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Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019)

It took nine movies but we can now put the Fast and Furious franchise to rest, and that’s because we now have Hobbs & Shaw, the spinoff that took the best parts of the franchise and ran away. What started as a film about underground street racing in 2001 has morphed into an over-the-top superhero spectacle where their superhuman power is being really good with cars, as well as not adhering to any laws of physics. Now they’ve cordoned off The Rock and Jason Statham, attached the director of Atomic Blonde and give me Idris Elba as the villain, who openly proclaims himself to be “black Superman.” Why do we ever need to go back to Vin Diesel and his pit crew ever again? Hobbs & Shaw is a big blast of action overkill fun. It’s not without its flaws and limitations but it’s exactly what it set out to be.

Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is trying to enjoy some rest and relaxation with his daughter but the world isn’t going to be save itself. He’s recruited to team up with the wily Deckard Shaw (Statham) to recover a missing sample of a super virus that can be programmed to kill anyone on the planet. The key is finding MIA MI6 agent Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), accused of killing her team and absconding with the virus. She also happens to be Shaw’s estranged sister. The real villain is a super mercenary Brixton (Elba) who is engineered to be a superior killing machine. His mysterious employer wants to recruit Hobbs and Shaw to the cause, but in the event of their refusal, death is always an option. The Shaw family reunion makes the majority of the movie a three-person chase film that ultimately pushes Hobbs to go back home to the Samoan family he left behind decades ago and they haven’t forgotten their prodigal son.

Once again, the main draw of a Fast and Furious movie are the eye-popping action set pieces, and Hobbs & Shaw has its fair share of excitement and satisfaction. There are a couple standouts, notably a climactic helicopter face-off involving a chain of racing vehicles and the concept of lift, but really none of the action will displace the top moments from this increasingly insane franchise. Director David Leitch (Deadpool 2) doesn’t have any signature moments that stun like that extended, fatigued fight sequence in Atomic Blonde, but he definitely taps into the moment-to-moment fun and absurdity. A chase down the side of a building is not remotely realistic, but with Leitch there’s an added sense of comedy by making it another contest between Hobbs and Shaw. That macho posturing can liven up an already enjoyable scene and give it a personal edge that ties into the charisma of the stars. So even when the action is cooking at a lower level, focusing on that charisma elevates the sequence. The action pumps at a constant pace with plenty of explosions, tumbles, and powerful fists. The movie follows the latter Fast and Furious mold by not even trying to resemble reality. When Brixton’s super hands-free motorcycle acts more like a living Transformer, it doesn’t matter because the movie isn’t building a reality where something like that would seem like an exaggeration. I laughed more at moments like that and smiled rather than scoffing at its disconnect from crafting some kind of baseline sense of reality.

I will say the action beats could be shaved down, especially as the movie teeters to 135 minutes long. It’s not exactly the kind of action cinema like Mission: Impossible where the set pieces are so brilliantly constructed with organic complications. These aren’t quite at the level of spectacle or immersion of a Fury Road or even the Justin Lin-era of Furious land. There are few sequences that couldn’t be pared down because often the beats are the same beats just with more of them. I wished there had been a greater variety of action sequences or at least an interesting series of complications, the lifeblood of great action movies. There are a few standout moments with larger-than-life imagery but mostly the action has a very same-y quality that can feel repetitive. That’s where the comedic perspectives can help. A hallway fight is enjoyable but lacks impressive fight choreography, but what saves the scene is the comedic exasperation at the end for Shaw and again tying it to the ongoing competition with Hobbs.

Beyond the explosive action, the real draw is the cast and they are overloaded with charisma. There’s a reason somebody at Universal decided to slice off these two characters because they are clearly the only characters many people ever cared about, because both actors have an innate charm that pops off the screen. Watching the two of them butt heads and trade insults and glares is an ongoing pleasure. It reminds one how big personalities can effortlessly carry big Hollywood action movies when you have the right stars together. They do form their own sort of combative bond and understanding by the end, but one wonders if their banter will get old if it doesn’t evolve over the inevitably commissioned assembly of sequels. The Rock and Statham get some big laughs and hearty entertainment squaring off and working together for even bigger destructive power.

Kirby (Mission: Impossible – Fallout) is a terrific addition as a strong-willed, kickass heroine first and a potential love interest for Hobbs second, which amusingly upsets Shaw. Kirby has an above-it-all air to her that makes her seem like a natural match as a sister to Statham. Elba (Molly’s Game) is settling into a groove as a go-to heavy (Star Trek Beyond, The Jungle Book) and even while threatening a global pandemic he can’t help but be smooth and charming. This is the best cast ever assembled for a Fast and Furious movie, and you throw in unexpected comedy cameos, Helen Mirren, and an extended Samoan family, and the movie begins to stake out its own claims on a world separate from Diesel’s boring “family.”

Hobbs & Shaw is a combination of 80s action movie attitude, 90s bombast, and 2010s outrageous set pieces, lead by two of the more charming men Hollywood has at its punching-kicking disposal. That’s actually a pretty good word, “disposal,” because the movie is designed as nothing more than a breezy two hours at the movies with your biggest tub of popcorn. Of course the studio has larger plans and envisions it as a way to keep the Fast and Furious franchise alive and diversified. Hobbs & Shaw has little more on its mind than giving its audience a good time, and it easily achieves that aim. I may not feel the need to watch Fast and Furious movies again like I do other action franchises that provide more emotional investment, practical stuntwork, and structural brilliance, but that doesn’t mean I won’t happily consume the next entry. As long as The Rock and Statham are in place and feeling good, so too will the eventual audience.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Meg (2018)

Ever since Steven Spielberg’s Jaws cemented the concept of a Hollywood blockbuster, sharks have been synonymous with the summer movie season. Just last year a small-scale indie thriller, 47 Meters Down, was a breakout hit with a planned sequel on the way (they ignored my obviously brilliant suggestion of naming it 48 Meters Down, thus proving each additional entry would move the depths a measurable increment of peril). People love them some killer shark movies and the bigger the better. Well it doesn’t get much bigger than The Meg, a movie with a monstrous prehistoric Megalodon shark approaching 75 feet long (that’s one half of 47 Meters Down, if you think about it). The Meg has enough awareness, payoffs, and fun to stay afloat and be a better B-movie.

Deep under the Mariana Trench, a team of deep-sea scientists has discovered a new habitat previously cut off by man. From here emerges the Megalodon, a ferocious predator that has no earthly competition. The team seeks out the help of Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham), a one-man rescue squad who had a run-in with The Meg in his tragic past. The science team must rescue its trapped members, track and evaluate the shark, and prevent the ancient beast from feasting on the locals in the South China Sea.

This is a big stupid shark movie about a big stupid shark, and The Meg provides enough fun to at least warrant one trip out into the water. It’s a monster movie that follows a well-worn formula of discovery, containment, escalation, and then all-out large-scale disaster. I appreciated that the succession of events followed enough of a logistical cause/effect relationship that allows the audience to better suspend disbelief and stay within the movie’s agreeable wavelength of campy thrills. This is the kind of movie that introduces a family of whales only to mercilessly kill them off screen as passing shark food. It’s the kind of movie that knows we want to watch Statham punch sharks in the face. There’s genuinely more shark action than I was expecting and the action sequences have been given consideration to maximize their popcorn thrills. I am used to recent shark movies that hinge on the threat of the shark as an aquatic Boogeyman, on the peripheral and always threatening to return. With The Meg, once the shark is loose it’s a constant presence and persistent problem. There is one moment where our hero has to shoot a tracking device into its dorsal fin. He has to get close while also not disturbing the water and calling attention to himself. It’s a well-engineered and developed suspense sequence that takes advantage of the fun possibilities at play. There are more moments like this that exemplify a degree of thinking and development than sloppy, slapdash CGI mayhem.

This is a major co-production with China and it’s easy to tell. It’s a $130 million Hollywood hybrid with an inclusive cast, global danger, and the havoc wrought on the human population this time are Chinese beach dwellers running in panic. The co-lead is Chinese star Bingbing Li (Transformers: Age of Extinction) who is set up by literally every character to be the romantic interest to the dashing Statham. Even the man’s ex-wife is on the same mission, trying to hook these two up. Statham banging this single mom is the key to bridging these two market forces together, apparently.

Speaking of the man in question, Statham (The Fate and the Furious) is dependable and irony-proof no matter the absurd film scenario. He provides the audience a reliable anchor amidst the genre silliness, plus gratuitous shirtless beefcake shots. He can say the most ridiculous lines of dialogue with a straight face and make you believe it. He’s also great with children. Some of his best moments are his interactions with little Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cai), the young daughter of Li’s character. Statham is so charming and natural around children, and he’s able to coax instant chemistry with a child actor. Why hasn’t somebody given Statham a Rock-style family vehicle where he acts alongside a precocious group of kids? What if he’s an over-the-hill action star helping a group of kids make their own amateur movie? What if he’s an ex-special forces agent-turned-birthday party magician trying to fish out a hidden target? What if he’s a retired movie star trying to coach a pair of kids how to get their parents back together? I never knew I wanted this.

There’s enough of a knowing awareness that let me know the filmmakers understood the goofy kind of movie they were making. It’s not exactly turning to the camera and winking but it feels like it’s nodding at you, asking you to play along. This is exemplified in Rainn Wilson’s (TV’s The Office) character Morris, the outspoken billionaire who founded the whole science station. He’s general comic relief in a movie about a giant shark because The Meg doesn’t treat the shark as comic. After discovering the creature, the science team is ready to take things slowly and cautiously, and Morris flatly screams that we have no time for slow here. When Jonas jumps into the water to take on the shark, it’s Morris exclaiming how awesome it is. The best example is when one of the lead scientists takes a moment to bemoan the overreach of science in a “what have we done?” speech, and Morris just throws up his hands and walks away grumbling, disinterested in listening to any self-serious yammering. Morris kept amusing me because we were repeatedly alike in our commentary and requests for this film experience.

Even with scaled-down expectations, The Meg is still a monster movie that probably needed to be campier or more frightening to be a better movie (I gave the same diagnosis to Krampus). It’s a fun film that understands what a genre audience wants, though it could have pushed further and found ways to subvert those expectations or given us more mayhem. This isn’t a tiresome so-bad-it’s-good-but-it’s-still-bad genre wankfest like the tacky Sharknado movies. It’s also not the delightful, campy, gory B-movie that is Deep Blue Sea. It’s a monster movie that has a sense of amusement and doesn’t waste time pretending to be too serious even when the professorial characters are given to lament. It achieves a middle zone that satisfies enough of your cravings but not fully hitting them.

Not quite as enjoyably dumb as the earlier Rampage, The Meg is still a relatively silly, splashy monster movie with solid thrills, action development, and a good sense of what its core audience demands and how to go about fulfilling that promise. Statham and company plow ahead through the genre shenanigans and make it out the other end bloody yet unscathed. My biggest criticism is that I wanted more; more camp, more carnage, more knowing nods, the kind I got in abundance in last year’s gloriously entertaining Kong: Skull Island. It gave me enough of a tantalizing preview of the better movie it could have become. Still, The Meg is a slice of summer escapism that gave me enough thrills, laughs, and satisfaction to leave me wanting more but mostly content with what I ultimately got.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Fate of the Furious (2017)

I’ve written before that all I demand from the ever-ascendant and popular Fast and Furious franchise are its eye-popping action set pieces that teeter into madcap lunacy and impressive stunt work. A fiery meteor could crush all the characters, short of The Rock, and I wouldn’t shed a tear. Despite the super serious plaudits about the importance of family and loyalty and blah blah blah, I’m only here for the action spectacle that obliterates the laws of physics. I’ve said before there’s a fine line between stupid action and stupidly awesome action, and the Fast and Furious franchise has planted its flag like few others. Nobody today goes to the level of action spectacle that the Fast and Furious films achieve, bringing to life exciting action set pieces that feel fully plucked from the imagination of an exuberant child, and I don’t mean that at all disparagingly. These movies deliver like few others nowadays. We’re a long way from undercover cops and underground street racing. Vin Diesel and his team are essentially superheroes and their power involves doing amazing things with cars. I’m not a gearhead, I don’t care a lick about automobiles, but I’ve come to eagerly anticipate this franchise. It delivers ridiculous action on a ridiculous scale like few others. It’s earned my confidence. The Fate of the Furious, the eighth film, still delivers the high-octane goods even if it can’t quite keep up with the best of the franchise’s entries.

Dom (Diesel) has been preaching the virtues of family for years but now he’s turning his back on them. The notorious cyber terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron) extorts Dom into helping her get her hands on nuclear codes. Dom’s crew (The Rock, Michelle Rodriguez, Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson, Nathalie Emmanuel) is wondering whether the man they know is still there. Government agent M. Nobody (Kurt Russell) reassembles the team to track down Dom, and they’re working with some unexpected help. Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) has been released from maximum-security prison to thwart Cipher.

This is a franchise that soared to new heights of commercial success after it left behind its inhibitions of the imagination. It’s a franchise that lives or dies depending upon its giddy action set pieces. As I wrote about Furious 7: “The set pieces of the last few films have been stunners, and at its height, the franchise can make you feel giddy like a child watching the unreal unfold with such delight. There’s a tremendous and infectious high watching a well-executed action scene on such a large scale. With every movie our expectations are hungrier, and the franchise has found a way to satiate our action movie demands.” Fortunately for the eighth film, there are two standout action set pieces that are some of the stronger ones in the history of the franchise. The first is a car chase through New York (though filmed primarily in Cleveland) that builds and changes as it continues, an essential element for any great action sequence to stretch forward. At one point Cipher takes control of an armada of hackable, self-driving cars and pilots them as a collective weapon of mass destruction. They resemble a herd of runaway bulls. The destructive fleet leads to some impressive sights such as a bevy of cars plummeting from a parking garage. It’s a strong sequence that also finds room for the other characters to try and take down Dom, and it allows Dom the ability to outsmart them, adding the personal element. The other standout is the entire third act set around the Arctic Circle in Russia that climaxes with the dizzying heights of a nuclear sub chase and The Rock manually redirecting a speeding torpedo. There are multiple points of action and mini-goals that lead logically to the next, allowing escalation to mount. It’s dangerously over-the-top even for this franchise and it’s generally awesome and I loved it.

Eight movies in and Fast and Furious is really becoming an expansive ensemble series. The core team has been picking up players here and there with each additional movie, building its diverse definition of a diverse family. This is getting to be a crowded film and there’s just not enough room to go around for everyone to contribute meaningfully, which means it’s more likely from here on out, unless there is some judicial pruning, that characters stay religiously archetypal. Ludacris is the tech guru, but isn’t Emmanuel now also the tech guru, or does she only specialize in the tech subgroup of hacking? Why do I need Scott Eastwood (The Longest Ride) to join the gang as the awkward rookie trying to look cool? Isn’t that a milder version of what Tyrese Gibson offers as the comic relief bravado? Admittedly, I only started really paying attention to this franchise once it added The Rock, but I’m still unsure what Rodriguez brings to the dynamic beside history and romance. This general sense of the characters settling into their expected roles is exemplified in the in-car banter and one-liners. It appears often that they’re just talking to themselves for these lines. I could do with far less Tyrese reaction shots and Rodriguez one-liners. Theron is also generally wasted as the new villain du jour. She’s got the icy glare down and looks to be having fun, but she’s not given anything interesting to do. Without going into greater spoilers, I will say that Dom’s heel turn is wrapped up by the end of its 135-minute running time. No need to turn it into a multi-film arc.

Paul Walker’s character is understandably absent and I’d hate for them to bring him back after the very sweet and surprisingly poignant sendoff at the end of Furious 7, but he does still exist in this universe. I can agree with characters not wanting to get him involved in their dangerous missions across the globe, but at the end when they’re all dining as one big family, wouldn’t they also invite Dom’s sister, brother-in-law, and their children too? It gets into the Avengers territory where you start wondering why the Avengers haven’t assembled for the world-destroying threats from their respective solo film adventures.

The best post-Rock addition to the franchise has easily been Statham (Spy) and he proves it with his limited but highly entertaining time on screen. His appearances were a fun disruption in the previous film and he served as the most formidable villain. Reintegrating him onto the team was a smart move because he adds charisma, unpredictability, and a new dynamic that also seeds conflict. It was also smart because more Statham means including hand-to-hand combat action sequences that can involve a higher degree of stunt choreography, even if the former Transporter is starting to show his age. His scenes with The Rock were a natural highlight. However, adding Deckard onto the team to tackle a bigger baddie presents some weird questions. By the film’s end, everyone seems rather chummy with the man who straight up murdered their friend Han (Sung Kang). Sorry dude but it seems like everyone is rather relaxed with your murderer and big government having unlimited and regulation-free surveillance powers. My advice to future Fast and Furious installments, and there will be various, is to try and include as much Statham as possible (it’s essentially a repeat of The Rock Rule).

Where the movie has rougher terrain is in the area of drama and comedy. Look, nobody is going to confuse the Fast and the Furious films as great works of human drama. Director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job, Straight Outta Compton) takes over for James Wan (The Conjuring) who took over for Justin Lin (Star Trek Beyond), and the discrepancy is noticeable. While having two excellent set pieces that place highly along the big board of the franchise, they’re not as well shot. Gray’s command of visuals is more than adequate but lacks the sizzle and vision of his predecessors. Wan was able to adopt the house style of the franchise and deliver a satisfying though lesser experience (Lin is king). Gray has a harder time with the material. The CGI approaches cartoon levels at points and Gray doesn’t better maintain tone. He doesn’t know when to pull back, which is unusually exemplified in the comedy asides. Everything that gets a laugh will be repeated until it becomes somewhat annoying, in particular a scene with Statham and a baby. It begins fun and cheeky, and Statham even uses the baby carriage as part of the fight choreography, but then it overstays its welcome like the other comedy bits. The dramatic moments are also far too overwrought, even for this franchise. It can be a bit much.

This is a franchise that revels in the ridiculous, that embraces being a big dumb action movie in the best way, delivering imaginative and often eye-popping action that deserves the full big screen treatment. Fate of the Furious falls somewhere in the middle of the franchise from a quality standpoint. It’s not as good as seven, which wasn’t as good as six, which wasn’t as good as five, but it’s still good enough. It’s definitely lesser and the new director doesn’t have the same natural feel for the preposterous as previous directors, and even after eight films I’m still mostly indifferent about the far majority of the characters on screen. As I’ve written before, though, thankfully the movie has the good sense to know what the audience is paying to see. It’s here for the fast cars, eye-popping stunts, and gratuitously framed camera angles highlighting women’s derrieres (I think there’s a contractual law that a close-up of booty shorts must make a grand entrance in the opening minutes of every film). Fate of the Furious is just enough of what I want from the franchise, though it’s getting harder to keep up with every new movie. Furious 9 and 10 are already in the works, and it’s only a matter of time before we get Fast and Furious in Space. It’s getting further and further removed from a sense of reality but as long as it keeps up with incrementally raised expectations and employs enough charming actors to compensate for Diesel’s enormous lack of charisma, then they’ll keep fans like me happy in the short run.

Nate’s Grade: B

Spy (2015)

Melissa-McCarthy-Spy-Poster-GoldfingerMelissa McCarthy’s meteoric comedic rise hasn’t been without its missteps, mainly the complaint that she seems stuck in a rut playing aggressively weird and foul-mouthed characters that are growing tiresome. McCarthy is never better than when teamed with her Bridesmaids’ director Paul Feig, and Spy is a welcomed return to form for a great comic actress who relishes being outlandish. The best part of the film is that it’s a character-centric comedy, with McCarthy as Susan Cooper, a CIA agent who works as a handler, the voice on the other end of the earpiece, guiding her partner the handsome Agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). When Fine is compromised on a mission, Susan unexpectedly finds herself in the field to track down some very bad people. McCarthy does get to be vulgar, but fortunately it’s only one persona she adopts as a mask, and it’s cleverly utilized. Feig’s screenplay makes sure to find different comic beats as it goes, rarely repeating itself and, like any good action movie, finding twists to further develop conflicts. Part of what’s so enjoyable about Spy is how comic scenarios will evolve while staying true to the characters and the central conflict. Also, Feig acquits himself more than well with the film’s semi-slick action photography. The supporting cast is nicely tied into the story and matter and each actor has material to cut loose, none more than Jason Statham (The Expendables) as a hilariously boastful and incredulous agent. His boisterous chest-beating about his past deeds are some of the film’s funniest moments. Consistently funny, witty, and mildly progressive with its heroine, Spy is a vehicle that makes perfect use of McCarthy’s talents and then some.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Furious 7 (2015)

fast-furious-7The Fast and the Furious series has never been more popular, which is crazy to think about for a franchise entering is sixth sequel. Then in November 2013, it suffered its biggest shock. Actor Paul Walker was killed in an automobile accident. The already-filming seventh film was put on hold, pushed back a year for release, and retooled to accommodate the new tragic reality that one of the core members of a popular series going back to 2001 was no longer walking this Earth. With this context, it’s hard not to apply an added level of gravitas and dramatic weight to a series that previously skirted by on its fun and outrageous stunts. It’s weird to watch an actor’s final filmed moments, knowing this is the last time you’ll see that face, hear that voice, on screen again. I’m already dreading that painful realization in November that, with Mockingjay Part 2, this will be the last cinema will see of Phillip Seymour Hoffman. With tragedy hanging over it, Furious 7 does an admirable job of sticking to what it does best while serving as a fitting tribute and sendoff for Walker.

Coming on the heels of the events of Furious 6, Dom (Vin Diesel) and his crew have dispatched Owen Shaw (Luke Evans, collecting a paycheck for one scene lying in bed). Shaw has an older brother, Deckard (Jason Statham), who swears vengeance and comes hunting after Dom’s team, killing Han in Toyko (events previously seen in 2006’s Tokyo Drift). Then Shaw hobbles Agent Hobbes (The Rock), leaving him sidelined for much of the movie. Dom and Brian (Walker) place their families in safety and then set off to eliminate Deckard Shaw. Little did they know that the government has a similar interest. Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) promises to help Dom in his quest if Dom agrees to a secret mission to rescue a computer hacker (Game of Thrones’ Nathalie Emmanuel). This hacker, codenamed “Ramses” has developed a device that taps into every camera and microphone on the planet to track anyone anywhere. If Dom can secure the device, Mr. Nobody will use it to track and take down Deckard Shaw.

furious-7What elevated the Fast and Furious films into new heights of critical and commercial acclaim are the over-the-top action set pieces that don’t just defy the laws of physics, they obliterate them. There’s a fine line between stupid action and stupidly awesome action, and I think Michael Bay is still trying to finesse this understanding. Under the guidance of director Justin Lin, the franchise got bigger and ballsier and enjoyably insane. The action set pieces were huge and wild and well developed with organic complications and world-class stunt driving. The set pieces of the last few films have been stunners, and at its height, the franchise can make you feel giddy like a child watching the unreal unfold with such delight. There’s a tremendous and infectious high watching a well-executed action scene on such a large scale. With every movie our expectations are hungrier, and the franchise has found a way to satiate our action movie demands (for my money, Fast Five is the best). Furious 7 is the first Fast film not directed by Lin in ten years. James Wan, best known as the director of horror films Saw and The Conjuring, stepped into the director’s chair and he assimilates well into the “house style” of the franchise. However, I found myself missing Lin’s touches; he has a natural feel for choreographing action sequences with style and a clear eye for orientation. I found the editing for Furious 7 too choppy and several action sequences hampered by not getting a better sense of the wider surroundings and what was happening. Wan acquits himself well and keeps things running smoothly, though Furious 7 is a slight step down but still plenty entertaining.

Let’s talk about those giddy highs of Furious 7, because they are certainly there, though I wish there was more of them. Am I just getting greedy or building a tolerance? There are two standout moments that made me squeal. The first involved a set piece involving cars parachuting out of a transport plane. The next was a car crashing through the window of an Abu Dhabi skyscraper into another skyscraper and then into another skyscraper. Your brain tells you that there are no way any of these moments could truly happen in reality, and that in these circumstances it’s majority CGI, but if you’re like me, you just do not care because the sheer scale of awesome is too enjoyable to pass up. When you can pull off large-scale and imaginative action that manages to also maintain a strong sense of fun, then you’ve landed upon something special. The previous Fast films have been able to maintain that giddy high for a more sustained period of time, but I cannot deny that the same thrills and over-the-top pleasure is present with Furious 7.

A factor that added to my enjoyment is that Furious 7 never dawdles or dwells too often during its 137-minute running time, save for an extended resolution for Walker. This has never really been a franchise that has soared on the strength of its characterization. Seven movies in, I still don’t really care for any of the characters except for The Rock and that’s mostly because he’s The Rock. I was happy that the film was always active to distract me from how one-dimensional and boring most of these characters are, even the villains. Statham (The Expendables) is the best villain the franchise has had so far but even he seems to be stuck in a lesser gear, failing to capitalize on all his abilities with a car chase franchise. The Rock vs. Statham fight shatters all breakable furniture within near proximity, but you still suspect it should be better given the participants. Djimon Hounsou (Guardians of the Galaxy) is wasted as a number two villain who mostly just shouts orders for people to fire weapons, and martial arts superstar Tony Jaa is definitely wasted as a number three villain, an elevated henchman with too few opportunities to bust a move. MMA fighter Ronda Rousey appears briefly as an Abu Dhabi security chief. She performs well, pummeling Michelle Rodriguez while in evening wear; however, you quickly realize that Rousey is not an actor. She’s no Gina Carano (Fast and Furious 6), and speaking of, when is this woman going to finally be cast as a super hero? She’s practically a living Wonder Woman anyway and she has that “it” factor.

furious-7-paul-walkerWhen the movie tries to be dramatic, it starts to stall, which is probably why it relies mostly on platitudes about family (“I don’t got friends, I got family,” Dom says in a weird retort). Jordanna Brewster is once again written to the side as the Concerned Wife, and the movie still doesn’t seem to know what to do with the re-emergence of Rodriguez’s Letty character. She got her memory back in the previous film, but now she’s having trouble readjusting, but before this can develop into an actual plot she disappears again and then the big action just kicks in. There’s enough of a team built up to provide diversity, with Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson serving as comic backup. There’s a sense of camaraderie that doesn’t feel artificial, and the small moments together are perfectly nice, but thankfully the movie has the good sense to know what the audience is paying to see. It’s here for the fast car, eye-popping stunts, and gratuitously framed camera angles highlighting women’s derrieres (there are a lot of thongs in this movie).

With the specter of Walker’s passing, the movie also presents a ghoulish game of looking for the tricks to work around his untimely absence. Reportedly the actor had filmed “most” of the movie and the remaining scenes, retooled after months of production being on hiatus, were completed by Walker’s brothers and some CGI sleight-of-hand. Perhaps I just have a more trained eye for spotting the cinematic wizardry, but by my judgment it sure didn’t feel like Walker was present for most of what was eventually used in the movie. I noticed a lot of wider shots and scenes where Walker is not facing the camera to speak or he’s at an odd angle. At no point did the movie become a strange uncanny valley experience of discomfort; movie productions have digitally attached faces before to other heads, notably for Oliver Reed in 2000’s Gladiator. If you’re not looking for it intently then it will all pass seamlessly. The film’s final ten minutes end up becoming an extended sendoff for the character of Brian, but really it’s the actors saying goodbye to their friend. It’s reverent and respectful and might be the most honestly emotional moment in the series history, which I know isn’t saying exactly much.

I mentioned Phillip Seymour Hoffman in my opening paragraph, and I don’t think anyone is going to confuse Walker for Hoffman in terms of acting talent, but that doesn’t negate or mitigate loss and grief. Personal confession: when I was writing for my college newspaper, I interviewed Walker over the phone for 2003’s Timeline, which if you haven’t seen it, and I’m assuming that’s the majority of readers, is a terrible movie. I’m not going to pretend I had any terrific insight into the man, but I found him to be a good guy with a level head who hadn’t let fame get the better of him. One could argue that the character of Brian was not significant enough in the context of a big, dumb action franchise to deserve this sort of emotional catharsis, but loss is felt, and Furious 7 has two missions: to entertain and to memorialize Walker. While the action as a whole is not up to the same caliber, it’s still plenty engaging and has enough of its characteristically dizzy thrills to be memorable and worth seeing on a large screen. On the second count, it lets Walker race off into the sunset in a way that feels appropriate, sincere, and without tipping over into complete melodrama. In that regard, this is the Fast and Furious movie that had the most to accomplish and it succeeds. It’s a near certainty that there will be a Fast and Furious 8, or a Furious 8, or a Fast 8, or whatever you call it, but for now it’s a chance to take a breath and add a dose of reflection for a series normally about the ridiculous.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Expendables 2 (2012)

The Expendables was a surprise hit two years ago. Sylvester Stallone collected an all-star team of aging AARP action stars and they kicked ass, took names, and didn’t apologize. It was a fitfully amusing throwback to the burly, macho action movies of the 1980s and the early 90s, a time where many of these men were kings. The nostalgia trip worked box-office magic for Stallone. A sequel was commissioned and these men of action were put back to work. There was already preliminary talk about the possible stars that could sign up for a third Expendables (Nicolas Cage and Clint Eastwood are on a wish list). Maybe people should see The Expendables 2 before getting too excited plotting out the future of this franchise. This is not a good movie even by Stallone’s standards.

Barney Ross (Stallone) is back with the best team money can hire. No, not the A-Team, the Expendables. There are also the preposterously named team members Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Ying Yang (Jet Li), Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Toll Road (Randy Couture), and Hale Caesar (Terry Crews). The over-the-hill gang also has some new blood, namely Bill(y) the Kid (The Hunger Games’ Liam Hemsworth). The gang runs afoul with Vilain (Jean Claude Van Damme), a terrorist mining for plutonium to sell to the highest bidder. Barney swears to thwart Vilain and calls in help from other living action legends like Chuck Norris, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

What made the first Expendables enjoyable, at least for sustainable spurts, was its over-the-top nature comingled with a lack of irony. The movie felt often like a satire of the genre but you knew that Stallone was never winking at the camera. Stallone was never in on the joke. That changes with The Expendables 2, which often resorts to self-aware humor to poke fun at itself. This approach simply does not work. There’s an entire sequence where Chuck Norris even makes a Chuck Norris Internet joke, merging reality with irony. The bad guys are lousy shots and the good guys are the world’s greatest marksmen, but I don’t even know if this is intentionally self-aware or just par for the genre. Having Arnold repeat other people’s famous one-liners and quips (“Who’s next? Rambo?”) are not funny. The self-awareness never rises to the level of commentary or intentional satire, like say the underrated Last Action Hero. It’s just the same mindless violence but with the slightest of nods, the bare minimum to say, “Hey, we get it.” Except the movie feels shackled to this flawed approach and often the action fails to gestate into something larger than old guys shoot guns and make occasional wisecracks. The action sequences are really disappointing here. Little attention is given to geography, short of a climax set amidst an abandoned airport. I kept hoping for more of the gonzo, hyperbolic touches that the first film had in abundance. The best ridiculous moments this go-round are Van Damme roundhouse kicking a knife into a guy’s heart, and the piece de résistance, Norris shooting a guy onto an airport security conveyer belt where we then see the body full of lead on the x-ray machine.

Most of the Expendables teammates simply have nothing to do. Granted with a large cast the ratios of screen time are not going to be equal across the board, but I’d expect that Stallone and crew would at least give these people some reason to exist in the plot. Jet Li vanishes after the twenty minute mark and never returns. There’s truly no reason that Randy Couture and the great Terry Crews couldn’t have been Guy #5 and Guy #6. Lundgren is setup to be a chemistry genius, and then when trapped inside a mine, it looks like he’s about to utilize his chemistry knowledge to save the day. Nope. Then why would you even set this ability up if you weren’t going to do anything? Even Statham is pretty mitigated and he’s the number two guy. If you’re going to have a team-oriented action movie, then make use of the team and their unique skills. Part of the joy of these kinds of movies is watching the crew work together, like in The Avengers. With this film, we just get rapid-fire shots of the good guys shooting the bad guys, sometimes separately, sometimes together. It gets boring plenty quick.

The plot is fairly bare-bones even more an action movie. It’s a rote revenge movie where Stallone and the boys are out to get Van Dame after he killed one of their guys (the only expendable Expendable, it seems). The plot never gets much more complicated than that. The gang encounters a group of terrorized villagers who want to rescue their husbands from Van Damme’s forced labor. Our bad guy even has a name that is a single letter away from spelling “villain” in case you needed the help. You know how he’s one evil man? He wears his sunglasses at all times even underground inside a mine. Of course this may also be a stylistic choice to hide Van Damme’s horribly Botoxed face. The Muscles from Brussels is actually the second best actor in the movie (Crews easily remains the best), good enough that I wouldn’t mind seeing the older Van Damme in more movies. Sadly his big showdown with Stallone is pretty short, with Van Damme resorting to the same roundhouse kicks before being subdued.

Stallone sat out the director’s chair and instead Simon West (The Mechanic ) takes the reins. I suppose this freed up Stallone to… focus more attention on the script? Emoting more? The visuals are fairly muddy and lack the polish of West’s other hyperactive action movies like Con Air. The opening assault sequence, where Barney and the Expendables roll through an enemy compound, literally busting through walls, is the visual highpoint for the movie. I credit the filmmakers for sticking with the R-rating and not toning down their violence. It would seem like hypocrisy to have a movie about a bunch of crusty old-timers lamenting how soft the world has gotten and then wuss out to a bloodless PG-13 rating. At least this wrecking crew doesn’t hold back when it comes to their specialty: mayhem.

The Expendables 2 should have been more than just Stallone and his peers patting themselves on the back. I’m glad Willis and Schwarzenegger graduated from cameos to supporting roles, but I wish the movie just had something for these men of action to do. There’s far too much repetition with its action, which becomes a formless montage of people shooting guns in slightly varying locations. The self-aware humor kills the development of the action and it’s simply not funny enough. It’s the kind of sad humor of old men trying to still look hip, like they’re in on the joke. Hey, they can make fun of themselves too. It’s just not a fun movie. There are only so many tried wisecracks you can endure, only so much redundant action, plotless excess, and crowbarred cameos. The Expendables 2 takes the little merits of the first film and completely loses touch, all to try and make a joke. In the end, the real joke is still on Stallone and the filmmakers. They wanted to make a movie that knew it was stupid. Instead they just made a stupid movie.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Mechanic (2011)

The Mechanic is a routine remake of a 1972 Charles Bronson hitman thriller. But when did “mechanic” ever become commonplace slang for “killer”? The film treats this concept like everyday knowledge. Bishop asks, “You know what a mechanic is?” A character responds matter-of-fact: “A hitman.” And the “mechanic” services are advertised via a system that includes a Craigslist style message board. It makes me wonder what the “adult services” section on Craigslist was really all about this whole time.

Arthur Bishop (Jason Statham) is the world’s greatest hitman. He meticulously plans his hits, deciding whether to make it look like a suicide or an accident or whether to send a message. He’s the cleanest of the cleaners. Then he gets a very delicate assignment – he’s to take out his mentor, Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland, taking a paycheck). Bishop’s boss (Tony Goldwyn) tells him that somebody is going to kill Harry. If it’s Bishop at least he can make it more humane. Bishop takes out his mentor and makes it look like a carjacking. Then Harry’s screw-up of a son, Steve (Ben Foster), appears to get vengeance for his old man. Bishop takes the hotheaded kid under his wing and trains his to be an assassin. Then, naturally, Bishop discovers he was set up and played by his employers, which brings about a larger examination on the cyclical nature of violence. Just kidding. There’s more killings.

To say that The Mechanic is a well-oiled formula picture is probably the kindest thing that can be said. It follows the path of its hitman forbears fairly close. The opening pre-credit sequence is a hit that established the abilities of our deadly lead, Donald Sutherland pops up just long enough to lay down the necessary exposition for the film, and then before we even finish the first reel (20-minute mark) the movie manages to introduce a sexy female (Mini Anden) whose only purpose, in grand action movie tradition, is to have enthusiastic sex with the lead whenever his tank is low. The rest of the movie follows rather lockstep with the various beats of the genre, meaning that Bishop takes on an apprentice, shows him the ropes, they bond by taking out the bad guys, and then of course the final show drops and the truth about Bishop killing Harry is revealed. Along the way, The Mechanic does enough to satisfy genre fans looking for the goods when it comes to thrills.

The best moments are the tag-team hitman efforts of Bishop and Steve. The stuntwork is occasionally impressive like when Bishop and Steve repel down a large hotel building or when a car literally drives all the way inside a bus. There’s a brutal, visceral fight between Steve and his first kill that serves as the film’s highpoint. It was these sequences that made me actually sit back and think, “You know, I think this concept would actually play best as an ongoing TV series.” Think about it: you’d have your target of the week, the planning and execution that always make for satisfying payoffs, and then week-to-week Bishop and Steve would continue their complicated relationship with Bishop’s guilt eating away at him while he tries to keep the truth at arm’s length away from his neophyte partner. To me, that sounds much more dramatically rich while still keeping the body count consistently high.

Of course by hewing so close to the confines of genre, The Mechanic also has very little going on outside of the mini-missions of the hit jobs. Bishop obviously has been misled and setup by his sleazy employers. It’s fairly clear early on that when a guy gets out of a limo in a three-piece suit and tells you that the old man in the wheelchair is the bad guy, red flags should be waving. There doesn’t seem to be a formidable opponent in this fight mostly because Bishop is long described as the best at what he does. So how do you stop the best? You’d think you’d hire other players of comparable skill or offer an incalculable amount of money to kill the guy. But our villain doesn’t do any of this. Five minutes prior to his death, our villain fails to even once threaten Bishop (don’t even pretend like that’s a spoiler). The main conflict is really the complicated connection between Bishop and Steve; however, this relationship is kept at a slow simmer the whole film, even after Steve pieces together the ugly truth. The character development is left mostly at an inferential level. That means that there are long stretches where the characters glare, dispense with macho cool speak, glare with sunglasses, and then fall back on some unique hitman quirk they all have to relax (Bishop listens to classical music on vinyl records because he takes life yet appreciates beauty! IRONY!).

But the ending needs to be further discussed because it leaves a terrible aftertaste. Given the dramatic dynamic at work, you pretty much know that Bishop and Steve will eventually come to a head. Bishop regrets what he’s done and is trying to make amends and find some meager form of redemption by taking Steve under his wing. He’s trying to make amends for the many sins in his life. He’s coming to terms with his life’s choices. So then you would assume (spoilers to follow) that when Steve ultimately seeks his own very deserved sense of vengeance, that the old pro would accept his doomed fate. It makes the most sense. It provides an end for the character’s journey, it provides closure to Steve, and it allows for an ending where people have to pay for their life’s mistakes. It’s not even downbeat because it feels right; it’s the correct ending for this material. It’s also the way the original Mechanic ended. But why end the movie on Statham accepting death? That would shuttle any chances for Mechanic sequels. And so, in a colossal cop-out, our hero narrowly survives and even manages to set up a bomb to take out Steve. While his young partner was emotionally unstable and looking for an outlet for his billowing anger, but the man was warranted in his vengeance. It’s entirely the wrong ending for not just this kind of movie but this movie specifically. It smacks of a pathetic attempt to leave the option open for a would-be franchise. It eliminates the entire idea of consequences mattering.

Statham gives the exact same performance he’s been giving in every movie for a decade plus. You know what you’re getting with a Statham action vehicle, for better or worse. He’s going to get shirtless, he’s going to dispatch the bad guys with relative ease, and never once will an expression flash across his stony face. He even verbalizes guilt while still being completely stone-faced. You don’t really buy any inner turmoil with this guy; he’s too “cool” to have feelings other than anger and vengeance. But then Foster practically redeems the entire movie. The young actor has been delivering intense performances for years now, whether it is an emotionally unstable guy in Alpha Dog, an emotionally unstable guy in Hostage, an emotionally unstable guy in 3:10 to Yuma, or an emotionally unstable guy in The Messenger. Notice a pattern? I’m amazed the reservoir of little tricks Foster finds to make Steve pop. Foster gives a far better performance than the movie deserves.

The Mechanic is a routine action movie that fails to rise above its genre conventions due to a lackluster plot, some vapid character development, and a horrendous ending. Statham does his thing, his shirtless chest gets due prominence, but the movie lets both he and a game Foster down. The kills are rather sloppy leaving behind mountains of evidence and dead bodies, and yet there seem to be no consequences. That makes for a long march to an inevitable conclusion with a few bursts of colorful violence to entertain. But what actually exists on the screen isn’t half bad. It’s fairly unremarkable, straightforward genre pap, but that can be suitable for the right audience and the right frame of mind. I was seeking something brainless to excite me when I caught The Mechanic, and it modestly achieved these modest goals.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Expendables (2010)

Casting can make or break a movie, and occasionally the cast is the only advertised reason why the public should give a damn about a movie. Ocean’s Eleven wasn’t sold on its craft plot or cool director, it was the George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts movie. Sylvester Stallone is an actor who?s had some lengthy dry spells but he redeemed his legacy a bit with the modestly affecting Rocky Balboa and his ultra-violent modern Rambo. Now he has set his sights on co-writing and directing The Expendables, a film that gathers as many action movie stars together as possible and dares you not to buy a ticket. There?s Stallone, Jason Statham (Transporter), Jet Li (Unleashed), Dolph Lundgren (Masters of the Universe), Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler), Terry Crews (Gamer), Eric Roberts (The Dark Knight), along with wrestler Steve Austin, mixed martial arts champ Randy Couture, and direct-to-video kickboxing ace Gary Daniels. It?s a smorgasbord of testosterone, a group of guys whose median age qualifies them for an AARP membership. The selling point of The Expendables is the cast and the cast alone. The story about some military general (Dexter”s David Zayas) is completely incidental. These men are here to inflict punishment.

The Expendables is ridiculous with a capital R. Whether it’s punching guys in the face while they’re on fire, breaking necks through kickboxing, or, my favorite, hurling an ammunition shell like a shot-put and shooting it in the air, The Expendables exists in that 1980s world of brute and mostly brainless action. It’s a throwback to those halcyon days for the majority of the cast members, back when men were men, women were damsels or temptresses, and action heroes didn’t have to have more than one dimension, and usually that dimension was muscle. The Expendables is enjoyable but much of that enjoyment is because it’s simply enjoyably bad. I have to assume that Stallone had his tongue firmly in cheek when he was designing and executing this film. How else to explain the bizarre moments of action overkill described above, the premise of saving a single girl from a small Latin American military, the fact that the sleazy CIA villain takes off with the damsel, for no personal gain whatsoever, and even gets to deliver the all-important, “You and I are alike” speech villains are always fond of giving.

I was laughing throughout the movie from its excesses and logistical and narrative shortcomings. This is the kind of movie where characters make veiled comments about a family but then we never see the family. This is the kind of movie where the good guys have perfect aim and it never matters how many bad guys there are because they never know how to wield a firearm. This is the kind of movie where Statham’s ex-girlfriend (Charisma Carpenter) gets beat up by her new dude, so Statham goes to confront the guy at a basketball court with all his friends. But the weird part is that the guy’s posse of friends shows no regret that their dude struck a woman. They all rally behind the domestic abuser, and Statham promptly hands them their asses. Just look at the character names: Ying Yang, Lee Christmas, Gunner Jensen, Tool, Barney Ross, James Munroe (no relation to the fifth president), Toll Road, Hale Caesar. Those aren’t cagey nick-names, those are the characters honest-to-God real names. You can?t help watching The Expendables without the impression that the whole movie is one big joke. However, I cannot rationalize that Stallone spent time and money to make a satire of the burly action genre.

Throughout The Expendables you quickly realize why these guys are men of action and not men of debate. Their speaking voices are terrible. Some are marble-mouthed mumblers, like Stallone and Rourke. Some are just hard to understand, like Lundgren. Some have pretty bad English, like Li. Some are weirdly whisper-quiet in their intensity, like Statham. And others are just plainly bad actors, like Austin and Couture. The characters they?re given to play are pretty thin, defined by a quirk or two but not much else. Statham’s character is away from his girl too often, that’s why she becomes an ex. The film is basically a contest of machismo. Everyone tries to out-do the competition in glaring and teeth grinding. Also, given the title, (semi-spoiler) is it a little much to think that Stallone’s entire wrecking crew can escape death, even the guy that gets shot inches above his heart? These are men you want to see doing things, preferably painful plural things, and speaking at a minimum. Only Crews seems capable of doing both acting and action. Too bad he gets short supply when it comes to screen time.

And that’s certainly another problem when the selling point of the movie is an all-star collection of action movie badasses — screen time. Everybody has to be juggled around and fight for screen time. As you’d assume, Stallone and Statham rise into the upper character branch while everybody else must be content for a series of moments and one-liners. Part of the fun of seeing this group of actors together is seeing this group of actors together, which is in relatively short supply save for an all-out assault climax. There’s a scene with some great cameos, ruined through TV advertising, where Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger appear on screen and playfully jab at one another. For some, it will be a movie moment decades in the making. My response: “Oh my God! The founders of Planet Hollywood are finally together again (minus Demi Moore).”

On the subject of action, the film presents plenty of bloody, macho men-on-a-mission mayhem, but Stallone edits the sequences too quickly. It becomes a rush of images that the brain barely has time to process before moving on to another location and fight. There are a handful of gory money shots to the R-rated spectacle, but I just wish I was able to understand what was happening. I know Stallone was not trying to emulate the hyper-kinetic verite editing style of the Bourne movies, which have influenced much of action cinema for the last five years. Perhaps given the realities of shooting fight sequences around aging superstars, Stallone was forced to rely on quick edits to mask the illusion that these geriatric men are still capable of intense beat downs. The editing is occasionally disorienting but even worse it?s distracting. It’s harder to enjoy the action. Nor are the action sequences really well thought-out or specific to their location. It’s mostly the guys with guns chase other guys with guns variety. There are some impressive knife fights and brawls, but the concluding 30-minutes consists mostly of action chaos. Men with guns run, get shot, people hurl grenades (why does a martial arts guru like Li forced to use guns most of the time?), explosions occur, rather, rinse, repeat. From a fighting standpoint, there are six good guys and three bad guys, though t?s hard to take Roberts seriously. That’s not a good ratio for battles. There needs to be more colorful henchmen.

My friend Eric Muller and I came to an intriguing ending that would have made The Expendables legendary. After the film’s mission is complete, the gang collects back at Rourke’s tattoo parlor/clubhouse. Instead of palling around and talking shop, the gang all of a sudden starts having a giant orgy, and then Stallone looks directly into the camera and says, “It was always leading up to this. You just never wanted to admit it, audience!” The movie is awash in testosterone and nostalgia, naturally gathering an older male audience. Would it not be hilarious to instantaneously make all those men uncomfortable? They love their masculine superheroes when it comes to death but love is too out of bounds. It would be the greatest piece of performance art ever and certainly gives people something to think about (now that you mention it, those character names sound like porn names anyway).

The Expendables is pretty clear in its intentions. It wants to be a gritty, bloody, hard-edged action movie throwback to the 1980s when the world was simpler and all you needed was one man with a gun running through the jungle to solve political disputes. The film’s entire selling point is its cast of action stalwarts from past and present, though many are beefcake past their prime (Statham is only 37, though). The movie works as a casting gimmick but it doesn’t work as a movie. I’d be lying if I said The Expendables wasn’t entertaining and with its moments of silly, mindless fun, but clearly this could have been a much sharper action movie. At times it feels like a winking satire of the genre that helped make these men stars, but perhaps that’s just me projecting onto the film. Perhaps I’m trying to make it more self-aware to excuse its various shortcomings. This is a fairly mediocre action product despite the all-star reunion. Given the film’s relatively warm reception by its core audience, I await future installments of the Equally Expendables to feature Kurt Russell, Wesley Snipes, Rutger Hauer, Patrick Swayze (composed of archival footage), Steven Seagal, Hulk Hogan, Mr. T, and, naturally, the biggest badass of them all Chuck Norris. As long as Norris roundhouse kicks a live ammunition shell, consider my ticket bought and my sense of dignity put on review.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Bank Job (2008)

An intelligent and rather crackling heist movie that also happens to be based on a true story. The 1971 British bank heist has so many characters involved that you may need a helpful cheat sheet, especially when it comes to varied loyalties. There are three separate groups all playing their own game, and when the heist doesn’t go exactly according to plan, and then the movie gets even more complicated. It’s a flavorful and funny heist movie that also doesn’t ignore the severe repercussions and life-and-death stakes. The Bank Job is an engrossing crime caper that still manages to thrill and surprise an audience.

Nate’s Grade: B+

In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2008)

I have no idea how it happened but someone gave infamously reviled director Uwe Boll a bunch of money to adapt a fantasy video game called Dungeon Siege into a star-laden movie. In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale seemed to be Boll’s stab at achieving mainstream credibility. He assembled his best cast yet with plenty of recognizable stars. At one point, I remember reading that Boll wanted to divide this film into two, Kill Bill-style, or release a 180-minute version. Until this movie, no Boll film had ever gone over barely an hour and a half. After seeing a slimmed down version that runs a little over two hours, I honestly have no idea what more Boll could have. In the Name of the King struggles to fill two hours worth with crap.

In a far off land, there lives a farmer named, coincidentally enough, Farmer (Jason Statham). His world is turned upside down when his family is killed by a band of creatures known as the Krug. He and his friend (Ron Perlman) must track down Farmer’s captured wife (Claire Forlani) and inflict some peasant vengeance of their own.

Evil wizard Gallian (Ray Liotta) was the cause of the attack. He has built up a whole army of Krug to challenge the King (Burt Reynolds) for the throne. Gallian also has two unwitting allies. The King’s nephew, the Duke (Matthew Lilard), wants to rule and is willing to plot with the evil wizard to achieve this goal. Muriella (Leelee Sobieski) is secretly sleeping with Gallian; he says he is teaching her how to use her blooming magical powers (remove your mind from the gutter) but he is really stealing her powers.

Farmer reluctantly becomes a leader to protect the kingdom. Gallian is stupefied that this simple farmer is somehow beyond the control of his magic. That’s because Farmer should probably change his name to Prince because he is the long-lost son of the King and some stable girl. Merick (John Rhys-Davies) serves as the King’s most trusted advisor but he is also the father of Muriella. He scolds her for being so foolish and being used by Gallian. She suits up like Joan of Arc and wants to fight, but her father won’t allow it.

Eventually this all leads to a large-scale battle between the forces of good and evil where Gallian uses his magic powers to create a cyclone of books to stop Farmer. There you have it.

If I were Peter Jackson, I might consider a copyright infringement suit, because In the Name of the King is a sloppy Lord of the Rings rip-off through and through. The long-lost heir to the throne must accept his magisterial destiny … just like in Lord of the Rings. There is a 10-minute fight sequence that happens in a swath of woods … just like in Fellowship of the Ring. The villain relies on an army of stupid supernatural hordes … just like Lord of the Rings. There is a wizard on wizard duel … just like Lord of the Rings. A noble woman wishes to fight but he father does not approve, so she sneaks off in armor and does fight … just like in Return of the King. There is a shadowy “other” world that goes beyond our dimension … just like in Lord of the Rings. The eventual trek of our heroes leads to a volcano, but not just that, it’s also the villain’s lair … just like in Lord of the Rings. Bastian (William Sanderson, in his sixth Boll movie) serves no purpose other than to resemble Legolas. John Rhys-Davies you should know better; you freaking starred IN the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

So what does a $60 million budget get Boll? Lots and lots of crane shots. Boll relies on extended aerial photography and zooming, CGI landscapes that serve to remind you how much better Lord of the Rings was and that Vancouver is no New Zealand. There are some segments that lack a firm geographic bearing because Boll wants to jump from expansive crane shot to expansive crane shot. I get that he wants to showcase the depth of the battles, which do feature a fair amount of background action, but the repetition of any camera technique will always grow old if it doesn’t feel congruent to the onscreen drama. I’m happy that Boll wants to open up the scope, but when he relies on a multitude of high-angle crane shots in motion the effect becomes wearisome. The audience can never settle into the action because Boll is too forceful with wanting to demonstrate what he bought with his budget. The cinematography is a notable step up for Boll and longtime director of photography Mathias Neumann. Then again, if I had a $60 million budget I’m sure my movie would look good too, or at least better.

In the Name of the King
is the biggest budget Boll has ever had, but it seems like proper costumes must have still been out of his price range. The marauding horde of Orcs, oh I’m sorry, the Krug look like cheesy low-rent Power Rangers villains in goofy rubber outfits. The camera never lets you get a good glimpse of these creatures because even Boll knows how crummy they look. You get another idea of how bad the creatures look when Farmer utilizes the familiar dress-in-other-guy’s-uniform-to-pretend-to-blend-in ploy that was perfected by the aging action stars of the 1980s. So Farmer knocks out a Krug creature, throws on its spongy armor, and is able to walk around the Krug camp.

The special effects also seem to run the gamut. The green screen work is painfully ineffective and very transparent, like when Farmer is swinging down a rope across a gorge. When Boll tries to show large fields of soldiers it also exposes how fake the CGI work looks. The many battalions of soldiers look like a dated computer video game. The special effects for Alone in the Dark were better and that film had, reportedly, half the budget of this movie. Realizing all this, it’s no wonder that Boll tries to use as many real sets as he can.

The musical score by Jessica de Rooij (Bloodrayne II: Deliverance) and Henning Lohner (Bloodrayne) may well be the worst musical score to ever exist in the history of mankind. It feels like your ears are being raped. There’s a tonal quality akin to being submerged underwater, and this atrocious music keeps popping up all the time and swelling over the onscreen dialogue. It’s only going to get worse as de Rooij is slotted to score all of Boll’s upcoming films from here on out. She’s assimilated into the Boll fraternity.

And yet despite all of this, In the Name of the King is high-class camp. Boll achieves a workable level of derisive enjoyment that manages to keep the movie entertaining even while its spins into stupidity. The fight scenes are actually decent and Boll manages to compose a few shots here and there that look quite good, like when the camera scans over a field of dead bodies. During the action centerpiece, the 10-minute battle in the woods between man and Krug, Boll’s camera manages to frame some solid, if unspectacular, action with some good angles. It’s also cut to be mostly coherent. The fight choreography is credited to Siu-tung Ching who also did the choreography for Hero and House of the Flying Daggers. He must have procrastinated until the night before his choreography was due. It will pass but there’s little creativity there; however, Boll must have been flabbergasted. I think the true test for derisive viewer enjoyment will be when the ninjas come out of nowhere at the King’s disposal. All of a sudden in the middle of a medieval style fantasy fight there are flipping black-clad ninjas. I loved it for its sheer anachronistic absurdity. To me, it felt like Boll was trying to cram in everything that he thought was theoretically cool into one massive fight sequence. He just didn’t have the money to also include pirates and robots and hobos and vampires and bears and Batman.

Fantasy is just not Boll’s preferred territory and it mostly shows. He really wants to make his own entry in the style of Lord of the Rings, but you can tell his mind is elsewhere. The plot is a mess but that isn’t indicative of Boll’s lack of interest with the film, it’s just indicative of a typical Boll movie. In the Name of the King feels like Boll is following a checklist of what is expected in a modern fantasy epic, except that Boll cannot provide the epic part. Here’s my proof: the vine-swinging tree nymphs led by Elora (Kristanna Loken). If Boll was really invested in this movie he would have paid more attention to these alluring and cinematic vixens. These anti-war ladies have sworn off men (take that for what you will) and live their lives like Cirque du Soliel jungle performers. This stuff is right up Boll’s exploitation rich alley, and yet he and the film treat these women of the woods like afterthoughts. They show up and save the day when the film requires an inexplicable savior, but why doesn’t a movie about fantasies deal more extensively with figures that could very well work as male fantasy? These forest females claim to hate men and yet they still dress semi-provocatively in leather tunics that enhance their womanly assets. That seems odd. I don’t know how helpful tree-dwelling women would be in a fight either unless it was fought in a well-forested area. Boll not capitalizing on these women warriors proves to me that his heart isn’t in this movie.

Screenwriter Doug Taylor was clearly cobbling a story together by his fading memory of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and yet this being a Boll movie, there are still plenty of head-scratching decisions that defy logic even for a would-be fantasy film. For instance, why does Farmer fight with a boomerang? How effective can a weapon be when it gets thrown and then needs to be picked up? The boomerangs that I know can hit people, sure, but usually hitting someone stops its path of movement. Then again, these could be magic boomerangs. How did Gallian raise such a massive monster army to rival that of the King’s without anyone noticing? I’m sure the excuse for that is also magic-related. The Duke takes out two legions of soldiers for his own purposes, and when one man asks where the commanding officers are the Duke, in front of everyone, stabs him. It seems like a lousy way to lead but I’m sure Joseph Stalin would approve. A telekinetic sword fight sounds cool on paper until you realize it is just actors standing passively while CGI swords clang around them. During the climactic battle it’s dark and raining (hey, like in Lord of the Rings) for the King’s army vs. the Krug, but then as Farmer and Elora race to the Volcano Lair it is light out. How many time zones does this kingdom have? Also during this climactic battle, the King’s army has the high ground thanks to a hill and the Krug race up the raised land. The archers atop the hill fire their flaming arrows at an angle pointing up, which would sail over the heads of all their targets. I suppose the King’s archery education program has been suffering some severe budget cutbacks.

The dialogue is pretty corny amidst all the sword-and-sorcery antics and induces its fair share of giggles. When Muriella asks Gallian if he always appears out of nowhere he responds, “No. I appear suddenly. Out of somewhere.” Thanks for clearing that semantic argument up. He also has a very icky conversation with his bedfellow Muriella dripping with double entendres: “I knew you would come,” “I told you I would,” “I felt it before you came,” “You told me I could come and go as I please.” I think my favorite moment is when the King is on his deathbed and addressing Farmer. He advises the man of agricultural means to try using seaweed to enrich his soil. “How do you know this?” asks Farmer. “Because I am king,” he replies.

The actors all feel like they are in separate movies on a collision course with one another. Boll has never had a firm command with actors. The big name actors feel their way around a scene with little guidance from Boll, which means they routinely experiment and play their roles like they were an exercise instead of a final performance. A fine example is a single line spoken at a family table; it’s just perfectly off enough to prick your ears to Boll’s tone-deaf direction. I think Boll either doesn’t care that much about performances or is easily cowed into submission by actors. Staham is recycling his glaring machismo that he’s turned into an action movie franchise, but he seems to me like a modern-day Steven Segal who dispatches foes in a monotone whisper. Luckily for Boll, Statham is adept at picking up fight choreography and so the movie benefits by watching the actor clearly in the middle of the fracas performing his own sword fights.

Most of the actors also seem to be falling back on past performances as inspiration for what to do under Boll’s laissez faire direction. Perlman plays his standard gruff tough with a deadpan delivery. Sobieski hasn’t acted in a movie for some time. She comes across as her usual inexpressively empty self, which is her thing, along with being a physical clone of Helen Hunt. Loken shows she can swing from a vine but not master a vague British accent. Forlani gets to cower and weep, though in my estimation she is a much more attractive woman in her 30s than she was as a 20-something ingénue. Smile lines have really sexed her up. Burt Reynolds is playing Burt Reynolds, and Rhys-Davies falls back on his trademark gravitas. Only Lillard seems to find enjoyment out of Boll’s vacuum of direction. His accent mirrors his wildly over the top style of acting that sometimes feels like a fish flopping around for air. His physical mannerisms are uncontrolled and he sneers through much of his lines, but I’ll give it to Lilard, he is much more fun to watch than any of the other slumming stars.

Special attention must be made to Liotta, who is on a different plane of terrible. It’s bad enough that he’s chewing the scenery in his typical manic, bug-eyed crazy yell-speak he refers to as acting, but the movie has to open on the discomfiting image of Liotta trying to suck Leelee Sobieski’s face inside out via kissing. Liotta’s character Gallian feels and looks out of place; he resembles a skuzzy Las Vegas magician with a pompadour and a long leather jacket and a button-down shirt. Where did this man come from? His performance is astonishing in how deeply the awful goes, and when he tells Farmer’s wife, “I feel him inside you,” try your best not to shudder.

After seeing eight of his films and writing 17,000 words on the man (including 2,700 for this review), I feel like I have a special connection to Uwe Boll. I just don’t sense that Boll’s heart was truly in this venture. In the Name of the King seems to be the last time I think we’ll see Boll flirt with mainstream Hollywood genre filmmaking. I think his time luring known actors has come to a merciful end. His next slew of films seem destined to all direct-to-DVD and feature no name casts that are mostly the same actors he has worked with before. In the Name of the King will stand as a ridiculous Lord of the Rings rip-off that has some workable action alongside its many laughably awful moments. It’s a lousy fantasy movie with too many extraneous characters and too familiar a plot outline. Even for a $60 million film, Boll finds new ways to prove that no matter what sized budget the man has he will always try to grasp something beyond his reach.

Nate’s Grade: D+

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