Tag Archives: Ray Winstone

Assassins Assemble

Black Widow

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Avenger Natasha Romanoff had to wait a while to get the green light on her own standalone origin story, and then even longer for the big screens to carry it. Now Black Widow is finally here, and Natasha’s not even the most interesting character in her own show.

And the film is better for it.

Director Cate Shortland and writer Eric Pearson surround Natasha with uniquely compelling personalities that become important parts of a whole, while surrounding star Scarlett Johansson with a supporting ensemble skilled enough to make this one of the MCU’s most character-driven successes.

Oh, there’s action, too, but we start with a prologue set in 1995 Ohio, when Natasha’s family is trying to flee the country at a moment’s notice. Father Alexei (David Harbour), and mother Melina (Rachel Weiss) were prepared for this day, so they scoop up young Natasha (Ever Anderson) and sister Yelena (Violet McGraw) and put the escape plan into action.

An overlong, Watchmen-style montage mixing music and news headlines brings us up to 2006, when the family is long estranged. Natasha is on the run since the Avengers “divorce” (between Civil War and Infinity War), Yelena (Florence Pugh) is taking names in Norway, Alexei is in prison and Melina’s loyalties seem tied to some talented pigs. Meanwhile the villainous Dreykov (Ray Winstone – nice! His accent – not so much) has plans to build an army of mind-controlled “Black Widow” assassins.

That means females only, but while the reveal lands as a clear metaphor for sex trafficking, Shortland (Berlin Syndrome, the underseen gem Lore) and Pearson (Godzilla vs. Kong, Thor: Ragnarok) never belabor any well-taken points. Even better, they fill the entire adventure with enough organic, self-aware humor about posing, too tight supersuits and the need for pockets that very few of the 133 minutes seem laborious at all.

The core foursome is uniformly terrific, as you would expect from actors of this caliber. Performances blossom and surprise, their chemistry buoying the familial longing required of every superhero backstory while anchoring action in characters you can care about.

Pugh—sympathetic, comedic and badass—is the standout, but Johansson shines, especially in a climactic bout with Winstone that lands satisfying jabs about weak men.

Shortland never forgets the point of a superhero film, though. The breathless action in Black Widow impresses as much as it entertains, whether hand-to-hand or aerial.

And it is a Marvel film, so be sure to stick around post-credits for an intriguing stinger and a welcome addition to the universe.

Paging Mr. Neeson

The Gunman

by Hope Madden

Taken director Pierre Morel helms a film where a middle aged man with a particular set of skills finds himself marked for death and must shoot/stab/explode/punch his way out of it to redeem himself and save the one he loves. At first blush, The Gunman just looks like a Liam Neeson movie with a better cast, right? Not quite.

Sean Penn (2-time Oscar winner and 5-time nominee) goes beefcake as Terrier, the retired and oft shirtless gun-for-hire who gets pulled back in. Terrier was once a triggerman for a Democratic Republic of Congo assassination, but he’s carried that guilt and the remorse over a bad breakup for 8 years. Now, with a plot against his life (the contrivance that gets him into and out of hot water is beyond ludicrous), he sets out to make amends.

Penn cannot find his footing as an action hero. Yes, he now has the build for it, but his performance is laborious. Whether he’s smooshy and romantic or single mindedly ripping through foes, nothing has the honesty of his dramatic work or the exciting edge of an action flick.

Flanking Penn are Oscar winner and 3-time nominee Javier Bardem (arguably the best actor of his generation) and the endlessly underrated character actor Ray Winstone. Both men are worth watching, each chewing scenery just enough to keep their screen time vibrant and intriguing. Neither actor has ever turned in a lackluster performance, and this film needs that level of generosity and skill.

Unfortunately for us, the great Idris Alba is woefully underused and Terrier’s love interest Annie (Jasmine Trinca) is both predictably bland and, at twenty-plus years Penn’s junior, embarrassingly young for the effort.

Morel cannot find a usable path through the convoluted story and the only tensions that feel real at all are those in fleeting scenes between Penn and Bardem. There’s a murkiness to the script that requires more skill than Morel has ever shown, and the final product suffers from misplaced drama, uneven tensions, badly tacked on symbolism and misspent artistic capital.

At least with Neeson’s current catalog you know what you’re in for. The Gunman doesn’t know what it is. Too plodding to be an action movie, too obvious to be a thriller, too needlessly bloody to be a drama, The Gunman is a man without a country.

Verdict-2-5-Stars