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

 

Criminal

For F*** Magazine

CRIMINAL 

Director : Ariel Vromen
Cast : Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, Ryan Reynolds, Gal Gadot, Alice Eve, Jordi Mollà, Antje Traue, Michael Pitt
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 107 mins
Opens : 21 April 2016
Rating : NC16 (Violence and Coarse Language)

Like most moviegoers after the release of Deadpool, this action thriller finds Kevin Costner with Ryan Reynolds on the brain. Costner plays Jericho Stewart, a hardened criminal who suffered a traumatic brain injury as a child, making him the ideal candidate for a top secret experimental procedure. When CIA agent Bill Pope (Reynolds) is incapacitated in London while tracking down hacker Jan Strook (Pitt), CIA station chief Quaker Wells (Oldman) enlists the help of neurosurgeon Dr. Franks (Jones). Dr. Franks has spent 18 years developing a way to implant the memories of a dead person into a living human being. Jericho is coerced into completing Bill’s mission, but things do not go according to plan. Jill (Gadot), Bill’s widow, has to come to terms with the fact that a complete stranger now possesses her husband’s memories. Even though he wants nothing to do with the mission, Jericho must prevent a flash drive that Strook has from falling into the hands of ambitious anarchist Xavier Heimdall (Mollà).

            Criminal plays a lot like a high-concept 90s action movie repackaged in a strait-laced, post-Bourne espionage thriller style. The sci-fi tinged concept of memory implants is akin to the face-swapping plot device in Face/Off, albeit slightly more plausible. There’s no eye-catching bombast, but the slightly overwrought names like “Jericho Stewart”, “Quaker Wells” and especially “Xavier Heimdall” seem like they belong in a Bond movie. Criminal boasts a cast that is more star-studded than one would expect for a thriller with a relatively low budget, estimated at a mere $31.5 million dollars. Even though there are many moments that reminded this reviewer of any number of direct-to-DVD action flicks, the production values are sufficiently high and there’s a visual effects sequence involving a submarine that looks surprisingly good. The shootouts and car chases are far from inventive, but the action keeps things chugging along.

            Even though it’s largely generic, Criminal does possess a unique trait: it’s protagonist is, well, a criminal, with completely disregard for human life. He’s not a charming rogue, he’s not a conflicted hero; he’s a heartless, emotionless brute. Naturally, some character development occurs as the personality of his “memory donor” intrudes into Jericho’s mind. Jericho is introduced chained up in a prison cell, sporting scraggly long hair and a beard, being recruited against his will for a clandestine mission – not unlike Sean Connery’s character in The Rock. Incidentally, the screenwriting team of David Weisberg and the late Douglas S. Cook also penned The Rock. Suffice it to say that Costner is no match for Connery in the charisma department, but the character’s resourcefulness and violent unpredictably help mitigate Costner’s blandness somewhat.

            The supporting players, Oldman and Jones in particular, definitely seem above this material and not very much is asked of them. Oldman’s Quaker Wells stands about the situation room fretting and gets to throw his signature yelling fits. Jones frowns and looks worried. Perhaps some viewers might find that their presence subconsciously lends this silly action movie some prestige. Reynolds is in this for a very brief amount of time since, well, his character’s death is the catalyst for the plot. It’s a little funny to see Reynolds in another mind swap flick so shortly after Self/Less. Gadot is called upon to emote and she does sell that sense of loss, anger and confusion with the little screen time she’s given. Mollà is basically being discount Javier Bardem here, with his character’s motivation outlined via an interview with Piers Morgan. Actor/stunt performer Scott Adkins shows up as the right hand man to Quaker, but alas, he doesn’t get to bust any of his famous martial arts moves.

            This reviewer derived an extra level of enjoyment because a large portion of the cast has been a part of movies based on DC Comics. Just imagine: Jonathan Kent is implanted with Hal Jordan’s memories thanks to a procedure invented by Dr. Two-Face, Hal Jordan’s widow is Wonder Woman, his boss is Commissioner Gordon and the henchwoman on Jonathan Kent’s tail is Faora. It’s evident that the plot, even with its sci-fi elements and ticking clock, wasn’t compelling enough to hold our full attention. There are attempts at being topical – Edward Snowden is name-dropped – but these are ham-fisted rather than helping make the movie seem relevant. It’s somewhat ironic that a film with the plot device of memory implants will not remain in anyone’s mind for long, but its competently directed by Ariel Vromen, it doesn’t look cheap or messy and the central character is (or at least starts out) fairly different from run-of-the-mill action heroes.



Summary: Criminalis about as generic as its title suggests, but the action is decent if unremarkable and the A-listers in the supporting cast help to prop it up. 

RATING: 3out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong