The Hitman’s Bodyguard feels like a 90s Tarantino knockoff remake of Midnight Run, and I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense. This is a movie that knows exactly what it aims to be and strikingly new and original isn’t one of those qualities. When you deliver a late summer movie that has this much depraved entertainment and energy, I don’t mind.
Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) is a disgraced bodyguard-for-hire who lost a high-profile client to an out-of-nowhere sniper. Stuck shielding coked-out white-collar traders, he still knows more than a thing or two about keeping a client safe. His former flame, Interpol agent Amelia Roussel (Elodie Yung), is tasked with getting notorious contract assassin Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson) to the International Criminal Court at The Hague. Kincaid is the only living witness who can testify against Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman), a former Belarus military dictator. Coincidentally, all of the witnesses and evidence against him seem to always disappear. Roussel’s team is ambushed and she reluctantly seeks out Bryce for assistance. He has 24 hours to keep Kincaid alive and transport him to The Hague, but Kincaid has some ideas of his own, like arguing, escaping, and visiting his wife (Salma Hayek). It’s a battle of wills and a healthy deployment of the versatile F-word.
When it comes to genre filmmaking, especially in action or horror, the level of entertainment is much more related to the singer and not the song. Sure a well developed script with interesting characters, organic complications, and memorable set-pieces connected with payoffs are still desired, but often it’s execution that separates the brashly fun bombast from the dreck that dots late night cable. The selling point of this movie is its central pairing of Jackson (Kong: Skull Island) and Reynolds (Deadpool). Hell, both of them aren’t straining too hard from their familiar big screen personalities, Jackson the gleefully stubborn badass and Reynolds as the incredulous smart-alleck with the quick wit. Some critics will chafe and say that the actors are stuck in stale riffs and acting on autopilot. I look at this as a certain virtue of the film. They hired Jackson and Reynolds and let them do exactly what we demand that Jackson and Reynolds do. They were hired for a specific reason. Their crackling repartee keeps the movie alive even as the first half feels too sludgy getting everything going. The comedy can be a tad forced (riding on a bus with chirpy nuns! Gatorade bottle of pee?) and exaggerated at times (really, a fart joke, sound designers?) but this isn’t a film for subtlety, and Jackson and Reynolds, who can outdo just about every working actor for sarcasm and volume, are at their best when they’re big and broad. The rapport elevates even moments that would otherwise be redundant.
I thought the action scenes were going to take a backseat to the Jackson/Reynolds buddy road trip, popping up here and there to move things along and kill off an antagonist or two. To my great surprise, the action in The Hitman’s Bodyguard is uniformly great. Director Patrick Hughes (The Expendables 3) makes each action scene its own story and he thankfully varies the scenarios so they nicely stand out. There’s a terrific motorcycle chase through Amsterdam’s canals and streets, smashing things to bits in the most exciting ways. The action is often divided into two parallel points following Jackson and Reynolds, which allows the film to pair the right sequence for the right character. There’s a late foot chase that’s filmed in refreshing long takes (newest Hollywood action trend?) that stops into the back kitchen of a restaurant and then a hardware store. Each location is well utilized to provide a unique opportunity for the fight choreography and use of props. The movie does a very successful job of approaching action by thinking how to use geography, character, and purpose to plot. Hughes also has a solid inclination when to punch for humor with visual gags, including a few gems involving a minivan. When the comedy wasn’t completely working, I knew I could rely upon the dependable thrills.
The movie also has one of the dumbest attempts at injecting urgency into a story. The plot hinges upon Darius Kincaid arriving at The Hague at an exact time to testify against Oldman’s dictator. In a moment that made me blurt out laughing, an expositional device/news lady informs us that if nobody comes forward to testify then The Hague has to drop all charges, Oldman’s dictator goes free and apparently becomes the president of Belarus immediately again, and probably the end of democracy. First, this false sense of urgency requires witnesses to arrive at a court. That’s not how testimony works. You can give a sworn statement anywhere. You can appear in court via teleconference. The location is not the problem here. And then his testimony is aided by (slight spoilers) photographic evidence of the dictator’s genocide… except it’s all digital pictures. This entire movie hinged on the mad rush to get Jackson to The Hague when he could have just made an email attachment with the incriminating pictures at any wifi spot. There’s also the factor that if it was one second after five or so the court would not accept any testimony. I don’t think courts work that way, especially when it’s a decision over dictators and due process. And yet a wall clock is treated like the ticking clock on a bomb detonator. It’s so dumb I question whether the filmmakers were self-aware and making a satirical riff.
While being an enjoyably profane experience, The Hitman’s Bodyguard doesn’t know when enough is quite enough. It has problems walking away and routinely falls upon overkill in several elements. There’s almost way too much plot here. Every character has a back-story that nabs a lengthy flashback with an ironically chosen pop song. There are obvious betrayals that the film thankfully doesn’t belabor in revealing the culprits, but did we need them anyway? Hayek seems to have said yes just to be a vulgar badass that would attract Jackson. It’s fun but her shtick gets old quickly. She’s all unchecked exaggeration. Hayek’s character is just here to provide a counterpoint for Kincaid to wax poetic about romance and relationships, to nudge Bryce to “man up” and realize what he’s let slip away. The romantic elements are presented on the same wavelength as the comedy, meant to be a shoulder-shrug of cocksure cool. When they try and get earnest on their own terms it doesn’t quite work out tonally. The movie also runs rampant with false endings, going from one escape to another just as it should be winding down. It’s like the filmmakers were having so much fun they didn’t know when to walk away from their story.
I think every ticket-buyer knows what they’re getting when they walk into The Hitman’s Bodyguard. It’s two actors doing what they do best, in an action vehicle that cribs from Midnight Run, and with a sense of style and attitude that resembles a bluntly ironic return to 90s R-rated action excess. Fortunately, the execution of these genre tropes and elements lead to one of the more profanely entertaining popcorn flicks this summer season. It’s a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously, coasts on above average action and the charged comic chemistry of its two loud-mouth leads. It’s a movie that doesn’t require much thought and rewards you for the effort. The Hitman’s Bodyguard is everything you want it to be, and if that’s good enough for you, then you’ll find satisfaction here.
Nate’s Grade: B
The most surprising thing about Self/less occurred approximately 115 minutes into the film itself, when it revealed that Tarsem Singh was the director. Tarsem is known for lavish visual cinematic canvases such as The Cell and Immortals, and to realize that this is the same man responsible for an otherwise disappointing and visually mundane sci-fi thriller, well it was a shock. Why hire a visual stylist and then restrict him to such a limited palate? Self/less is an intriguing premise (borrowed a tad from Seconds) and it keeps all the interesting ethical and psychological questions at bay to follow a generic thriller formula. There’s not one real surprise in this film; even the reveals and surprises will be easily telegraphed. Ben Kingsley plays Damian, a dying rich man who undergoes a risky experiment to live longer, having his consciousness transferred into a younger human host played by Ryan Reynolds. It’s another chance to be young, party, enjoy sexual relations with women who are more likely to go home with somebody who looks like Reynolds. There’s a catch: if he stops taking his special red pills, the host’s brain will take over control. That’s because, surprise, the bodies aren’t grown in labs but are human volunteers. Here could be some topical class exploitation and social commentary, but Self/less ignores the more intriguing direction at every point to play it safe. Damian finds his host’s family and from that point on it’s a series of chases with bad guys. One of those chases is actually fairly entertaining, utilizing a conjoined automobile in a clever and devastating way. It never feels like Reynolds and Kingsley are playing the same character. Reynolds’ charm is subsumed by this role and he feels adrift. I’ll admit that this movie is efficient and each scene pushes the story forward; it’s just the direction of that story I’d like to alter. Alas, Self/less is a competent but fairly underwhelming thriller that squanders its premise.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Seth MacFarlane has become an industry powerhouse. The man has three animated TV shows on air (Family Guy, American Dad, The Cleveland Show) and essentially carved an entire niche of modern comedy. His brand of irreverent, offensive, tangential humor has turned the man into a demigod among young audiences and helped him rake in millions. A journey to the movies seemed inevitable, and so comes Ted, which MacFarlane directed and co-wrote with two of his Family Guy scribes. The best assessment I can give is that if you enjoy MacFarlane’s brand of humor on TV, you’ll probably enjoy Ted. If not, then you’re in for a prolonged, obnoxious two hours.
One day when young John Bennett was a young boy, he wished his teddy bear would come alive so he’d always have a best friend. And as a narrator tells us, nothing is stronger than a young boy’s wish (curious gender is specified and then never touched upon for some kind of joke). The next morning Ted (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) comes alive. Flash forward 30 years and Jon (Mark Wahlberg) works at a rental car company, has a stunning girlfriend in Lori (Mila Kunis), and regularly gets stoned with his best pal, Ted. The two guys are inseparable, which causes friction between John and Lori. After another notorious incident of Ted behaving badly, Lori insists that he move out. John has to start acting more responsible and treating Lori like she deserves, but Ted’s influence usually leads to trouble. Both Ted and John are in desperate need of growing up.
It was no surprise for me that Ted was exactly what I expected from Seth MacFarlane. It’s just a bigger, raunchier version of the style of humor he’s patented on television: tangential non-sequitors, scenes that go on far too long, obscure pop culture references, pointless shock material, and the basic premise that the jokes hinge around some creature merely doing things. Like Brian the Dog, or Roger the alien, Ted is a creature that shouldn’t necessarily exist, and thus so much humor is built around just seeing Ted exist. Is it supposed to be hilarious watching him drive? How about hit on women? Do bong hits? Far too often the only joke the movie seems to offer is that Ted is a teddy bear doing stuff. If you replaced him with, say, a normal human being, would any of those jokes work? Would it be funny watching a normal person drive, hit on women, and do bong hits? Maybe but probably not. It’s all one joke: look at something unnatural doing natural things. And that’s my issue with MacFarlane’s brand of humor. These jokes are not given proper attention, setup, and development. The film rarely subverts your expectations with how every joke will play out, and if you already know the jokes before the movie delivers them then what’s the point? The one joke I did laugh at, and a good guffaw at that, was Ted’s boss who kept responding to Ted’s screw-ups with good words and promotions. That was a surprise. But here’s the thing: once it’s established, you know what will happen the next time. So the second time it’s still funny but not as much. By the third time, his nonplussed reaction is completely expected and thus all traces of funny have been squeezed dry. In comedy, it’s all about surprise, and I find with MacFarlane that he rarely strays from his routine.
As far as jokes going on too long, let’s talk about a myriad of subplots that seemed to go on forever. There’s an entire storyline where an obsessed fan played by Giovanni Ribisi (Contraband) kidnaps Ted. This storyline makes up almost the entire third act and occurs after the reconciliation between John and Lori, so the movie already feels like it should be over. And then it keeps going. And it keeps going longer. And then there’s a car chase and a foot race through Fenway Park, which serves no purpose other than to probably fulfill a childhood wish of MacFarlane’s to film on said hallowed grounds. And it’s during this final act where the crass movie tries to become… sentimental? It just doesn’t work. You can’t have 100 minutes of rude, offensive, vulgar humor and then try and then try and go all gooey and soft and make people feel something akin to emotion. The reason that the Judd Apatow films can work with emotion is because from the get-go they make you care about the characters and their relatable conflicts. But there’s a difference between emotion and cheap sentiment, and Ted hasn’t earned genuine emotion. I didn’t like any of these characters. They all seemed like louts and jerks and dolts, none of them charming. Thus the end and its wish-upon-a-star conclusion are cheap sentiment and the kind of conclusion that you believe without a doubt that the characters in Ted would mercilessly mock.
Let me specify for the moment that there is a distinct difference between gross-out gags and gags that are just gross. There is also a difference between jokes that are shocking but funny and jokes that are just desperate to offend. In my experience with MacFarlane’s brand of humor, as well as McFarlane’s fratty devotees (if I was rushing a fraternity, I have no doubt Ted would be my favorite movie, bro), that difference is not understood. Watching an over-the-top racist Asian stereotype is merely offensive without proper context to draw out humor beyond the odious and obvious. Just punching a child in the face isn’t funny. Just having someone defecate on the floor isn’t funny, though the panicked removal of said feces was humorous in flashback. I may have chuckled and giggled from time to time with Ted, but most of the time I was just saddened by how desperate McFarlane and his writers were to shock rather than to entertain.
Thank God Wahlberg (The Fighter) was in this movie. While Ted is best left in small doses, the boorish best friend archetype, Wahlberg has been sharpening his comedic muscles (the only muscle in need of work it seems) and has become a terrific straight man. Anyone who remembered 2010’s The Other Guys knows that Wahlberg can be flat-out funny when given great madness to play off of. With Ted, Wahlberg’s commitment to the innate absurdity of the movie goes a long way. His breathless rendition of an exhaustive list of white trash girl names had me laughing harder than anything else in the movie, and I admit I was also impressed by Wahlberg’s speedy delivery. The character of John is a pretty standard role at this point in American comedy, one of arrested development. However, it seems to take so long, blown chance after blown chance, for John to finally find some sense of responsibility. Just like everyone else, he is at the mercy of Ted’s corrosive influence.
I probably wasn’t the ideal specimen for MacFarlane’s first foray into movies. I’ve never been more than a mild fan of his TV work and its hit-or-miss-but-mostly-miss brand of tangential humor, though I admit American Dad has grown on me (the only MacFarlane show where the jokes seem related to the story situations). MacFarlane unleashes the vulgar material he’s been holding back from TV, which makes for some laughs. The obviously stoned guys sitting in front of me thought the movie was hilarious, even during quiet moments where nothing was going on. I’m disappointed that a MacFarlane movie is pretty much exactly as I would have suspected, essentially a MacFarlane TV show blown up to a bigger screen. The jokes here are so limited, mostly deriving from Ted the teddy bear just doing things a teddy bear normally doesn’t. I wish the comedy were more developed, more nuanced, more concerned with doing something other than shock. The most shocking aspect of Ted is how utterly forgettable the whole enterprise is even with a magical talking teddy bear.
Nate’s Grade: C
Safe House is an an action movie that has some nice above-average action sequences strung together by a very sub-average plot. Tobin (Denzel Washington) is a rogue CIA agent being hunted down by shadowy forces. Or is he? A young agent (Ryan Reynolds) was responsible for the safe house in Cape Town that was breached and now takes it upon himself to bring Tobin in for the agency. Or does he? If you’ve seen any spy thriller in the last few years then you’ll recognize the glut of clichés and be able to ably predict the traitorous higher-ups using the economy of characters. Here’s a clue to the villains of the picture: don’t keep all your villainous deeds together on one computer file (and don’t label it “All Our Evil Deeds,” try instead, “Vacation Photos.”). Washington and Reynolds are appealing actors even in ho-hum parts. Washington never seems as devilish or as clever as his character is billed to be. While the plot is bland, director Daniel Espinosa (Easy Money) knows how to shoot some thrilling action sequences. The style is a bit of a Bourne rehash, what with the jangly camera angles, but the movie has a surprising level of verisimilitude; when two guys fight it really feels like a couple guys beating the crap out of each other. The chase sequences are well staged and find smart ways to make use of its South Africa location, like a chase through the levels of a soccer arena or a race atop the rooftops of shanty homes. It’s when the movie stops to catch its breath and the plot reemerges that Safe House becomes a snoozer.
Nate’s Grade: C+
For once, I’d love somebody to construct a body-swap movie where the characters realize the tropes and clichés of the body-swap pictures, a parody of the genre. It’d be nice if the characters instantly accepted their situation and knew that they would each have to learn some form of a life-lesson before changing back, and they tried to falsely engineer these saccharine life-lessons. Then it would be fun if they rented all the body-swap movies to write down notes and pointers on how best to deal with their unusual situation. Then, and here’s the best part, both body-swap participants realize that they prefer their new situations. They reject turning back and simply enjoy the whims that come with their new existential home. They reject learning life-lessons and simply make the best of things. For a brief second, I thought The Change-Up might be that very movie but no such luck.
Dave (Jason Bateman) is a business-obsessed lawyer working his way to make partner in his firm. His wife, Jamie (Leslie Mann), and his three children, including twin babies, are neglected at home. Mitch (Ryan Reynolds) is a struggling actor/womanizer who inexplicably is best friends with Dave. After a night at a bar, the fellas relieve themselves in a public fountain. The fountain lady statue obviously has taken offense and thus curses the both of them. The next morning, each awakes to discover they are in different bodies. The business guy has to act like a jerk! The jerk has to act like a business guy! And then there’s the matter of Jamie, who Dave/Mitch has strictly forbidden Mitch/Dave from sleeping with. Complicating matters further, the fountain has been moved by the Atlanta parks department and lost in bureaucratic limbo.
I knew I was in trouble by the first minute of the grossly unfunny Change-Up. Not only do we suffer a poop joke so early, we have to witness a baby firing a stream of fecal matter into Dave’s open mouth. That’s just a taste of the unpleasantness that follows. The movie plays like an exaggerated, sophomoric cartoon written by children. It seems to exist in the same broad universe of 2009’s abominable rom/com The Ugly Truth. What I wrote for that movie could easily apply to The Change-Up: “It’s questionable whether the comedy even reaches juvenile levels. It’s tasteless and piggish, but the weird part is that it comes across as knowledgeable on the subject of sex as a ten-year-old kid who just discovered his dad’s secret stash of Playboys. It talks about the right stuff but does so in a clueless manner. It’s like an exaggerated randy cartoon that chiefly plays to a male fantasy.” I’m not opposed to raunchy sex comedies. However, I am opposed to sex comedies that can’t figure out how to be funny without relying on easy gags. There’s a difference between gross-out humor and simply being gross, though I don’t believe this film knows what that difference is. So we’re treated to an over-the-hill porn star, some anal defilement, a voraciously sexual nine-months pregnant lady, even more poop jokes, and 90 minutes of penis discussion. There’s one actually interesting section where the guys debate the moral ambiguity of body-swap sex. Is it really cheating if Dave/Mitch is in somebody else’s body? What is Mitch/Dave to do if his wife wants to have relations? Sadly, this lone moment of interest is crushed to death by more penis jokes and then forgotten. Reynolds (Green Lantern) and Bateman (Horrible Bosses) try to stay above the fray, fighting the good fight, but even they succumb to the unfunny script and disjointed direction.
After being a distasteful cartoon for so long, the film wants to be dramatic. It wants to be emotional. Tough break, Change-Up, because you cannot have it both ways. The dramatic parts ring resoundingly false, a last-ditch attempt to class up what is a deeply unclassy picture. The tonal shifts are jarring and land with crashing thuds. It’s mostly because these characters are deeply unlikely, particularly the Mitch persona. He’s not just some brash, rude individual who sidesteps social mores, no this guy is downright sociopathtic. He’s egotistical, mean-spirited, and constantly boorish to every person in Dave’s life. He’s cruel to the daughter, he tells Dave’s wife that she’s not attractive, and then there’s the babies whom he treats like a couple of rag dolls to toss around. At one point, Mitch/Dave is on the phone and the kids are left to get in trouble with the kitchen. We’re not talking about getting messy with food, we’re talking sticking their tiny hands in a spinning blender, throwing knives, and licking electrical outlets (it’s like the Roger Rabbit cartoon that opened that flick). Instead of getting off the phone immediately, he continues talking and casually tends to the troubled tots per potential disaster. He teaches Dave’s daughter “violence is always the answer.” Mitch is an unrepentant jerk, and even when Bateman plays Mitch he’s still irredeemable. Am I supposed to feel sorry for this obnoxious guy just because his dad thinks low of him? I think low of him. I detest him. Therefore, when Mitch/Dave is having his Big Emotional Catharsis, it seems facile and hollow. We can generally find a point of likeability for uncouth characters, but not Mitch. As presented, this character has no introspection and few redeeming qualities, so why do I want to spend nearly two hours with this person? You’d think Dave would be the “nice guy” alternative, but he’s smarmy and neglectful too. Besides the “family man/pussy” and “playboy/prick” designations, the characters aren’t different enough to warrant a change of scenery.
The Change-Up has the single most bizarre moment of any film this calendar year, and it has nothing to do with the metaphysical mechanics of body swapping. Wilde (Cowboys & Aliens, TRON: Legacy) at one point gets rather frisky and takes off her clothes, the last piece her brassier. Mitch’s hands cover her breasts for most of their onscreen freedom except for a handful of side angle shots where Wilde’s breasts are out and ready to greet the audience. Except those are and are not Wilde’s breasts. The in-demand actress was topless but had pasties to cover her nipples, which has always befuddled me why this is more acceptable (“I’ll let everyone see 95% of my breasts but if it comes to nipple that’s too far.”). The pasties were then digitally removed in post-production and replaced with CGI nipples. Let me repeat that for the slower amongst you – CGI nipples! It was some guy’s job to spend weeks painting nipples onto Olivia Wilde’s breasts. That’s the greatest assignment for an animator ever since a breast fondled itself in 2000’s Hollow Man. But why was any of this necessary? Wilde’s done nudity before in 2007’s Alpha Dog (go head and Google it, horndogs). Granted the actress has a much higher profile now but why must we go through this dastardly trickery? Jessica Alba started this “digital nudity” trend by in Machete, but how far does this madness go? To make matters even worse, Mann (Funny People) has hinted that her own nudity in The Change-Up was also digitally altered, giving her a larger set of breasts (where is the media’s feminist outrage when it’s needed?). My libido doesn’t know what to trust anymore. When I see nudity, can I trust that it’s real, or was it doctored by some computer technicians who are laughing at me the whole time? What is happening to this world when it makes me distrust the very sight of breasts, normally a point of internal celebration now a confusing mystery again?!
The Change-Up is a mean-spirited, objectionable, nasty, classless, clueless comedy that’s tonally all over the place. The characters are unlikable, the comic setups are cartoonishly drawn, and the dramatic shifts are flatly false. What’s even worse is that the movie just seems downright hostile toward women. Just because it has a scene where Mann gets to vent the frustrations of the put-upon wife/mom doesn’t mean women are given a fair shake. I’d be more forgiving if the vulgar comedy was ever funny. The Change-Up erroneously believes that having characters say dirty words or inappropriate remarks is the same as comedy. It can be a component of comedy but rarely does it work as a whole substitute. The jokes fall flat, the drama feels forced, and the characters range from nitwits to jerks to deviants and back to jerks once more for good measure. Why would anyone subject themselves to nearly two hours with these people? I just felt bad watching this movie. The Change-Up makes humanity look like a species that deserves an extended time-out.
Nate’s Grade: D+
Spending 90 minutes trapped in a cramped space with a sweaty Ryan Reynolds? Doesn’t sound like a bad start for large swaths of the population. Buried is a small indie experiment that places Reynolds in exceedingly tight quarters. Paul is an American contractor driving trucks over in Iraq. Insurgents ambushed his convoy. He awakens to find himself trapped in a coffin and buried under the earth. Packed away inside with him are a lighter, a pen, and most importantly, a cell phone. Can your carrier get you coverage buried under the Iraqi desert? Time to switch, my friends.
For those left curious, yes, it really does take place entirely within a coffin. The entire 95 minutes are spent inside the small space. There is nary a flashback or even a visual insert to be had. You are trapped in that box just like Paul. The film is effectively claustrophobic. Director Rodrigo Cortes (The Contestant) gets terrific mileage out of his ultra confined space. The creative combination of angles, lighting, and nimble camerawork ensure that audiences do not grow tired of seeing the same 6 x 3″ of set. You can practically taste the sweat and dank air on screen. Buried has the most inspired camerawork I’ve seen in a film since 2006’s Children of Men. Cortes has only so much space to room to work and yet he does a magnificent job of manipulating the space to accentuate Paul’s fears and isolation. There are a few shots where the camera seems to keep zooming out, further and further, much further than the ceiling of that box would allow, like Paul is sinking below the sand.
The script by Chris Sparling is agile and resourceful and keeps finding news ways to keep your eyes glued to the screen. The movie is consumed by that nerve-wracking sense of urgency. The first minute and a half of the film is in darkness, and we awaken to the terror of the situation just as Paul does. Including a cell phone seems like a necessary screenwriting plot device. If Paul awoke by his lonesome, the movie would turn into 90 minutes of watching a guy screaming himself hoarse and clawing away at the wooden walls. A cell phone opens up the narrative. Now Paul has something of a fighting chance to survive. It gives him the motivation to survive and adapt to his surroundings during his limited last moments. The cell phone also allows the bad guys to terrorize Paul over and over. They can make increasingly hostile demands even with their hostage lodged six feet under ground. The demands for money get more and more aggressive, leading to one-sided negotiations, like Paul filming a plea for help that terrorists can exploit and upload to the Internet. The people that Paul does get through to offer little in assistance. To them, it’s just another day going through the same motions, taking down the same messages. Cries for help may not rise above the fray.
The political commentary is, in a word, indelicate. The Iraq War commentary can feel a tad ham-fisted at times in how it wants to boil down and extrapolate Paul as a symbol of the war’s untold hidden human costs. Paul is a contractor paid to ferry supply along the dangerous roads of Iraq. He’s supposed to be seen as “just any guy,” that is, any American Joe. He symbolizes the lost lives that don’t manage to make the news because they don’t have stars and stripes on their uniforms. The Iraq War made use of hundreds of thousands of privet industry contractors, supposedly easing the burden of the U.S. military. Paul is intended to represent the forgotten casualties of war, the people who were merely punching a clock in a foreign land to help their families. The officials that Paul does get through seem more concerned with personal agendas then retrieving an entombed man. The military is concerned, sure, but more interested in locating and killing the terrorists/insurgents that ambushed Paul’s convoy. The State Department is more concerned about containing Paul’s story and ensuring media outlets don’t find out. They’re really worried that any ransom video Paul records will become an Internet sensation, particularly in the dry, dusty part of the world, and become a recruitment tool. Paul’s company is more worried about weaseling out of paying his insurance policy. The movie aims to ask what is the price of one life. Is it just a numbers game? Is losing an American contractor every few weeks worth the price of freedom? What is the definition of an acceptable loss?
The movie is really a one-man show, so it’s fortunate to have an actor of Reynolds capabilities. He’s used to playing charming, self-effacing, fast-talking rascals; he has an innate ability to command your attention and interest. Reynolds gives a deeply empathetic performance. He goes through different stages of emotions, from shock and horror to anger and frustration, to impotence and self-pity, and all the way back again. You will think step-by-step with him as he tries to assess his situation. It’s a performance rooted in manufactured seclusion, something akin to the one-man show that Tom Hanks shared with a scene-stealing volleyball. Except Reynolds’ commitment seems even greater than what Hanks endured; Reynolds face is in every frame of this film. It would have been very easy for an actor to use the situation as an excuse to bounce off the walls, chewing scenery as an effective means of escape. But Reynolds dials down the histrionics. His character feels awkwardly real under the extreme circumstances.
I really enjoyed the concept, execution (the ending is note perfect), but I also found many of Buried‘s smaller moments to be more than worthwhile. When Paul begins to doubt he’ll ever be found in time, he mentally prepares himself for the inevitable. He films a last will and testament to be found with his corpse, whenever he is eventually unearthed. He leaves messages trying to reach out to love ones one last time. And perhaps most heartbreaking of all, Paul tries to reach his elderly mother, an Alzheimer’s patient in a rest home. He desperately wants to hear one last “I love you” from his mother’s voice, but the woman’s brain is a mental carousel and she is unable to comply. I thought about my own acceptance process if I was in Paul’s exact situation, and I know how much significance I would place on achieving some form of saying goodbye. In order to let go I would need to speak to the people closest to me and tell them how important they were, how much they meant to me. To be denied something so vital to acceptance is cruel. And Paul is denied his one last meaningful goodbye, and I found it to be aching and emotionally terrifying.
If you have any minute fear of tiny spaces or being trapped and helpless, then Buried will get under your skin big time. Add the general race-against-time nature of the script and the flick hums with nervous tension. This film is taut like a drum. It’s ridiculously tense. You may start to feel your feet moving, as if you’re trying to push away the space and dig your way out. It’s hard to believe but a movie that takes place entirely inside a box is one of the most inventive, visually appealing, and enjoyable films of the year.
Nate’s Grade: A
Romantic comedies can be elevated by the chemistry and comic abilities of their leads. I think the most painful modern pairing was Maid in Manhattan, which featured polar opposites Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes (could you find a more unlikely couple outside of Harold and Maude?). With The Proposal, Sandra Bullock takes a break from her usual pratfalls and finds a worthy sparring partner in the charming, self-effacing Ryan Reynolds. Bullock is a mean book editor who must get married ASAP or be deported back to Canada, and Reynolds plays her beleaguered assistant and surprise sham fiancé. The two actors have a terrific rapport and generous give-and-take, propping the other to higher achievement; they feed off each other. Their spirited, snappy, collaborative, and most significant, fun relationship is what won me over. Otherwise, The Proposal would likely have succumbed to its wealth of genre clichés, like kooky relatives (an irascible Betty White), contrived conflicts (see: premise), last-minute misunderstandings, and the collapsed window of time. These people go from hating each other to loving each other over the course of one weekend in Alaska. Yet through it all, Reynolds and Bullock kept me smiling and alert, saving me from cuteness overdoses. Hopefully Bullock and studio execs will learn from this that bickering couples work best when the actors can play nice together.
Nate’s Grade: B
X-Men Origins: Wolverine has been slashed from all sides. First, the movie has not been able to shake bad buzz, from extra reshoots to rumors about conflicts between the studio and the director. There was even one rumor that the head of 20th Century Fox Studios ordered a wall repainted a happier color. Then in early April it got even worse. A DVD-quality print of Wolverine was leaked onto the Internet and spread like crazy, and once something finds itself inside the realm of cyberspace it cannot be put back. The reaction to the leaked copy was mixed, at best. The studio went into damage control mode, stating that the leaked copy was an unfinished work print, that they too were not thrilled with this version and paid millions for reshoots, and the final version that would be released in theaters had 20 minutes of new stuff and 10 minutes additionally edited out. But guess what? The wolverine’s out of the bag, it’s the same exact version minus some completed special effects shots. What amuses me about this whole situation is that the studio is on record trashing the movie, saying they were unhappy with this version, and yet this is the final release. After having seen Wolverine, at least I can say that those Fox execs know mediocrity when they see it.
We get to witness the storied history of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), which goes all the way back to the pre-Civil War era. Born James Logan, and a mutant, the kid had the unusual ability to produce three jagged bone claws from his knuckles. Logan also had the ability to miraculous heal like his older brother, Victor “Sabertooth” Creed (Liev Schreiber). The two of them make use of their primal, animal instincts and near invulnerability by fighting in every major U.S. war, from Civil to Vietnam. Eventually that kind of thing gets noticed, and General Stryker (Danny Huston) recruits the brothers to be apart of a mutant mercenary group. The group also includes the likes of William “Deadpool” Wade (Ryan Reynolds), “The Blob” (Kevin Durand), and some other unimportant mutants (one of them played by a Black Eyed Pea, will.i.am). Wolverine walks away from the group when he decides that he isn’t cut out for a cutthroat life.
The man finds a quiet place to live along the Canadian Rockies. He’s found a hard-working job, lumberjack, and a good woman, Kayla (Lynn Collins), who loves him. All of this is ruined when Sabretooth comes back around, intent on eliminating the former mercenary members one by one. Stryker appeals to Wolverine to apply for the Weapon X program. He says he can give Logan the tools for his revenge. Wolverine then undergoes the famous procedure that bonds his skeleton with adamantium, an unbreakable metal, and his bone claws become extra sharp metal. Stryker has other plans, naturally, and Wolverine breaks out of the facility. Stryker tells his assassin, “Bring me back his head.” Sorry pal, but you’re the one that just spent half a billion dollars giving Wolverine an unbreakable spinal column.
Is this origin tale worth telling? Short answer: no. The mysteries behind Wolverine’s back-story aren’t too involving and the answers make the character less interesting. I don’t really care why Wolverine got his metal skeleton or how he came to be an amnesiac, I just accept that the man has some mystique to him. I care even less that one of the answers to those mysteries is a murdered lover. The plot is incredibly thin; Wolverine meets one mutant who tells him to meet another mutant who tells him to meet another mutant, etc. Eventually the film heads for a mutant showdown that plays out like a lame video game, specifically the mid-90s Mortal Kombat (the Final Boss super villain resembles the blade-handed Baracka). What are Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) and Emma Frost doing in this? That?s not the end of the mutant cameos, either. I feel like the only thing we learn about Wolverine is that his super sense of smell cannot detect the difference between real blood and stage blood. The filmmakers think character development involves someone saying no to slaughtering innocents, and then other characters keep telling him, “You’re not an animal.” The movie meanders from one unimaginative special effects set piece to another, stopping at points to shove in various mutants that serve little purpose to the story other than diehard comic fans will be more forgivable.
Oh, but what to do when your main character is indestructible, your main villain is also indestructible, and your other lead villain cannot be killed because he?s due for an appearance in X-Men 2? Why you bring in a third, nigh indestructible being into the stakes, however, this being doesn’t already play into the established X-Men onscreen mythos, so this guy’s okay to kill off, that is, until he too gets a movie built around his character and then that movie has to backtrack to fill in on time before its capped ending. We already had a healing ability mutant with super claws vs. a healing ability mutant with super claws smackdown in X-Men 2, where Lady Deathstrike fought Wolverine. That fight was brutal and well staged. The fights in Wolverine’s big show are uninspired; how much stabbing can you watch between people who instantly heal? Also, apparently another side effect of the Weapon X program is that these metal claws are self-cleaning, because every single damn time Wolverine stabs someone there isn’t a droplet of blood to be found on his claws. It?s hard to get emotionally involved in characters that are fearless and have little at stake. Which, of course, is why Logan had to be given a cruddy romance where he gets to hold his dead lover?s body in his arms and bellow to the heavens for what feels like the 80th time. Seriously, twenty percent of all the dialogue in this movie is some combination of growling, spitting, and bellowing.
Wolverine isn’t a terrible movie but it’s rather shoddy and thoroughly mediocre. I never thought I’d see this character do the beyond-cliché action movie motif of strutting in slow-mo while an explosion sizzles in the background. This is the kind of film that involves a super team standing shoulder-to-shoulder to walk down like they’re from The Right Stuff. This is the kind of movie that opens with a needless family squabble about Logan finding out the pointless identity of his real father. What was that about? (After killing his father, I remarked to myself, “I guess that he gets that whole healin’ thing from his mother’s side of the family.”) This is the kind of movie that hires Ryan Reynolds and then disarms the man of his greatest asset, his smart mouth. This is the kind of movie that theorizes the only thing to kill an adamantium-skeleton man is with an adamantium bullet, like a sort of werewolf. This is the kind of movie that sends a super assassin, with super bullet-bending powers, out to kill Wolverine but does not arm the super assassin with those special adamantium bullets. Why not shoot this guy in the eye? That is an open body cavity. This is the type of movie where the final super villain is controlled by, get this, key commands like “Engage.” This is the kind of movie where an assortment of characters refrain from killing super bad murderers out of the morally pretentious idea that they, too, would be no different from the super bad murderers. Excuse me, executing super bad murderers would be doing the world a favor here. This is the type of movie that fills the running time with pained dialogue like, “You wanted the animal, you got him,” and, “Nobody gets to kill you but me,” and the best line of them all: “I thought you were the Moon and I was your Wolverine. Turns out you’re the Trickster and I’m just the fool who got played.” Top that, screenwriters.
Whatever the budget was for this movie, well, apparently it wasn’t enough. The adamantium effects looked perfectly reasonable in the first X-Men film and that was nine years ago, so I cannot understand why the claws look astoundingly fake this go-round. They look like direct animation, like Wolverine is holding cartoon claws a la Who Framed Roger Rabbit? When did they become so thick too? These claws are like the size of the steak knives you get at restaurants.
Jackman deserves some of the blame here since he is listed as a producer and he hand selected director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, Rendition) who does not have the interest or the eye for this kind of material. Hood lacks the finesse and vision to stage exciting action sequences, which explains why he falls back on tired genre tropes like the slow-mo strut in front of fireballs. I am dead certain that this stupid super assassin was pushed into the movie after film producers saw how much money the bullet-curving Wanted made the previous summer. The movie borrows heavily from recent Marvel Origin comics, or so I’m told, which is where the whole “Wolverine through the ages” storyline comes from. Personally, I don’t much care for the idea that Wolverine’s healing ability also deters aging until you hit that agreeable, desirable Hugh Jackman age range, but fine, whatever. The movie takes great effort to showcase Jackman’s flawless physique, and this dude is ripped to the point that you can see bulging veins. I just wished Jackman made more use of his acting muscles in this movie. He snarls and glares, and even has a softer moment or two with Collins, but rarely does Wolverine get to prove why he is such a beloved comics character.
Thank goodness for Liev Schreiber (who actually also co-starred with Jackman in the forgettable romantic comedy, Kate & Leopold) because this man entertained me from start to finish, which is more than I can say about his movie. Schreiber has fun with his role and totally buys into the character’s animal instincts. He relishes the kill. The bizarre sibling rivalry between he and Wolverine is the best part of the movie, and the interplay between the two actors is when the movie has its few moments of life. Like Watchmen, the film finds its creative peak during the opening credits, as we watch Jackman and Schreiber claw and bite their way through American battlefields.
Here’s an easy solution to the Wolverine amnesia issue that doesn’t involve the use of admantium bullets. Kayla (Silverfox) has the power of hypnosis through touch, so why not in the emotional climax have her touch her dear lover Wolverine and wish, “Forget me. Forget all about me.” There, problem solved, and this way it works emotionally and organically with the story. It took me an hour after seeing X-Men Origins: Wolverine to come up with a better ending, so just imagine what more time will allow. Jackman and company are lost thanks to a mediocre script that sacrifices character for action beats, and even then the action is fairly mundane. There are a handful of cool moments, like Wolverine propelling himself onto a helicopter from an exploding car, but after four movies nothing has come close to producing the adrenaline rush that was the X-Men 2 sequence where Logan unleashes his berserker rage on the commandos in the mansion. By the end of his first solo outing, Wolverine is left without any memory. I won’t say we should all be so lucky but the X-Men filmmakers would be better off paying little attention to this origin tale, unless they want to bring Schreiber back, which they should do at all costs.
Nate’s Grade: C