Jungle Cruise review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast : Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jack Whitehall, Édgar Ramírez, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti, Veronica Falcón
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 127 min
Opens : 29 July 2021 (Sneaks 28 July)
Rating : PG13

“Weird Al” Yankovic has a song called “Skipper Dan,” a melancholic tale of a Juilliard grad who must settle for being a Disney theme park cast member, playing the skipper on the Jungle Cruise ride. It’s a song about how following one’s dreams can often end in soul-crushing tedium, something this critic certainly knows nothing about. Anyway, we’re getting an upgrade from Skipper Dan to Skipper Dwayne in this movie based on said theme park ride.

It is 1916. English botanist Dr Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) is in search of the fabled Tears of the Moon, a tree deep in the Amazon jungle which has petals said to cure any ailment. Lily’s brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall) would much rather live a luxurious existence but is dragged along on the expedition by his sister. Arriving in Brazil, they come across Skipper Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), who gives river tours on his beat-up steamboat La Quila and is armed with corny one-liners. Frank is not above a bit of grifting and deception to get by, and behind on his payments to harbourmaster Nilo (Paul Giamatti), jumps at the chance to ferry Lily and McGregor when he finds out they are rich. Also hunting for the Tears of the Moon is Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), an obsessive German aristocrat who takes a submarine into the Amazon. The Houghton siblings and Frank must battle all manner of obstacles, including undead Conquistadors led by the ruthless Aguirre (Édgar Ramírez).

Jungle Cruise is a throwback and one that a certain section of moviegoers will find welcome. The poster is deliberately evocative of Drew Struzan’s classic painted movie posters, though it isn’t actually created by him. This movie is a throwback in that it’s a period adventure movie, but also a throwback to a time before Disney owned intellectual property like Marvel and Star Wars and before they were regularly remaking their animated films. Disney’s most successful attempt at turning a theme park attraction into a potential film franchise was with Pirates of the Caribbean, which Jungle Cruise bears many similarities to. Director Jaume Collet-Serra, known for directing Liam Neeson-starring thrillers like Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night and The Commuter, aims to recapture the spirit of those rip-roaring adventures. Flavio Labiano’s cinematography is textured and warm, while James Newton Howard provides a rousing score. There is some haunting horror movie-adjacent imagery, especially the one undead Conquistador who is covered in honeycombs and bees, Candyman-style.

Emily Blunt puts in a wonderful starring turn, as a spirited woman who has been rejected from her chosen field based on being a woman. There are notes of studio-ordered “strong woman protagonist,” but Blunt transcends that with an energetic, committed turn. Jesse Plemons plays against type, channelling Christoph Waltz as a power-mad royal, making for an entertaining villain.

Adventure stories are often intrinsically tied to a fundamentally colonialist worldview: the hero is often a European or American man outrunning the spear-wielding savages. Sometimes, a village is in dire straits, and only the hero can save the primitive folk. One can’t help but cringe at such depictions, with movies like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom being straight-up racist. Jungle Cruise subverts this with its portrayal of indigenous Amazon tribespeople and seems to be very conscious of the uncomfortable colonial undertones that many movies in this genre possess, intentional or otherwise. We won’t give too much away, but there is a commendable attempt at addressing one of the more controversial elements of the ride.

Jungle Cruise can sometimes feel like a facsimile of a facsimile – it evokes Romancing the Stone and Indiana Jones, which in turn were inspired by movies like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Jungle Cruise can either be taken as refreshing, given how different it is from the standard summer blockbuster one might get in 2021, or somewhat stale, given its old-fashioned sensibilities which have been processed through the Disney studio machine. It’s impossible to ignore how much this movie wants to be The Mummy (1999): Frank is analogous to Rick, Lily to Evelyn, McGregor to Jonathan and Aguirre to Imhotep. Alas, it’s some ways off from that. The midsection sags, and at 127 minutes, this feels a shade too long. The movie is filled with computer-generated animals, and one would think that after 2016’s Jungle Book, Disney would have mastered this art, but sometimes the animals can’t help but feel a little artificial.

Unfortunately, Dwayne Johnson is a major problem with this movie. Sure, he’s charismatic as always and can play a roguish adventure movie hero in his sleep, but he just doesn’t fit with the WWI-era setting and shares little romantic chemistry with Blunt, such that the love story subplot becomes actively uncomfortable. Frank is inspired by Humphrey Bogart’s steamboat captain character from The African Queen – this is Bogey if he ate 14 egg whites for breakfast and if his boat had a gym hidden somewhere. Johnson’s larger-than-life presence, which has served him well in many other roles, is distracting and doesn’t complement the setting or story. Perhaps someone like Pedro Pascal, Rodrigo Santoro or Oscar Isaac might have fit the role better. However, there is an excellent scene in the second act in which Frank’s intriguing backstory is revealed.

Summary: While somewhat derivative, Jungle Cruise will scratch that adventure movie itch for audiences who are starved of movies like Indiana Jones, Romancing the Stone and The Mummy (1999). Emily Blunt showcases her strengths in a role that seems tailored for her, while Dwayne Johnson can’t help but feel out of place even as he brings his trademark charisma to bear. Jungle Cruise also reckons with uncomfortable, outmoded adventure movie tropes in a worthwhile way.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Commuter movie review

For inSing

THE COMMUTER

Director : Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast : Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Banks, Dean-Charles Chapman
Genre : Thriller/Action
Run Time : 1h 45 min
Opens : 11 January 2018
Rating : PG-13

Commutes to and from work generally aren’t fun. We get on the bus or the train, and just want it to be over with. It’s less fun when the mass rapid transit system breaks down, or shuts down for full days for maintenance. No, we’re not speaking from personal experience, why do you ask?

For Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson), his commute home from work becomes something worse than “not fun” – a matter of life and death. Michael is a New York police officer-turned insurance agent. On the Metro North Hudson Line, Michael is approached by Joanna (Vera Farmiga), a woman whom he’s never met. Joanna gives Michael a task to solve, promising a financial reward. This mission seems simple, but gets deceptively complicated.

The puzzle soon turns deadly, and Michael must track down a mysterious passenger on the train and secure a sensitive item they’re carrying, or disastrous consequences will ensue. In addition to the passengers on the train, the lives of Michael’s wife Karen (Elizabeth McGovern) and son Danny (Dean-Charles Chapman) are at stake. Michael turns to his former police partner Alex Murphy (Patrick Wilson) for help, but the shadowy forces controlling the game are watching Michael’s every move.

The Commuter re-teams Neeson with director Jaume Collet-Serra, who helmed Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night. Neeson did not star in Collet-Serra’s last film The Shallows, truly a missed opportunity to have Neeson voice the shark. It’s easy to see why the star and director were attracted to the screenplay, written by Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle. This promises to be a Hitchcockian mystery thriller, a little bit Strangers on a Train, a little bit North by Northwest. It’s a safe distance from the generic “guy holding a gun while grimacing” action thriller, which Neeson has done his fair share of.

Collet-Serra is adept at setting moods, and while he has overdosed on the stylistic flourishes in previous films, there’s just the right amount of flashiness here. We get moments like the camera pulling through a hold punched in a train ticket that’s slotted into the back of a seat, and a Vertigo-style dolly zoom effect for good measure. It offsets the dullness of the train car setting. Production designer Andrew Bridgland does a commendable job of creating an entirely believable set.

However, it soon becomes clear that this train is on a somewhat rickety set of rails. The set-up is so engrossing and the tension so masterfully constructed, one can’t help but think “the pay-off can’t be that good, can it?” When all is revealed, it’s far from a cop-out, but is still something of a let-down. The conspiracy at the heart of Michael’s predicament is patently mundane, and while the film runs through as many twists as possible before reaching the denouement, said denouement is hardly surprising. The climactic action set-piece is also a mite overblown, heavy on the visual effects and at odds with the grounded feel the rest of the movie was going for.

Neeson is as dependable a leading man as ever, and some aspects of the character have been tailored to him – Michael is an Irish immigrant, so Neeson gets to use his natural accent. Michael is meant to be a relatable everyman, but was also a cop, which functions as a built-in excuse for why he’s so good at fighting. Even so, several sequences strain suspension of disbelief, but they’re as exciting as they are outlandish so we’ll let that slide.

Neeson is pulling almost all the weight here, and the supporting cast features several interesting actors who are almost entirely wasted. Jonathan Banks, familiar to Breaking Bad fans as Mike the Cleaner, gets a nearly non-existent part. The Conjuring stars Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, who don’t share any scenes here, are both somewhat memorable but still underutilised. Sam Neill does almost nothing. Perhaps it’s part of strengthening the red herring effect, in that we know so little about all the other characters that everyone is a viable suspect, but it’s disappointing that Neeson doesn’t get to play off any of these other performers.

The Commuter is a good deal more interesting that your average disposable released-in-January action thriller, thanks to Collet-Serra’s confident direction and an initially-fascinating mystery. Liam Neeson is also doing a little more than the typical running and gunning we’ve seen from his recent oeuvre. Unfortunately, there’s a good deal of unintentional silliness to contend with, and the resolution to the mystery is efficient but ho-hum.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Shallows

For F*** Magazine

THE SHALLOWS

Director : Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast : Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge, Angelo José Lozano Corzo, José Manuel Trujillo Salas
Genre : Thriller
Run Time : 1 hr 26 mins
Opens : 11 August 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence and Some Intense Sequences)

The Shallows posterBlake Lively has to keep from becoming shark bait (Ooh ha ha!) in this survival thriller. Lively plays medical student Nancy Adams, who has travelled to Mexico in search of a secluded beach where her mother once surfed years ago. She hitches a ride from local resident Carlos (Jaenada), heading into the water to catch the waves. Nancy meets two other surfers (Corzo and Salas) and is enjoying herself, but the fun is cut short when she’s attacked by a great white shark. Nancy is able to swim to the relative safety of an isolated rocky outcrop, but with the tide coming in, Nancy has to signal for help or swim back to the beach, all while the shark ominously encircles her.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra’s last three films, Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night, starred Liam Neeson, who will also be in his next film The Commuter. It’s a bit of a shame he didn’t continue that run by having Neeson voice the shark. Serra works from a screenplay by Anthony Jaswinski – originally entitled ‘In The Deep’, it was a hot script that sparked a bidding war. As far as X meets Y elevator pitches go, “Jaws meets 127 Hours with a dash of Gravity” is pretty exciting. The result is a self-contained thriller in which the protagonist is paradoxically trapped in an open space, braving a variety of obstacles that are flung her way. It runs a brisk 86 minutes and Collet-Serra’s direction enables the audience to share in Nancy’s desperation. Most viewers might start out chiding Nancy for going out into the water alone, but soon enough, we’re right in her corner.

The Shallows Blake Lively 1

Lively’s husband Ryan Reynolds spent the majority of the film Buried trapped in a wooden coffin, and it was this role that inspired Lively to take on a project in a similar vein. She makes for a pretty convincing surfer girl and conveys gut-wrenching panic when required. The character gets wounded early on, with Nancy’s expertise as a medical student coming in handy when she has to McGyver some first aid. A few laughs ease the tension, most of which come courtesy of Nancy’s interaction with a wounded seagull stuck on the rock alongside her.

Sure, there are plenty of lingering shots of Lively’s bikini-clad physique, but Collet-Serra displays enough taste such that it doesn’t end up being uncomfortably leery. By the time the climactic confrontation rolls around, this reviewer was primed and ready to see Lively in full-on badass mode, and the final showdown is a rip-roaring, white knuckle sequence – if a little overblown and silly compared to what’s come before. Serra has revealed in interviews that the shark is female, because female great whites tend to be larger and thus more visually intimidating, making this faintly reminiscent of Ripley going up against the Alien Queen in Aliens.

The Shallows Blake Lively and seagull

While the central premise of woman vs. shark is rock solid, the attempts to give Nancy some characterisation through her back-story ring false. There’s been a death in the family and Nancy’s relationship with her father (Cullen) is somewhat strained. These elements come off as unnecessary and undercut the purity of the visceral, stripped-down “mission: survive” narrative that powers the film.

The Shallows Blake Lively 2

Strong production values make this relatively small film feel grander, with the photogenic Lord Howe Island in New South Wales, Australia doubling for the story’s unspecified Mexican beach. The visual effects work, supervised by Scott E. Anderson, is top-notch. If the shark looks phony, nobody’s going to be on the edge of their seat cheering for Nancy to triumph against the apex predator. Thankfully, the digitally-created great white is entirely convincing, coming off as a living, breathing beast.

The Shallows Blake Lively 3

Apart from the occasional Open Water or The Reef, most modern shark movies are intentionally goofy: nobody’s going to be genuinely terrified when watching Sharknado, Sharktopus or Ghost Shark. As such, it’s pretty gratifying to see a frighteningly plausible natural horror thriller that plays on the common fear of what lurks within the open ocean.

Summary: Feeling fatigued from overblown summer blockbusters? Come frolic in The Shallows.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong