studio requirement. At least I’m giving Johnson the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t decide that his Star Wars movie needed winged, big-eyed guinea pig creatures. The concluding half hour also could have been eliminated considering the second act break feels like a more climactic ending. The premise of an elongated chase through space that exhausts fuel supplies and where an enemy ship can track light speed jumps is oddly reminiscent of the first episode in the Battlestar Galactica reboot series (maybe Johnson was a fan). There are things the Force is able to do that we’ve never seen before. It begs questions over what exactly are the parameters of this invisible made-up zen power. Also, if you just solve things by saying “new Force powers” then it becomes a Star Wars cheat. There are also nobodies that could have been, and should have been, replaced by other higher-profile characters. There’s a moment of pure unchecked badassery that should have been someone else taking the sacrifice. By cramming in all of this other material, Johnson is trying to find things for his various characters and storylines to do, and not everything is on the same plane. Finn and Poe (Oscar Isaac) recede into the background all too easily. This is the longest Star Wars movie in franchise history and it could have easily been cut down by 20 minutes.
Fortunately for us, Johnson’s eye for striking visuals and strong, punctuated character moments is still alive and well, and The Last Jedi has moments that left me awed. There are a handful of visuals that are burned into my memory. A multi-dimensional shot of action that pans over to a frantic eyeball. A blast of light that cuts through space like a razor, with the sound dropping out for that extra degree of awe. Speeding ships kicking up red plumes. A slow-motion team-up that all but dares you not to pump your fist. Johnson’s unique sense of visual composition is still present an accounted for. He also reveals a strong handle over the coordination of action sequences, an unknown quantity for him until he landed on this biggest stage. The opening sequence is a great showcase for Johnson with multiple points of action both macro and micro. The X-wing fights are snazzy but the simple struggle of pilot trying to reach a detonator is terrific tension. Abrams, and now Johnson, have brought the feel of Star Wars back, where the alien settings are real and not just a green screen warehouse like the prequels. The light saber battles (all two of them) are given personal stakes. The fights matter. Unlike the prequels, we have people that behave and fight like human beings and not cartoons that leap off walls, do thirty flips in the air, and take leaps off 100-foot canopies. The characters and their conflicts don’t get lost among all the special effects wizardry and explosions.
The characters with the best material are also the ones who give the best performances. Hamil (Sushi Girl) is fantastic as the old curmudgeon, the bitter man who’s lost his faith. There are later moments where all of his acting is performed through his eyes and little twitches over his face, and he communicates so many emotions. Ridley (Murder on the Orient Express) continues her flinty determination while being somebody who isn’t as instantly adept at every new challenge. Her one-on-one sessions with Luke and Kylo are made better from her charisma. She’s a star. Driver (Logan Lucky) is still compelling as a villain struggling with being a villain. I enjoy having a bad guy who is sloppy, tempestuous, and not fully immersed in the dark side. It makes scene-to-scene more interesting and it plays better to the film’s theme of trying to save one’s soul from the power of influence. Driver has less “woe is me” moments than Force Awakens and feels more committed to his character’s ultimate journey. Kelly Marie Tran (XOXO) is the newest edition and makes quite a favorable impression as the crafty, thoughtful Rose. She’s got some key emotional moments and Tran nails them. She’s also an eager fan of the heroes of the Resistance, namely Finn, and when the reality doesn’t quite match her fantasy, she mimics the Star Wars fandom in her dejection. While the movie doesn’t find the most useful places for her inclusion, I was happy to watch Rose make her case as a new and valuable addition to the franchise. The actor I felt worst for is Gleeson (Goodbye, Christopher Robin). His character is simply an officious weasel we’re not really meant to take seriously, and this is further accomplished by Gleeson’s screeching voice. I worried the man was going to give himself an aneurysm.
This is also the last time we’ll see Carrie Fisher in the Star Wars universe, barring the misbegotten CGI version of her that resembled a chalky blow-up doll in Rogue One. Fisher died almost a year ago and that knowledge hangs over every one of her scenes. You wonder if there will be any sense of closure with her character in this universe. Johnson provides a scene between Luke and Leia that is so poignant and shot so tenderly that it feels like the perfect sendoff for Fisher. He even kisses her forehead before slowly departing, feeling the urge to stay, while a burst of light halos her face. If you were going to cry at any point in The Last Jedi it will probably be this moment to remind you of Fisher’s passing. Leia does have a couple other appearances after this moment but it’s really this scene that serves as her effective curtain call from this massive franchise.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is an exciting transitional chapter, and this movement seems to be chaffing many fans, bringing forth the question of whether the fanbase will allow there to be a different Star Wars. This is a movie that discards storylines and characters with the wave of a hand, that subverts expectations and plays with misdirection. This is Rian Johnson’s response to nostalgia in place of genuine emotional responses. As Kylo Ren says, “Let the past die.” It’s not the movie’s fault that people devoted countess hours to speculating about possible film theories that were deemed relatively inconsequential. Johnson refocuses on the characters that matter most, Rey and Kylo, by pairing them up as twin forces. While The Force Awakens definitely has more of a brash sense of fun, I find Last Jedi to be the better movie. It’s not quite up to par with the original trilogy. Johnson gets a little overburdened by trying to add too many things, including a casino subplot that feels like a unsatisfactory side mission in a video game. The new Star Wars films have lacked the bold unpredictability of the original trilogy. There’s nothing quite as seismic as Darth Vader being revealed as Luke’s father or even Han Solo captured and locked in carbonite. Even the major deaths in the new films feel anticipated, like in Episode VII, or less momentous, like in Episode VIII. There are some fake-outs with major deaths that many will deem cheap gambits, and I won’t disagree. I was entertained throughout The Last Jedi. I enjoyed the new characters. I enjoyed the action sequences. I even enjoyed the porgs. This is a movie that is looking for balance between the light and dark, and Johnson establishes a Star Wars that resets the table in exciting and frustrating ways. With J.J. Abrams now onboard of Episode IX, we’ll see how he brings home the characters that he brought into the universe a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I imagine the fans grousing this new direction might be more forgiving of nostalgia.
Nate’s Grade: B
I’ve written before that director Matthew Vaughn is the best big screen filmmaker when it comes to making the most of studio money. This is the man who made Daniel Craig Bond, rejuvenated the dormant X-Men franchise, and gifted Fox a twenty-first century James Bond of its own. The first Kingsman movie was one of the best films of 2015 and was bursting with attitude, style, and perverse entertainment. It was my favorite James Bond movie that was never a Bond movie. Success demanded a sequel, and now Kingsman: The Golden Circle is upon us and proof that Vaughn may be mortal after all.
Eggsy (Taron Eagleton) is living a charmed life now that he’s earned his place within the ultra-secret, ultra-powerful Kingsman spy organization. In between battling villains and the riffraff, Eggsy tries to maintain some semblance of a normal life with his girlfriend Tilde (Hanna Alstrom), who, yeah, happens to be the princess of Sweden. Poppy (Julianne Moore) is a drug baron in the vein of Martha Stewart. She’s tired of lurking in seclusion in the jungles of Cambodia and wants the credit she deserves as the most successful businesswoman. She locates the homes of the remaining Kingsman and blows them up, leaving only Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong). Poppy takes aim at the war on drugs. She infects her own product with a deadly agent and holds the world hostage. Unless global leaders decriminalize drugs, millions of infected people will die. In the meantime, Eggsy and Merlin travel to Kentucky to seek out help from their American brethren, the Statesmen (Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, Halle Berry), a clandestine spy organization that also doubles as a gargantuan bourbon distillery.
With Vaughn back at the helm I expected the best, and while Kingsman: The Golden Circle has plenty to like there is noticeably less to love. Being a sequel means that what once felt fresh will now lose some measure of its appeal and charm, and Vaughn and company do falter at times under the pressure to live up to what they established with their rip-roaring spy caper of an original. The brilliant structure of the first movie (mentorship, spy camp competition, class conflict themes) cannot be readily duplicated. There are interesting story elements here but Golden Circle doesn’t seem to know what to do with them, including with the titular Golden Circle. The villains never really feel that threatening. Poppy’s scheme is great and the 1950s diner iconography of her home is an eye-catching lair worthy of a demented Bond villain. It’s just that it feels like we never get a villain worthy of their wicked scheme. Where did she get all of this tech? Her henchmen are lackluster and a lackey with a cybernetic arm (Edward Holcroft) is no competition for Sofia Boutella (The Mummy) and her slashing blade legs. When the bad guys don’t feel like much of a challenge, it deflates the stakes and enjoyment factor of the big finale. It’s a series of ideas that need to be pushed further, refined, revised, and better developed. The first film was packed with surprises and payoffs both big and small, and the sequel feels lacking in payoffs of any kind.
The Statesmen are more a pit stop than integral plot element. You would think a majority of the film would be the international clash between Yanks and Brits, supplying some of that class friction that energized the first film. With the exception of Pedro Pascal (Narcos), you could eliminate them from the movie with minimal damage to the story. Channing Tatum (Logan Lucky) has gotten large placement in the advertisement but he is literally put on ice for a majority of the movie. The exaggerated cartoon nature of the Statesmen feels like Vaughn’s goof on American hyper machismo, but they stay at that same cartoon level throughout. They feel like parody figures, and Vaughn sidelines their involvement. The spy missions are a letdown. There’s an enemy compound atop a mountain in Italy, and all they do is walk inside, immediately grab the thing they need, and immediately run away. It all adds up to a two-hour-plus movie that’s still consistently enjoyable but also consistently unmemorable.
There are things in The Golden Circle that feel like they’re here just because of fan response rather than narrative necessity. The biggest offender is the return of Harry (Colin Firth). He served his purpose bringing Eggsy into the clandestine yet dapper world of the Kingsman, modeling as a father figure, and dying to push our protagonist onward. Bringing him back to life doesn’t serve the story except to bring back a character we genuinely liked. In this sequel, his return and subsequent amnesia doesn’t force Eggsy to retrain his former mentor. Instead he’s mostly a tag-along as another character to shoot the bad guys. Harry simply shouldn’t be here, and resurrecting him takes away from the shock of his death and the weight of his loss. They even recreate the “manners maketh man” bar fight, except the inclusion is so contrived that I thought it was all some kind of Statesman plan to ease Harry back into fighting shape. Nope. Another aspect that feels forced is Eggsy’s relationship with the princess of Sweden. This feels like an apology for the crass joke from the first movie that upset people’s delicate sensibilities (apparently this was worse than a montage of people’s heads exploding). The relationship feels forced and every time the movie cuts back to his troubles with Tilde, they feel small and annoying. It’s like Vaughn is trying to salvage a risqué joke by turning them into a committed couple. Then again the “mucus membrane” moment in Golden Circle (you’ll know it when you see it) seems like a renewed attempt at being transgressive.
The action set pieces have their moments but like everything else there are few that stand out or will stand the test of time. The film starts off strong with a brutal fistfight inside a speeding car. Even with the cramped quarters, it feels easy to follow, creatively inventive, and exciting. As the fight continues, the sequence loses its creative verve and becomes indistinguishable from any other silly Bond car chase. The big finale where the remaining Kingsman storm Poppy’s jungle compound has some cool moments, like Eggsy taking cover behind a giant rolling donut. Regrettably, the action sequences lack the snap and imagination that have defined Vaughn’s films, proving to be yet another underdeveloped aspect. The hand-to-hand fight choreography is still strong and stylish. The final fight between Eggsy and the metallically armed henchman has the fluidity, vision, and fun that were missing from the other scuffles. I’ll credit Vaughn with finding ways to make a lasso and whip look badass and integrating it elegantly with fight choreography (no easy task, right, season five of Game of Thrones?). I kept patiently waiting for any sequence that grabbed my attention like the insane church massacre.
There are two elements in The Golden Circle that rise to the level of entertainment of the first film, and one of those is literally Elton John. It starts off as a cameo with John being kidnapped and forced to perform for Poppy’s private audience. Then he just keeps appearing. He passes over from cameo to downright supporting actor, and just when you think you’ve had enough and that Vaughn has overindulged his Elton John fandom, here comes a climactic solution that is inspired and completely justifies the repeated John appearances. I howled with laughter and wanted to clap in appreciation. It was the best setup-payoff combo in the entire film. The other creative highpoint is a treacherous left turn into the politics of the war on drugs. Poppy argues how legal consumables like alcohol and sugar are far more deadly and addictive. I’ve heard all those arguments before about the hypocritical nature of the war on drugs from every armchair philosopher. Where the film really surprised me was when it gave voice to a nasty perspective I’ve heard in response to the rising opioid crisis in America. Some view drug addicts more as criminals needing to be punished rather than victims needing a helping hand and treatment. When Poppy makes her demands, there are government representatives that openly cheer her ploy, believing they can wipe out the junkie scum. This unsympathetic yet eerily resonant response felt like Vaughn and company finding organic ways to raise the stakes and bring in more sinister forces.
The movie never addresses one holdover from the original Kingsman that I think deserves at least a passing mention, and that’s the fact that every government leader or head of state in Western democracy had their head explode. That kind of public service vacuum would sow plenty of chaos and controversy, especially when people discovered that their elected leaders were complicit with the plan to kill the world’s remaining population. I feel like this was such a huge event that it at least deserves a cursory mention of some sort.
With the glut of disappointing and alternatively maddening action cinema this year, I’ll still gladly take Vaughn’s reheated leftovers. Kingsman: The Golden Circle feels like it’s succumbing to the bombastic spy hijinks it was satirizing before, losing some semblance of its identity and wit to crank out an acceptable though unmemorable sequel. It lacks the sense of danger and genre reinvention that powered the first film. Vaughn’s signature style is still present and there are fun and intriguing story elements available; however, the development is what’s missing. The cool stuff is there but Golden Circle just doesn’t know what to do with it, and so we gallop to the finale feeling a mild dissatisfaction. Apparently the studio execs at Fox want Vaughn to get started on a third Kingsman as soon as possible. I just hope he hasn’t lost his interest in the franchise he birthed. It would be a shame for something like this to become just another underwhelming franchise.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The Hitman’s Bodyguard feels like a 90s Tarantino knockoff remake of Midnight Run, and I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense. This is a movie that knows exactly what it aims to be and strikingly new and original isn’t one of those qualities. When you deliver a late summer movie that has this much depraved entertainment and energy, I don’t mind.
Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) is a disgraced bodyguard-for-hire who lost a high-profile client to an out-of-nowhere sniper. Stuck shielding coked-out white-collar traders, he still knows more than a thing or two about keeping a client safe. His former flame, Interpol agent Amelia Roussel (Elodie Yung), is tasked with getting notorious contract assassin Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson) to the International Criminal Court at The Hague. Kincaid is the only living witness who can testify against Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman), a former Belarus military dictator. Coincidentally, all of the witnesses and evidence against him seem to always disappear. Roussel’s team is ambushed and she reluctantly seeks out Bryce for assistance. He has 24 hours to keep Kincaid alive and transport him to The Hague, but Kincaid has some ideas of his own, like arguing, escaping, and visiting his wife (Salma Hayek). It’s a battle of wills and a healthy deployment of the versatile F-word.
When it comes to genre filmmaking, especially in action or horror, the level of entertainment is much more related to the singer and not the song. Sure a well developed script with interesting characters, organic complications, and memorable set-pieces connected with payoffs are still desired, but often it’s execution that separates the brashly fun bombast from the dreck that dots late night cable. The selling point of this movie is its central pairing of Jackson (Kong: Skull Island) and Reynolds (Deadpool). Hell, both of them aren’t straining too hard from their familiar big screen personalities, Jackson the gleefully stubborn badass and Reynolds as the incredulous smart-alleck with the quick wit. Some critics will chafe and say that the actors are stuck in stale riffs and acting on autopilot. I look at this as a certain virtue of the film. They hired Jackson and Reynolds and let them do exactly what we demand that Jackson and Reynolds do. They were hired for a specific reason. Their crackling repartee keeps the movie alive even as the first half feels too sludgy getting everything going. The comedy can be a tad forced (riding on a bus with chirpy nuns! Gatorade bottle of pee?) and exaggerated at times (really, a fart joke, sound designers?) but this isn’t a film for subtlety, and Jackson and Reynolds, who can outdo just about every working actor for sarcasm and volume, are at their best when they’re big and broad. The rapport elevates even moments that would otherwise be redundant.
I thought the action scenes were going to take a backseat to the Jackson/Reynolds buddy road trip, popping up here and there to move things along and kill off an antagonist or two. To my great surprise, the action in The Hitman’s Bodyguard is uniformly great. Director Patrick Hughes (The Expendables 3) makes each action scene its own story and he thankfully varies the scenarios so they nicely stand out. There’s a terrific motorcycle chase through Amsterdam’s canals and streets, smashing things to bits in the most exciting ways. The action is often divided into two parallel points following Jackson and Reynolds, which allows the film to pair the right sequence for the right character. There’s a late foot chase that’s filmed in refreshing long takes (newest Hollywood action trend?) that stops into the back kitchen of a restaurant and then a hardware store. Each location is well utilized to provide a unique opportunity for the fight choreography and use of props. The movie does a very successful job of approaching action by thinking how to use geography, character, and purpose to plot. Hughes also has a solid inclination when to punch for humor with visual gags, including a few gems involving a minivan. When the comedy wasn’t completely working, I knew I could rely upon the dependable thrills.
The movie also has one of the dumbest attempts at injecting urgency into a story. The plot hinges upon Darius Kincaid arriving at The Hague at an exact time to testify against Oldman’s dictator. In a moment that made me blurt out laughing, an expositional device/news lady informs us that if nobody comes forward to testify then The Hague has to drop all charges, Oldman’s dictator goes free and apparently becomes the president of Belarus immediately again, and probably the end of democracy. First, this false sense of urgency requires witnesses to arrive at a court. That’s not how testimony works. You can give a sworn statement anywhere. You can appear in court via teleconference. The location is not the problem here. And then his testimony is aided by (slight spoilers) photographic evidence of the dictator’s genocide… except it’s all digital pictures. This entire movie hinged on the mad rush to get Jackson to The Hague when he could have just made an email attachment with the incriminating pictures at any wifi spot. There’s also the factor that if it was one second after five or so the court would not accept any testimony. I don’t think courts work that way, especially when it’s a decision over dictators and due process. And yet a wall clock is treated like the ticking clock on a bomb detonator. It’s so dumb I question whether the filmmakers were self-aware and making a satirical riff.
While being an enjoyably profane experience, The Hitman’s Bodyguard doesn’t know when enough is quite enough. It has problems walking away and routinely falls upon overkill in several elements. There’s almost way too much plot here. Every character has a back-story that nabs a lengthy flashback with an ironically chosen pop song. There are obvious betrayals that the film thankfully doesn’t belabor in revealing the culprits, but did we need them anyway? Hayek seems to have said yes just to be a vulgar badass that would attract Jackson. It’s fun but her shtick gets old quickly. She’s all unchecked exaggeration. Hayek’s character is just here to provide a counterpoint for Kincaid to wax poetic about romance and relationships, to nudge Bryce to “man up” and realize what he’s let slip away. The romantic elements are presented on the same wavelength as the comedy, meant to be a shoulder-shrug of cocksure cool. When they try and get earnest on their own terms it doesn’t quite work out tonally. The movie also runs rampant with false endings, going from one escape to another just as it should be winding down. It’s like the filmmakers were having so much fun they didn’t know when to walk away from their story.
I think every ticket-buyer knows what they’re getting when they walk into The Hitman’s Bodyguard. It’s two actors doing what they do best, in an action vehicle that cribs from Midnight Run, and with a sense of style and attitude that resembles a bluntly ironic return to 90s R-rated action excess. Fortunately, the execution of these genre tropes and elements lead to one of the more profanely entertaining popcorn flicks this summer season. It’s a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously, coasts on above average action and the charged comic chemistry of its two loud-mouth leads. It’s a movie that doesn’t require much thought and rewards you for the effort. The Hitman’s Bodyguard is everything you want it to be, and if that’s good enough for you, then you’ll find satisfaction here.
Nate’s Grade: B
I have never read any of Stephen King’s popular fantasy series, The Dark Tower, so I walked into the long-awaited film adaptation with no investment. I walked out with very little investment. The film peaked at its casting, with Idris Elba as the mythic Gunslinger hunting down a notorious evil sorcerer, The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), a.k.a. Randall Flagg. For the first fifteen minutes or so, the world building is pretty straightforward and accessible. The Man in Black is looking across universes for special psychic children whose abilities he can focus to destroy the titular Dark Tower, a monument protecting the stability of all universes. A young kid is having prophetic dreams but appears emotionally disturbed to his family. Before a group of rat people hiding behind human masks can kidnap him, he runs away, finding a portal to Midworld, and into the path of the Gunslinger, who seeks personal vengeance against the Man in Black. From there the movie gets pretty hazy with its rules and lore. The production design of this alien world is a bit bare. The characters stay in an archetypal range and don’t give you much reason to care. The action is serviceable but unmemorable, the Gunslinger credo is rather cheesy especially when repeated with such self-seriousness, and sometimes it feels like McConaughey is in a different movie altogether. If you’re a fan of the series, I have to imagine you’ll be processing some level of disappointment by the end of the film. If you’re a franchise novice, like me, you may find some stray things to enjoy in the moment, but the film evaporates from your mind immediately after leaving the theater, banished to the dustbin of bland sci-fi action.
Nate’s Grade: C
Atomic Blonde is based on a 2012 graphic novel called The Coldest City (by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart), a title I doubt many were that familiar with. Charlize Theron was. She snapped up the option rights before it was published and saw it as a vehicle for herself to cut loose, have fun, and show off her affinity for fight choreography thanks to her background in dance. If you don’t walk out of this film with an uncontrollable crush on Theron, then I don’t know what movie you saw, my poor friend.
Set in 1989 Berlin, on the eve of the wall going down, Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is working undercover for her Majesty to uncover who is killing British agents in East Germany. Her local contact is David Percival (James McAvoy), a black-market kingpin and popular mover and shaker. One of his contacts (Eddie Marsan) has committed secret spy files to memory and wants an escape to West Germany. He’s even gotten the attention of other spooks, including French intelligence agent Delphine Lassalle (Sofia Boutella), who gets intimately close to Lorraine. The smuggling of the contact goes bad, lives are lost, and Lorraine has to explain to her superiors (Toby Jones, John Goodman) what went wrong and who is secretly the murderous traitor.
This film could have just as easily been re-titled Sexy Charlize Theron: The Movie. It is a two-hour celebration of the actress and her many formal gifts. Watch her look sexy in this sexy outfit (i.e. every outfit Theron wears or doesn’t wear). Watch her look sexy strutting down a hallway in slow mo. Watch her bathe in ice. Watch her dispatch bad guys with ease, sexily. And then there’s the sapphic romp with Boutella (The Mummy), which is just an explosion of sexy that might be too much for the weaker-hearted audience members to handle. A female friend of mine used to refer to Angelina Jolie in the early 2000s as “walking sex,” a woman that simply oozed sex appeal with her every glance and movement. I think that term deservedly applies to Theron in Atomic Blonde. The surface-level pleasures are rampant, from the 80s chic clothing, to the pumping New Wave soundtrack, to the very stylized way people take long dramatic drags from their cigarettes, the movie exudes a sense of cool with every frame. There is plenty to ogle, and that includes the casual nudity of a 41-year-old Theron, who has plotted this showcase role for years as an unapologetic badass statement and maybe the nonchalant nudity is part of that (“You think women over 40 are unattractive? Well take a good gander at this, Hollywood”).
The film has style to spare but thankfully it also has enough substance to match, and by that, I mean its depiction and development of action. Coming from David Leitch, one of the co-directors of the John Wick franchise, I expected very fluid and well-choreographed action sequences, and Atomic Blonde delivers. I am happy that we have moved away from the Bourne-style docudrama approach of the jangled edits and gone the other direction, treating action sequences like the dance routines they are and allowing an audience to fully take them in and appreciate the skill and artistry. The showstopper everyone will be talking about is an extended fight sequence that closes out the second act. Lorraine ducks into a tenement building and gets into a bruising fight with several goons. This sequence goes down several floors, careens into empty rooms, and eventually ends up in the middle of a speeding car trying to make a desperate escape. It’s filmed to be one long take and the sequence is exhilarating and only becomes more so with every passing minute.
Admirably, Atomic Blonde also brings a sense of realism to all its action. As the fight continues, Lorraine becomes understandably fatigued, as do the baddies. She is not impervious to their attacks. She’s gutsy but still vulnerable, still human. You feel the blows and the intense duration, which makes me marvel all the more at Theron’s sheer balletic grace when it comes to her ass-kicking capabilities. Having an experienced, accomplished fighter opens up the complexity of the action sequences. The stunt work is a consistent joy in this movie and what will make it stand out amidst the pack.
The only major gripe I have with the film is its rather convoluted spy plot. The Cold War as well as East Berlin is just a backdrop for the cool shenanigans. The movie toys with spy movie pastiches but clearly it only amounts to genre window dressing. It’s almost on par with the music, used to evoke a mood and not much more. It feels like even Atomic Blonde recognizes this and just blurts out more nonsensical “who can you trust?” plot mechanics to get to the next sexy set piece. If you don’t already know who the eventual traitor will be by the end of the first act, you haven’t been doing the math. The communist bad guys are an unremarkable lot but they do make for solid punching bags.
The opening scene sets up the death of a British spy as a personal blow to Lorraine (she kept a photo of the two of them in her dresser drawer) but he’s quickly forgotten and never mentioned. His assassination doesn’t even stir any simple impulses of revenge. The non-linear framing device also seems designed just to skip ahead to the good stuff or provide a break in the action where Lorraine’s superiors can provide disapproving, fuddy-duddy commentary about her blasé behavior. The plot is a bit too needlessly complicated and muddled for what the film needs. It’s as if screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300) was given the edict to make things obtuse with paranoia and intrigue just long enough. There’s an extended coda that feels like a reshoot; however, it also has several significant plot revelations that completely change your understanding of the characters.
Atomic Blonde is the kind of movie that knocks you around and overpowers you with its spiky attitude. At its best, the movie pulsates with a buzzy rush of adrenaline, setting up dangerous dilemmas for Lorraine to take out with her fists, feet, and any old thing lying around. Her ingenuity during the fight sequences adds a welcomed degree of unpredictability and satisfaction, and it makes the locations become an integral part of the fight choreography as well. There’s a reason I’ve been expending most of my review on the action sequences and sense of style, because there isn’t much more to Atomic Blonde. It’s all retro fashions, stylish artifice, an overeager soundtrack, and lots of too-cool bravado, but unlike say Suicide Squad, it actually pulls it off. It’s not posturing when it works. Theron is a absurdly convincing as a super sexy super agent, and it feels like they dropped her into a James Bond story (with Sofia Boutella as the Bond girl). The added realism and long takes allow the film to feel even more viscerally kinetic. If this is the start of a Charlize Theron franchise then I say we are living in the sexiest of times.
Nate’s Grade: B
Watching the trailers for French maverick Luc Besson’s latest, the sci-fi opus Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, I was wondering where it would fall on a scale between Besson’s own funky, enjoyable Fifth Element and the lackluster and laughable Jupiter Ascending. It looked to tell a big story in a big world and with its director’s quirky visual hallmarks. It should at least be fun, I reasoned, and it is for a while. Unfortunately, Besson’s film (the most expensive European production in history) is a movie that almost needs to be seen to be believed but I wouldn’t actually advise people go see it. Perhaps a better title for this movie would have been Valerian and the City of a Thousand Better Ideas.
Based upon the comic series by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres, we flash forward to the twenty-eight century with agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sgt. Laureline (Cara Delevingne). Their mission is to retrieve a special alien something-or-other that will relate to a larger conspiracy involving the eradication of an alien home world.
Besson’s face-first dive into the wacky world of sci-fi will frustrate the hell out of you, chiefly because it does such an amazing job of creating a vibrant, weird, wild, and luscious world brimming with alien life only to toy with interesting subjects and then indifferently discard them. The elements are all there, it’s just that Besson doesn’t integrate them in meaningful ways, retreating back to being an overly caffeinated, erratic tour guide. My friend Ben Bailey and I came up with several different revisions that would have instantly improved the movie, and that only took us twenty minutes after leaving the theater (more on that below in full detail). Over the course of 137 self-indulgent, hyperactive yet meandering minutes of story, I am stunned at the level of ineptitude.
It’s not all bad, and in fact the first 30 minutes are some measure of good to great. The prologue is a thing of beauty and the highlight of the movie (if you walked out immediately after, when the title popped up, you would be better off). Set entirely to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” we visually chart the history of man’s habitation of space. Stock footage of 1970s space missions gives rise to the early twenty-first century construction of a working space station. The station’s captain accepts each new national group with a magnanimous handshake. Each scene is a jump forward in time, wordlessly building a stronger sense of community and the accomplishment of man’s dreams. Eventually this greeting also extends to First Contact and different alien species come aboard, and they too are given the same handshake of peace. It’s an earnest sequence that comes across as genuinely moving and uplifting. Finally, we see that the space station has, over the course of hundreds of years, collected into a massive floating home to thousands of alien species that came from far to explore and intermingle.
The next part is also wordless, following the idyllic existence of a planet of Na’vi-like lithe, blue-skinned alien natives who frolic along a beach and collect pearls. It’s another rather sincere visual sequence. This tranquil CGI world comes to a screeching halt when fiery debris begins to rain down from the atmosphere, followed by a gigantic alien spaceship that crashes and causes an extinction-level event. One of our lithe aliens is trapped behind and comes to terms with her fate. She sends out her spirit in one last radiant burst before the pyroclastic cloud engulfs everything. These two sequences engender good will with the audience and show the potential power of Besson’s transporting vision.
Shortly afterwards we get the first major set piece of the opening act, an inter-dimensional bazaar known as Big Market. In one dimension it’s just a large expanse of empty desert, but with the right gloves and glasses visitors can interact with alien vendors and shop to their hearts content. It’s a fantastic setting and Besson takes time to set up the different particulars and rules and then lets it loose. It’s exciting and imaginative and the only sequence where the character of Valerian feels in trouble or at a disadvantage. It’s a wonderfully knotty sci-fi set piece with multiple points of action interweaving into a satisfying spectacle. There’s even a fun alien crime boss voiced by John Goodman. I whispered to my friend that this was already better than Jupiter Ascending. I regrettably spoke too soon.
Everything afterwards is a cascading mess that assaults your senses and wastes your time. There isn’t a strong narrative drive to the movie, never felt more than during its protracted second act that is nothing but a series of wearisome narrative cul-de-sacs. The movie errs significantly by establishing Clive Owen as an obvious villain so early (he’s torturing a Na’vi-like alien in the friggin’ first act). Owen’s character becomes the supposed MacGuffin that propels the characters forward. They have to retrieve him, but when the audience already knows so early that he’s not worth the effort, the sense of urgency deflates, not that there was much of a sense to begin with. The movie quickly adopts a flippant attitude where it feels like nothing matters, and so nothing does. We jump from one detour to another as if they were single-issue comics that Besson was determined to realize on the big screen. The characters never feel in danger because Besson deploys contrived solutions at every turn. A special jellyfish on the head is a solution to finding a missing Valerian. Simply jumping down a floor grate is a solution to charging aliens. It’s like Besson throws his characters into dilemmas and merely points to the exit door conveniently there the whole time. That’s not satisfying or entertaining. It makes the movie feel episodic, listless, and like it’s just filling up time. What started so promisingly rapidly degenerates into overly exuberant camp nonsense.
Another major issue is that the main characters are awfully boring and miscast. Valerian is supposed to be a charming rogue, a swaggering playboy, a fearsome cop, and none of these attributes work with DeHann. The guy has been excellent in other movies but is entirely unbelievable as the title hero, intimidating nobody and impressing even less. He’s supposed to be a talented expert operative but the results on screen don’t back up the praise. His combat moves require a large suspension of disbelief. DeHann (A Cure for Wellness) speaks in a baffling 90s Keanu Reeves voice for the entire movie, relegating his entire emotional range to a grating monotone. Valerian isn’t charming whatsoever but Besson seems to think an audience will fall for him. He’s an irksome misogynist who sets his sights on his partner, Laureline. Their “romance” is unconvincing and hindered with some laughably clunky dialogue. The movie runs like you have a pre-existing relationship with these characters, but we don’t know them or their back-stories or their shared history. He’s immediately hitting on her and proposing marriage in the first act, though it all seems like a sleazy scheme just to sleep with her. Delevingne (Suicide Squad) has a striking look to her but I can’t tell if she can act yet. Granted the roles I’ve watched ask her to mostly serve as a model. Her character is stiff and unemotive and equally boring, though slightly more convincing as an aloof badass. It’s a shame she gets sidelined as a damsel needing rescue when she seems far more capable than her partner. These two are the living embodiment of prioritizing attitude over characterization.
There’s a very late moment when Besson has his two lead characters just spout transparent exposition at one another to communicate themes and character arcs, and it took everything I had not to laugh out loud. Laureline is about to give an alien something valuable and Valerian pulls her aside and tells her they can’t. “I follow the rules,” he says, and I snapped my head back in alarming whiplash. What? This dolt has been breaking everything and doing whatever he has wanted for hours, and now at the last minute Besson is trying to force him to articulate a paradoxical character description? Being saddled with these two distant, glib, irritating leads is bad enough, but DeHann and Delevinghe have as much chemistry as a batch of dead fish. No danger of sparks flying here.
Before I got into some spoiler detail with my suggestions on how to improve Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, let me appreciate some of its virtues. The movie is often a technical marvel bursting with detail at every edge of the frame. Besson’s quirky sense of humor and playfulness is on display from the imaginative alien designs to the lived-in settings. The movie isn’t afraid to get weird, and some of those details are delightful like a two-barreled gun that can point in different directions. There’s even a small creature that will poop out copies of whatever it eats. Even when the characters and story let you down, the visuals provide a reason to keep going. I enjoyed Rihanna’s shape-shifting alien, a burlesque dancer whose routine feels almost like a medical test to determine which Rihanna fetish works best for you (rollergirl, French maid, naughty nurse, S&M kitten, torch singer, school girl?). Part of her appeal is that she’s the only supporting character in the movie. Her presence changes the character dynamics of Valerian and Laureline and gives us somebody new to hang onto. I liked the dopey aliens that resemble the sloth from the Ice Age movies, and I especially enjoyed a surprise payoff for their insistence that Laureline wear a stupidly large hat. Whether these moments are enough to cancel out the rampant excess will be up to the individual moviegoer.
This next section is going to involve spoilers, though I don’t think this is a movie where knowing the plot is going to really ruin the experience. Still, you have been warned, and if you wish to remain spoiler-free, please skip to the last paragraph (though do come back later).
I was beside myself in frustration because it feels like there are story elements ripe for the plucking that would have instantly improved Valerian and Besson is just too oblivious. Firstly, none of the characters that Valerian and Laureline run into seem to matter in the slightest. That alien mob boss who swore vengeance? Never returns. The aliens that kidnap Laureline and offer her up as a tasty treat to their king? Never return. Besson’s Fifth Element benefited from establishing different groups of characters with conflicting purposes that would continually run into one another and complicate matters. It makes the movie much more fun and it allows characters to have greater meaning than one-off appearances. We should be building a team and gaining a new member from every new location visited, which would make the visits more meaningful and lighten the time spent only with Valerian and Laureline. My first solution would be to bring back these different alien antagonists in comical and bungling ways, especially for Act Three. Another solution is to radically change the angelic, Na’vi-like ethereal aliens. It’s revealed they’ve been hiding on the station for decades (though not in a different dimension, another missed potential payoff). They just want to go home, though whether that’s a replication or a different dimension is unclear. What if these peaceful aliens didn’t forgive humanity for obliterating their planet? What if the key to bringing back their home world was to suck the life force out of the space station or Earth itself? That would flip the script and make you question whether these displaced aliens are morally justified in their actions. It would also set the stage for a rollicking third act that culminates in a frantic chase through all the different levels and communities introduced throughout the film, complete with the various antagonists complicating matters with their own motivations. This would all be infinitely better than the third act we get, which left me flabbergasted at how slack and uninspiring it is (defusing a bomb?). Why build up this strange and wonderful world and do nothing with it by the end?
Getting back to my original question: is Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets better or worse than the Wachowski sisters’ misfire, Jupiter Ascending? Besson’s latest certainly looks lovely and is crammed to the rafters with ideas, several of which you desperately wish had garnered more attention and development. This is an overstuffed movie, especially at 137 minutes, and yet it will leave you seriously wanting. The disinterested lead actors slog their way from one uninspired chase scene to another, gallivanting in a world that will have no real significance once we move onto the next expensive set. It all feels like manic decoration meant to stimulate and distract from the glaring deficiencies with characters and story. It starts out great and then degenerates into kitschy futuristic junk. It feels like somebody made a PG-13 Barbarella but mandated that nobody ever smile. DeHann is grossly miscast as a rakish rogue and his onscreen relationship with his leggy costar is painfully realized. I think I respect Jupiter Ascending more because that cinematic world could have sustained something interesting and they took it all seriously enough even when things got absurdly silly. Valerian is so flippant and stuck with sourpuss leads. A better movie was within reach, which makes it all the sadder that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is reluctantly the movie we get, a visual spectacle that bores as it overwhelms. If you put this movie on mute and did some peyote, maybe it would achieve its true artistic value.
Nate’s Grade: C
Matt Reeves is a director who seems to have found his true calling refashioning the work of others. He remade the Swedish film Let the Right One In and improved it in several areas, though having Richard Jenkins and Chloe Grace Mortiz and a complete lack of CGI cats certainly helps. Then he inherited the new Apes franchise with 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and the fledgling franchise didn’t miss a beat. I’ve been pleasantly surprised about these damn dirty apes ever since the 2011 prequel kicked things off. Reeves took control of the franchise and deepened it, following a very non-Hollywood playbook that embraced subtleties, patience, and quiet moments. It had its crazy apes action but it was a movie in service to its characters first and foremost. Reeves, serving as co-writer once more with Mark Bomback, brings the franchise to its natural and thrilling conclusion. War for the Planet of the Apes is a blockbuster with soul.
It’s been fifteen years after the outbreak of the devastating Simian Flu. Mankind is dwindling and falling victim to a secondary virus as well. There are only pockets of humans left and small militias taking the fight to the super-intelligent apes. Caesar (Andy Serkis once more in mo-cap) and his followers have taken refuge near a waterfall. The ape community is ambushed by soldiers led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). With their home exposed, Caesar splits up the remaining numbers and sends them out to find a new shelter. He is determined to seek out the Colonel for vengeance. Eventually the other apes are captured and put into a slave labor camp and Caesar and company must rescue them and flee mankind’s last gasp at staying atop the food chain.
This may be one of the bleakest blockbusters in recent memory, especially when you consider that you’ll be actively cheering for the relative extinction of mankind by the end credits. Human beings are on the brink of extinction and this has drawn out the worst fight-or-flight instincts in the remaining numbers. This is about a final fight for survival on a visceral, us versus them level, and after two movies it should be abundantly clear what direction this is all heading. Even as humankind is doing a terrific job of wiping itself off the planet, humans still present a clear threat to the remaining apes. The second film explored how a working trust was improbable and unfathomable to many on both sides of the conflict because of the injustices. That’s pretty heady for a talking ape summer blockbuster. War closes the series with an even bigger and bleaker scenario, as humanity is entering the hospice phase of its social dominance. Roger Ebert referred to the movie theater as an empathy machine, and it’s amazing how far you will empathize with non-human characters. You will feel their triumphs, setbacks, loss, and anger, and you will root for the demise of mankind. We had a good run but maybe it’s time for a different species to become the caretakers of dear Mother Earth.
This is a final film that makes allusions to some of the darkest aspects of human history including, but not limited to, slavery and the Holocaust. It doesn’t traffic in black-and-white moral absolutes. There is good in some humans, several of whom were thrown into military service unprepared, under-trained, and simply existentially lost. There are apes that have made the calculation that it’s better to work with the humans than be killed. That’s right, there are collaborationist apes, and Reeves doesn’t look down on them. They too are allowed complexity and nuance and even the possibility of redemption. No one, man or ape, is beyond the capacity for compassion. You strongly feel their shame brought from moral compromises. It’s hard not to think about real-life analogues like the Jewish police that chose to work at the behest of their Nazi oppressors. They’re all still victims.
There is great suffering and vengeance on display with War, and it’s all too easy for characters to justify it on a literal specist argument (“Apes aren’t people, and they would have done the same to you”). Caesar is trying his best to manage a fragile co-existence, though this becomes untenable with every new attack. It’s a cycle of violence that only knows recriminations and fear. This struggle is personalized for Caesar as he wrestles with his own selfish, self-destructive impulses to seek out vengeance at the potential cost of the greater good for apekind. Caesar is still haunted by the ghost of Koba (Toby Kebbel, in a welcomed albeit brief appearance), the ape he slew in the previous film. Koba could not let go of the hatred he carried for mankind for their myriad abuses. It consumed him at great cost. Caesar is battling these same impulses but is self-aware about his responsibilities as the leader of his people, but even that might not be enough to dissuade him. To have that kind of emotional conflict within a CGI animal who happens to be the protagonist in a major Hollywood production is simply remarkable.
I don’t want to scare people away. War for the Planet of the Apes is still a very entertaining and gripping movie that can easily warrant stuffing your face full of popcorn. It’s also a blockbuster with tremendous weight. At a steep 140 minutes long, I still could have used even more of this movie. Reeves displays an uncommon sense of patience for a blockbuster filmmaker given a big studio’s checkbook. A majority of this movie is silent and this doesn’t panic Reeves. The director tells his story in a visually appealing and accessible way that doesn’t scrimp on characterization and depth. For long stretches the only communication on screen is ape sign language (small quibble: the apes too often fail to look at one another when they do this). There’s a lingering hush over much of the film, allowing the audience to immerse themselves fully. When the action does heat up, the sounds and music matter more. The solemn silences, hunting parties, and tense standoffs should remind people of Westerns and prisoner-of-war movies. This is the second big-budget 2017 movie making direct Vietnam parallels concerning a man-vs-apes conflict. The prison escape structure of the second half is immediately compelling and just as well developed as what came before. The multiple points needed for an elaborate escape are presented one-by-one and organically. The mini-goals and geography are clear at all times. It leads to an all-out assault climax that is thrilling on multiple levels but also deeply satisfying because of the extensive legwork.
Serkis (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) has been the beating heart of this franchise and his work as Casaer has been a monumental achievement in the advancement of special effects (the series has never won an Oscar for its VFX). Caesar is a fully formed character with relatable flaws and doubts, and thanks to the wizards at Weta, you can see the nuances flash across his face. Serkis brings an impressive range of emotions to a non-human character that’s piercingly silent often. It’s a performance that deserves shared credit to the animators and to Serkis, who is deserving once again of awards consideration that I know will unfairly never come. Harrelson (Now You See Me 2) is definitely evoking a Colonel Kurtz homage, a man given over to the darkness. I appreciated that his character has a credible back-story that informs his actions. He’s not simply a maniacal madman. He respects Caesar and the apes, but views life as a zero-sum game, which makes genocide an appealing last-ditch option. The pleasant surprise among the cast is Steve Zahn (Captain Fantastic) who plays Bad Ape. It’s a character that seems prone to comic relief non-sequitors, but he’s scarred from his own survival experiences. This is an ape still going through PTSD and that presents even the comedic with a twinge of tragedy. The unseen actors behind their mo-cap performances breathe startling life into the numerous non-human characters, bringing unparalleled realism to this sci-fi realm.
As the conclusion to the Apes prequel trilogy, you will also experience plenty of powerful emotions. I full-on cried twice and teared up about four other separate occasions. I cannot even remember another major summer tentpole that triggered that kind of emotional response (maybe a Pixar title or two). We’ve traveled with Caesar and several of these apes for three movies and six years. We’re emotionally invested. I knew I was going to lose it if anything happened to the orangutan, Maurice (I won’t confirm his fate). The community and empathy we’ve shared with these characters for three movies comes to a gratifying conclusion that feels appropriate, sizeable, and aching with potential for further adventures in this new and exciting world.
War for the Planet of the Apes is a movie so rewarding, so engaging, that you walk away angry that other Hollywood blockbusters can’t be this good or aren’t even trying to be. It’s emotionally rich and resonant, hitting you in the heart just as often as it quickens your pulse. Because of the investment in the characters, and their ongoing progression, we genuinely care about what happens like few blockbusters. The characters don’t take a backseat to the plot mechanics. Serkis and his amazing cast of mo-cap performers have delivered performances that rival live-action actors. There are clever nods to the original series that fans will enjoy but this Apes franchise has been its own beast from the beginning. This is a thoughtful, reflective, and contemplative film that fits well for such a thoughtful and contemplative series, and yet it still knows how to deliver stupendous sci-fi action (our lives are just that much more complete having watched an ape fire dual machine guns while riding a horse). I would declare Dawn as the best action of the trilogy, but I think War is the best movie because of how much everything matters and finishes. I think once the initial dust settles, it’s time to start thinking about this new Apes trilogy place among the all-time great movie trilogies. It’s been consistently enthralling from the beginning and has treated its animal cast as equally worthy of the greatest stories movies can deliver. War for the Planet of the Apes is powerful proof of what blockbuster filmmaking is capable of offering at its absolute finest.
Nate’s Grade: A