The reason we typically watch crime/action movies is for the slick style, the gonzo action, and the over-the-top characters cutting loose in the most violent of manners. We watch these movies to capture that whiff of cool, something flashy and entertaining with its eye-popping combo of sight and sound. Think Snatch, and Drive, and Atomic Blonde, and what appears to be the upcoming James Gunn Suicide Squad sequel. By these standards of stylized violence and colorful anti-heroes, Netflix’s Gunpowder Milkshake falls too flat to be duly satisfying.
Sam (Karen Gillan) is a hired killer working for the secretive order, The Firm. Her handler (Paul Giamatti) has accidentally assigned her the son of a commanding mobster who now demands vengeance. Her lone way to keep the protection of her employers is to kill a man who robbed them, which she does, but then regrets her actions. The troubled man had stolen the money to pay the kidnappers ransoming his daughter, Emily (Chloe Coleman). Sam decides to get involved and save this girl, and in doing so loses protection. The scornful mobster sends teams of goons to track Sam and kill her, forcing her to find refuge with her absentee mother (Lena Headey).
The problem with playing in this stylized sandbox is having little to back up the attitude and style. Admittedly, those two aspects go far in a sub-genre dominated by appearances, but if you just have tough-looking shells of characters posturing and acting tough, it doesn’t matter how much style you dump onto the screen, it will only distract for only so long. The characters in Gunpowder Milkshake are so powerfully bland and all adhere to the same lone character trait. They’re all glib and badass and brusque and smug and fairly boring. It’s like somebody took the John Wick universe of clandestine killers and copied and pasted the same default personality.
If everyone is super cool, and super deadly, and super nonchalant, then you need to put even more work into making the characters stand apart. They’ll need specific quirks, competing goals, faults and obsessions, some key nub of characterization even if its superficial (a guy with one eye he’s insecure about it, etc.). With Gunpowder Milkshake, there’s nothing to work with. The screenwriters made this so much harder on themselves. I guess we’re merely supposed to be won over by the casting and the imagery of these bad ladies holding powerful weaponry. The protagonist is boring. She is the familiar hired killer who grows an inconvenient conscience. That’s an acceptable starting point but the moral growth is hindered when her young charge, the little girl that forces her paradigm shift, wants to be her apprentice to learn to kill people. The fraught mother/daughter relationship resorts to a lot of “I didn’t want this life for you,” “It’s the only life I’ve known” roundabout conversations, and neither furthers our understanding of either side.
With all that being said, there are moments of bloody fun that can be enjoyed. There’s a middle portion of the movie that gave me hope the film had transformed. At one point, Sam is indisposed and unable to use her arms, which dangle without any muscle control. She’s about to be beset by angry if bruised bad guys and must plan what to do. The resulting clash is a burst of creative choreography and an excellent demonstration of Sam’s resourcefulness and drive. Watching her dispatch a dozen armed men so indifferently, always knowing where and when to turn and dodge is not nearly as entertaining or engaging as watching her struggle and solve a problem. This sequence is extended and makes clever use of its location and the elements that would be available. Then we go a step further, as Sam and her youngster must drive a car to flee except the uncontrollable arm problem persists. Sam will pump the pedals and give directions while Emily sits on her lap and turns the steering wheel. This made me excited. We had organic complications and potential solutions that involved both characters having to rely upon one another. That is solid screenwriting and finding a way to spice up an ordinary parking garage chase sequence. By the end of this sequence, my hopes started to dwindle because Sam reverted to her earlier super cool, impervious version. She knew every exact move to make, and the small-scale car chase started losing my interest even with the extra driving dynamic. I wish the filmmakers could analyze how these sequences differed to better harness that creative surge.
The concluding act of Gunpowder Milkshake is a deluge of false climaxes and waves of bad guys that never pose any discernible threat. It all feels too repetitive and like a video game. This group of people need to be killed, and then this next group of people need to be killed, and then this next next group of people need to be killed, and I just started getting bored. There is the occasional fun burst of violence and style, but the enemies are stock and dispensable, so it doesn’t feel like it matters what the numbers are. Whether it’s a dozen or a thousand, nothing really seems to matter because our super team of badass women will never be stopped. If you’re going to establish the protagonists as so far ahead of their competition, then work needs to be done to provide another outlet for audience interest. Use that time to explore the peculiarities of the cracked-universe world, like in the John Wick franchise. Use that time to meaningfully push the characters toward personal confrontations with one another. Alas, it’s all slapdash style with the same dead-eyed cool stare from start to finish (with the noted exception above). The entire final act could have been five minutes or fifty. It’s filler violence until the director tires out.
The cast is blameless and eminently watchable. I’ve been a fan of Gillan’s since her early Doctor Who days, and it’s been fun to watch her come into her own with the major spotlight afforded from franchises like Guardians of the Galaxy and Jumanji. She’s more than capable of kicking ass and looking cool doing so but this is the thinnest of characters. Once Sam chooses to put her safety at risk to save an innocent girl, it’s the end of her character growth. I suppose you can argue everything she does from there further proves the lengths she will go to solidify this important choice. Gillan deserves a worthy star vehicle. It’s fun to watch Angela Bassett, Michell Yeoh, Carla Gugino, and Headey push back with a grin against the misogyny of the overconfident wicked men who wish to do them harm. I wish they were better integrated into the world to have more significance other than as old allies who double as a weapons depot. There’s only so many guns-in-books jokes you can have before it too feels overdone.
For fans of stylized violence, there may be enough cooking with Gunpowder Milkshake to meet out its near two-hour investment. The neon-infused, candy-colored production design and cinematography can enliven moments. The actors are fun to watch. Some of the fighting is brutally choreographed and cleverly executed, like the sequence where Gillan has no control over her arms. It’s got slow-mo violence set to wailing pop music tracks. If you’re looking for a pretty movie with some style, then it might be enough. If, however, you’re looking for a movie with interesting characters with memorable personalities, well-developed action with variance, and a story with a nice array of twists and turns and payoffs, then maybe look elsewhere.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The movie Ava was never meant to have this title. The spy thriller was beset with trouble when the original director, Mathew Newton, dropped off the project after domestic abuse accusations resurfaced. Jessica Chastain, serving as star and as producer, reached out to her Help director Tate Taylor to come aboard and helm the project. Even with that upheaval, the movie went through production under the title of Eve, the name of Chastain’s character. Every person refers to her by this name throughout the movie, and it wasn’t until after the film was complete that some studio executive said, “What if her name was Ava instead?” The filmmakers then had to re-record every line of dialogue referencing her name to replace with this new identity. I cannot fathom a reason for doing so unless some exec really had a thing for that name or it was a concerted move to further distance themselves from Newton, who also wrote the screenplay. Just like that, Eve becomes Ava, and suddenly it’s a whole new creative project. Too bad they didn’t go further because whatever you call it, Ava is a fairly lackluster genre exercise for all involved.
Ava (Chastain) is a former soldier who was discharged from the Army and battled an addiction to drugs and alcohol. She’s gotten better and found a job that suits her, namely killing people for hire. Her fatherly handler (John Malkovich) tells her the marks, she dispatches them, and then collects the payouts. She assumes the men on her kill list are specimens of evil but begins to have her doubts, enough so that Simon (Colin Farrell) sends agents to snuff Ava out.
There’s very little presented in Ava you haven’t seen in any litany of other spy thrillers before except with this pedigree of cast. I kept questioning why all these actors had agreed to be part of this project. The characters aren’t exactly complex or original. The scenarios aren’t exactly intricate or subversive. The action isn’t exactly well choreographed or well shot. The movie isn’t even that long at 95 minutes or so. The screenplay by Newton is unremarkable in every way, no different than any direct-to-DVD genre entry. I could just as readily see, say, Kristanna Loken (BloodRayne) filling the role of Ava than I could an actress as accomplished and in-demand as Chastain. That nagging question of what made a generic spy thriller so appealing will never be answered, because Ava offers little to a viewer already steeped in genre thrillers. It’s more of the same, just with A-list talent voluntarily “slumming it” as underwritten archetypes.
By no means am I against genre movies as a whole. I love genre movies. They can be some of the most entertaining and exciting film experiences, and under the right guidance, they can be thoroughly compelling and rewarding and even enlightening. Plus they’re just fun. Matt Damon resurrected his career as Jason Bourne. If Ava was trying to do something along those lines, re-calibrate the spy movie as a jangly, nerve-wracking thriller grounded in realism, that would have been something. Or if the movie had embraced its genre tropes knowingly, with tongue firmly placed in cheek, it could have been an over-the-top hoot. Instead, Ava just presents the same tropes without any sense of self-awareness. Ava really feels like an imitation of one of the lesser Luc Besson (The Professional, La Femme Nikita) action thrillers, or maybe one of those Besson imitations of a Besson work (3 Days to Kill). It’s going through the motions of motions.
The domestic side of Ava’s life feels like a messy soap opera intruding onto a spy thriller, bordering into farce though without the awareness. Ava’s father died while she was out murdering others, and her sister Judy (Jess Wexler) hasn’t forgotten. Ava’s ex-fiancé, Michael (Common), is also now dating Judy. Michael is also struggling with his own gambling addiction and the debts he owes to local loan shark, Toni (Joan Chen), who has bad blood with Ava. Then there’s Ava’s mother, Bobbi (Geena Davis), who has gone in and out of the hospital for heart problems and wants her family to get along. As you might assess, for a 90-minute movie, there is way too much going on there to keep checking in with. Every time we gain more understanding of the people in Ava’s life, the more ridiculous her life seems to evolve, and remember she also is a recovering addict who is wavering over the possibility of relapse. That’s a lot of capital D drama but the screenplay lacks the follow-through to make it matter. It feels like Newton just keeps piling on the complications rather than developing and twisting them. There’s one genuinely strong moment when Bobbi has a sit-down with her daughter and warns her about the costs of being honest and expresses her content to luxuriate in the lie of Ava’s cover story of a career. As Ava contemplates having an affair with her ex, her sister’s boyfriend, you may start to forget that you’re watching a movie about a trained assassin.
Taylor (The Girl on the Train) shows just as much affinity for directing spy thrillers as directing horror with last year’s Ma. It’s not a good fit, folks. Taylor lacks the innate ability to stage action in a pleasing and exciting manner. The fight choreography is mundane and there is no scenario that develops and transforms with complications. The final confrontation is literally a limping slow-walk foot chase that will draw more unintended laughter than suspense, especially as it keeps going and going and I questioned the character walking speed. There is one standout moment and it’s a knock-out, drag-out fight between Ava and Simon that breaks just about every stick of furniture in a hotel room. Both are left bleeding and bruised and fatigued. It’s nothing exceptional in choreography but the sustained duration is what makes it stand apart. I’ll grant Taylor some leeway considering he was a late hire for a project already moving forward. However, with the results of Ava as a finished film, I wouldn’t advise hiring Taylor for any other action movies.
Chastain (It Chapter 2) is of course a strong anchor. She taps into some of that ferocious power she had with 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty, and I would have loved to see her kick all sorts of ass in a spy thriller worthy of her talent. Even something like 2012’s Haywire, which was built to showcase the raw fighting skills of MMA-fighter-turned-actress, Gina Carano, or 2017’s Atomic Blonde, which was expanded upon due to the balletic precision and capability of Charlize Theron. We needed something more for Ava. Chastain kicks and punches and stalks the grounds with her cold badass stares, but she could be doing so much more. The soapier plot elements betray her. At one point, she’s crying, laughing, holding a bottle and contemplating putting a gun to her head. It’s just so much that, again, it points to farce but can’t quite tonally commit.
I’m trying to fathom the reason anyone should watch Ava. It’s short. It’s got talented actors. It’s not offensive in any technical or storytelling regard. If you had 95 minutes to waste, you most certainly could do worse. But there’s nothing that separates this spy thriller from any other mundane, mediocre, cliché genre exercise. What about this script excited Chastain to produce and make sure the world could have the opportunity to see this story? Maybe it was her commercial gambit to tell more meaningful indies later, like when Michael Fassbender produced Assassins’ Creed. I’ll never know the full appeal. Maybe it all just sounded a lot better when her name was Eve.
Nate’s Grade: C
Has there been a movie with worse luck than The Hunt? It was originally scheduled to be released in late August 2019 and was postponed after the back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. Its studio, Blumhouse, pulled the movie out of sensitivity and rescheduled it for March, trying to draft off some of the latent controversy once President Trump caught wind of its liberals-versus-conservatives battle-to-the-death premise and tried to make political hay from it. The marketing highlighted quotes from political figures and writers and asked audiences to judge the controversy for themselves. Flash forward, and the new release date was pretty much the last weekend of theatrical action in 2020. Thanks to the worldwide spread of COVID-19, very few people ventured out from the safety of their socially distant homes to the movies, and it’s only become more dire since. Now just about every wide release has been scuttled from the release date from March into the middle of the summer, and who knows how long this may carry on for. The Hunt may be the last new theatrical movie for the foreseeable future. Thankfully, Universal made their theatrical releases available on demand (this may be an irreversible new reality of distribution) and I watched The Hunt at home. I home hunted, and I’m glad I did. If you’re a fan of Ready or Not and You’re Next, then The Hunt and its shocking violence, demented humor, and political satire might prove appealing.
A group of strangers wakes up gagged in a field. They’re given weapons and then the hunt is on from an unseen force. Crystal (Betty Gilpin) is trying to make sense of where she is, what is happening, and how she can escape into safety and who she may be able to trust.
I was consistently laughing throughout The Hunt and amused at its breakneck twists and turns. It’s a film that lets you know very early that it’s willing to go to some dark and twisted places. It throws a lot of characters immediately into the grinder, as you go from following one person who is ultimately slain to another person who eventually meets the same fate, and it creates a desperation of trying to find an anchor. It also makes it feel like anything can happen at any time, that whatever might seem normal could really be hiding a dangerous reality. It’s the kind of movie that isn’t below throwing a grenade down someone’s pants. It has definite satirical sights but that doesn’t stop it from being an enjoyable dark and thrilling little movie. Once we settle on our main heroine, the new joy becomes her ability to see through the facades of different scenarios and fight back, again and again. It’s a wonderfully executed setup of giving us a very capable fighter who is constantly underestimated and then watching her opponents toppled. Each new scenario gives us someone to root for and a new mini-boss to foil. The film becomes a series of escalating payoffs tied to the smartest person making others pay for their mistakes.
I always thought the anger that conservative pundits, and Trump, assailed The Hunt with was misplaced considering that, given the premise, it seemed very much like the liberal elites were the villains. For most of the first act, this is the case, as we’re dropped right into the mix and left to learn on our own much like the hunted conservative characters. We are put in their shoes and don’t even see who may be hunting them until 15 minutes in. For the opening of the movie, it’s like the beginning of the Hunger Games. What is this crate? Why is it filled with weapons? What’s the deal with the pig? It’s a game that you’re trying to learn the rules of while bullets are whizzing by heads, and sometimes splattering into them too. Unquestionably, our allegiance is with these vulnerable people trying to make sense of this madness and survive. We see their humanity. When they do finally encounter their predators in disguise, the liberals can barely conceal their contempt and prejudices. If anyone is actively rooting for the predators after the first act, then they haven’t been paying attention or were too far gone with empathy.
However, the movie does start to take a turn the longer we spend with the hunted conservative characters, all but one not given official names (the list on IMDB cites names like Staten Island, Yoga Pants, and the parenthetically-enabled, (Shut the F*** Up) Gary). They begin to play into the same overblown prejudices and negative stereotypes of their across-the-ideological-aisle peers. As The Hunt continues, it becomes more and more apparent that screenwriters Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse (HBO’s The Leftovers) have crafted a political satire that takes aim at both sides (more on this specific aspect later). Eventually the real target reveals itself to be extremism and how it can cloud one’s judgement and ability to see other people on human levels. There’s a late scene where a conservative figure confronts the liberal designer of the Hunt, and they get into a circular argument over which side is responsible for the creation of this death game. It’s a hilarious blame game but also emblematic of what happens when people try to play on the same level as conspiracy theorists who distort reality to their pre-selected biases. Sometimes in politics you need to fight fire with fire and sometimes that extra oxygen only makes things worse.
Now The Hunt does have an issue with its “both sides are to blame” approach and that’s the false equivalency of the danger of right-wing and left-wing conspiracy clans. Right-wing militants are the ones saying Sandy Hook was a hoax with crisis actors, that Jade Helm was a military plot to take over the states, that scientists are in a cabal to bring down the petroleum industry, and cooping Americans up from COVID-19 to damage Trump, that immigrants are bringing crime and disease into the United States, and other such nutjob ideas. While left-wing extremists can be callous and have their own science denial problems (GMOs, vaccines), they aren’t the ones taking arms, storming federal buildings, sending pipe bombs in the mail, killing anti-Nazi protestors with cars, and shooting brown-skinned strangers in a Wal-Mart parking lot. One of these two ideological sides seem far more likely to support dangerous extremism than the other, especially with a man in the Oval Office who seems to wink and nod at these reactionary elements in approval. While the “both sides are bad” approach to satire allows The Hunt and its filmmakers more ground to market their movie to a wider audience sick of extremism, it’s also a dubious false equivalency that deserves to be called out.
Betty Gilpin (Netflix’s GLOW, Stuber) is the star of the movie and a force of nature. She’s capable, cunning, disarmingly physical and perceptive, and she creates wonderfully bloody havoc. She is a delight and her one-upping her opponents never gets old. She is no-nonsense and blunt, and her efficiency is admirable and highly entertaining. Gilpin is a surprise in badass mode, but she makes it her own with style. A late Act Three fight is brutal as it goes from room to room, smashing everything in sight. It goes on for so long that the fighters start to get fatigued, pleasantly reminding me of the excellent fight choreography of 2017’s Atomic Blonde. It’s a satisfying final confrontation and doesn’t find a contrived way to hold back her formidable ability.
The Hunt might have been cursed with bad luck but it also might have the distinction of being the last new movie in theaters in what is proving to be an increasingly challenged year of content delivery. It’s certainly not going to be a film for everyone despite its aim at centrism. I was entertaining by the script’s constant knack for surprises and upending my expectations, of laying out dominoes and then laying waste to said dominoes. Gilpin is a star in the making and a terrific lead. It’s a movie that can get people talking by the end, debating its satirical messages, but it can also just be a fun, nasty little movie that will make you hoot in delight with each violent twist. I’m glad The Hunt could finally be judged on its own merits rather than the presuppositions of others. There might be a lesson in there somewhere.
Nate’s Grade: B
Imagine waking up one day and having real-working handguns bolted into your hands. That’s the wild premise to Guns Akimbo (akimbo means, in this context, “flung out haphazardly”), a frenetic action comedy that never takes itself too seriously. Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) is a computer programmer who takes it upon himself to harass online trolls. One of these trolls, the proprietor behind the death match game show Schism, takes it personally. He drugs Miles and has his cartoonish goons give him the gun-hands. He’s the latest contestant on Schism, and the top-ranked assassin Nix (Samara Weaving) has been selected as his competition. Miles has to fend for his life, while not arousing panic or the police, and he can’t even open a door.
It’s a bonkers, proudly juvenile action comedy that starts off at a breakneck speed and rarely lets up, and there’s a good reason for that – Guns Akimbo is a lot of flash and little else. It’s a movie that’s constantly in your face with its stylistic tricks, crass humor, wanton violence, and bizarre touches, and for a decent portion of the movie it kept me entertained. The rush of colors, movement, and profane insanity can be enjoyed on a certain level that doesn’t require much in the way of thinking. If you need a turn-off-your-brain action comedy, Guns Akimbo can work on that level, but if you think a little more the illusion begins to dissolve. I start to question the reality of this world, which seems more akin to something from The Purge but lacks the satirical through line of the Purge franchise. The satire of Guns Akimbo feels tacked on and often forced, much like the setup of its premise. There’s really nothing about firearms or gun culture covered, which seems bizarre considering the premise. The “troll culture” aspect of the movie is barely covered, setting it up as a straw-man argument to lambaste the general indifference to human suffering. We never really return to it except for brief moments to score easy points. Miles is a troll to trolls, and they get so incensed that they go to extreme lengths for vengeance from… being trolled? Is this to imply how fragile online trolls are as people? The world of the movie seems to acknowledge its Running Man-style online death game shows but the rest of the world goes on normally without commenting. It feels like someone just dropped in a fantastic element into the normal world and nobody acknowledges it as such. I thought maybe at the end it would turn on the Schism viewers but no. They’re basically like those five or six audience faces we jump around for reaction shots, like in The Truman Show. The satire of the movie feels more like a superficial finish.
From the first sequence of stylized violence on, I made a note of how overly edited the action was. It wasn’t quite to the hyper-edits of Michal Bay’s kaleidoscopic realm but it was noticeable and made it harder for the action to be understood and appreciated. You get the premise of the scenarios, two cars chasing after one another and firing, but it’s presented in such a blizzard of images, sounds, and colors that it’s more the impression of the scene rather than a development. This impression was always present when we watch Nix storm through a drug den and lay waste to every armed goon inside. Here is a scenario where all I want is some stylized violence and fun fight choreography, but what I got was more of the same incomprehensible jumble. Nix shoots. Bullets hit skulls. Blood splatters. The camera is constantly zooming, or careening, or flipping upside down, and after a while I just gave up and accepted it’s all only impression-based. It’s about the immediate energy and not what’s actually happening onscreen. I wasn’t going to get any interesting fight choreography. I wasn’t going to get any memorable bits of crazy action. It was like a junkier version of Wanted, with a super-powered player running through a level and clearing over-matched opponents. Without more, the same action can get boring. The same happens in a junkyard clash between gangs. The only action sequence with a satisfying development was a car chase where Nix attacks with the spinning wheel of her motorcycle. Guns Akimbo has decided to overwhelm your senses to distract from its action restrictions.
As a crazy comedy, Guns Akimbo is more successful and fun. I found the physical comedy to be a consistent and enjoyable source of entertainment. While the action might get boring, watching Miles simply deal with the logistics of his gun-bolted hands made me laugh and cringe constantly. How does one go to the bathroom with gun-hands? Put on their pants? Open a door? Drive a car? It’s a dose of slapstick that doesn’t have to dip into edgy material in order to make its mark. Radcliffe is genuinely fun to watch during these sequences, as it plays to his strengths of melding awkward clumsiness and nervous high-strung energy. Thankfully Radcliffe is set for life thanks to the Harry Potter movies because he has consistently chosen really weird and interesting film roles, almost to the point where his presence in a (non-studio) movie is enough to guarantee a watch. He brought stunning humanity to a farting corpse in 2016’s Swiss Army Man and gave a tour-de-force physical performance. He’s an actor who commits no matter how silly the role, and it’s a delight to watch him try and make sense of the escalating madness around him with his unique physical disability. I was enjoying even the smaller moments like Miles’ difficulty hiding his alarming ailment with transparent lies or his interaction with a mentally ill homeless man (a scene-stealing Rhys Darby).
As the movie kept going, I felt my interest growing and that was because of the increased presence of Weaving as Nix, who is clearly the star of this crazy movie. Weaving should have been a Hollywood star after Netflix’s The Babysitter, and she was just as wonderful as the heroine in last year’s Ready or Not. Her character isn’t exactly much more than a murder pinup, a comic character come to life. She’s nearly unrecognizable in her punk rock assassin attire, including literal bullet teeth. She’s all nihilist attitude and clunky one-liners (“Suck my clit” needs some work). She has a tragic back-story that sets her up for vengeance and that’s all that’s needed from what could be a completely interchangeable back-story. It only serves as a needed character motivation point, one that is more compelling even in its shallow nature than Miles, who is on the run for his life but really is about trying to save his ex-girlfriend (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) who serves mainly as a damsel in distress for the last act. While I enjoyed Radcliffe as a performer, this is Weaving’s movie from the moment she struts into the frame. Her charisma pops off the screen even as her character is criminally blasé. She’s the kind of character that will pick up a dismembered middle finger just to give someone the gesture. Nix is more so a collection of weird and hip and sexy tics than an interesting character, but it’s Weaving and her jubilant, dangerous degree of fun that makes the character a scrubby version of Harley Quinn.
Guns Akimbo is like tasty junk food that can satisfy a very specific cinematic craving but you know, even as you’re consuming it, that this won’t be anything special. I wish the film had gone further in any direction, whether it was with the comedy, whether it was with more finely choreographed action, or whether it was in more outlandish set pieces like in 2007’s Shoot ‘Em Up. If you want to be a crazy cartoon, be a crazy cartoon. Give me even more characters like Nix and over-the-top violence that does something different besides geysers of head shot wounds. Guns Akimbo might work as a lesser Crank movie. This movie seems either to be too satisfied with itself or knowingly hiding its shortcomings with energy, edits, and attitude. I can’t tell which. Guns Akimbo is easy on the brain and maybe a little too easy on itself. My 13-year-old self would have loved this movie.
Nate’s Grade: C+
I recently watched two movies this holiday season that could not be any more opposite, so naturally I decided to pair them together as a joint review. 6 Underground is a chaotic and bombastic action-thriller that cost $150 million dollars, is directed by maestro of the machismo Michael Bay, and is widely available for streaming through Netflix and its bottomless pit of money. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a small, subtle French film depicting a reserved love story that takes its sweet time and is as much a repudiation on how women are commonly portrayed in art. One of these two movies is an obnoxiously arduous enterprise that many have dubbed represents the worst in movies, and the other is a hard-to-find foreign indie that is one of the best films you will see in 2019. Two very different uses of cinema, and I’ll let you decide which is which by the end of this double review, dear reader.
The mastermind of the special forces team of “ghosts” is billionaire inventor “One” (Ryan Reynolds). He’s assembled a team of specialists that have faked their own deaths to work as an elite team taking out an elite array of bad guys, tyrants, and war criminals. That’s the plot of 6 Underground. What follows is a collection of loud noises, colorful explosions, blood splatter, and mainlined madness pumping through all of your demolished senses.
6 Underground is like a direct pipeline into Michel Bay’s childhood brain. It’s Bay at his most unfiltered, which means that the tone isn’t just over-the-top, it destroys the top, establishes a new higher top, and then obliterates that designation as well. Watching the movie is like a descent into juvenile hysteria and I couldn’t help laughing at the excess. It’s the kind of action movie where cars don’t just fly and career off the road, they split in two and smash just so the driver’s dead body plops out in the camera angle. It’s the kind of movie where the bad guys don’t just get shot but get shot in lovingly disgusting ways, like a bullet going through a cigar and a pimple-popping setup leading to brain explosions. It’s the kind of movie where a dangling eyeball is played for giggles. It’s the kind of movie where people aren’t just getting hit by cars, they’re getting propelled into other objects from the blunt force. It’s the kind of movie where the bad guy names his generals The Four Horsemen. It’s the kind of movie where a character removes a bullet-proof helmet right before re-entering a firefight for… reasons. It’s the kind of movie with 100 needle-drop music selections, including, by my count, five Muse songs (but not one use of the Sneakerpimp’s “6 Underground,” which is an egregious oversight). It’s the kind of movie where someone unleashes a crashing crate full of metal poles and they launch like heat-seeking projectiles, filleting bad guys and bad guy cars. The opening twenty minutes is a non-stop car chase through the streets of Florence, Italy that must lead to billions in damages and, in one moment that screamed the only self-aware flash in the entire two-plus hours, the cars are racing through museums and laying waste to precious works of art. It’s like Bay is winking at his critics and saying, “This is how you see me, a gleeful provocateur that destroys the very concept of high art, so here I am, doing it for real.” To say this movie is crazy is a disservice to the word itself.
6 Underground is pure, testosterone-pumping id, and it can become exhausting without any foundation to hold it all together. The plot is extremely generic and fees like a relic from the 1990s, a billionaire assembling an elite team of criminals/killers/spies to go undercover and take out the world’s bad guys. They’re “ghosts” in the fact that they’ve faked their deaths, but what exactly is gained from this process beyond, say, going off the grid? The idea of them being dead is meant to be freeing, but their friends and family are still living and can be used to apply pressure on these still-living people. Except this never happens. The plotting is incredibly sloppy and elects to skip around in time in a misplaced attempt to seem cool. The entire opening twenty minutes feels like it’s one-upping itself out of naked fear that somehow an audience will be bored, like the viewer is somehow building a tolerance to the mayhem and will walk away unless it just keeps going up up up. The opening sequence has a florescent green sports car spinning through the streets, chased by armed vehicles, while bullet-removal surgery is being performed in the backseat, while an eyeball is being dangled to open a security code, while the narrative jumps back and forth in time to present whose eyeball this belongs to and what happened, and that’s even before the art museum smash-up and a slow-mo spin that twirls into absurd self-parody, where someone screams not to hit a woman with a baby, which we narrowly miss, followed by someone screaming not to hit a dog, which we next narrowly miss. Then there’s nuns on bicycles knocked onto the ground who respond with raised middle fingers. It’s so much, all the time, with Bay’s hyper edits and swirling camerawork that you feel beaten down. It’s all the outrageous spectacle we’ve seen in other Bay films but now it’s condensed to its essence and splashed into your eyeballs.
There aren’t so much characters in this movie but action movie avatars or, even simpler, Person-Shaped Entities Who Hold Guns or Drive Fast. Reynolds is playing the same variation we’ve seen for the last few years since his success in Deadpool, which makes me think this is the only Ryan Reynolds we’ll be getting in movies from now on. The plot even provides completely frivolous flashbacks to provide answers to the non-burning question of how the crew was gathered together. I suppose it’s an excuse to squeeze in more action sequences but that only ever happens with the parkour Brit member. Speaking of which, the parkour action sequences are, by far, the best parts of this movie and it made me wonder what a parkour action movie under Bay’s command could be like. Every character has three modes: Badass, Quippy, and, least convincing, Self-Serious. These are not recognizable people, and the female characters are even less versions of not-people. The movie thinks it’s being cool by assigning code names that are just numbers, like they won’t get close to one another without the convenience of names. It’s just another sign of how disposable every character is and how little thought was given to character arcs beyond redemption. There’s one mission in Hong Kong that utilizes them as a team but even that is fleeting as far as developing a more cohesive camaraderie. They’re basically like distaff superheroes that have been forcibly crossed over for some special event and are waiting to return home for solo adventures. You could create a sequel with a brand-new team and not miss a beat.
Is any of this bombastic silliness genuinely entertaining? Much of Bay’s popular works exist in that strange space where you willingly shut off your brain for the popcorn thrills. I like half of the Transformers movies (though quite dislike the other half) and think Pain and Gain showed real promise, before it wore out its welcome, that Bay hasn’t been able to better tap into. I’m not an automatic hater of Michael Bay as a filmmaker; he’s a born cineaste when it comes to style. Even when his movies are running off the rails, they’re never truly boring. With the unlimited freedom of Netflix, Bay was able to unleash his full chaotic imagination, and the results can prove to be entertaining in spurts. I found more bafflement just trying to process everything. Bay’s advertising instincts are part of his style, so every over-saturated moment of 6 Underground looks like it could be a commercial for the military, cars, perfume, or some expensive watch. It’s a world of wanton excess and disposable thrills, and that relates to its portrayal of women too. Women become another interchangeable object to be fetishized and commoditized by Bay’s roving camera. It’s the male gaze cranked up on high, lovingly depicting fast cars, sexy women, and human carnage. Even the brains and blood being blown apart feel fetishized (bad guys don’t just get shot; they ooze goop for several seconds from gory head wounds). It’s a movie that wants to overpower you by every means available, with the excessive trivialities of action movies, with aggressive style that desperately wants to be seen as cool, and with its exaggerated concepts of hyper masculinity.
At the complete other end of the movie spectrum is France’s gentle, understated period drama, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Set in 1760 on a remote island, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is commissioned to paint the portrait of Heloise (Adele Haenel) for the purpose of snagging her a husband. Heloise had been planning to become a nun but her family pulled her from the convent once she became their only living daughter, a.k.a. hope for the family to secure prosperity through marriage. Marianne must hide her true intentions and grow close to her subject, memorizing her face enough to paint it in secret. An intimacy builds between the two women that will change both of their lives even long after the fateful painting is finished (spoilers?).
Writer/director Celine Sciamma has primarily worked with contemporary stories (Girlhood, Tomboy, Water Lilies) but, in stepping back in time, she has tapped into something elementally beautiful and poignant. It is very much a slow-burn of a movie but, in essence, that is the most relatable form of love, a feeling that builds, transforms, and can eventually consume. There’s a liberation for the characters in the time they share together, first as companions and then as lovers. This is a transitory time, one locked in isolation and free from men, though the presence of the patriarchy is unavoidable as it limits their life choices. For Heloise, she had no desire to become someone’s wife and then it was no longer her choice. Her greatest value lies in marriage, and a portrait during this era was essentially someone’s dating profile picture. It’s on Marianne to paint an accurate depiction that can ensnare this woman a husband, which gets even more complicated when Marianne falls for her. The movie tenderly moves along with guarded caution, as two women explore their feelings for one another in a time that didn’t care about their feelings. This is a love story that feels alive but also realistic in how it forms and develops. It’s about halfway through the movie before the ladies finally make their intentions known. I can understand why this might be too slow for many viewers but the movie never came across as dull for me, and it’s because I was so drawn into this world, these characters, and their yearnings being unleashed.
When it comes to movies exemplifying the difference in the female gaze, allow Portrait of a Lady on Fire to be one of the prime examples. This is miles away from the crass objectification featured in the likes of Michael Bay’s oeuvre and his very explicit definition of sexy. This is a movie where the only nudity casually happens after the sex (and body hair isn’t a big deal). There’s more ASMR action for the senses (lots of loud lip-smacking sound design) than ogling naked bodies. The emphasis isn’t on the contours of lithe feminine forms but more on the emotional and physical impact of a person as a whole. There’s one scene that is tremendously affecting and quite sexy, and it begins with the painter telling her subject every small physical response she has studied while painting her. It’s little observations that are romantically relayed. The subject then turns around and says, “Who do you think I’ve been looking at as I’ve posed for hours?” and proceeds to unfurl her own richly earned romantic observations about her painter’s physical responses. It’s such a wonderful scene bristling with palpable sexual tension and infatuation, so much more being said in glances than in declarative speeches. The movie also opens up a larger discussion of the male gaze as it pertains to the world of art. They must play into the established conventions driven by a rigid patriarchy designating how women are best represented in media, and the implications to modern cinematic portraits are clearly felt. Funny enough, Heloise is chastised for not smiling enough in her portraits to woo a worthwhile suitor.
I assumed this love story wasn’t going to have a happy ending given the confines of its era, but I want every reader to know that Portrait of a Lady on Fire just absolutely crushes its ending. You may expect it coming, in a general sense, but the resolution to this love story floored me. There are two consecutive scenes that each elicit different emotions. The first is a winsome feeling of being remembered, of having a sense of permanence after the fact, of a moment in time that will long be fondly recalled and celebrated for its fleeting perfection and lifelong significance. Then the next scene involves a payoff of great empathy that almost brought tears to my eyes. It delivers a long-desired payoff to a character’s lifelong request, and the camera simply holds for over a minute while we watch the indescribable impression this woman is experiencing. It’s so joyous, so heartfelt, and so luxuriously earned that I felt like my heart was going to burst. The fact that both of these emotional conclusions happen without a single word being uttered is even more impressive.
The acting from the leads is phenomenal and the nuances they navigate are so precise and subtle. This isn’t a movie about grand gestures and big dialogue exchanges. It’s a romance in that genteel fashion of furtive movements and words encased in subtext. We’ve seen this kind of restrained love story before in other period pieces, as well as gay cinema with its socially forbidden love. The intimacy between these two women must start slow and, like a fire, be given the right amount of oxygen to allow it to spread. There’s an understandable bitterness that this love will not be allowed but this cannot abate the desire to proceed anyway. These women are more than just tragic figures coming into one another’s orbit. They’re fleshed-out and multi-dimensional characters with their own goals and imperfections. They feel like real people, and while disappointed by their limitations within a patriarchy, they will continue to pursue their personal dreams. The portrayal is so empathetic that your heart can’t help but ache when it isn’t swooning from the sumptuously understated romance of it all.
6 Underground is a hyper-edited, hyper-masculine, and hyper-tiresome action vehicle that exhibits every unchecked impulse of Bay as a filmmaker. The plot is inconsequential because it’s all just gristle for action sequences, which aren’t even developed scenarios as they are (occasionally literal) eye-popping moments of excess. Someone in those Netflix suites really should have second-guessed giving Bay a blank check and little-to-no supervision. At the other end of the movie spectrum is an intimately felt and intimately developed forbidden love that feels natural, nuanced, and enormously engaging. It reminds us that movies only need compelling characters or a compelling scenario to grab us good. I’m fairly certain Bay’s music licensing budget was more than this French indie. Portrait of a Lady on Fire isn’t a revolutionary movie. We’ve seen variations on this story before, but what makes it unmissable is the degree of feeling and artistry crammed into every breathable moment. I know there’s an ample audience that will enjoy 6 Underground, especially with its wider availability, and that’s fine. Netflix paid a pretty penny betting there are enough people looking for the film equivalent of a drunken, disheveled one-night stand. If you’re looking for something more authentic, deeply felt, and, let’s face it, generous to women, then look for Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a beautiful indie romance that warmed my heart, broke it, and then fastened it back together.
6 Underground: C-
Portrait of a Lady on Fire: A
When we last left human killing machine John Wick (Keanu Reeves) he was on the run. He had just committed the cardinal sin in this world of professional hired guns — killing a protected man on safe ground. As a result, The High Table, which governs this ordered realm of trained assassins, has excommunicated Mr. Wick and placed a $15 million dollar bounty on his head. John is desperate for an exit and leans on old pals (Angelica Huston, Halle Berry) before coming home once again to face off against all the gun-toting wrath The High Table can offer.
Plenty of Hollywood action movies can elicit cheers and thrills, and John Wick 3 is definitely in that mix, but what sets it apart is the sheer number of “Oooo”s, “Oww”s, and, “Holy shit”s. Most other action movies have one or two moments that make you wince or make you shake your head in astonishment of something intense, gnarly, or self-evidently awesome. John Wick 3 is packed with these moments. There are numerous examples just in the opening action sequence. There’s one long extended fight where John uses whatever is at his disposal, including knives and shards of broken glass and mirror, to take down his mounting enemies, and then he pulls these deadly projectiles out of their bodies to use again in a pinch. By the end of this action sequence, my preview audience burst into applause. I can’t think of another movie where this happened especially in Act One. The movie has lots of standout action sequences and the good sense to let the audience enjoy the disciplined, imaginative fight choreography in full with long expansive takes. There are moments that are just incredible to witness, like John Wick utilizing a kicking horse to his advantage, or seeing the full take-down effect of whirling attack dogs in combat, and a two-on-one fight where every glass cage in sight must be smashed to bits. For action fans, the John Wick series is a simplified adrenaline shot where the director and star are working in unison to compose goose bump-triggering action cinema for the masses.
Another hallmark of the series is its sense of macabre humor and the world building peculiarities. Amidst the wild carnage and bloodshed, there are moments that shocked me with how funny they were. I was almost in tears toward one baffling moment toward the very end. I loved that the chief antagonist, a samurai sword-wielding Zero (Mark Dacascos), can also be a fanboy. During a rare moment of downtime, he gets to gush and freak out that he’s actually interacting with the John Wick. There’s a new character played by Asia Kate Dillion (TV’s Billions, Orange is the New Black) who behaves like a peeved middle manager trying to get back on the next red-eye home. She’s the best new addition in Chapter Three. Don’t expect much from high-profile new faces like Angelica Huston and Halle Berry as their screen time is brokered into short segments. There’s a sequence where John combats trained soldiers in body armor, and so he has to constantly be reloading because it takes multiple precise shots to down the bad guys. It’s a smart way to escalate the stakes of the scene while staying true to its world, because who wouldn’t wear everything and the kitchen sink when being tasked with killing John Wick? I laughed out loud when Wick returned to an armory perturbed that he had to reload so soon, muttering to himself in agitation.
The action is relentless and all kinds of fun to watch but the movie starts to lose its momentum by the conclusion. Part of this is by the sense of lowered emotional stakes in its finale (more on that below) and another factor is its general plot-less nature. The entire story of John Wick 3 is the title character trying to outrun the people set out to kill him, jumping from one supposed safe landing spot to another. This works for a frenetic sense of pacing, knowing that any lag time will be minimal before the next kickass brawl. Because the movie rarely catches its collective breath, it can also feel like a mindless video game, with each new location a new level and with innumerable, faceless cohorts rushing in to be battled. The violence can be brutal but also feel a bit programmed, lacking some of the visceral dynamic realism of The Raid movies, the closest equivalent action franchise I can think of. There’s nothing here that challenges the brilliant set pieces and organic complications from the last Mission: Impossible movie. It’s a fun action franchise but it runs the risk of resting on its (considerable) laurels, feeling too same-y, and that can prove deadly. The clever fight choreography, sense of humor, and conviction of Reeves does enough to mask the negative effects of this artistic choice. This may affect people differently especially fans of the series, as lavishly produced action can be rewarding enough to ignore other pressing faults. For me, I was feeling as gassed as John Wick by the end.
The further and further we get from the events of the original John Wick, the less emotional involvement the series seems to ingratiate, especially with its central baddies onscreen. Every dog-loving audience member was wiling Wick to get his vengeance in the first movie. We wanted him to get the bad guy in the sequel. Now it’s basically wave after wave of hired guns that he has to defeat, and without a better connection to that opposing force, the movie franchise runs the risk of losing any longstanding personal stakes. The bad guys are just interchangeable and only present to be dispatched. There’s no emotional victory or satisfaction for the audience if Bad Guy #12 gets toppled by the climax. The John Wick franchise is magnifying this accelerating problem; by making the conflict carry over into an additional movie, and now into another additional movie, the audience is getting further and further distance from the origin of this conflict, and thus its resolution becomes less of a desirable and satisfying goal and more a perfunctory endpoint. I would recommend the John Wick team review 2008’s Quantum of Solace to see a recent example of a big action movie hampered by overextending a thin storyline.
If you’re coming to John Wick 3 for another heaping of high-quality action, you won’t leave disappointed on that front. If you’re looking for signature moves, dark humor, and lots and lots of casual headshots, then you won’t leave disappointed. If you’re looking for a thrilling good time at the movies, you won’t leave disappointed. As a fan of the series, this was the movie I was wanting from the first sequel, dealing with the larger consequences of his rule-breaking life-and-death decision. As the third act ramped up for John Wick 3, I turned to my friend and said, “If this was the second movie, it would end right here.” Perhaps if you watch John Wick 2 and the third movie in short succession some of the problems would be smoothed out, namely a depleted sense of personal stakes and too little plot stretched over multiple movies and counting. I’ll happily continue watching further adventures of John Wick, though I’d be just as interested in an exploration of the world without its titular star. At some point it may be necessary to retire John Wick (Reeves seems to have lost a step, but he’s still like a hundred steps beyond most of us) and when they do, I hope this interesting and peculiar world is allowed to house further weird and exciting adventures. In the meantime, John Wick 3 will more than delight those action urges and sate the action appetites of its fans.
Nate’s Grade: B
Polar is such a thoroughly unpleasant film experience I was wondering if Lars von Trier had somehow made a comic book movie. I enjoy exploitation movies, I enjoy slick hitman spectacles, and I enjoy audaciously stylish indie films with their own lingering sense of cool, but Polar is gratuitous in every sense of the word and a chore to sit through.
Duncan (Mads Mikkelsen) is the top assassin in an organization filled with colorful personalities with guns. The head of the agency, Blut (Matt Lucas), has a surefire plan to pay off his debts. Rather than pay the assassins their pensions once they hit the mandatory retirement age of 50, he’ll just kill them. Brilliant. Duncan sets off to enjoy his last few days before his big birthday by settling down in a sleepy small town, getting to know his meek neighbor, Camille (Vanessa Hudgens). This quiet new life is interrupted by a team of crazy killers determined to eliminate their colleague and collect his riches.
The tonal disparity with Polar never settles down, which makes it hard to find any sense of a baseline of what is acceptable reality. What is normal here? The film veers from grotesque, brutish, gory violence to cartoonish, grating, juvenile slapstick. The violence is far too gross and brutal for the light tone it wishes to maintain. It’s the kind of violence where every gunshot necessitates a lurid explosion of blood, and why stop at one gunshot when a dozen will do? There’s an extended torture montage that lasts a total of four days when it could have just been a single session if the point is to kill the hero. It’s close-ups of skin peeling and being penetrated, and I’m not averse to gore effects and exploitation elements but when it’s paired with this flippant, nasty tone it cheapens the violence. This is a film that wallows in the grotesque, tittering to itself and trying so damn hard to be so provocative that it becomes exhausting. It’s jam-packed with style-for-style’s-sake choices that further call attention to its overall emptiness. I started counting the number of shots that existed simply to highlight a woman’s butt, and mostly that of Ruby O. Fee (The Invisibles). I swear her entire role seems to be butt-centric. Then there’s one shot composed entirely of butts shaking in Katheryn Winnick’s (Vikings) face. She’s having a phone call and her face is squeezed between two strippers shaking butts just because. It’s hilariously and transparently gratuitous. So many edits, shots, and even scenes exist just to call attention to its supposed sense of cool. However, cool movies, just like people, don’t have to convince you that they’re cool, they just are.
Let’s take the evil assassins that chase after Duncan. They’re the kind of glib movie assassins that all seem defined by one or two quirks and costume styling guidelines. It’s a diverse group of ridiculous cartoon villains who seem reverse-engineered as toy figures. Why are they also working for an employer that plans on killing them all to escape paying them upon retirement? Why would you willfully work for someone who is so open about betraying you? It’s astoundingly shortsighted thinking. Regardless, other movies have utilized colorful criminals to better establish a sense of fun, particularly the early works of Guy Ritchie. These villains bounce from person-to-person tracking down their target, killing with callous indifference mixed with childish glee, but there’s no personality, no menace, so the bloodletting feels gratuitous and ugly. Scene after scene feels like the actors had large trunks of costumes and props and were told to dig around and grab anything they wanted before they began filming. It makes every one of their appearances feel annoying and trite, especially when one scene, again, exists simply to highlight Fee’s butt in jean shorts. The killers’ big plan is to shoot their target while receiving oral sex from Fee’s character. Then the others will bulrush and shoot some more. Or, and I’m not an expert here, they could simply break in while their target sleeps and shoot them in the back? This lame group of hired killers is the big threat… and then they’re taken out with half the movie left. They are removed with such haste that I was shocked. We had spent so much time with these antagonists and then they’re gone. It’s a fantastic waste of time for a group of characters that didn’t even merit one minute. There’s even one scene where Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws) shows up and is never seen again.
The supreme villain is played by Matt Lucas (Doctor Who) and it just does not work. It’s like Toby Jones’ second cousin found the relics of Elton John’s closet and decided to try and play a Bond villain. I enjoy Lucas normally for his daft comedy roles and I think he’s trying to adopt a Goldfinger impersonation but it does not work. Once again it’s the entire tonal execution and narrative development at fault here. Blut is an officious dweeb prone to yelling at people and running away. He has no standout scene and poses no real threat once the hired guns and goons are taken care of. He cannot hold his own. This is why killing off the team of assassins with half the movie left relates to a dire misstep.
The only thing that does work in this movie is Mikkelsen (Rogue One), who is doing everything in his power to provide an anchor for the pitiable audience. He is way too good for Polar. He takes everything one hundred percent seriously and is genuinely emoting while everyone else is chewing whatever scenery isn’t nailed down. It very much feels like Mikkelsen is in some other different movie, or is pretending to be in a different, better movie. His interactions with Hudgens are a high point, taking her under his wing and showing small glimpses of sympathy and guilt. Their ultimate relationship is predictable, and she disappointingly becomes trapped as a damsel in distress for the final act. Mikkelsen does have a terrific brawl in a hallway (the location of all film fights now it seems) that is well choreographed and very physical without feeling like he’s superhuman. I wish I were watching the better movie Mads Mikkelsen thought he was in.
Everything about Polar feels unnecessary. The sex scenes are gratuitous, the violence is gratuitous, the style is gratuitous, and when everything feels tacked on for cheap thrills, the movie becomes hollow, calculated, and lazy. The suspense sequences should be exciting or an example of our protagonist’s expertise but little feels clever. There are one or two moments, glimmers of what could have been had more attention been given to developing the sequences. As I was watching this two-hour cartoon I was strongly reminded of the 1990s Tarantino knock-off, The Big Hit, which was an exaggerated cartoon of tiresome depravity. It tried so hard to evoke a carefree hipness when it came to its criminals, their depraved acts, their comedic interactions, the debauched humor, that it all felt like two hours of collective flop sweat. Polar is very much in that same description, a movie that is trying too hard to be a fun, breezy, exploitation movie. Except it feels adrift and phony and unpleasant. Polar doesn’t deserve Mads Mikkelsen and it doesn’t deserve a minute of your time, butts and all.
Nate’s Grade: D+
It is no disservice when I say that Bad Times at the El Royale joins the ranks of the finest of Tarantino imitators. It’s packed with twists and turns that keep an audience glued to the screen and continually re-evaluating the characters that we thought we knew. Because of that dynamic the movie invites the audience into becoming more involved, dissecting the information available and waiting for the next clue or plot revelation. It turns watching the film into a game and makes the experience that much more active and thrilling.
In the summer of 1969, the El Royale hotel is in for one hell of a night. The old fashioned hotel sits on the border between Nevada and California, allowing its dwindling customer base the opportunity to choose which state they would like to stay in. A group of strangers cozy up for the night including a priest (Jeff Bridges), a chatty vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), a hopeful lounge singer (Cynthia Erivo), a skittish bellhop (Lewis Pullman), and a mysterious woman (Dakota Johnson) who happens to have a hostage in her trunk. As the night progresses and the characters uncover one another’s secrets, sometimes with deadly results, menacing cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) comes swaggering to the El Royale to reclaim by force what he feels is rightfully his.
There are Act One twists and reveals in El Royale that would have been the Act Threes of other movies. Writer/director Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, The Martian) has packed his movie full of sinister intrigue as he establishes the hotel, the main characters, and an immediate impression of each in the first 15 minutes. From there, the movie is divided into chapter titles (another Tarantino motif) where we follow different room inhabitants who get 20-minute-vignette spotlights. Once in private, the characters shed their false faces and begin to reveal who they really are, or who we think they might really be, and the movie starts to resemble Tarantino’s own hidden identity parlor game, 2015’s Hateful Eight. The vignettes begin to overlap, ending on cliffhangers and then circling back with a new character as our focal point, re-watching prior scenes but from a different perspective. Goddard’s script is wonderfully clever, layering in questions and answers and a constant desire to upend audience expectations. Even though some segments will repeat, Goddard doesn’t waste time on redundancy. A character will be seen prying loose floorboards searching for something desirable, and we never have to relive the before or after of this moment from that character’s perspective because we’ve been imparted the necessary info and can put the pieces together with the next jump. I appreciated Goddard’s faith in the intelligence of his audience. The pleasure of El Royale is watching it deftly unfold as a fun, funny, startling, appealing mystery.
The characters must also be worthy of our attention, and Goddard does fine work teasing out his colorful cast of criminals and lost souls and deepening most. Everyone has something to hide at the El Royale, and finding out his or her true intentions and motivations is part of the film’s fun. I won’t spoil any of the big surprises or which characters are really putting on a show. Despite all the many plot machinations intertwined, Goddard still finds time for his film to breathe and let the characters talk, opening themselves to one another, sometimes with the assistance of dramatic irony. Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo play the best characters and deliver the best performances. Both of them are haunted by pasts they don’t feel like sharing, both are under some element of disguise to embark on finding their happy ending, and both form a sort of bond throughout the film as kindred spirits, even if they can’t fully trust one another. Bridges has the most complicated back-story but it actually links with a very real and emotional condition: memory loss. His character is (legitimately) going through early dementia and he’s losing full control of his sense of self, occasionally blanking and forgetting who he even is and how he got where he did. For a character pretending to be someone else, there’s a cruel irony to this malady. The seven main characters aren’t all on the same level (some are more plot devices than people) but Goddard knows this, making sure his 142-minute movie spends the most time with the best of them.
The actors given the best characters are also the ones that deliver the best performances, if you can imagine that. Bridges (Hell or High Water) brings a strong sense of pathos to his memory-addled priest trying to assess his life and his choices. He seems genuine in every moment, which is a feat considering his character has his share of secrets like anyone else. Erivo is a Broadway star making her film debut here, and she steals the show with her bruised sense of optimism. She’s the heart of the movie and a proven survivor, especially from a rigged system that protects predatory men. She brings a quiet power to her character as well as a believable vulnerability that makes you care. Hemsworth (Avengers: Infinity War) is all shaggy, scraggly charm as a cult leader who gets off pitting his followers, and captives, against one another. Really he likes to listen to himself speak, and Hemsworth is having a grand ole time with the part. Another actor exhibiting clear joy is Hamm (Baby Driver) who is, if you’ll pardon the pun, hamming it up with great gusto. He does a far majority of the talking for the first twenty minutes. He’s practically bouncing all over the place as an unchecked extrovert, but when alone, Hamm demonstrates an additional layer to his outlandish character. Another strong impression is from Pullman (Strangers: Prey at Night) as the lone employee eager to find absolution for his part in the El Royale’s history of sin as well as his own personal demons. The weakest of the ensemble ends up being Johnson (Fifty Shades Freed) who gets lost in her femme fatale archetype and can’t seem to find her way out again.
This is only Goddard’s second directing feature and his best directing aspect is that he knows when to linger on the written page. There are several segments that dwell in a certain emotion, elevated by Goddard’s tracking shots to continue the predicated unease. There’s one early moment where the bowels of the El Royale are revealed as hidden viewing areas to secretly record the guests doing their seemingly private illicit good times. The lead character of this vignette walks along the corridor, studying other characters and slowly realizing the implications of what he or she is finding. The scene is given a beautiful and eerie soundtrack thanks to Darlene practicing her singing, belting out “This Old Heart of Mine” like her life depended upon it, the tune taking on a sinister edge as it echoes through the dark hallway along with the tick-tock of the metronome. There’s another terrific singing suspense segment in this very same location, except with a different character spying on Darlene as she and another character work in conjunction to coordinate their movements, timing striking sounds in the room to her claps. Goddard has an adequate eye for visuals but he benefits from the gorgeously conceived and constructed El Royale setting, allowing the quirks of the rundown hotel to serve as another character to his ensemble. I enjoyed little touches, like only the Nevada side having a liquor license and the bright red line that runs down the middle of everything.
And yet there are some lingering doubts that halt me from a full-throated endorsement of El Royale, and I’ve been trying to articulate them better in the days since I watched the film. It frankly doesn’t fully come together by the end in a way that feels suitably climactic. Once Billy Lee enters the third act, the movie stabilizes and we spend time with the remaining characters assembled together to be terrorized by the cult leader. After seeing everyone else’s story in smaller vignettes with some slippery non-linear perspectives, we’ve finally come to our big confrontation and summit with everyone. Except it doesn’t feel as big as the movies needs it to be. Characters will be dispatched swiftly, and instead of it feeling shocking it feels abrupt and contrived, devaluing the character arcs that had been shuffling forward to that point. The deaths feel too ho-hum, and the final confrontation and melee too chaotic and random. The sacrifices feel wasted and sloppy rather than the payoff from some long established setup. It’s here where Goddard cannot hide his narrative trickery anymore and the machinations are exposed. I couldn’t help but feel that the final act was slowly losing the momentum and excitement that had been built carefully over the course of two hours. Billy Lee isn’t quite the force that his whispered presence has been made out to be, no fault to Hemsworth, who impresses me more and more with every new performance. It’s like by the end of his movie Goddard has realized that certain characters were inevitably just more interesting than others and he saves room for them to get a climax and brushes off the rest. Thematically I don’t quite know if it comes together with any sort of final statement about the 1960s, the dichotomy of good and evil, or anything else. It’s a final act that left me a little disappointed and realizing the end wasn’t nearly as fun as the journey.
Bad Times at the El Royale is a movie jam-packed with twists, plot turns, and colorful characters played by great actors who are clearly enjoying themselves, given the room to roam and stretch their muscles as exaggerated and dangerous criminal cohorts. Goddard’s film is impeccably structured up until its final act where it feels like the answers and confrontations cannot match the mysteries and setup that had been laid before. If you’re a fan of the top level of Tarantino imitators, like Things to Do In Denver When You’re Dead or Lucky Number Slevin, or enjoy unpacking a good mystery, then check into the El Royale, a hotel where maybe the cockroaches have the best chance at survival.
Nate’s Grade: B+
I invite all my readers to re-watch the trailer for Peppermint and apply this simple listening test. It opens with Jennifer Garner repeating the precious nursery rhyme claim about her daughter’s virtues. She has “love in her heart, snow in her eyes,” and the final claim, “peppermint in her blood.” At least I’m certain it’s got to be “blood,” because the first time I watched this trailer and my ears got a hold of that line, it genuinely sounded like Garner was saying “peppermint in her butt.” This flummoxed me and even more so that they would name the movie after this. Try it yourself and see what you hear, then listen for the other word (it’s like the new yanny/laurel aural conundrum). If I concentrate on either interpretation, I can hear it. Regardless of whether this “butt” vs. “blood” mystery can ever be resolved, the filmmakers decided to cut the entire verbal exchange from the finished version, leaving no reason for Peppermint to be called Peppermint other than the daughter’s passing affinity for the ice cream flavor. As asinine and odd as this whole endeavor reads for you, this might actually be the best part of Peppermint, a rote and tiresome action exercise that does too little too often and squanders the resources of a perfectly game Garner.
Our heroine, Riley North (Garner), started as mild-mannered mom and bank teller. Then one day Latinx gang members brazenly gun down her husband and child. A corrupt legal system lets the killers go free and Riley disappears for five years. When she returns, she’s become a ninja trained in an array of weapons. She takes her one-woman crusade against the gang, the cartel, and the corrupt judges and lawyers who serve them, while the police, lead by John Gallagher Jr., try and stop her from going too far and becoming the very monster that she’s been fighting to protect others from.
This is basically another Death Wish-style grisly revenge thriller when, as a true sign of how repeated this formula has become, we already even had a literal Death Wish remake with Bruce Willis earlier in 2018. It’s easy to understand the appeal of the lurid revenge fantasy, but they require more effort than Peppermint is willing to provide if they’re to rise above the litany of direct-to-DVD drivel. I’m in no way against this kind of movie, or direct-to-DVD action entities, but it all comes down to development and execution, and that’s where Peppermint slips up, having peaked at the idea stage. Clearly this was sold to film executives as a “lady Punisher or Taken” and it’s from the director of the first Taken, Pierre Morel. Garner was kicking (peppermint) butt and taking names for years on TV’s Alias. Why not? The problem is that there’s so little thought put to the characters, the plot, the action, and even the structure of basic payoffs. Here’s a telling example. The three gang members responsible for killing Riley’s family are themselves killed around the 45-minute mark, and they’re killed off-screen in a terribly anti-climactic and abrupt plot move robbing the viewer of any sort of emotional punch watching our heroine gain her years-in-the-making vengeance. Think this over. The only characters we’re really rooting for her to topple, to watch them be punished on screen for their misdeeds, and it’s off-screen. This isn’t No Country for Old Men here; it’s barely the eightieth rendition of Death Wish.
Garner’s character is too opaque to be that interesting. She’s allowed to vacillate between Grieving and Angry but that’s the extent of her depth. We never really get a sense of what’s going on with her, how her actions are affecting her. She’s not even that interesting as an action lead. There’s no real glimpse of a personality here. She’s more a weapon poised to her next target, with little down time between. Garner gets into toned fighting shape and has a flinty, F-you vibe and it all feels wasted on creatively lacking fight choreography. Riley becomes a social media avenger and this is about as much commentary or depth the film affords her. Because we squandered the catharsis of seeing the guilty gang members get their just rewards, the movie has to manufacture more disposable Latinx criminals, like they put out a casting call for characters they forgot they were going to need. From a structural standpoint, you never get a great sense of where Peppermint is going after that 45-minute mark. It just opens on one location after another and we watch Riley wreck havoc on personality-free bad guys we never got a chance to know and loathe. It starts to feel like a series of mundane video game stages to be cleared.
Many of the shortcomings can be forgiven if the action delivers, and it simply cannot. It’s one bland fistfight and shootout after another. There isn’t a sequence I can remember that stands out. There are moments, punctuations of vicious violence that has a brusque, darkly comic accentuation. There’s nothing remotely John Wick, or Atomic Blonde, when it comes to the fight choreography. The geography is too rarely taken into account and there are few organic complications. This is flabbergasting when you remember that Morel also directed the vividly kinetic French action movie District B13. The editing here also feels very choppy, taking more away from Garner’s physical skills having their showcase. One of the great moments of 2017 was the brutal and brutally long tracking shot following Charlize Theron’s super spy pummeling men through her growing fatigue. It was a sequence designed to showcase the choreography and the actress’ refined skills. What constitutes Riley North’s own “particular set of skills”? There’s nothing especially clever about how she dispatches with the bad guys. Her path to vengeance comes across as too easy. She’s able to torch an entire piñata warehouse of gang members like a cheap… piñata. The easy victories and lazy action development are the final reminders that this is a rote genre paycheck and little more.
Whether the peppermint was in her daughter’s blood, her butt, or any other personal cavity, it’s a terrible title for an R-rated action movie and reeks of the forced sweet/nasty irony I think the filmmakers, or marketing team, want to employ by having a woman as their Charles Bronson-styled deliverer of death and destruction (what, a woman as a killer?). The action is forgettable, the characters are barely one-dimensional clichés, and Garner deserves better. She’s 47 years old and as spry and captivating as ever. Give her an Atomic Blonde of her own. Peppermint isn’t it. If your expectations are generous, you may find just enough to keep your interest with Peppermint. It left me with a bad taste in my mouth.
Nate’s Grade: C-