Kill Switch

For F*** Magazine

KILL SWITCH 

Director : Tim Smit
Cast : Dan Stevens, Bérénice Marlohe, Charity Wakefield, Tygo Gernandt
Genre : Action/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 1h 31min
Opens : 24 August 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language And Violence)

Dan Stevens looks set to be 2017’s breakout leading man. This year alone, The Downtown Abbey star can be seen in Beauty and the Beast, Colossal, The Ticket, Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, Permission, Marshall and The Man Who Invented Christmas. He’s also on TV, playing the lead in Legion. In this sci-fi action thriller, Stevens must stop the implosion of existence as we know it.

 

It is the year 2043, and Will Porter (Stevens), a physicist and pilot, is recruited by the massive corporation Alterplex. The company is on a mission to harness energy from parallel universes, hiring Will to travel to a realm known as ‘the Echo’. The experiment goes awry, and Will finds himself being pursued by a phalanx of heavily-armed mercenaries, and waves of deadly drones. Will must transport a mysterious obsidian box called the ‘Redivider’, which functions as a kill switch, to Alterplex’s tower. If he fails, his sister Mia (Wakefield) and her young son, not to mention the entire population of the world, will perish. Will discovers that Abigail Vos (Marlohe), the Alterplex employee who recruited him, might not be all she claims. Amidst the chaos, a rebel organisation that plans to undermine Alterplex might just be Will’s only hope.

Kill Switch is based on director Tim Smit’s 2009 short film What’s in the Box? Filmed from a first-person perspective, What’s in the Box? garnered considerable interest online because of the possibility that it was linked to the long-rumoured video game Half-Life 3 (it was not). The feature-length version is a perplexing, frustrating, but intriguing film. All the action scenes are filmed from a first-person perspective, giving this a video game-like feel. Because it’s set in two parallel worlds and of the queasiness-inducing factor of filming chaotic, frenetic shootouts and pursuits in that format, Kill Switch is disorienting and is far harder to follow than it should be.

Smit is a visual effects artist whose first feature film is Kill Switch, and it’s an ambitious debut. Shot in the Netherlands with a largely Dutch crew and several Dutch actors in the cast, the computer-generated effects work is solid and rivals Hollywood productions with much larger budgets. There are certain glimmers of cleverness: the original title of the film was ‘Redivider’ which, like the name ‘Tim Smit’, is a palindrome. Unfortunately, Smit’s focus is clearly trained on the visual effects spectacle, with the plot suffering as a result. While the screenplay by Charlie Kindinger and Omid Nooshin packs in exposition to explain the sci-fi workings of it all, it’s still tough to make head or tail of the proceedings.

Stevens has an intensity to him that sets him apart from the bland, cookie cutter action leads Hollywood who are sometimes hyped as ‘the next big thing’. He takes this far more seriously than he hast to. The unique thing about the role is that because all the action scenes are filmed in the first-person perspective, he doesn’t perform any of the action, merely providing the voiceover for those scenes.

Marlohe, best-known for playing a Bond girl in Skyfall, makes for a stiff femme fatale. Interestingly, Will is not in a romantic relationship with any of the female characters in the film, which is another element that differentiates Kill Switch from the average action thriller. Mia is Will’s sister, when in any other film, that character would be the male lead’s wife instead. It’s a shame that Will’s bond with his sister and nephew gets insufficient development, and the potentially emotional scenes fall flat.

Low-to-mid-budget science fiction films usually pique this reviewer’s curiosity, since conventional wisdom dictates that futuristic films are expensive to pull off convincingly. Kill Switch is sporadically fun, the visual effects are confidently and competently executed, and Smit shows considerable promise in an audacious debut. However, the first-person perspective gimmick wears out its welcome all too quickly, and the gee whiz sci-fi plot is confusingly rendered.

Summary: Recommended only for curious sci-fi fans, Kill Switch boasts impressive production values that are in service of a muddled narrative.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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The Dark Tower

For F*** Magazine

THE DARK TOWER 

Director : Nikolaj Arcel
Cast : Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Claudia Kim, Franz Kranz, Abbey Lee Kershaw, Jackie Earle Haley, Katheryn Winnick, Dennis Haysbert
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 1h 35m
Opens : 3 August 2017
Rating : PG13 (Violence)

After ten years in various stages of development, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series finally arrives on the big screen. At the centre of the universe stands the titular structure, protecting various realms from entities that seek to tear the universe apart. On Mid-World, the evil sorcerer Walter Padick/The Man in Black (McConaughey), has been conducting experiments on gifted children, attempting to use their minds to bring down the tower. The Man in Black’s nemesis is Roland Deschain/The Gunslinger (Elba), the last living descendant of his world’s version of King Arthur. On earth, teenager Jake Chambers (Taylor) has been plagued with nightmares in which he sees Walter and Roland. Locating an abandoned house he sees in his dream, Jake steps through a portal and into Mid-World, accompanying Roland on his quest to defeat Walter and prevent the collapse of the universe.

King’s series of eight books, with allusions to it scattered throughout his other works, has many devoted fans. This reviewer, being completely unfamiliar with the series, is not one of them. It must have been a challenge to adapt the series, which spans the genres of science-fantasy, western and horror, hence the succession of filmmakers who came and went. The approach with this is that it isn’t a straight adaptation, folding in elements from several books while also acting as kind of a sequel to them – we don’t fully understand the mechanics of that.

The resulting film is a serviceable fantasy adventure, but can’t help but feel underwhelming given the breadth of the source material. Director Nikolaj Arcel goes about the set-up with workmanlike efficiency, and the story isn’t difficult to follow at all. There’s just the nagging feeling that everything’s been condensed into its simplest form, and that the richness of the world that King has woven together is being sacrificed for something easier to digest. Visually, The Dark Tower isn’t too exciting, but the action sequences, especially Roland’s various reload tricks, are quite fun.

Actors including Viggo Mortensen, Javier Bardem and Russell Crowe have all been connected to the Roland Deschain role at some point. Elba is a fine choice for the part, cutting a heroic figure and possessing the stoic poise necessary to sell the character. There’s a strength and a grace to the way Elba moves, and he does have a larger-than-life quality to him. He just doesn’t have very much to do here, and even though Roland’s storied past is hinted at, the character feels a little flat.

The relationship between Roland and Jake is apparently key to the books, but it doesn’t get too much development here. It makes sense that Jake, as the audience identification character, is given more emphasis, but it detracts from the inherently interesting Gunslinger and Man in Black characters. Taylor, a relative newcomer, does his best as the troubled character and is generally sympathetic throughout the film. Jake winds up being an extreme example of the ‘chosen one’ trope, and the handling of the character nudges The Dark Tower into Young Adult fiction territory. He must overcome tragedy, has fantastical abilities he must hone, and stumbles into an adventure in a magical world. While this approach is too generic, it gets the job done.

McConaughey has as much fun as he can with the role of the mercurial, wicked Man in Black. There’s a seductiveness to his brand of menace, and McConaughey practices enough restraint so that he does not chew the mostly drab scenery to pieces. When McConaughey and Elba are pitted against each other, the sparks don’t fly as fiercely and as wildly as one hopes they would. Just as with this iteration of Roland Deschain however, the Man in Black doesn’t feel as substantial a character as he should.

There will be a TV series planned to bridge this film and its sequel, which Arcel has promised will be more faithful to the books than this film is. The Dark Tower is meant to launch a ‘Connected KINGdom’ cinematic universe uniting all of Stephen King’s works, with Easter Eggs from It, The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption, Cujo, Christine and others hidden in the film. Given all this, The Dark Tower feels sufficiently self-contained, and doesn’t come off as merely a long trailer for what’s to follow.

The Dark Tower is intermittently thrilling, sometimes entertaining, and runs a lean 95 minutes. It doesn’t have the feel of a sprawling epic, but that isn’t entirely a bad thing, since the audience isn’t overwhelmed with exposition-dumps and massive amounts of lore to process. However, it makes more of a dent than an impact, and isn’t especially memorable given the potential in its premise and the extent to which King has developed his universe. We’re far from the most qualified to judge how this stacks up against the source material, but we have a feeling that those who’ve been waiting a decade for a Dark Tower movie to materialise might feel indifferent if not disappointed.

Summary: The Dark Tower has charismatic leads and doesn’t twaddle in setting up its plot, but it comes off as generic and slight when it should be an absorbing epic.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Dunkirk

For F*** Magazine

DUNKIRK 

Director : Christopher Nolan
Cast : Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy
Genre : Action/War
Run Time : 1h 47m
Opens : 20 July 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language)

There have been plenty of films set during the Second World War, and plenty of excellent ones at that, but you’ve never seen a war movie quite like Dunkirk. It is May 1940, and 400 000 Allied soldiers from Britain, Belgium, Canada and France have been trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, by German forces. With the waters surrounding the beach too shallow for naval vessels, hundreds of small personal craft are called into service to evacuate the soldiers from Dunkirk. British Army private Tommy (Whitehead) is just trying to get home, while Commander Bolton (Branagh) and Colonel Winnat (D’Arcy) oversee the evacuation on the ground. Making his way to Dunkirk in his boat is Mr. Dawson (Rylance), accompanied by his son Peter (Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s best friend George (Keoghan). On the way to Dunkirk, they pick up the Shivering Soldier (Murphy), a shell-shocked survivor of a German U-Boat attack. In the skies overhead flies Farrier (Hardy), a Royal Air Force Spitfire pilot warding off attacks from German fighters. As time runs out for the soldiers stranded at Dunkirk, all they need to be victorious is to survive.

The very notion of Christopher Nolan writing and directing a WWII movie sent expectations for Dunkirk sky-rocketing. The film has lived up to, and maybe even surpassed, those expectations. Cutting through the stodginess that can sometimes plague period pieces, Nolan delivers something revelatory. There’s no glamour, no romance, no treacly sentimentality, no pomp, no circumstance – from the opening moments, viewers are plunged into the thick of unspooling chaos, trapped alongside the film’s characters in a variety of panic-inducing circumstances.

Taut and running a lean 107 minutes, unusual for a movie of this type, Dunkirk unfolds with searing immediacy. Dunkirk is not about the strength and sheer might of its heroes – Winston Churchill characterised the events that led to the stranding of the 400 000 Allied soldiers at Dunkirk as a “colossal military disaster”. Dunkirk is not a chest-thumping ode to a bygone age of ‘true heroism’, nor is it a withering, cynical proclamation that ‘war is hell’. It’s not making any grand statements, it’s transporting the audience into situations so hopeless and so desperate that they’ll be gasping for air.

Putting the film together was a staggering logistical undertaking, and Nolan waited to accrue experience making large-scale blockbusters before tackling this film, which he has wanted to make since he was a student. Nolan makes the massive scope of the film digestible for audiences by dividing Dunkirk into three perspectives: the land, the sea and the air. The Germans are a faceless enemy, making their presence felt through the ordnance they bombard the beach with. With each cluster of protagonists having clear objectives to complete, Dunkirk is easy to follow, and doesn’t contain unwieldy stretches of exposition.

Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography provides both the breathless immersion of being stuck below decks in a sinking ship and the soaring majesty of Spitfires tearing across the sky, an expanse of ocean beneath the planes. Hans Zimmer’s frantic score contains no lush, sweeping melodies, incorporating interesting textural elements including the ticking sound of Nolan’s own pocket watch.

Another thing that sets Dunkirk apart from its prestige drama ilk is that there are no showy performances finely tuned for maximum Academy appeal. Make no mistake, the acting is excellent, it’s just that it doesn’t call attention to itself and character back-stories and motivations are deliberately scarce, so we can focus on the moment. It’s unusual that a thespian of Branagh’s calibre is given relatively little to do, but it works. Newcomer Whitehead aptly captures the wide-eyed innocence and desperation of a young soldier swept up in a colossal conflict, while Harry Styles, to his credit, is barely distracting.

 

Murphy’s turn as the PTSD-stricken Shivering Soldier, who is otherwise unnamed, is probably the closest thing Dunkirk has to a virtuoso turn, and even then, it isn’t overplayed. Rylance showcases the masterful restraint he’s become known for, his character embodying the quiet, everyday heroism displayed by the mariners who came to the soldiers’ rescue. While Hardy is at his best when playing antiheroes, roguish types or straight-up villains, but he’s easy to root for as the pilot who tries to save the day.

Stripping away the stylistic trappings often associated with WWII epics, Nolan shapes Dunkirk into a film that’s visceral and affecting, but is also spectacular and deserves to be seen on as large a screen as one can find. While it’s not the easiest film to watch, Nolan skilfully refrains from gratuitous blood and gore – it’s horrifying without being unnecessarily so. Because of its heavy subject matter and the tension with which it is brought to life, Dunkirk does feel longer than its running time and is not necessarily a film that begs to be re-watched immediately, but it is an effectively harrowing masterpiece all the same.

Summary: A war film that evokes helplessness and desperation like few before it, Dunkirk will thrill, shock and shake audiences to their core.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

War for the Planet of the Apes

For F*** Magazine

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES 

Director : Matt Reeves
Cast : Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller, Judy Greer, Terry Notary, Karin Konoval, Gabriel Chavarria
Genre : Action/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 2h 22min
Opens : 13 July 2017
Rating : PG (Some Violence)

           In the third entry of the Planet of the Apes reboot series, Caesar (Serkis) wages his most personal battle yet. It is two years after the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and the ape population has been dwindling due to a protracted war with the humans. When Caesar’s wife Cornelia (Greer) and younger son Cornelius (Devyn Dalton) are kidnapped by humans, Caesar heads into enemy territory to rescue them. He finds himself face-to-face with Colonel McCullough (Harrelson), a nigh-psychotic soldier hell-bent on obliterating the apes for good. McCullough and his men are assisted by apes who were followers of Caesar’s late rival Koba, and who defected to the side of the humans for fear of reprisal from Caesar. Maurice (Konoval), Caesar’s advisor and confidant, adopts a young orphaned human girl named Nova (Miller). Maurice, Nova, Rocket (Notary) and “Bad Ape” (Zahn) scope out McCullough’s encampment, looking for a way to liberate the apes who have been captured and enslaved. As humanity and apes make what each perceive to be their last stand, Caesar is in danger of being consumed by vengeance and hatred, and going down the path Koba did.

The Apes reboot films have set a high bar for any reimagining to follow. Reboots are often viewed as hollow, money-grubbing exercise, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes more than made an excellent case for its existence. Then, Dawn topped that, and the third instalment in the trilogy upholds that standard. This is an intense experience – it’s a war film, and more specifically, a prisoner-of-war film. Director Matt Reeves and screenwriter Mark Bomback have listed Bridge on the River Kwai as an influence, and the film cuts through its fantastical elements to deliver a searing, haunting drama.

In 2011, 2014, and now in 2017, Apes movies were released shortly after Transformers movies, almost as if to function as antidotes. It’s good to have a reminder of just how good and how powerful a well-made blockbuster can be. There are several dialogue-free stretches of the film during which it’s carried just by glances and gestures. The political commentary and the darkness of the story are tempered with an abundance of spectacle, culminating in a climactic showdown complete with explosions of fire and ice.

Despite the sheer quality of the visual effects work even back then, the apes in Rise were still a little challenging to buy as fully-fledged characters. Granted, it was also early in their evolution. In Dawn, and even more so here, the apes are so much more than visual effects flourishes. The superlative work of Weta Digital, supervised by Joe Letteri, complemented by the performances of Serkis, Greer, Notary and the other performers, make the creatures utterly believable. It gets to the point where they stop registering as digital creations, and the audience can fully buy into their journeys and arcs, as individuals and as a shrewdness. Each ape projects a sense of humanity, and having followed Caesar this far, it does sting to see him weary and haggard, wondering if his continuous struggles have been worth it. We get a tiny bit of comic relief in the form of Zahn’s kooky Bad Ape, but this doesn’t undercut the overall seriousness of the film.

While the presence of Miller’s Nova does seem derivative of any number of “a kid and their X” stories, the bond that she develops with Maurice is convincingly fleshed out, and the film refrains from using Nova as an emotionally manipulative plot device. The apes’ willingness to accept a human child into the fold also indicates that a war with humans isn’t their first course of action.

As the human antagonist, Harrelson is utterly terrifying – it’s probably the scariest he’s been since Natural Born Killers. Harrelson has become known for playing eccentric, rough-around-the-edges but ultimately likeable characters. In War, his performance echoes the characters of Vietnam War movies like Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now. This is a film that doesn’t so much turn on battles as it does on confrontations. The central confrontation between McCullough and Caesar is a riveting nail-biter of a scene, impeccably staged and acted. McCullough is a larger-than-life character, but there’s no goofiness to him. Adding to the air of uneasiness around the character is the cult-like nature of his faction, and how he depicts himself as something of a prophet.

Many action movie soundtracks tend to sound indistinct, but Michael Giacchino’s score for this film packs plenty of personality. Giacchino employs a variety of textures, including an emphasis on pitched percussion instruments like the marimba, eliciting a wide range of emotions. Some directors mandate that the score be “invisible”, and we’re glad that Giacchino’s work for this film is as visible and as audible as it is.

War for the Planet of the Apes does demand effort from the viewer, as it takes a while to build up to the dazzling finale. Thankfully, the characters, ape and human alike, are easy to get invested in. Reeves proves himself to be a director at the top of his game, wringing drama and genuine emotion from a premise which can, and has, been handled clumsily before. While the door is left open for a sequel, War ends on such a satisfying note that it doesn’t feel like the producers are begging for another instalment. War is a stirring battle cry that caps off a consistently impressive trilogy.

Summary: A sombre yet stirring and stunningly-realised adventure, War for the Planet of the Apes engages the viewer on a human level and showcases everything a masterfully-made blockbuster can be.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Spider-Man Homecoming

For F*** Magazine

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING

Director : Jon Watts
Cast : Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei, Jacob Batalon, Zendaya, Laura Harrier, Tony Revolori, Angourie Rice, Michael Chernus, Bokeem Woodbine, Logan Marshall-Green
Genre : Action/Comics
Run Time : 2h 14min
Opens : 6 July 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language and Violence)

In Captain America: Civil War, we were introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) version of Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Holland). After the events of that film, Peter returns home and having been in the thick of a big superhero battle, wants more excitement. A high school sophomore, Peter juggles school work, hangs out with his best friend Ned (Batalon), nurses a crush on his Decathlon team captain Liz (Harrier), weathers the put-downs of bully Flash (Revolori) and tries to keep his Aunt May (Tomei) from discovering his secret identity. In the meantime, Spider-Man tangles with Adrian Toomes/The Vulture (Keaton), a former salvage worker with a grudge on Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey Jr.), Peter’s mentor. Toomes’ associate Phineas Mason (Chernus) has developed various gadgets using alien and other technology illegally gleaned from the aftermath of various Avengers battles. Stark thinks Peter is acting recklessly, and Peter must prove he is worthy of not only the suit that Stark has created for him, but of the mantle of a superhero.

The Spider-Man film rights are something of a tangled web: after The Amazing Spider-Man 2 under-performed and a planned franchise collapsed, Sony Pictures leased the film rights for the character to Marvel Studios. This makes Spider-Man: Homecoming technically a Sony film, but Spider-Man can now co-exist with the other heroes in the MCU – as he should be able to.

Jon Watts, a relatively fresh director who impressed Marvel execs with his film Cop Car, carves out a niche in the MCU that fits Homecoming perfectly. We’re reminded that this film takes place in a larger universe, but Homecoming doesn’t busy itself with excessive franchise set-up work – which was arguably the downfall of The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Instead, Watts strikes a fine balance between the superhero action and the high school movie aspects, crafting something with a scope and scale that doesn’t exceed his grasp. These movies can get bloated, but despite a large cast of characters, Homecoming remains buoyant.

We called Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 the funniest MCU movie yet. Its reign is short-lived, as Homecoming is a worthy challenger to the title. Those Captain America public service announcement videos are a hoot. Despite a screenplay which is credited to three pairs of writers, the film doesn’t feel cluttered or scattershot. The central theme is that of responsibility – while this certainly isn’t an alien concept to the Spider-Man movies, the film doesn’t just say the word “responsibility” a bunch of times. While this is obviously a big-budget tentpole movie, there’s a certain homespun feel to it. Thankfully, this isn’t one of those teen-aimed movies made by people who obviously don’t get teenagers. The bits of Peter dealing with student life and the parts of the film in which he’s Spider-Man don’t feel like they come from disparate movies.

Homecoming boasts some quality set-pieces, with the central bifurcated Staten Island ferry sequence being the standout. The Washington Monument scene provides a judicious change of pace from the New York setting. While the visual effects work is mostly excellent and the Vulture’s wings look particularly awesome, there are some moments that lack polish. The computer-generated effects in all the previous Spider-Man films haven’t aged spectacularly, and while that’s less egregious here, there are still times when the digital double for Spider-Man himself looks too cartoony. Since Spidey’s moves are more elaborate than the standard ‘swing from building to building’ routine, the weaknesses of the CG Spidey show up a little more obviously.

Holland won plenty of fans over with his turn as Spidey in Civil War, and gets the chance to further develop the character and come into his own. Holland effortlessly essays Peter’s wide-eyed enthusiasm at the slightest thing, which probably echoes the actor’s own awe at being a part of the blockbuster franchise. There’s an earnestness to Peter and he’s just the right shade of flawed. Getting to play with a high-tech suit is fun, but when crime-fighting encroaches on Peter’s school and social life, it’s a burden he must shoulder. Holland’s physicality is a key factor to him being as good a Spider-Man as he is. However, as expected, most of the fighting and acrobatics seem to be done by the afore-mentioned digital double.

MCU villains get a bad rap, so it’s a good thing that the Vulture is one of the better ones. Keaton is ideal casting, and while he does have fun with the role, he’s intimidating without doing too much. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 suffered from a surfeit of one-dimensional, maniacally cackling villains. The Vulture’s motivations are logically laid out, and the idea of a regular guy who becomes a villain because the opportunity presents itself and as a means to a better life works as a foil against Spider-Man, the regular kid-turned-superhero. While some might worry that there are additional villains, the two Shockers (Woodbine, Marshall-Green) and the Tinkerer remain firmly in the background, with Homecoming avoiding a case of villain overload.

The supporting cast is fun, with Batalon making for an excitable, loveable sidekick to Holland’s Peter. The normally-glamorous former Disney Channel star Zendaya relishes playing the kooky, acerbic Michelle. Harrier’s Liz Allan fulfils the role Mary Jane normally would, as the unattainable crush Peter admires from afar. In one of several departures from the source material, Revolori’s Flash Thompson isn’t the traditional musclebound meathead, but is instead a snob who drives about in a fancy Audi.

While the promotional materials were heavy on Iron Man, Downey Jr.’s presence doesn’t overwhelm the film, which is squarely Spider-Man’s to carry. It’s apt that Tony step into the mentor role, and this signifies how far the MCU has come – it’s already been nine years since the first Iron Man film. And yes, the film is acutely aware that Marisa Tomei is considerably more attractive than the traditional grey-haired, hunched-over Aunt May as drawn in the comics. The montage in which she helps Peter prepare for prom is a sweet, low-key moment.

While Homecoming doesn’t reinvent the wheel, and doesn’t take the kind of risks with the comic book movie genre that we’ve seen from Logan and Wonder Woman earlier this year, it doesn’t have to. There’s a comfort factor in seeing Spider-Man back on the big screen, and the filmmakers demonstrate a keen understanding of what makes him tick, and of the character’s enduring appeal. Stick around for a stinger after the (extremely eye-catching) main-on-end titles, and another at the very end of the credits.

Summary: Like the high-tech suit that Tony Stark creates for Peter Parker, this Spider-Man reboot is spiffy but sufficiently familiar. Homecoming is tonally assured and energetic, with Holland making for an eminently personable Spidey.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Wonder Woman

For F*** Magazine

WONDER WOMAN 

Director : Patty Jenkins
Cast : Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya, Lucy Davis, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock
Genre : Action/Comics
Run Time : 2h 21min
Opens : 31 May 2017
Rating : PG (Some Violence)

All the world’s been waiting for her, and at long last, here she is in a movie of her own. Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gadot) is a demigoddess raised by the mythical Amazons on the island of Themyscira. Diana’s mother Queen Hippolyta (Nielsen) wants to shield her from the outside world, while Diana’s aunt General Antiope (Wright) wants to train Diana into a warrior. When American pilot Captain Steve Trevor (Pine) crash-lands on Themyscira, Diana volunteers to escort him back to the outside world, against her mother’s wishes. It is the final days of World War I, and German General Erich Ludendorff (Huston) is working alongside treacherous chemist Dr. Maru/Dr. Poison (Anaya), devising deadly weapons to use in the war. Diana befriends Steve’s secretary Etta Candy (Davis), and goes to the front to end the war. Diana is accompanied by Steve’s ragtag band of operatives, including Sameer (Taghmaoui), Charlie (Bremner) and Chief (Brave Rock). However, the forces they face are beyond mere armies of men.

Wonder Woman made her first appearance in Sensation Comics in 1941, and a big screen solo outing for the superheroine is long overdue. After varied failed attempts to bring the character to the screen, DC has finally found success – and what a success this is. The DC Extended Universe has generally been greeted with scorn. Moviegoers heading into this movie can be roughly grouped into two categories: those who are eager to see this fail because it’s a DC film, and those who are cautiously optimistic. With Wonder Woman, director Patty Jenkins has crafted a movie that might stun detractors into silence. Working from a screenplay by Allan Heinberg (known in the comics sphere for Young Avengers and his Wonder Woman run), who rewrote earlier drafts by Jason Fuchs and Zack Snyder, Jenkins has delivered a worthy epic that does the iconic character great justice. The filmmakers demonstrate an innate understanding of what makes Wonder Woman tick, and eloquently articulate her motivations, laying out the events that shape her into the heroine she becomes.

Jenkins must have faced the dilemma of depicting an action heroine who’s all about peace, love and understanding: as the lyrics of the theme song go, “make a hawk a dove, stop a war with love”. On one hand, Diana stands for all that is good and pure, and on the other, she’s a bona fide badass who is formidable in battle. Wonder Woman navigates the quandary admirably, and gets surprisingly moving in the process. While the film doesn’t try to give a simple answer to why it’s in mankind’s nature to fight, it attempts to make sense of why conflict comes so naturally to us, and how someone from outside man’s world would process this. It’s also tonally assured: the scenes of war get the appropriate gravitas, but there is a healthy amount of fish-out-of-water comedy, though not so much as to take one out of it. Some took issue with Batman v Superman’s handling of philosophical issues, and Wonder Woman doesn’t get too bogged down with big questions as it serves up plenty of spectacle.

There’s a grandeur to the film, which takes us from the idyllic fantasy paradise of Themyscira to the gritty corpse-strewn battlefield of the Western Front. Aline Bonetto’s production design and Lindy Hemming’s costume design makes Themyscira a thoroughly-realised world, supplemented by location filming on the Italian coast. The statuesque Amazons are fantastical figures, yes, but their domain is immersive and believable. There is enough authenticity to the settings of London, Belgium and the Ottoman Empire, such that this works as a war movie. The action sequences are exciting and staged with finesse, the fight choreography incorporating Diana’s sword, shield, lasso and bracelets. They are just the right degree of showy, a dazzling blend of elegance and strength. When Wonder Woman climbs out of the trenches and charges brazenly through No Man’s Land, it’s wont to give viewers quite the buzz.

Gadot’s casting was met with considerable backlash, and if her turn in Batman v Superman made doubters eat their words, she’s back with a heaping second serving here. Gadot more than proves herself as the ideal embodiment of the superheroine. Diana starts out as an idealist, and Gadot parses the character’s status as an invincible naïf. Audiences at large are not as familiar with Wonder Woman’s back-story as they are the origin tales of Superman, Batman or Spider-Man, and it is told coherently and engagingly. Not only does Gadot truly come into her own as a leading lady in this film, but she looks absolutely fantastic doing it – in both the action sequences and the quiet dramatic moments.

In many comic book films, the romance tends to feel tacked on. This isn’t the case here. The strapping, roguish Steve Trevor is Diana’s primary link to man’s world, and the relationship between the two is crucial to the plot. Through Steve’s eyes, Diana sees both the good and the evil that man is capable of. Pine is charming as always, with a twinkle in his eye and never a hair out of place. It seems like a bit of a waste to cast him as Steve Trevor instead of Hal Jordan/Green Lantern, since Hal is pretty much Captain Kirk. Still, it’s great that Steve is drawn with some depth, instead of being the standard dashing but boring hero. Owing to the respect he shows Diana, he’s as good a role model as she is.

Davis’ bubbly Etta Candy is true to how the character is portrayed in the comics, and as the designated comic relief, she stays a safe distance from being annoying. While Steve’s band of merry men all exhibit stereotypical traits, they get enough development. Taghmaoui is suave and amusing, Bremner has fun playing the wild-eyed Scotsman but also brings out the trauma that mars the character, and Brave Rock is steadfast and a comforting presence as Chief. While Huston and Anaya play largely generic villains, they serve the plot well and chew just enough scenery.

There was a lot riding on this film, with the fear that if it failed, it would spell doom for any female-led comic book movies going forward, just as Catwoman and Elektra sounded the death knell all those years ago. Those fears should be allayed, as this is a grand, heartfelt and rousing film. Despite its 141-minute running time, Wonder Woman doesn’t feel bloated and is light on its feet. At once refreshing and reminiscent of classic wartime romance films, Wonder Woman is a giant leap forward for the DC Extended Universe.

Summary: A soaring, inspiring adventure centred by Gal Gadot’s assured star turn, Wonder Woman is the movie long-time fans of the iconic superheroine have been waiting for.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

For F*** Magazine

KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD 

Director : Guy Ritchie
Cast : Charlie Hunnam, Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou Jude Law, Aidan Gillen, Eric Bana, Mikael Persbrandt, Lorraine Bruce, Hermione Corfield, Annabelle Wallis
Genre : Action/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 2h 6min
Opens : 18 May 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence and Brief Coarse Language)

Mythical monarch King Arthur rears his head in not one, but two big-budget summer movies this year. Before Transformers: The Last Knight, we get this origin story. Orphan Arthur (Hunnam) has led a hardscrabble existence on the cobblestone streets of Londinium, unaware of his royal heritage. Arthur’s father, King Uther Pendragon (Bana), was deposed by Uther’s brother Vortigern (Law), who has become a power-mad sorcerer. Only Uther or his direct progeny can pull the sword Excalibur from the stone. When Arthur accomplishes this feat, he becomes the target of Vortigern’s fury. Arthur is assisted in his quest to defeat Vortigern by his friend Wetstick (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Uther’s loyal advisor Sir Bedivere (Hounsou), skilled archer Goosefat Bill (Gillen) and a mysterious woman who wields control over animals through magic, known only as the Mage (Bergès-Frisbey). Arthur must achieve mastery of Excalibur, as he and his allies fight to reclaim the throne that is rightfully his.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is the first in a planned series of six films. Legend of the Sword morphed continuously throughout its development: David Dobkin was originally set to direct a King Arthur film starring Kit Harington in the title role and Joel Kinnaman as Lancelot. Then, Colin Farrell was attached to the Arthur part, with Gary Oldman cast as Merlin. Under Guy Ritchie, it’s become Snatch meets Lord of the Rings. There have been countless big screen permutations of the Arthur legend, and this version smacks of a desperation to put a new spin – any new spin – on a public domain tale with name recognition. Legend of the Sword wants to be a superhero movie, a street level crime film, and a Game of Thrones-style epic of palace intrigue and high fantasy. Alas, it ends up being all those things and none at the same time; Ritchie struggling but failing to meld these disparate elements into a cohesive whole.

As with any legend so old and so widespread, there is no one true version of the King Arthur story. As evidenced by the floating fireballs and myriad outsized CGI animals, this isn’t intended to be “historical” in any sense. The screenplay by Ritchie and Lionel Wigram, rewritten from a draft by Joby Harold, attempts to distil several elements from various versions of the myth, but they wind up convoluting things in the process. Narrative gymnastics make the Sword in the Stone the same sword as Excalibur, when in earlier tellings, they were separate swords. As expected from Ritchie, there is a combination of flash and grit. James Herbert’s editing often makes this difficult to follow. Not only is it jittery and arrhythmic, but there are multiple sequences that cut between Arthur and co. discussing a plan, then enacting said plan – or maybe it’s a hypothetical scenario of how the plan will unfold. It’s supposed to make things interesting, but renders them confusing instead.

Hunnam is a fine leading man, and got into spectacular shape for the film, packing on the muscle. Hunnam wanted the role so much that he declared to Ritchie that he would physically fight Henry Cavill and Jai Courtney, who were also being considered, for the part. For all Hunnam’s effort, Arthur is borderline boring. It’s a standard hero’s journey, rejecting the quest, accepting the quest story. He’s Oliver Twist 13-14 centuries early (there’s a pickpocketing montage) who grows up to shoulder the burden of destiny. Despite Ritchie’s stylistic trappings, Arthur emerges as a standard, serviceable hero – nothing more than that.

Before Law dons Dumbledore’s robes, he plays a far less benevolent wizard. Vortigern is characterised as a mafioso, usurping power and stabbing those close to him in the back – often literally. He slouches in his throne, disrespectful of the seat of power. There’s little nuance to the part, and while Vortigern is appropriately treacherous, he’s never truly scary.

Arthur’s associates in this film are proto-Knights of the Roundtable – Bedivere served King Uther, while Wetstick grew up on the streets of Londinium alongside Arthur. There’s an attempt to make this an eclectic bunch – we don’t know of another Arthurian movie featuring a Chinese martial artist named George (Tom Wu), who trains young Arthur in combat. While there’s the veneer of personality, the supporting characters are insufficiently defined. Gillen is fun to watch, owing more to his own flair as a performer than to the writing.

Bergès-Frisbey’s character is apparently Guinevere, though she’s only called ‘the Mage’ in the film. As the female lead, one would expect Bergès-Frisbey to get more to do, beyond issuing ominous warnings and standing offscreen as digital critters do her bidding. Speaking of the digital critters, the menagerie of elephants, snakes, eagles, wolves, bats and other beasts aren’t nearly as awesome (or as believable) as the Rabbit of Caerbannog from a certain other Arthurian movie.

Bana is in precious little of the film, and his appearance made us wonder what a King Arthur movie starring him would be like (probably better). Thankfully, the David Beckham cameo isn’t nearly as goofy as we feared.

While the Welsh and Scottish shooting locations are breath-taking, Legend of the Sword feels like a spectacle movie that is markedly unspectacular. For better and worse, but mostly worse, it is unmistakably a Guy Ritchie film. Ritchie’s sensibilities fail to coalesce with the mystique and grandeur he wants this film to possess. Perhaps with the origin story out of the way, the sequel will be more entertaining – but hoping for six of these is just giddy optimism.

Summary: Legend of the Sword is a flashy but somewhat incoherent remix of Arthurian myth that is caught in limbo between street-level grit and full-on fantasy.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Fast & Furious 8 (AKA The Fate of the Furious)

For F*** Magazine

FAST & FURIOUS 8 

Director : F. Gary Gray
Cast : Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Nathalie Emmanuel, Kurt Russell, Charlize Theron, Helen Mirren, Elsa Pataky, Scott Eastwood
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 2h 16min
Opens : 13 April 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence and Coarse Language)

The driving force behind the Fast and Furious franchise – besides international box office – is ‘family’. Groan-inducing though it may be, many moviegoers have warmed to the crew led by Dominic “Dom” Toretto (Diesel), and audiences around the world feel a kinship with this team. In this, the eighth entry in the franchise, we watch the family get torn asunder.

Dom and his wife Letty (Rodriguez) are enjoying their honeymoon in Havana, Cuba. The couple is called away for a mission in Germany, where the team must prevent an Electromagnetic Pulse generator from falling into enemy hands. Dom, Letty, DSS agent Luke Hobbs (Johnson), motormouth Roman (Gibson), mechanical whiz Tej (Bridges) and hacker Ramsey (Emmanuel) pull off the mission without a hitch – until Dom betrays them. The woman who has somehow convinced Dom to cast aside his loyalty is elusive, powerful cyberterrorist Cipher (Theron). To track down Dom and Cipher, spymaster Mr. Nobody (Russell) places the team’s nemesis Deckard Shaw (Statham) alongside them. Everyone, especially Hobbs, is upset that they must work with Shaw, but desperate times call for desperate measures. This latest adventure takes the team from New York City to the frigid Russian tundra, as they try to stop Cipher and win Dom back to the side of good.

Director F. Gary Gray, who helmed Straight Outta Compton and the remake of The Italian Job, takes the wheel from Furious 7 director James Wan. While it’s officially titled ‘The Fate of the Furious’, it’s promoted as Fast & Furious 8 in several territories. With the superstar cast and key behind-the-scenes personnel including writer Chris Morgan, cinematographer Stephen F. Windon, composer Brian Tyler and second unit director/stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos returning, not too much has changed, even with a new director.

Under the guidance of Justin Lin, who helmed the third through sixth entries in the franchise, the series has morphed from being ostensibly about car racing culture into a globe-trotting military action/heist behemoth. Fast & Furious 8 opens with a street race in Havana, to remind viewers that the series hasn’t forgotten its roots. It takes confidence to open the film with a relatively humble set-piece, especially when compared to the mayhem that follows.

When the sixth film came out, some viewers were wondering just how the series would continue to top itself in the outlandish car stunt stakes. Just when it seemed there’s nothing new under the sun, Fast & Furious 8 launches a submarine at the crew. This is a series that’s always in danger of swallowing itself up, but Gray presides over things with a firm-enough hand. A sequence in which Cipher orchestrates unbridled vehicular chaos on the streets of New York City is inventive, and in between all the big-budget bombast, we get to witness a good old-fashioned prison brawl. Once again, Razatos deserves credit for staging grand, entertaining spectacle.

Watching the action scenes is like watching a penguin glide gracefully through the water. Sitting through the dramatic scenes is like watching said penguin waddle on land: it’s ungainly, but endearing. The soap opera quotient is even higher than before. Dom goes rogue! Shock, horror! While Morgan’s screenplay heaves with cheesiness and Gibson’s ad-libbing tends to make scenes less funny, we have to admire the logistics of it. Not just the logistics of staging the action, but the sheer mechanics of constructing the screenplay, such that each member of the ever-expanding cast gets their time to shine. There are a few twists, a cameo or two and a reasonably clever gambit is put into play, but it’s nothing as audacious as the chase with the safe(s) in the fifth film. While the seventh film made a fair few viewers tear up with its closing tribute to the late Paul Walker, the emotional scenes here make considerably less impact.

The massive ensemble works like a well-oiled machine, anecdotal murmurs of friction between Diesel and his castmates notwithstanding. Gray wrings a good amount of tension from the premise of Dom turning against his teammates, with Rodriguez’s Letty naturally being the most hurt.

Johnson and Statham play off against each other wonderfully, trading juvenile barbs. Having the big bad villain of the seventh film get all chummy with the crew does run the risk of diminishing Shaw’s intimidation factor, but that’s not too much of an issue because there’s a new villain in town.

Said villain is played by Theron, reuniting with her Italian Job director and co-star Statham. Theron’s awesome in pretty much everything (we like to pretend Æon Flux doesn’t exist) and she has just enough fun with this role. Cipher is coolly evil and her dastardly scheme is very Bond villain-esque. However, unlike the Shaw siblings from the last two instalments, Cipher is mostly a passive villain, standing in front of a bank of computers, shouting things like “hack ‘em all” to her minions. It’s not the best use of Theron, but we’re glad she’s in the series anyway.

Perhaps it’s because she was only introduced in the previous film, but Emmanuel’s Ramsey doesn’t really feel like a part of the team yet. Scott Eastwood plays Mr. Nobody’s apprentice who gets picked on by the crew and feels extraneous. But if you’re already invested in the series and its characters, this is a fun ride that feels shorter than its 136-minute running time. Gray does a fine job of preserving the series’ personality while furthering the team’s delightfully ludicrous exploits.

Summary: It’s as cheesy and outlandish as ever: Fast & Furious 8 sticks to what works for the franchise and even if it doesn’t break ground the same way that submarine did, it’s enjoyable.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Extraordinary Mission (非凡任务)

For F*** Magazine

EXTRAORDINARY MISSION (非凡任务)

Director : Alan Mak, Anthony Pun
Cast : Huang Xuan, Duan Yihong, Lang Yueting, Zu Feng, Xing Jiadong, David Wang
Genre : Action/Crime
Run Time : 2h 1min
Opens : 6 April 2017
Rating : NC16 (Drug Use and Violence)

In this action thriller, undercover cop Lin Kai’s (Huang) mission, should he choose to accept it, is to infiltrate a drug cartel. He accepts. Lin Kai works his way up the ladder, making supply runs for the syndicate in China. He reports his findings about the syndicate’s contacts and organisational structure to his supervisor, Captain Li Jianguo (Xing). To gain the trust of Eagle (Duan), the boss of the Twin Eagles cartel, Lin Kai is taken to the cartel’s base of operations in the heart of the Golden Triangle, where he is forcibly made an addict to prove his loyalty. Lin Kai attempts to sway Eagle’s daughter and right-hand woman Qingshui (Lang) to the side of good, as the mission unearths ghosts from Jianguo’s past as a field agent.

Extraordinary Mission is directed by Alan Mak and Anthony Pun and is written by Felix Chong. Pun is also the film’s cinematographer. The team has been involved in the Infernal Affairs and Overhead series, having garnered considerable cred in the crime thriller genre in Hong Kong. The title ‘Extraordinary Mission’ recalls the 80s action flicks in which Chuck Norris helicopters in to a jungle to take out some dictator’s private army. It takes a while for Extraordinary Mission to get into gear, and for its first two acts, it’s mostly a twisty game of mental cat-and-mouse between our brave undercover cop hero and the devious criminal mastermind. Then during its final 20 minutes, Extraordinary Mission lets loose with an elaborate, protracted action sequence that goes from the rooftops to the streets. Our heroes are outnumbered by Eagle’s mercenaries, and there are joyously ridiculous motorcycle stunts to behold.

Extraordinary Mission suffers from a bit of an identity crisis, because things are played straight and circumstances are supposed to be grave – but everything leads up to a gleefully explosive finale which is self-indulgent in every regard. Entertaining, sure, but still self-indulgent. Action choreographer Nicky Li, whose credits also include Wolf Warrior and Invisible Target, stages intense shootouts, crunchy vehicular collisions and a large assortment of explosions. The production values benefit from location filming in Thailand, and the sprawling Twin Eagles compound sells the power and reach of the illicit operation. We see large factory floor where scores of workers are mixing and packing the heroin, then Eagle shows Lin Kai a vertical greenhouse in which multiple storeys of poppy plants are being cultivated via hydroponics. It does lend this a sense of scale.

For all its action spectacle, the story beats in Extraordinary Mission are familiar. There are several twists and reveals, as is a trademark of Mak and Pun’s filmography, but the filmmakers seem to think these are cleverer than they really are. Several scenes, accompanied by a mournfully cooing female vocalist and an acoustic guitar, are too melodramatic. Tiny things like gunshot wounds or drug addictions only affect the characters when it’s convenient for it to affect them. There are also scenes in which characters yell at the top of their lungs to convey intensity, which can get unintentionally silly.

Huang Xuan makes for a decent tortured hero and handles the action beats ably. Like many films of its ilk, Extraordinary Mission suffers from having its hero be a lot less compelling than its villain. Lin Kai gets a bog-standard tragic back-story, and while Eagle’s back-story is similarly predictable, Duan Yihong is more fun to watch than leading man Huang. Duan hits the right pitch of devilish charisma and unrepentant sadism, while still being convincing as a savvy businessman who could run such a massive outfit.

While the subplot of Lin Kai attempting to turn Eagle’s daughter against him is intriguing, it isn’t given enough development. That said, Lang Yueting gets to play a more complex role than the typical action movie interest. Xing Jiadong has sufficient presence as the police Captain who must confront a botched mission from a decade ago, a character that could’ve easily been quite boring.

Extraordinary Mission’s 121-minute runtime is slightly too long and it does spend a lot of time setting up straightforward back-stories, but action aficionados will be rewarded for their patience with a rip-roaring ending battle for which directors Mak and Pun pull out all the stops.

Summary: While its plot beats are largely predictable, Extraordinary Mission’s solid production values and spectacular finale make it worth a look for fans of Hong Kong action cinema.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

For F*** Magazine

GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)

Director : Rupert Sanders
Cast : Scarlett Johansson, Takeshi Kitano, Pilou Asbæk, Michael Pitt, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche, Peter Ferdinando
Genre : Sci-fi/Action
Run Time : 1h 47min
Opens : 30 March 2017
Rating : PG-13

“Oh boy.”

That’s the common reaction when the live-action Hollywood adaptation of Ghost in the Shell is mentioned. There’s a cybernetically-enhanced elephant in the room, (it’s got retractable metal tusks) but we’ll get to that later.

It is the future, and robot technology has become commonplace, many humans augmenting themselves with cybernetic implants. Hanka Robotics has gone a big step further, implanting a human mind into a fully synthetic robot body. The result is Major Mira Killian (Johansson), whose creation was overseen by Dr. Ouélet (Binoche). The Major works for the Section 9 task force, under the command of Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Kitano). Alongside her colleagues Batou (Asbæk) and Togusa (Chin Han), the Major must hunt down a shadowy villain named Kuze (Pitt), who has been remotely hacking Hanka’s products, making various robots turn on their owners. At the same time, the Major is haunted by visions of a burning pagoda, and seeks to piece together the mystery of her former, human existence.

The elephant is on its way – hear that synth-tinged trumpeting? First, some background: Ghost in the Shell is based on Masamune Shirow’s manga, first published in 1989. The manga was adapted into an anime film directed by Mamoru Oshii in 1995, and has since spawned other films, anime television series and video games. Ghost in the Shell rode the cyberpunk wave of the 90s, and has proven to be a deeply influential work. It was one of the main inspirations for The Matrix – the Wachowski siblings reportedly screened the 1995 film for producer Joel Silver, saying “we want to do that, but for real”.

One of the myriad issues with this adaptation is that it’s late to its own party. Filmgoers have seen similar futuristic cityscapes and high-tech prosthetics in other sci-fi films. It’s akin to how John Carter arrived around 100 years after its source material was written, with Star Wars and Avatar among others having become popular in the intervening years. There are plenty of eye-catching visuals in this take on Ghost in the Shell, but one gets the sense that director Rupert Sanders is dutifully duplicating the imagery from Oshii’s anime film, divorcing those images of their intended impact.

And now, the elephant. The protagonist was originally named Major Motoko Kusanagi, and the casting of Johansson led to widespread outrage, making ‘whitewashing’ a household phrase – even though it’s something Hollywood has done for years. Here is an action heroine in a big-budget movie, a role that could’ve and should’ve been played by an Asian actress, but a white actress was cast instead for box office appeal. Some make the argument that Motoko has no assigned race, as she is an android, and that ‘Motoko Kusanagi’ is a pseudonym. By this logic, an Asian actress still could have played the part. If this were a movie about Catherine the Great, Boudicca or Joan of Arc, retaining the original historical context, that wouldn’t have been possible.

“Maybe it’s much ado about nothing,” this reviewer told himself, taking his seat during the screening. “Maybe it’ll be so much fun I won’t notice. Maybe it’s a non-issue”. It’s not. It’s a non-non-issue. It’s an issue. Because so much emphasis is placed on the Major unearthing her past and coming to terms with the life she had before her brain was plopped into a robot shell, questions of identity fuel the plot. Like it or not, race is a part of one’s identity – not the sole part, mind you, but depending on the person, a key one. Without giving too much away, the big plot twist carries with it some ghastly implications where race is concerned.

To be fair to Johansson, her casting makes sense on some levels. She has considerable action heroine cred from playing Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has been in sci-fi films like The Island and Lucy, and played an artificial intelligence construct in Her. While Johansson handles the fights well and gets to show off her toned physique in a skin-tight bodysuit, the Major is mostly confused rather than confident. While some episodes of Stand Alone Complex have hinted at it, Motoko’s back-story in the original Ghost in the Shell is not a driving force of the plot. By making the rediscovery of her past the Major’s primary motivation, screenwriters Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger have reduced the character to ‘Jason Bourne as the Terminator’.

Noted Japanese actor-director “Beat” Takeshi Kitano makes what is only his second appearance in a Hollywood film, after 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic. All his dialogue is in Japanese, he gets to retain his dignity and has a few moments of badassery. Asbæk is not as physically imposing as most fans would expect Batou to be, but he’s fine. Pitt’s role is minimal, his character being something of a composite of Kuze from Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig and the Puppet Master from the original manga run and the 1995 film. While there’s an attempt to make him sympathetic even as he carries out ruthless acts, we don’t get to know enough about the character to feel for him.

While not to the extent of 2014’s Godzilla, Ghost in the Shell is yet another Hollywood tentpole movie that wastes Binoche’s considerable talents as an actress. The character of Dr. Ouélet is comparable to Gary Oldman’s Dennett Norton in the RoboCop remake. A lot of this film reminded us of the RoboCop remake, only that was more fun. We also have Chin Han sporting a hairstyle that’s even more awkward than the one he had in Masters of the Sea. We did not know such a thing could be possible.

It may sound pretentious to scoff at a movie for “dumbing things down” for American audiences, but it’s hard to argue that this isn’t what Ghost in the Shell is doing. The source material’s heady themes of transcendence and the nature of consciousness are largely unmined, and the unfettered sexuality is neutered. Ah well, maybe there actually was an Asian actress in a co-lead role, but she was just cloaked in thermo-optic camouflage.

Summary: While it showcases familiar key visuals, Ghost in the Shell retrofits a Hollywood sci-fi action plot onto sophisticated source material. The negative buzz about casting a white actress as the protagonist is also fully warranted.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong