Men in Black: International review

MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL

Director: F. Gary Gray
Cast : Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Liam Neeson, Rebecca Ferguson, Kumail Nanjiani, Emma Thompson, Rafe Spall, Les Twins
Genre : Sci-fi/Action/Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 55 mins
Opens : 13 June 2019
Rating : PG13

          They’ve been absent from the big screen for seven years, but the shadowy organisation that polices and conceals alien activity on earth has resurfaced in Men in Black: International, the spin-off of the Men in Black series.

Agent M (Tessa Thompson) is a newly instated member of the agency, still on probation. After witnessing Men in Black operatives in action as a child, she has long harboured a fascination with the agency and finally gets her dream job. Agent O (Emma Thompson), head of the New York branch, dispatches Agent M to MIB’s London headquarters, overseen by High T (Liam Neeson). There, she meets Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), a hotshot hailed for defeating an alien species called the Hive in Paris alongside High T.

When a shape-shifting alien duo (Les Twins) corners Agent M and Agent H, they learn that the Hive may have been resurfaced, with the predatory invaders after a powerful alien artefact. Their battle against the Twins sends Agent M and Agent H to Morocco, where they befriend Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani), a diminutive alien. Agent H must confront Riza (Rebecca Ferguson), a powerful, dangerous figure from his past, as he and Agent M discover there just might be a mole within the organisation. The MIB can always be counted on to save the world, but what happens when a threat arises from within?

The Men in Black films are loosely based on the Malibu comics series by Lowell Cunningham. The urban legend of shadowy government agents has existed among UFO-enthusiast circles for decades, but it was the Men in Black movies that cemented the idea in the public consciousness. Being released the year after Independence Day, the first Men in Black movie also further launched Will Smith up the A-list. He and co-star Tommy Lee Jones have become closely linked with the franchise, with the third movie featuring Josh Brolin as a younger version of Jones’ character.

After the third Men in Black movie in 2012, the first we heard of a new Men in Black movie was that it would be a crossover with the 21 Jump Street films called MIB 23, which sounds like such a crazy idea that it just might have worked. Instead, we got Men in Black: International, which is pleasant and harmless if often formulaic and bland, because it takes the format of the first movie and slots new stars into it. Director F. Gary Gray of Straight Outta Compton and The Fate of the Furious fame knows how to handle a big Hollywood production, but it feels like he is directing to the brief, with no personal touches discernible. The film trundles along efficiently enough, but nothing in the movie will stick in viewers’ minds afterwards. It’s almost as if the movie was constructed to be watched on an airplane.

          Men in Black: International does what the James Bond movies often do, throwing in a bunch of exotic locales to up the production value. There’s a chase through the streets of Marrakech on a hover bike and one character is based out of Aragonese Castle on the Italian island of Ischia. The movie might have the scale expected of a summer blockbuster, but it doesn’t quite have the quirky soul of the first movie, especially because a lot more of the aliens are created with computer-generated effects. Special effects makeup legend Rick Baker, who oversaw the aliens in the first three films, was not involved with this one.

The logic behind the casting of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson in the lead roles seems to have been to look at whatever actors from the most successful ongoing movie franchise were available. Hemsworth has a knack for comedy and shifts effortlessly between dashing and goofy, playing a sometimes-bumbling, always-charming action hero with ease.

Thompson’s Agent M is capable, headstrong and determined and is in some ways the audience surrogate character, with this movie acting as her origin story. However, some of the beats in her arc echo those of Agent J’s in the first movie a little too strongly. Thompson brings some personality to the part, but Agent M feels like a textbook “strong female character” with not much that is inherently compelling about her on paper.

Liam Neeson is there to lend gravitas to the proceedings and pace purposefully around High T’s office and not do too much else. Emma Thompson is dryly amusing as Agent O, reprising her role from the third film. Respectable British actors appearing in Hollywood blockbusters for a paycheck is a time-honoured tradition and one that Neeson and Thompson continue here.

Kumail Nanjiani voices Pawny, who as the funny alien sidekick, is designed as the successor to Frank the Pug (who makes a cameo). This reviewer was afraid that the character would come off as annoying, but Nanjiani’s delivery keeps Pawny generally more amusing than grating. The computer animation used to create Pawny and integrate him with the live-action footage is excellent.

French dancers Les Twins, who will next be seen in the Cats movie, enliven the proceedings with their new-style hip-hop moves. However, their characters’ schtick seems to be lifted wholesale from the Twins in The Matrix Reloaded.

The previous films have playfully ‘outed’ celebrities like Sylvester Stallone, Bill Gates, George Lucas and Lady Gaga as being aliens. In this film, a social media influencer (presumably a different one for the different markets the film will be released in) gets a cameo. This is one of the most worrying elements about Men in Black: International, indicating that future blockbusters will pander to audiences by shoehorning in people who are famous from YouTube or Instagram.

Men in Black: International is not a poorly made film, but in extending the MIB franchise, it fails to add anything substantial to the world-building or the mythos. Big franchise movies can often feel like products and none this year feels more like a product than Men in Black: International, but its dependable cast and high production value keep things from feeling like too much of a drag.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Cold Pursuit movie review

COLD PURSUIT

Director : Hans Petter Moland
Cast : Liam Neeson, Laura Dern, Tom Bateman, Emmy Rossum, William Forsythe, Julia Jones, Domenick Lombardozzi, Raoul Trujillo, Tom Jackson
Genre : Thriller/Crime/Comedy
Run Time : 1 h 59 mins
Opens : 21 February 2019
Rating : M18

           When the 2014 Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance was released, comparisons to Taken were immediately made. It’s only fitting that Liam Neeson star in the American remake of that movie.

Neeson plays Nelson “Nels” Coxman, a snowplough driver in the ski resort town of Kehoe, Colorado. The death of his son Kyle (Micheál Richardson) leads to a rift between Nels and his wife Grace (Laura Dern). Nels grows suspicious of the circumstances surrounding his son’s death, soon convinced it was murder. Nels embarks upon a bloody path of vengeance that will eventually lead him to drug lord Viking (Tom Bateman). Nels calls upon his brother Brock (William Forsythe), who has previously had dealings with underworld figures. Local cop Kim (Emmy Rossum) begins investigating a string of violent occurrences, as Nels unwittingly incites a war between Viking and rival drug lord White Bull (Tom Jackson).

Cold Pursuit is directed by Hans Petter Moland, who also helmed In Order of Disappearance. This is a faithful remake that benefits from preserving the darkly comedic tone of the original. The film’s screenplay by Frank Baldwin also does a fine job of recontextualising the plot, substituting the rival Serbian gang from the Norwegian movie with a Native American one. There are also copious references to Colorado’s legalisation of marijuana and some the race-related humour is irreverent but not wildly offensive.

We’ve become accustomed to seeing Liam Neeson star in gritty revenge thrillers, so the snowy ski resort setting and the tongue-in-cheek tone help to switch things up. Not all the jokes land and the humour is sometimes a little too broad, especially compared with the original, but there’s an admiral tonal consistency. The grim violence is leavened with humour, not entirely unlike how the Coen Brothers or Quentin Tarantino would handle it. While the film’s dark devil-may-care attitude brings a degree of unpredictability to the proceedings, the standard crime movie dealings and double-crosses can be a touch tedious. While the movie isn’t boring, it feels awkwardly-paced at times.

It’s hard to discuss this movie without Liam Neeson’s comments during a promotional interview overshadowing it. Whatever your take on the actor’s shocking admission, it’s fair to say that a promotional interview for a revenge comedy wasn’t the right time or place for that to be aired, but as hurtful as it is to hear those comments, this reviewer also feels the resulting aftermath needs to be viewed in context and not blown out of proportion.

Putting that aside for the moment, Neeson is a great choice for the lead, since he embodies the ‘everyman badass’ type like few other actors can. The movie riffs on his Taken reputation – while it is a black comedy, Neeson plays his role largely straight. There is more than a whiff of ridiculousness to the notion of a snowplough driver-turned avenging angel and nemesis of the criminal underbelly, which the film leans into just enough.

Tom Bateman scowls and sneers his way through the role of drug lord Viking, going the right amount of over-the-top. The supporting characters in Viking’s gang are given tiny bits of personality, Domenick Lombardozzi’s Mustang being the most likeable. Nicholas Holmes is endearing as Viking’s son Ryan, who has the misfortune of having a criminal father.

Emmy Rossum’s detective character isn’t too interesting, and Laura Dern is almost completely wasted in what is almost a non-existent role. Raoul Trujillio is equal parts funny and intimidating – one of the film’s funniest moments is when Thorpe threatens a hotel receptionist with a devastating review on Yelp.

Tom Jackson lends gravitas to White Bull. One of the film’s best scenes has White Bull silently walk through a hotel gift shop selling Native American souvenirs that are really made in China, observing how his culture has been commodified for tourists. The film does tread on somewhat uncomfortable territory with its afore-mentioned racial humour, but it never feels mean-spirited.

Cold Pursuit benefits from a wicked sense of humour and Liam Neeson’s finely-calibrated performance. There’s novelty factor of a director remaking his own foreign-language film in English, like Michael Haneke did with Funny Games or Takashi Shimizu with The Grudge. Audiences who are expecting a non-stop action-oriented movie like some of Neeson’s other late-career efforts might be disappointed, but there will be an audience for this movie’s blend of stark violence and bitter wit.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Widows review

WIDOWS

Director : Steve McQueen
Cast : Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Garrett Dillahunt, Carrie Coon, Lukas Haas, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Coburn Goss
Genre : Drama/Thriller
Run Time : 129 mins
Opens : 6 December 2018
Rating : M18

This summer movie season brought us the glittery fun of Ocean’s Eight, but now it’s time for a much more serious take on the female-led heist movie concept in the form of Widows.

Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) is a thief who has never put a foot wrong, until one fateful night when he and his crew comprising Florek (Jon Bernthal), Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and Jimmy (Coburn Goss) are killed during a botched job. Harry and his team were stealing $2 million from crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who is running for alderman of the 18th precinct of Chicago. Jamal’s opponent is Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who hails from a political dynasty including his father, former alderman Tom (Robert Duvall), with whom he has a contentious relationship.

Harry’s widow Veronica (Viola Davis) is threatened by Jamal and his enforcer brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), who want Harry’s debt to them repaid. Veronica decides to undertake Harry’s next job, for which he kept detailed plans in his notebook. Veronica ropes in Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), leaving the fourth widow Amanda (Carrie Coon) out of the plan because she has a new-born child. Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a hairstylist and part-time babysitter hired by Linda, steps in. Together, the four women must pull off a high-stakes heist that finds them embroiled in a dicey conspiracy involving the city’s powerful politicians and mobsters.

Widows is based on the 1983 ITV miniseries of the same name, and marks Steve McQueen’s first film as director since 2013’s 12 Years a Slave. McQueen co-wrote the screenplay with Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame. Widows has plenty of pedigree in front of and behind the camera and is a bit of an odd beast because at first glance, it sounds like the kind of plot one might find in a direct-to-DVD action movie. One could imagine a much cheaper, more sloppily-made version of Widows being something to watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

For better and worse, Widows is not that movie. The story is layered with political commentary and does have the sometimes-odd feel of a crime thriller imbued with prestige movie filmmaking. There is a meticulousness to the world-building and how each character’s specific circumstances are established, but this is also a movie that seems to want to tell a story beyond the confines of the genre. That’s not to say that an action thriller can’t be deep or tackle topical issues, but Widows’ approach sometimes calls attention to itself, pulling the viewer out of what could’ve been an intensely engaging story. It’s not the most obvious comparison, but this reviewer was reminded of Ben Affleck’s The Town, also a crime thriller in which the protagonists are thieves, and also a movie about the desperation brought on by socioeconomic inequality in American cities.

The performances are strong across the board, with Viola Davis showcasing the strength and no-nonsense demeanour seen in many of her characters. We see Veronica in her vulnerable moments, but we also witness the full effect of her steely resolve. She is not out to befriend her co-conspirators and is business-like and harsh in her interactions with the other widows, who all need comfort and a listening ear to varying degrees.

Debicki is the standout among the rest of the cast, portraying a character who comes off as just a dumb blonde at first, but who is to be underestimated at one’s peril. A subplot involves Alice’s reluctant ‘sugar daddy’ arrangement with real estate developer David (Lukas Haas). There’s a lot more going on with the character than one realises at first, which gives Debicki quite a bit to play with.

Erivo is an entertaining badass and Rodriguez gets to play a few more notes than the typical ‘tough chick’ she gets typecast as. Colin Farrell and Brian Tyree Henry play warring politicians, both crooked in their own ways. When the film wades into political thriller territory, it loses a bit of the intimacy and urgency that it has when we’re with the widows themselves.

Kaluuya is a brilliant actor, but cast against type as a heavy, he can’t quite muster up what it takes to be truly intimidating. The always-dependable Neeson is used judiciously, making the most of his limited screen time.

Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell make for an entertaining double act as father-and-son politicians at each other’s throats, but their subplots mostly feel like a distraction from the main plot.

There’s also the most adorable dog, a West Highland Terrier named Olivia whom moviegoers might recognise from Game Night. Olivia is up against Academy Award winners and nominees, but handily steals the show.

The violence depicted in the film has impact, and there are many moments that jolt the viewer out of sitting too comfortably in their cinema seat. There are smatterings of comedy which give the audience a reprieve from the overall seriousness of the film, but some of these moments are a little awkward. There is a strategy to how information and back-story details are parcelled out to the audience, and there is merit in McQueen’s approach of a crime movie that offers more than just mindless action. However, the film’s centre often threatens to buckle, and Widows adds up to slightly less than the sum of its parts.

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

Silence

For F*** Magazine

SILENCE 

Director : Martin Scorsese
Cast : Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds, Issei Ogata, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Yoshi Oida, Yosuke Kubozuka
Genre : Drama/History
Run Time : 161 mins
Opens : 9 February 2017
Rating : NC16 (Violence)

silence-posterMartin Scorsese’s 26-year-long odyssey to adapt Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence has finally come to fruition. It is the 17th Century, and Italian Jesuit priest Alessandro Valignano (Hinds) receives word that Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Neeson), a Portuguese Jesuit priest sent to Japan, has renounced his faith after withstanding years of torture. Ferreira’s young pupils Fathers Sebastião Rodrigues (Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Driver) journey to Japan in search of Ferreira, unconvinced by this report of Ferreira’s apostasy. Rodrigues and Garupe are surprised to be eagerly welcomed by the village of Tomogi, comprised of Japanese Christians who have been practising their faith in secret. The two priests and their followers find themselves hunted by Inoue Masashige (Ogata), a samurai whom the villagers call “the Inquisitor”. Rodrigues and Garupe become targets of the Tokugawa shogunate’s persecution, while still searching for their teacher Ferreira.

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Endō’s 1966 novel is considered to be among the most important pieces of 20th Century Japanese literature, and was adapted into film in 1971 by director Masahiro Shinoda. Scorsese bought the rights to the novel in 1988 and had been trying to get the project off the ground since 1990. Scorsese wrote the screenplay with Jay Cocks, who co-wrote Scorsese’s films The Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York. Scorsese and Cocks continuously revised the screenplay over 15 years. It’s evident that Silence is a labour of love for the director – to prevent the budget from ballooning, Scorsese and many of the cast and crew, including actors Driver and Neeson, worked for minimum pay. Filmed near Taipei in Taiwan, Silence’s period setting is painstakingly realised. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography conveys a sense of foreboding, while also giving the landscape a beguiling beauty.

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Many reviews have described Silence as “punishing”, and we’d be hard-pressed to find a better adjective. The film is filled with uncompromising scenes of torture and at 160 minutes long, is anything but a breezy Sunday afternoon watch. The plight of the Kakure Kirishitan, or “hidden Christians”, is a piece of history that’s not widely known. Stories of devotees suffering in the name of their faith are inherently compelling, but where involvement in the story is concerned, one’s personal beliefs do play a part. While Silence has its powerful moments, and is, from a technical standpoint, masterfully crafted, there are long stretches of the film that are soporific and unengaging. Those unfamiliar with the tenets of Catholicism in general and the Jesuits in particular might struggle to find an emotional foothold, even given the depths of pain experienced by the characters in the film.

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Garfield and Driver deliver tangibly committed performances, Rodrigues’ journey being an especially harrowing one. Rodrigues is the more patient of the pair, while Garupe is more impulsive, and the first act gives Garfield and Driver several opportunities to play off each other. Later on, most of Garfield’s interactions are with Tadanobu Asano, who plays the unnamed translator to Inoue Masashige. Rodrigues makes a spirited defence of his faith and Garfield sells the emotional and physical torment he undergoes. Despite all this, it is sometimes difficult to relate to the character because he seems to be defined solely by his faith, and his denial of self makes Rodrigues, purely in storytelling terms, less human.

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Veteran actor Ogata, known for playing Emperor Hirohito in Alexander Sokurov’s The Sun, makes for a memorable villain. Like several of the characters in Silence, Inoue Masashige was an actual historical figure. There is never doubt about Inoue’s cruelty, even when the character sometimes comes across as comic. Neeson can always be depended on to lend gravitas. While we’ve seen him play the role of mentor before, the role of Ferreira presents Neeson with more of an acting challenge than the action hero parts with which he’s become associated in his later career.

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While there is much in Silence for cineastes to savour and while it’s almost automatically become canonised as an “important film”, it’s easy to see why Silence failed to find much of an audience. Faith-based films tend to be pitched as inspirational, and Silence is near-relentlessly bleak. It is interesting that Scorsese, whose Last Temptation of the Christ was hotly controversial and widely deemed to be blasphemous, approaches the Catholic faith with such reverence here. Scorsese has said of his own faith, “I’m a lapsed Catholic. But I am Roman Catholic; there’s no way out of it.” The filmmaker has sunk his heart and soul into Silence, but it’s obvious that not everyone will be convicted by its meditation on faith.

Summary: Meticulously crafted and intense but plodding and somewhat arduous to sit through, cinephiles and the faithful will find Silence thought-provoking, while others will simply find it boring.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Operation Chromite (인천상륙작전)

For F*** Magazine

OPERATION CHROMITE (인천상륙작전)

Director : John H. Lee (Lee Jae-Han)
Cast : Lee Jung-jae, Lee Beom-soo, Liam Neeson, Jin Se-yeon, Jung Joon-ho, Park Chul-min, Jon Gries
Run Time : 1 hr 50 mins
Opens : 15 September 2016
Rating : NC16 (Violence)

operation-chromite-posterWhile there are many films inspired by the events of the Second World War and the Vietnam War, it seems the Korean war doesn’t get explored onscreen as much. Operation Chromite tells of a covert squad of Korean Liaison Office (KLO) operatives, going undercover as a North Korean inspection unit to infiltrate the North Korean stronghold of Incheon. The squad is led by Jang Hak-soon (Lee Jung-jae), who is impersonating North Korean officer Park Nam-cheol. The mission directives from American general Douglas MacArthur (Neeson) are to scope out the North Korean command centre, locate the mine chart so the UN command can navigate the waterways, kidnap key North Korean personnel, and secure the lighthouse so the Incheon landing can take place at night. Senior North Korean colonel Lim Gye-Jin (Lee Beom-soo) begins to suspect that “Park Nam-cheol” isn’t all that he seems, with the mission in jeopardy at every turn.

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Operation Chromite has all the makings of a compelling war film, with a team of spies deep behind enemy lines racing against the clock and trying to preserve their cover as our heroes. Director John H. Lee has made a film about the Korean war before – 71: Into the Fire focused on student-soldiers defending a middle school from North Korean troops. He reunites with that film’s writer Lee Man-hee here. Unfortunately, Operation Chromite is marred by a sometimes staggering lack of subtlety. Emotional scenes are smothered by a maudlin piano score, melodramatic moments play out in slow motion and the script is laden with laughable proclamations that are meant to be taken deadly seriously.

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Even though the computer-generated battleships and planes aren’t terribly convincing, the production values generally pass muster. Several action sequences are suitably intense and engrossing, creating a sense of frenzied chaos. There’s a visceral effect to the gunfire and explosions, and while such scenes border on being overblown, they keep the film exciting. The stakes are established and when our heroes are in mortal danger, this reviewer did want to root for them. Unfortunately, meaningful characterisation is in short supply, and Operation Chromite falls back on oft-parodied war movie clichés. There’s a soldier who invites his friends over to his house after the war, saying his wife “makes the best noodles” – we’re sure he’ll emerge from the battlefield just fine.

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Lee Jung-jae exudes a noble heroism and is nicely restrained even as the film around him gets increasingly overwrought. It makes sense that this is a leader whose men would die for. Sure, he’s a little boring, but we think that’s better than being blustery and showy. If over-the-top performances are what you’ve come in search for, fret not: Lee Beom-soo does a nigh-criminal amount of moustache twirling as a villain who wouldn’t be out of place in an Indiana Jones movie. Lim Gye-Jin is as smug as he is bloodthirsty – he’s threatening, but also quite silly. A cold, steely foe might’ve been considerably more effective.

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The marquee name and big ‘get’ is, of course, Neeson. When asked why he took on the role of General MacArthur in the notorious flop Inchon, legendary actor Sir Laurence Olivier memorably replied “money, dear boy”. Neeson appears to be keeping that tradition going here. Neeson is as good an embodiment of commanding, swaggering masculinity as any actor alive, but his portrayal of MacArthur amounts to little more than a cartoon character. Even given MacArthur’s reputation as a larger-than-life historical figure, the portrayal is difficult to buy. It’s substantially more screen time than Neeson had in, say, Battleship, but Neeson just doesn’t get all that much to do besides arguing with Air Force chief of staff Hoyt S. Vandenburg (Gries) and spouting ridiculously cheesy lines. One scene in which MacArthur triumphantly quotes the Bible had this reviewer bursting into a laughing fit.

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North Korea has decried Operation Chromite as “ridiculous bravado from ignorant lunatics,” which really is the best endorsement of all. It’s fuelled by chest-thumping South Korean patriotism, but it’s only natural that a war film is pitched as a crowd-pleasing tribute to national heroes. It’s made with noble intentions and has its thrilling moments, but a sense of artifice pervades Operation Chromite. Lacking insightful sophistication, it comes off as even more of a “Hollywood version” of events than if it actually were a Hollywood production.

Summary: Audiences at large may not be as familiar with the Korean war as other military conflicts, but Operation Chromite’s many war movie clichés are easily identifiable.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

A Walk Among the Tombstones

For F*** Magazine

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES

Director : Scott Frank
Cast : Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, Ruth Wilson, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Sebastian Roche, David Harbour, Mark Consuelos, Astro
Genre : Crime/Thriller
Opens : 18 September 2014
Rating : NC-16
Running time: 114 mins

Pierce Brosnan strutted his “older man of action” stuff recently in The November Manand now Liam Neeson, the definitive “older man of action” of the moment, is at it again in A Walk Among the Tombstones. Neeson plays Matt Scudder, a former NYPD cop, now an unlicensed private detective and a recovering alcoholic. Drug dealer Kenny Kristo (Stevens) engages Scudder’s services when his wife is kidnapped and killed even after he’s paid the ransom. While doing research in the library, Scudder befriends homeless teenager TJ (Bradley), whom he takes under his wing. Scudder discovers that the psychopaths responsible are targeting young women related to figures in the drug world, knowing they would be unable to go to the police for help. Working outside the law, Scudder must prevent the serial killers from striking again.
            
A Walk Among the Tombstones is adapted from the 10th book in Lawrence Block’s long-running Matt Scudder series (there are 17 books now). Jeff Bridges played Scudder in 1986’s heavily panned and largely forgotten 8 Million Ways to Dieand this film has been in the works for quite a while, with Joe Carnahan attached to direct and Harrison Ford to star at one point. Writer-director Scott Frank’s realisation of A Walk Among the Tombstones is slick, stylish and foreboding, lean and effectively chilling. At times, it seems reminiscent of David Fincher’s work, if more pedestrian. A slow-motion sequence in which the killers leer at a young girl walking her dog, set to Donovan’s “Atlantis”, is a very darkly comic touch. The book was published in 1992, but Frank chooses to set it in 1999, hinting at Y2K paranoia with the symbolism of people being “afraid of all the wrong things”, as the tagline goes. This doesn’t seem to add a lot to the story but it is an interesting textural detail.
           
          However, beyond the look and feel of the film, the story is a pretty conventional one. Yes, the serial killer antagonists are very creepy, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before in dozens of police procedural or detective TV shows. They drive around in a van, kidnapping women to torture and kill and they’re unbalanced and evil – not exactly a unique or compelling situation for our hero to be up against. It’s a good thing then that our hero is Liam Neeson, a master at the art of being quietly intimidating. He’s effortlessly cool throughout the film and you’ll want to cheer when he snarls “are you listening, motherf***er?” through the phone at the kidnappers. More than that, it’s entertaining to watch Neeson’s Scudder just doing some old-fashioned sleuthing about, cleverly cajoling information out of various subjects. Neeson is sufficiently low-key and yet never seems like he’s sleepwalking through the film. He also has the approval of author Block, who thought Neeson would make the ideal Scudder since watching him in Michael Collins.

            Less conventional than its main “catch the kidnappers” plot is the relationship between Scudder and tagalong kid TJ. TJ could have very easily been unbearably irritating and Brian “Astro” Bradley did get on many nerves as a contestant on American X Factor. However, he holds his own opposite Neeson and their interactions lend the film a slight hint of dry levity without the character being “the comic relief”. There’s some sentimentality there too, TJ stricken with sickle cell anaemia, having nowhere to go and drawing superheroes in his sketchbook. The scene in which Scudder chastises TJ for picking up a gun he found in a dumpster is particularly well done and a discussion about cool detective names displays a self-awareness of the genre without it being obnoxious.

           
           Some fans of Liam Neeson have bemoaned that since Taken, the Oscar nominee has starred in a string of run of the mill actioners that don’t particularly test his abilities as an actor. A Walk Among the Tombstones puts less emphasis on the running and the shooting -though there is some of that, to be sure. While the role of Matt Scudder isn’t wildly different from the cool tough guys we’ve become accustomed to seeing Neeson play, there is more here for Neeson to sink his teeth into and this film certainly is more of a grown-up, intense, sometimes disturbing thriller than his more action-oriented movies. And isn’t it nice that the novel’s original name was preserved instead of the title being changed to some snappy synonym for “vengeance”?
Summary: Liam Neeson fans will want to take this walk, his lead performance as the old-school detective and the creepy atmospherics making up for the familiar narrative.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

A Million Ways to Die in the West

For F*** Magazine

A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST

Director : Seth MacFarlane
Cast : Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris, Liam Neeson
Genre : Comedy, Western
Opens : 12 June 2014
Rating : NC16 (Coarse Language and Sexual References) / 116 mins
Directed by, starring and co-written by Seth MacFarlane, here’s the film that details why life in the American frontier was hard, no matter what your station. MacFarlane plays Albert, an unassuming sheep farmer in the town of Old Stump, Arizona whose girlfriend Louise (Seyfried) leaves him for Foy (Harris), a dashing, arrogant moustache tonic salesman. Anna (Theron), the wife of notorious outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Neeson), arrives in Old Stump, hoping to lie low while her husband continues tearing up the region. She befriends and soon falls in love with Albert, the sheep farmer unaware that his new paramour is in fact married to the most dangerous man in the land.
            The marketing for this film includes an online flash game that is a funny, entertaining spoof of the classic educational video game The Oregon Trail. Alas, nothing in the film itself quite matches the creativity of that tie-in. A fair number of the jokes in A Million Ways to Die in the West land, but the film is overly reliant on lowbrow bodily-function gags and “shocking”, cartoony violence. The movie’s biggest laughs are provided by the surprise celebrity cameos and a joke involving an offensively-themed shooting gallery gets a satisfying payoff during the end credits. However, one of the best of these was completely spoiled in a TV spot, making this yet another example of a comedy where the laughs are run into the ground by the trailers.


            The film hinges on its main character, Albert the sheep-farmer, being likeable enough that audiences will want to root for him to survive all those million possible methods of death. Seth MacFarlane is not likeable. This is not a controversial statement. A Million Ways to Die in the West would have benefitted from a different lead actor but this being the vanity project it is, that was unlikely to happen. With Ted, he was able to hide behind a computer-generated stuffed toy but here, his shortcomings as a leading man are all too apparent. One adjective often used to describe the Family Guy creator is “smug”. “Smug” is pretty much on the opposite end of the spectrum from “hapless, sweet, unassuming and well-meaning”.


            MacFarlane has surrounded himself with an excellent supporting cast, but because he is positioned as the film’s focal point, their presence seems merely perfunctory. Charlize Theron makes for a fun, watchable Annie Oakley-type but as her on-screen husband, Liam Neeson gets the short shrift. While he has slightly more screen time than in Battleship, one can’t help but feel sorry for the actor who has redefined the term “badass” when he’s forced to bare, well, ass. Family Guy fans will be tickled by the casting, since one cutaway gag featured Liam Neeson struggling with his accent in a cowboy film (he retains his Northern Irish brogue here). Neil Patrick Harris relishes the chance to gnaw at the scenery and he certainly rocks that well-coiffed handlebar moustache, in addition to dancing to the Stephen Foster folk ditty “If You’ve Only Got a Moustache”. Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman are amusing as Albert’s best friend Edward and Edward’s prostitute girlfriend Ruth respectively, if you don’t mind hearing Sarah Silverman graphically describe sex acts.


            A comedic Western in this day and age is a fairly ambitious prospect and something of a gear change from Ted, but MacFarlane fails to mine the opportunities presented by the premise, this outing proving yet again to be too self-indulgent. At 116 minutes long, this does meander and there’s the threat of tumbleweeds, but it would be too harsh to say A Million Ways to Die in the West is completely laugh-free. Co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, who also worked on Ted and Family Guy with MacFarlane, retain a somewhat mean-spirited sense of humour (the poster has a cactus resembling a hand flipping the viewer off) but once in a while do offer inspired gags. Just not quite often enough.
Summary: Doesn’t quite set our saddles ablaze.
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong