Jailhouse Glock

Copshop

by George Wolf

Man, did I hear about it last week when I argued that the first two acts of Malignant weren’t nearly strong enough to support the all out lunacy of the finale. I stand by that, but moving on…

Copshop also delivers a balls-out third act, but the self-aware setup by director/co-writer Joe Carnahan ensures we’re plenty ready to surrender to the shoot-em-up fun.

Mob “fixer” Teddy Murretto (Frank Grillo) punches Nevada rookie cop Valerie Young (Alexis Louder) on purpose, looking for the safety of a jail cell. He gets one, but he’s soon followed by hitman Bob Viddick (Gerard Butler, also a producer), who wants to get close enough to Teddy to take him out.

Plenty more bad guys get involved – including a scene-stealing Toby Huss (Seinfeld‘s “The Wiz”) as a psycho who likes to spray bullets and sing soul classics – and before long it seems Val’s only chance of getting out of work alive is deciding which one of these locked up bad guys is worth trusting.

Grillo and Butler are both on tough-guy autopilot, charismatic and menacing with a smidge of possible empathy. But Louder (TV’s Watchmen) is the standout, finding the layers of a character that’s real, smart and savvy enough to holster this movie and claim it for her own.

The dialog often snaps with wit, the banter touching on everything from Chris Hemsworth’s beach getaway to the benefits of cole slaw. But this is an action flick first, and Carnahan (Boss Level, The Grey, Smokin’ Aces) rolls out well-staged and satisfying set pieces that strike a nice balance between tense and preposterous.

The grindhouse Western opening not only introduces us to the setting of Gun Creek, Nevada (subtle!), but also a playful and purposeful tone that Carnahan steers with impressive craftsmanship.

Are you gonna remember Copshop much past closing time? Probably not, but you’re gonna have a bloody good time before you clock out.

He Is Wrath

Wrath of Man

by Hope Madden

I’m not saying Jason Statham is unconvincing with a gun. Nor am I saying that Guy Ritchie is ill-suited to direct a humorless vengeance drama.

I’m just saying that these are not their strong suits.

Wrath of Man shadows a very dour Statham—just call him H, like the bomb—as he begins training for his new gig with a cash truck crew.

Something’s up, obviously, and the only fun to be had in the film is trying to figure out what it is, so do not watch the trailer.

At The Depot, where all the trucks come and go and all the crew mock and belittle one another, we meet the assortment of characters you will not come to know or care about: Boy Sweat Dave (Josh Hartnett – where have you been?), Dana (Niamh Algar), Bullet (Holt McCallany). All of them choking on ludicrously overwritten banter, none of them drawing even a single compelling character.

Which is fine because there are at least 16 more people you won’t get to know, won’t care if they’re killed, won’t be invested in their conflicts.

Ritchie is usually much better than this at scattershot introductions of oddball lowlife clusters, each pod with its own story, each story intersection every other story at one turn or another. Maybe he’s just too out of his element setting the action in LA rather than his beloved London, but the lived-in feel of a reprobate world that’s usually a high point to a Ritchie flick is sorely missing here.

And what is the deal with these accents? By now, we know better than to expect Statham to attempt a yank accent, but what exactly is Eddie Marsan’s nationality supposed to be? Or Andy Garcia’s, for that matter?

Hell if I know. I do know that casting Statham generally guarantees some nifty fisticuffs.

Not today!

He shoots a bunch of people, sure, but there’s no panache to anything. It’s a heist movie without the meticulous execution, a vengeance thriller with no emotional connection to the villain, a Statham movie with no ass kicking, and a Ritchie movie with no humor, no flash, no style.

No thank you.   

Don’t Say Super

Archenemy

by Hope Madden

In a seedy underworld ripe for the comic book taking, a teen crime journalist named Hamster just wants a shot to tell the real stories of these streets. He stumbles across a homeless man who claims to be a hero from another dimension. The thing is, Hamster believes him.

Hokey, right? It is, but co-writer/director Adam Egypt Mortimer hits an interesting tone with Archenemy. He creates the space needed to develop some ideas before logic and cynicism close them down.

Mortimer combines animation with live action, sometimes bleeding whispery voiceover into the mix to heighten the sense that nothing is as it seems. Is Max Fist (that is a name!) really from a parallel dimension, or is he an alcoholic schizophrenic homeless guy living under the bridge?

Mortimer mainly works from young Hamster’s point of view, occasionally veering into Max’s. By limiting the logic of the tale to the perspective of either a naïve optimist or the likely victim of mental illness and addiction, the filmmaker ensures that you’re never truly able to differentiate reality from unreality.

It’s a tough tone to maintain, but Mortimer manages, thanks in large part to the commitment of his lead. As Max Fist (seriously, that name!), Joe Manganiello carries Archenemy on his shoulders. The performance is simultaneously lucid and muddled, with a physical edge that makes the character feel like a threat even at his most vulnerable.

Around him, characters are sometimes cartoonish (Glenn Howerton as The Manager or Paul Scheer as Kreig), but Manganiello keeps the film from dipping into camp with a turn that’s gritty and believable.

Skylan Brooks does a fine job of elevating the least realistic role—a character that benefits from endless contrivances. The writing around Hamster is easily the weakest part of the film, but Brooks does what he can to keep you engaged.

As Hamster’s sister Indigo, Zolee Griggs walks an interesting line as well, the good guy and bad guy in the same breath. It’s an understated performance that impresses. And Amy Seimetz—always a welcome sight—delivers a resigned villainy that perfectly suits the picture.

Archenemy has plenty of faults, but more than enough inspiration and grit to make you want to overlook them.  

Tugging Hearts, Slashing Throats

The Old Guard

by Hope Madden

Let’s start with this piece of obviousness: Charlize Theron can do anything. From indie dramas to bawdy comedies to badass action, Theron commits and convinces.

In Netflix’s The Old Guard, she plays the leader of a small but immortal group of soldiers eluding capture while trying to train a new member. It’s Book One in a series, and that can be a dangerous spot for a film because that tends to mean a lot of exposition and not enough conflict.

Not here.

Greg Rucka adapts his own source material and director Gina Prince-Bythewood makes the most of his screenplay and her cast.

She flanks Theron (spectacular, obviously) with actors who are, first and foremost, talented actors. The fact that they make for believable mercenaries is a really excellent bonus.

The ever versatile Matthias Schoenaerts gives the film its aching heart while KiKi Layne proves herself to be as convincing here busting heads as she was at drawing tears in If Beale Street Could Talk. Though it’s unfortunate he couldn’t have stolen a little more screen time, the great Chiwetel Ejiofor is a welcome presence, as always.

So what Prince-Bythewood does is surround Theron with other talented actors whose versatility compliments hers. This brilliant move let the filmmaker take a somewhat by-the-numbers superhero tale and tell it with a restraint that takes advantage of her cast’s flexibility and talent.

In Prince-Bythewood’s hands, The Old Guard explores the same universal themes mined in most superhero films, but she tells the tale as a taut and tactical military experience. The understatement makes the action sequences stand out, the filmmaker requesting your close examination of each bout and each battle, whether hand-to-hand, bullet-to-brain or saber-to-throat.

It pays off, delivering a thrilling action movie that doesn’t disregard your brain. Even better, this is a movie that tugs at your emotions without the need for swelling strings or sentiment to convince you.

That’s what happens when one formidable women pulls together a group of similarly skilled badasses.

Stay Down

Angel Has Fallen

by George Wolf

Olympus, then London, now Angel. They keep Fallen, must they keep getting up?

To be fair, Angel isn’t nearly the dumpster dive we took in London. It sports comic relief from Nick Nolte, a fun mid-credits stinger and a truly impressive performance from a baby.

Surrounding all that, though, is a pedestrian and all too often obvious gotta -clear-my-name frameup that underdelivers on the action front.

Gerard Butler is back as Secret Service hero Mike Banning, with Morgan Freeman returning to the franchise as now-President Trumbull.

Mike has headaches and insomnia after years of action, but debates leaving the field for a desk promotion. He is still great at knocking out all the baddies who are nice enough to walk blindly past a corner he’s hiding behind, but when there’s a drone attempt on the President’s life, Mike can’t keep his entire team from being wiped out.

Suddenly, mounds of incriminating evidence point to Mike as the would-be assassin, who then must leave his wife (Piper Perabo) and child (that baby is good, I’m telling you) and go full Bourne fugitive guy to root out the real villains.

Who wants the President dead? And why?

If the answers are supposed to be surprises, someone forgot to tell director Ric Roman Waugh (Snitch) and his co-writers, asAngel is telegraphed from many preposterous angles with all manner of heavy handed exposition.

And once Banning takes refuge with his long lost, off the grid, battle scarred Dad (Nolte), the attempts at debating the morality of war land with a thud of pandering afterthoughts.

Hey, if your just here for some mindless action highs, that’s fine, but Angel skirts them, curiously settling for repetitive shootouts and nods to first-person gaming enthusiasts.

Like Mike, this Fallen seems mostly tired. Even if it can get up, maybe it should reconsider.

Gerard Has the Con

Hunter Killer

by Hope Madden

On a scale from Gerard Butler to 10, how bad is Hunter Killer?

It’s not London Has Fallen bad. Or Gods of Egypt bad. It’s not Geostorm bad, but what is, really?

But is it any good?

Well, no. Don’t get loony. I’m just saying, it could be worse. You know, because Gerard Butler stars.

That doesn’t make him the worst actor in history. It’s just that he’s not especially talented and he makes impressively awful films. And yet, the king of January inexplicably gets a prime October release with this one, playing Captain Joe Glass.

He’s not an Annapolis guy, but that doesn’t mean he can’t successfully lead his first crew through Arctic waters to save the President of Russia from a botched coups attempt.

If you’re worried about subtitles—well, you’re clearly not familiar with the work of Mr. Butler. No, fortunately the Russians only speak Russian when it doesn’t matter if we understand what they say. The moment the dialog is important they switch (sometimes mid-scene) to English. How lucky is that?

I’m sure we’d never be able to follow this plot otherwise. It’s not like every scene is telegraphed in advanced.

Director Donovan Marsh’s film is not unwatchable. It’s shallowly packaged derivative entertainment, boasting passable water scenes and hand-to-hand action choreography that’s entirely adequate. It’s the drama that will make you wince.

There are three primary focal points. Firstly, the drama back in DC, where level heads try to outmaneuver war mongers. Gary Oldman plays a monger.

Everybody follows up their Oscar with garbage. Don’t fret for Gary.

Common plays one of those level heads. This is literally Common’s third film in three weeks. The prior two—The Hate U Give and All About Nina—were both very good. Nobody bats 1000.

The second dramatic focus takes place on the ground—thank God, because honestly, without the small military unit landing covertly on Russian soil with their drones, swagger and witty banter, this movie would never leave a confined area and you would feel even more trapped by it.

The highest drama is, of course, hundreds of feet underwater with noble everyman Cap. Glass. You know what he has? A level head.

Just not, you know, a ton of talent.





Monster Squad

The Predator

by Hope Madden

Shane Black loves him some Eighties, doesn’t he? The over-the-top machismo, the sentimentality, the tasteless and insensitive one-liners—the writer/director revels in every opportunity to splash those (and some blood and entrails) on the screen as he reboots The Predator.

This is the sixth installment, if you count the Alien vs. Predator films, so Black has his hands full finding a fresh perspective. First things first: a damaged, hyper-masculine male lead who uses humor to mask his pain. Enter Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook, Logan).

A US Army sniper, McKenna and his men are in Mexico after some baddies and some hostages when a predator ship crashes. McKenna faces off with the nasty before making off with some of his gear. Then he’s in a bar/post office in Mexico. Then he’s in custody.

How did he go from A to B to C? Nevermind that! There are predator dogs this time!

There are a lot of those odd gaps in action logic, but since when is narrative clarity the point of a Predator movie (or a Shane Black movie, for that matter)? In many ways, Black is the ideal candidate to reawaken the sport-hunting franchise.

He clearly loves it, and he should, having played the small role of Hawkins in the 1987 original. Black takes pointed but affectionate shots at the source material and celebrates much of what made it (and most of Schwarzenegger’s 80s output) so fun.

Holbrook is a serviceable lead that Black quickly surrounds with a team of soldiers (Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane). What kind of bunch are they? Rag and tag!

Olivia Munn jumps in as a scientist who drops f-bombs, Jacob Tremblay is inarguably cute, and Sterling K. Brown (characteristically mesmerizing) plays the villainous military dude.

The story touches on humanity’s path to extinction, as well as our own evolution. That last part leads to some questionably respectful commentary on folks on the Autism spectrum. (Folks with Tourette’s can expect the same level of respect you might find in an Eighties action film. Or a Norm MacDonald interview.)

The FX are good. Not War for the Planet of the Apes good, but way better than the Aquaman trailer that rolled pre-film. The action is fun and sometimes imaginative, but the rest of the film is largely lacking in imagination.

There’s a lot of coasting going on in The Predator. A lot of boxes being checked—sometimes checked with flair, but they’re still the same old boxes.






The Loud American

Mile 22

by Matt Weiner

Equal parts John le Carré and John Carpenter if both men were lobotomized and then let loose with typewriter and camera, Mile 22 spends most of its brief running time trying to figure out if it has something meaningful to say. All the while, it stacks a public body count up so high that it’s impossible to see how the clandestine force responsible is going to stay secret long enough to become a film franchise.

And while the movie has ambitions at creating new intellectual property around the paramilitary Overwatch program introduced in the film, it’s a bit of a head fake for this first outing. For all its spy vs. spy setup and technobabble, director Peter Berg uses espionage as window dressing for a simple action setup that’s all about brute force.

Mark Wahlberg heads up the CIA team as James Silva, a prickly leader whose instability is used as a stand-in for self-effacing humor. Silva’s team springs into action when a local source Li Noor (Iko Uwais) surrenders to a U.S. Embassy claiming to have information that can help stop a nuclear attack. Silva’s team of elite operatives are tasked with escorting Noor safely out of the country, which becomes a lethal mission when Noor’s own intelligence agency works to stop the extraction at any cost.

To call Silva’s team ragtag would do a disservice to stereotype—it actually would’ve been nice if anybody rose to some level of quirkiness, or any distinction apart from fungible cannon fodder. Ronda Rousey comes close to having a compelling hook, which is: look, it’s Ronda Rousey! But the main emotional labor falls to The Walking Dead star Lauren Kerr as Alice, whose defining character trait is that she has a daughter waiting for her back home.

Thankfully, the team—and the film—have a secret weapon in Uwais. The Indonesian martial artist and choreographer best known for The Raid series gets to show off his captivating fighting style that’s a ballet of bone dislocation. The downside is that he goes underused for so long that his breakout set pieces serve mainly as a reminder that you’d be better off watching The Raid.

There’s a ludicrous nihilism underpinning the film that is almost refreshing for a Berg/Wahlberg pairing. But the script (written by Lea Carpenter) is so humorless it’s genuinely difficult to make out how much of this is Berg and company trying to make a statement about the War on Terror and how much is just the inevitable byproduct of a tight 90-minute cut that only comes alive during the brutal one-on-one fight scenes. John Malkovich’s arch turn as an anonymous and ultimately meaningless government agent, for example, is far more vital—and still relevant—under the direction of the Coen brothers in Burn After Reading than it is here, even though the two roles share an uncanny echo.

Mile 22 doesn’t offer up much replay value as anything more than a fun but forgettable live-action video game level. Although as far as meta-commentary on espionage thrillers goes, this strange blend of individualism and irrelevance might be all we have to look forward to for a while.

 

 





KITT, Meet Stem

Upgrade

by Hope Madden

It’s a setup you’ll recognize. A man, doing man’s work, brightens when his wife arrives. Oh, they are really in love. Let’s just do this one thing before the romance, OK honey?

Minutes from now, she will be dead, he will be damaged, and eventually his suicidal melancholy will fuel revenge.

From Death Wish to John Wick to Death Wish (again), it’s a premise that never goes out of style and never, ever surprises.

Credit writer/director Leigh Whannell and star Logan Marshall-Green (The Invitation) for keeping you entertained for 90 minutes.

Marshall-Green plays Grey. While all the rest of the world relies on technology to drive them around, buy their eggs and dim their lights, Grey’s in the garage listening to blues on vinyl and rebuilding a Trans-Am.

After the aforementioned tragedy, Grey reluctantly turns to a Cyber Victor Frankenstein type (Harrison Gilbertson, a little over-the-top), who implants a chip to help repair the physical damage.

What happens from there is like Knight Rider meets David Cronenberg.

Right?!

Whannell freshens up the technophobe dystopian narrative with a few fresh ideas, a silly streak and serious violence.

This is the guy who wrote Saw, after all. Those who are surprised by the inspired bloodshed probably haven’t seen his canon.

Marshall-Green shines when he’s not morose and lovelorn, but rather tentatively administering “justice.” His physical performance and the action sequences are enough to keep you interested; the strangely comical tone rewards you for your time.

Aside from Betty Gabriel (always a joy to see her), the performances around Marshall-Green are serviceable: the devoted mom, the icy mercenaries, the boundlessly loving wife. Luckily, this is Marshall-Green’s show. Though he struggles (as does Whannell) with the emotional bits, he’s more than at home with the goofy and the violent.

Long live the flesh!





Don’t Call Her Foxy

Traffik

by Hope Madden

A mid-budget action thriller sees a handsome couple alone in an isolated home suddenly at the mercy of a biker gang.

Well, hell, this could be just about any mid-to-low budget thriller from the Seventies. Writer/director Deon Taylor borrows some of the ideas and themes from Seventies exploitation, updating it with a more contemporary style, slicker editing, modern problems and Paula Patton.

That last one might be the real trouble.

Patton plays Brea, a Seattle journalist who may have just lost her job because she’s too interested in telling the whole story. She’s just not one to turn a piece around quickly enough for today’s 24/7 news cycle.

She takes her mind off things with the surprise trip her boyfriend (Omar Epps) planned.

Traffik builds slowly with overly familiar tension, and Taylor makes a handful of interesting choices. These bikers aren’t just racist and bloodthirsty (although they are that). They are the goons of an international human trafficking organization and Brea, her boyfriend and this pointless second couple are in for some real trouble.

The women in Taylor’s film get every opportunity to make a difference, participate in the action and make reasonable decisions—definitely not a staple of Seventies exploitation. Problematically, Paula Patton cannot act.

A lot of action stars can’t, that’s true, but the film really depends upon Patton’s emotional journey and the woman cannot emote.

Taylor makes up for that by simply ogling her body with his camera for 90 minutes. I have never in my life seen a film more preoccupied by one performer’s nipples than Traffik. It would be problematic anywhere, but in a movie where the heroine hopes to save women from sex slavery, it feels wildly wrong-headed.

Given a couple of turns in the script and the film’s overall Seventies vibe, you wonder whether Taylor sees Patton as the new Pam Grier.

She is not.

The film is not terrible. Dawn Olivieri’s turn as a truck stop druggie will haunt you, and even though you basically know what’s coming, Taylor’s game direction keeps you interested nonetheless. There are a couple of decent action sequences—nothing to write home about—and the pace is quick.

Take Paula Patton (and Taylor’s leering filming of her) out of the movie and it’s not a bad little piece of throwback exploitation.