Mob movies are culturally beloved. I could watch Goodfellas every time I see it on TV. We know these movies, we know this lifestyle, in so much as it’s been demonstrated in our art. A feminine perspective is often the dame, the moll, the panicked wife who worries her husband will never come home and see his bratty kids again. Rarely in mob movies are there roles for women that can be considered three-dimensional. Even Diane Keaton gets shortchanged in The Godfather series. In comes Oscar-nominated Straight Outta Compton screenwriter Andrea Berlof, tackling her directorial debut and adapting a graphic novel about three mob wives fighting the system. It’s about time this under-represented perspective in some of our favorite movies got its due spotlight. It’s too bad then that The Kitchen finds ways to still leave the women behind where it counts.
Set in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City in the late 70s, three mobsters get arrested one evening by the FBI and sent to prison. Their wives are now left alone to raise their families, struggle for employment, and to not be forgotten with the new pecking order of those mobsters left behind. Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) and Kathy (Melissa McCarthy) think they should take over their husband’s rackets while their men are indisposed. Claire (Elisabeth Moss) is more worried about what will happen when her abusive husband comes back from prison. The three women work together to make a stake at their own claim, butting heads against the existing power structure of dismissive men who don’t think organized crime is any place for a woman.
The Kitchen has such potential but it’s too often running off the fumes of other mob movies. Beyond the obvious similarities with last year’s more refined and polished Widows, this is a movie that gobbles its mafia movie clichés like a heaping helping of pasta (more clichés!). The characters aren’t terribly well defined and the story oddly moves in starts and stops, with moments either feeling too long or too short, and especially abruptly transposed, using montage to hurdle through what should have been needed onscreen development. People rightfully complained about the final season of Game of Thrones skipping over needed steps along a character’s journey to get to its intended destination, and The Kitchen is deserving of the same charge. We want to see these women in charge and others afraid, except the movie doesn’t show me any reason why these women would rise in power and what sets them apart from their steely competition. I get that they’re underestimated and they are determined, and that works in a general sense, but by the half-hour mark they’re already successful mobster entrepreneurs and I’m unsure how. Even after their rise, there is little that seems to deter them. Every new obstacle is comically taken care of in such casual fashion that you never worry for their well-being. It feels like Berloff wants to skip through all the hard work and just get to the enjoyable desserts or a life of crime, but moving up the ladder is an essential part of any power struggle story. As a result of the sloppy plotting and pacing, there is an over-reliance on clichés to stand in place, relying upon the audience’s warm understanding of the genre territory and what to expect to relieve the movie from having to do more work. It’s all telling and hardly any show.
The characters are kept as archetypes as well, at least 2/3 of the leads. Both McCarthy and Haddish seem miscast for their roles. Both are splendid comic actresses and have dramatic capabilities beyond what they get credit for, but they seem to rely upon comic instincts to get through their underwritten scenes, which further hampers the lack of tension. Each actress gets one solid scene to open up their character but it’s just so little. Ruby has a sit down where her mom credits beating the “soft” out of her daughter for Ruby’s success. That little glimpse into her past and her fraught relationship with her mother served as a tantalizing hint at what could be explored further with the Ruby character. The same with the fact that she’s a black woman who married into a very rigid Irish-American family set in their prejudices. There’s such dramatic potential to be had there. Alas, she’s tasked with being a hardass and that’s all The Kitchen asks of Haddish, treating her more as symbol than person. For McCarthy, there’s a late scene where another character tries to soft-peddle her involvement in crime, saying she did what she had to for her children, and Kathy corrects, saying, no, she did it all for her. She was tired of being a deferential doormat and wanted to feel important. That degree of self-empowerment through selfishness could be a fascinating character angle to explore, but we don’t get that. She clarifies the lens for us to view her with but by that point it’s far too late. The film is top-heavy with underwritten women and that’s a shame.
The most interesting character by far is Moss’ abused wife-turned-budding killer. Claire is the one starting at the lowest point and the one who takes to the life of crime as means of salvation. These characters are doing some pretty heinous acts but with Claire I felt the most empathy for her plight, bullied by her husband and feeling trapped, more worried about the impending release and her return to being the scared woman cowering in the corner again. She doesn’t want to go back to that life and I believed every moment of Moss blurting out her despair and desperation. That’s why her relationship with another oddball killer played by Domhnall Gleeson (The Last Jedi) was what I cared about most in the movie. You watch them grow together, him mentoring her on how to cut up a body and dispose of it down river, and you watch how each of these two people finds something missing in the other. They may not even be good for one another, enabling their darker impulses and past a point of no return, but it’s the only evolving relationship we were given an entry point to empathize with fully. This segment is also criminally underwritten but it’s clearly where the focal point of the movie should have been. This was the perspective the movie should have been locked into and the character’s journey we follow through every step.
The Kitchen isn’t a bad movie at all. The production design and period appropriate costumes are to die for. There’s always going to be a visceral enjoyment watching the underdogs move ahead and topple their doubters and competition. The ensemble doesn’t have a bad actor in the bunch. Bill Camp (Molly’s Game) shows up with a real sense of veiled menace as a Brooklyn mobster both irritated and impressed by the ladies’ advancement. The soundtrack is packed with Scorsese-riff-approved tunes, including three instances of Fleetwood Mac. There are pleasures to be had. It’s just that the ingredients to a better movie were all there, plain as day. If you’re a fan of mob movies in general, you may find enough to satisfy with The Kitchen, which has its moments but ultimately feels too much like an under-cooked dish you’ve had one too many times before (metaphors!).
Nate’s Grade: C+
Nobody quite expected the second act that Liam Neeson is currently having. Before 2009, he was seen a dramatic leading man best known for portraying the titular businessman in Schindler’s List. And then Taken came out, and the world decided they liked their action stars with a dash of actorly gravitas, the kind of which was all too lacking from the likes of your Van Dammes. After so many films of Neeson pointing guns and barking at people, you forget that the man can act. That’s because, with few exceptions, the Neeson canon of action vehicles have been found enjoyable but insubstantial, momentary pleasures to be forgotten. The same can be said of Run All Night, a promising urban jungle thriller that’s a step above in several areas but ultimately another mildly entertaining film where Neeson points guns and barks at people.
Jimmy (Neeson) is a man haunted by his memories of his life as a hired gun for his pal, mob boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris). Jimmy is a drunk who is living off of Shawn, holed up in a crummy home, and eking out his lonely days. He walked out on his son, Mike (Joel Kinnaman), when he was young because he wanted him to have a better life. Jimmy thought his misdeeds would create a bad influence. Shawn is also experiencing his own problems with fatherhood. His son, Danny (Boyd Holbrook) is ambitious, dangerous, and addicted to drugs. He agrees to a business arrangement with Armenian mobsters before dad gives him the A-okay; when dad balks, Danny is on the hook. He murders the two Armenian mobsters who are looking for their money back. Unfortunately, Mike just happened to witness this execution. Jimmy defends his son, shooting and killing Danny. For the rest of a very fraught night, Jimmy tries to protect his son from the many forces of violence that Shawn has sent for vengeance.
The premise of Run All Night is strong unless you say it out loud and examine it. I admire the film’s manner of weaving together storylines in a way that they feel like they’re crashing into one another and yet you could see their trajectory coming. That’s not to mean it’s predictable, which it is of course, but that the conflicts are properly established and set in motion. However, when you analyze the revenge-laden intricacies, it can seem like self-parody: “You murdered my son before he could murder your son. So I’m going to murder you.” “Oh yeah? Well I’m gonna murder you before you murder me for murdering your son before he murdered my son.” Gentlemen, commence your murdering. It reminded me of 2002’s Road to Perdition where a crime lord who readily admitted that his son was a dangerous hotheaded screw-up and had made a mess of things… and yet, he had to stick by him because… family. It’s a frustrating contradiction but it’s believable enough to hold onto. I just wish these crime guys could objectively calculate how guilty and irresponsible their kids are and cut them loose. Seriously, what exactly was Danny thinking when he killed the Armenian mobsters? Did he not think they were going to retaliate? Danny is the kind of irritating screw-up you want to strangle because he endangers others with his constant failures.
Screenwriter Brad Ingelsby (Out of the Furnace) has done his genre homework, and Run All Night is a slightly above average thriller that finds ways to flesh out its tropes amidst the urban jungle. After a steady first act, the majority of the movie is a series of chase scenes, several of which are shot and edited well by Neeson’s favorite director of his run and gun pictures, Juame Collet-Sera (Non-Stop, Unknown). The chase scenes make smart use of geography and the way Collet-Sera cuts back and forth with his parallel lines of action does a nice job of quickening pulses. A chase through a train terminal is well choreographed with Jimmy having to out run and out muscle goons and Mike ducking from encroaching police presence on the platform. Ingelsby has a knack for setting up organic suspense pieces and letting them loose. The final act feels a little pat from an action standpoint as well as a moral climax, but it does work. While the characters are birthed from familiar genre archetypes, the film adds interesting shadings to them. Jimmy’s loyalties are tested and he has a strong personal revelation that ties into this theme. The movies finest moment is likely a tense sit-down between Shawn and Jimmy shortly after the events of the night has been set in motion. It’s like Harris and Neeson are competing to see who can be more intimidating Oscar-nominated actor. Bonus: Bruce McGill (Lincoln) plays Harris’ number two and I love some Bruce McGill.
And yet, I kept wishing for Run All Night to go back to the power of its possibilities. There’s a segment where the movie truly feels like it’s being taken to the next level, namely after the crooked cops have been taken out. Instead of just Maguire’s muscle coming after them, now Jimmy and Mike have the NYPD hot on their tail and none too happy about cop killers. That’s another category of antagonists, another chase participant. I also wanted the movie to keep going, bringing in the Armenian mob, which would be incensed and seeking vengeance after their ambassadors were killed. This movie could have had three categories of antagonists (Shawn’s goons, NYPD, Armenian mob) chasing after Jimmy and his son, and the ongoing conflict would have been terrific. The more people that are on the hunt, for their varied reasons, the more possibilities there are for strong and escalating suspense pieces. It could have easily gotten too complicated and convoluted for a mass audience, which is probably why the movie doesn’t reach its true suspenseful potential and follows a conventional route. The NYPD angle is only really incorporated during a building-wide search of an apartment complex where Jimmy and son are hiding. Likewise, the addition of a contract killer played by now Oscar-winner Common (Selma) is a wasted antagonist that doesn’t add much more to the group of bad guys. He’s better at killing, sure, but he doesn’t offer anything new except some hardware. He’s essentially an elevated heavy. He’s meant to serve as the threat after the threat, and no surprise, he does. I wish the character had more personality because he’s just too rote to separate himself. He’s just another ho hum killer in the mix.
There’s a plot point that annoys me to the point that I need to talk about it in more detail, though to do so requires some spoilers, so tread carefully, reader. At one point, Jimmy insists his son does not pull the trigger and kill Common. His wish is that his son would turn out better, and so he doesn’t want him to be forced to commit murder. They leave the contract killer who, you guessed it, continues to try and hunt them down and kills innocent people in the way. I understand the moral imperative Jimmy is going for, but let’s analyze this. It’s self-defense, he’s determined to come back and kill you, and you know innocent lives will suffer if he stays alive and well, whether on this job or future jobs. If ever there was a situation where maybe Mike isn’t going to be racked with guilt into the odd hours of the night debating the descent of his soul into moral decay, this might be the one. It’s one of those moments where the characters have to behave this way because the plot demands it and we need, as stated above, a threat after the main threat. Again, I’m reminded of Road to Perdition, which had a much better additional hitman.
Some things are better enjoyed at your leisure, and Liam Neeson’s action ouvere fits into that category. With few exceptions, a Neeson action film checks the boxes of what you’re looking for in genre entertainment, and with a strong Neeson finish, but rarely will you be surprised or elated. Entertained, sure, for the time being. Run All Night is an action thriller that has its moments and some well-drawn suspense sequences, and I appreciate that it tries to provide more depth to the main characters besides their preferred killing weapon of choice. However, there’s just too much squandered potential, underwritten supporting characters, and heavy-handed messages about the sins of the father. Run All Night is a solid genre thriller that does enough well to be worth your time, though you certainly don’t need to exert any energy to run out and see it.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Here is a classic example of two game comedians elevating substandard material. The contrived premise revolves around an ordinary if somewhat bored married couple (Steve Carell, Tina Fey) being chased all over New York City in an extreme case of mistaken identity. Carell and Fey have a terrific comedic dynamic and watching them play and riff is when the movie feels sharp and alive. Sadly, this is another action comedy that thinks people will lap up action that’s slightly skewed. Note to filmmakers: most action sequences are not inherently funny without effort made via context and surprise (see: Cop Out, Bounty Hunter, Killers, or better yet, don’t). The more bad action comedies I see from 2010, the better The Other Guys keeps looking to me in the rear view mirror of memory. When Carell and Fey switch into action mode is when the comedy takes a back seat to lame mayhem. When the movie manages to squeeze in small moments where the actors have space to breathe and the banter is amusing. At best, Date Night is an amusing excursion when it lets the adults get to behave. When they have to go bug-eyed and yell at all the noise, then the movie just becomes exasperating. Good enough for a rainy day, with some lowered expectations, but this movie wouldn’t be nearly worth watching without the resolute comedic efforts of the two leads.
Nate’s Grade: C+
This is a wildly overwrought and sleazy drama is hoping to come across as edgy but everything is so overdone. It fulfills all the requisite elements of the modern crime picture; double crosses, forlorn anti-heroes, bloody violence, but Street Kings misses the mark big time when it comes to any nuance. Every beat of this murky, convoluted dirty cops mystery is plain and obvious. If you cannot guess within minutes who the eventual culprits will be then you haven’t seen enough movies. Every character is a cliché of a cliché, every unrestrained actor is constantly speaking in nothing but exclamation marks, and the dialogue is some of the worst I’ve heard all year. Keanu Reeves is a listless leading man who is blank and lifeless, unable to wrestle the dark and complicated emotions needed for a “cop on the edge” role. I can practically feel Forest Whitaker’s spittle every time he speaks. Street Kings feels like a route retread of rogue cop pictures, which are director David Ayer’s specialty. It wants to shine a light on the seedy underbelly of the law but it can’t stop from feeling like a lobotomized version of L.A. Confidential (Note to Ayer: Jay Mohr + mustache = an arrangement that benefits neither party).
Nate’s Grade: D
Wanted isn’t so much a movie as a fetish vehicle for teen males, with sexy cars, sexy guns, and sexy tatted-up Angelina Jolie, daring the predominantly male audience to decide which is sexiest (I am not a car aficionado nor a gun person, so I’ll say that Jolie easily outpaced her competition).
Wesley (James McAvoy) is a pathetic office drone that sweats out his days never raising his voice. His best friend is constantly screwing Wesley’s bitchy girlfriend, his boss constantly harangues him into panic attacks, and, saddest of all, a Google search results in nothing for Wesley Gibson’s name. He tells us he has done nothing with his life. This all changes when a mysterious woman named Fox (Jolie) tells Wesley that the father he never knew has just died. Not only that, Wesley’s father was one of the world’s greatest assassins and he might just be a chip off the old block. Wesley is recruited into The Fraternity, a thousand year-old organization whose membership includes the best-trained killers. Sloan (Morgan Freeman) is the leader who assigns the targets. He gets his orders, literally, from the Loom of Fate, a weaving loom that writes binary letters via stitches. The Loom of Fate decides whom the planet would be better off without. Fox and her cohorts train Wesley to accept his destiny and avenge his father’s murder.
The movie fails to establish any form of internal logic or continuity, so anything preposterous suddenly becomes accessible. That means people can jump from one skyscraper to another, you can outrun a moving train, cars will do the damndest things, and that you can curve a bullet simply by rotating your hand and shutting off that little part of your brain that says, “This is defying all laws of physics.” For some reason, people are able to shoot bullets down in mid-air as a defensive maneuver but they rarely take aim at the person, surely a bigger and slower target. It’s like The Matrix outside of the Matrix with no reason for being Matrix-y. The idea is that these super assassins have super hearts that beat like 400 times faster, which pumps more blood and allows their senses to heighten. This somehow allows them to slow down time, zoom in on subjects, and react extra fast. It doesn’t make any sense but then again this is a movie where the killers are taking orders from the Loom of Fate. While I’m on the topic, really, a loom that stitches targets in binary code? Isn’t there an easier way for fate to decree who should be bumped off than someone scrutinizing the stitch work of a rug? What happens when it lists a name with more than one owner? How many “John Smiths” must be killed to secure that the correct Mr. Smith has been erased? My father thought the Loom of Fate was the most bizarre and interesting aspect of the movie.
Despite the freewheeling action, there is something decidedly depraved about fully embracing Wanted. The premise of awesome killers demands awesome carnage, and Wanted dishes out violence as an act to be savored and glorified. Wesley’s self-actualization is linked with getting better at making others suffer, and in the end the film advances a questionable message to follow suit. The movie exists in a hyper-realistic video game universe devoid of consequences. I can see future news reports of idiot teenagers playing their own deadly game of curving bullets (they may have to establish a Wanted category for the Darwin Awards). But yet the most disconcerting feature of Wanted is its dismissive nature toward human life. I’m not even talking about the assassin premise, though trained killer flicks usually work better when the pros have some sort of personal code. Wanted is a fetishistic worship of human bodies being taken apart in loving, gory detail under the auspices of being “cool.” Innocent life barely merits a half-hearted shrug. When Wesley and Fox bring their fight on board a train the eventually force the vehicle off a cliff, and the movie makes no mention of all those innocent people plummeting to their doom. That would get in the way of the film being “cool.”
With all that said, Wanted can feel like a high-octane rush to the senses. This film is soaked in adrenaline. The stunt work is astounding and the action is ramped-up to ridiculous levels. I say ridiculous because the film never establishes any form of internal logic or continuity, but I also say ridiculous because the action can be tremendously exciting and embellished with stylistic flourishes. Wanted is a slick and imaginative action movie, and the fact that it often dances with satisfaction makes me sick for enjoying it so. Summer is the perfect opportunity for empty calorie movies with style to spare, and Wanted is a five-course meal of glossy, disposable artifice. Director Timur Bekmambetov previously directed the Russian vampire films Night Watch and Day Watch, but Wanted is a giant leap forward in budget and sheer scope. Life inside this man’s head must be crazy. He takes the outlandish and makes it seem common.
The story is rather derivative and smashes the plots of Fight Club and The Matrix together, proving that not only were screenwriters Michael Brandt and Derek Haas alive in 1999 but they were also furiously taking notes. The whole notion has been done to death, a loser who secretly harbors superior talent and ability waiting to be realized. It still proves to be a popular and mostly pleasing storyline because it taps into a universal desire to be special. Brandt and Haas aren’t so much constructing a story as they are constructing a series of eye-popping moments. There is very little substance beneath all the fireworks (stand up for yourself and slay your antagonists?). Normally I’d take issue with a film’s trashy vapidity; however, when that film happens to be so good at being so good looking.
McAvoy is rather believable when he plays the dweeb eking out a miserable existence. He knows how to play meek and anxiety-riddled while maintaining a vulnerability that stops his character from coming across as a figure of annoying inaction. He sure gets beaten up a lot and I’m not quite sure why this is supposed to make him more inclined to join The Fraternity, but then again it hasn’t stopped thousands of college males from wanting to join their own fraternities. McAvoy is less believable when he suddenly transforms into a super soldier, like a pint-sized Rambo. Jolie relies on her exceptional sex appeal in lieu of acting, which is fine with me. It’s good to see her in a role where she can fully make use of her physical talents. Freeman is essentially in the Samuel L. Jackson role and even gets a chance to drop an MF-bomb.
Wanted is a crazy cool and mostly crazy action thriller that is more than a little sick in the head. Its video game universe covets beautiful bloodshed and exquisite carnage. It’s rather depraved and morally questionable not in approach but in execution (no pun intended, well maybe). Wanted is a gory, profane, darkly humorous action movie that secretes adrenaline with every frame. The imagination on display is impressive but you may wish that it had been used for better purposes.
Nate’s Grade: B
Writer/director Joe Carnahan (Narc) wants to impress an audience so bad with his muscular and macho gangster flick, but his Smokin’ Aces is vapid, nihilistic, and opines not to simply be a Tarantino rip-off, but a rip-off of a Tarantino rip-off. The premise seems ripe enough as we follow a rogue’s gallery of hitmen and killers trying to be the first to knock off a mob snitch/Vegas magician (Jeremy Piven) for a million dollar bounty. The colorful characters are introduced and some are quickly and unexpectedly taken out, but Carnahan never fully knows what to do with his bushel of baddies after he establishes their character quirks. The killers don’t really interact that much with one another and some of them hardly have any screen time at all; perhaps less would have been more in this jumbled stew. Carnahan throws out a few nifty visual tricks but it’s all superfluous and empty. Smokin’ Aces moves quickly, doesn’t make much sense in the beginning and end, and little to any of the characters have satisfying conclusions. So much of the writing feels like lame macho posturing without anything new or interesting to add to an overstuffed shoot-em-up. There are cops, robbers, plenty of gunfire, lesbians, and all sorts of convoluted twists, but it never holds together. Carnahan throws a lot of different elements together but they never extend beyond the elemental stage, so every storyline and character feels like an introduction that?s never capped off. The man has no idea what to do with what he’s started, and a karate kid on Ritalin is all the proof I need. Guy Ritchie did this territory far better service with the marvelously entertaining 2001 film Snatch. Rent that instead and save yourself the headache.
Nate’s Grade: D+