Bloodshot review

For F*** Magazine

BLOODSHOT

Director: Dave S. F. Wilson
Cast : Vin Diesel, Eiza González, Sam Heughan, Toby Kebbell, Guy Pearce, Lamorne Morris, Talulah Riley, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson
Genre: Action/sci-fi/comics
Run Time : 1 h 50 mins
Opens : 12 March 2020
Rating : PG13

Marvel and DC might be the big boys in the comics game, but avid readers know that there are many other publishers out there whose characters have great cinematic potential. There has been talk of movies based on Valiant Comics characters for a while now, with Bloodshot being the first Valiant character to arrive on the big screen.

Ray Garrison (Vin Diesel) is an elite Marine who, following a successful mission, is brutally murdered. He is brought back to life using cutting-edge regenerative nanotechnology devised by Rising Spirits Technologies (RST), headed up by Dr Emil Harting (Guy Pearce). In this powerful resurrected form, Ray – codenamed “Bloodshot” – vows revenge against the man who killed him and his wife. However, Ray is not being told the whole story and there is an insidious conspiracy afoot. Ray realises that Dr Harting and his associates KT (Eiza González), Jimmy (Sam Heughan) and Tibbs (Alex Hernandez), who all sport cybernetic enhancements, may not be entirely trustworthy. Ray might be reborn, but he is not free – using his newfound abilities, he must uncover the scheme that he is entangled in and wrest control from those who seek to use him for their own ends.

Bloodshot may feature high-tech sci-fi gadgetry, but it is a throwback, in ways both good and bad. It is a straightforward superhero origin story with an emphasis on technology rather than the fantastical, but it’s often still over-the-top and bombastic. There may not be any grand surprises here, but Bloodshot is entertaining and paced well enough.

There are a few outstanding action sequences, such as the first time Bloodshot’s full powers are revealed in combat. That scene is set in a barricaded tunnel where a truck transporting flour has crashed, making it atmospheric in an inventive way. There’s a big set-piece that takes place in the external elevator shaft of a skyscraper which is dynamic and eye-catching.

The practical effects work including the high-tech prosthetics and exo-suit, created by WETA Workshop, is done well. Director Dave S. F. Wilson’s background is in video game cinematics – he worked on games including Bioshock Infinite, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Mass Effect 2 and Halo Wars for Blur Studios. This is Wilson’s directorial debut and while his inexperience does show, it’s entirely possible that he could improve.

The hook here is that a non-Marvel/DC comic is receiving a big-budget adaptation, but Bloodshot is too generic and mired in clichés to be its own thing, unlike the Guillermo del Toro-directed Hellboy movies were in the 2000s. Bloodshot makes a stab at being self-aware – one character mentions “movie clichés” – but it doesn’t wear that self-awareness well. This is the kind of movie that has not one but two comic relief tech guys.

The dialogue is often exceedingly stupid, but despite several moments of unintentional comedy, the movie is slightly too competent to qualify as something that’s so bad it’s good. All the characters are flat, despite the efforts of some of the actors. Eiza González is doing the best she can with the material and almost contributes some level of emotional resonance to the proceedings. Diesel has the action hero cred but is altogether too bland – this is not helped by the blank slate nature of the character. One gets the sense that Wilson just isn’t a good director of actors, at least he isn’t yet. It seems beside the point to call this “predictable” because it was never going to be anything but predictable. There’s a lot of potential in the concept of a hero who is being manipulated using technology, but the film doesn’t want to delve too deeply into any of those implications.

Bloodshot is intended to launch a Valiant cinematic universe, but it’s to its credit that unlike, say, 2017’s The Mummy, it’s not overly concerned with frantically gesturing to Easter Eggs and hinting at what’s to come (even if an Easter egg or two for Valiant fans would have been nice). There isn’t even a post-credits scene. Bloodshot is closely linked to the Harbinger series, but the Harbinger movie adaptation has moved from Sony to Paramount, meaning that previous plans for an interconnected universe have likely been affected. The only time that an official other media adaptation of Valiant properties has been made before this is the 2018 web series Ninjak vs the Valiant Universe, co-produced by Bat in the Sun. In that series, Power Rangers star Jason David Frank portrayed Bloodshot.

 

Summary: Bloodshot is not a great movie – it’s not even an especially good movie – but it has a lot of things that this reviewer loves about the sci-fi action genre and even if it doesn’t reach the full potential of the source material, one can tell that some or even most of the people involved were giving this their best shot. If you’re looking for something to rival the best Marvel and DC movies out there, this isn’t it. But if you’re looking for diverting, entertaining sci-fi action that sometimes feels like it’s out of the early-mid 2000s, Bloodshot has you covered.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Avengers: Infinity War review

For inSing

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

Directors : Anthony and Joe Russo
Cast : Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba, Peter Dinklage, Benedict Wong, Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Pom Klementieff, Karen Gillan, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin
Genre : Action/Comics
Run Time : 2h 29m
Opens : 25 April 2018
Rating : PG13

We’re going to do things a little differently.

Going into Avengers: Infinity War, you’ve been told to avoid spoilers like the plague, and yet, we want you to read this review, which will be spoiler-free.

This will be a review, and yet not a review. We’re hoping that you’ll read this, but if you don’t wanna, that’s fine.

We’ll say it up front: this is a particularly tricky movie to write a spoiler-free review of, but we’ll give it the best shot we’ve given anything.

Marvel has hyped Avengers: Infinity War as the most ambitious crossover event staged in entertainment media. They’re not wrong. No matter which way you look at this movie, it’s tricky to put together. It’s a puzzle with the pieces constantly moving.

Even with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War under the Russo brothers’ belts, there are still many times during Infinity War when one is wont to wonder aloud “how did the guys from Arrested Development and Community get here?” This is a film with a sprawling scope, even for a genre which is all about scope. The Russo brothers, with the in-built support at Marvel Studios, do a commendable job of wrangling it all.

This reviewer would love to have been a fly on the wall while the Russo brothers and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely were hammering this out. Imagine all the iterations, all the bits and pieces that maybe didn’t quite work, before we got here.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A studio hasn’t quite been able to announce to the audience “right, you should’ve seen all 18 of these movies, or at least most of them, before you watch this. Off you go, then.” Not even long-running franchises like the Bond movies, Star Wars, or Harry Potter can really demand that, and know that most audiences would have fulfilled that demand. There’s a swaggering confidence about Infinity War, and yet it’s not off-putting or self-congratulatory. If anything, Marvel Studios is deliberately making things really difficult for themselves going forward.

Over the years, the MCU has garnered its fair share of detractors. There are purists, there are ardent fanboys who have fixated on one niggling aspect or another that dissatisfied them, there are those who loyally back the other team (this reviewer has been accused of being both paid off by Disney and being biased towards DC movies), there are those who say it’s all too funny and nothing is taken seriously enough. Depending on the context, some aspects of these criticisms are valid, but it’s important to take a step back and consider all the myriad hurdles that the people making these films have cleared to get here.

At the core of Infinity War is a MacGuffin hunt that has spanned multiple movies, with so much being set up in previous instalments, leading up to this. The film takes inspiration from the Infinity Gauntlet comic book arc in 1991, written by Jim Starlin, and the 2013 Infinity crossover event, written by Jonathan Hickman. Infinity War is the culmination of intergalactic warlord and ‘mad titan’ Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) search for the Infinity Stones. We’ve seen five of the six stones in previous movies, and he’s looking to collect them all.

This is a quest that has attendant consequences and sacrifice, and from the beautifully staged, dramatic and grave opening scene onwards, viewers have a good idea of what to expect. There are plenty of jokes, but unlike in previous MCU movies, this reviewer felt less of a sense that said jokes were stepping on the dramatic beats.

This reviewer wasn’t the biggest fan of Civil War, because there was noticeable bloat and the central conflict didn’t really get enough room to breathe. Weirdly enough, that seems like less of a problem here. Clocking in at 149 minutes and costing an estimated $300-400 million, it seems a foregone conclusion that Infinity War would be more bloated than a beached whale, but it moves with great finesse.

Infinity War could easily have come off as a string of unrelated set-pieces. It’s evident that this was not constructed by devising the set-pieces first, with the plot being filled in around those. Our massive ensemble is handily organised into groups, with said groups meeting and then diverging as the story progresses. The groups all make sense, and there is considerable time dedicated to reinforcing and evolving existing relationships.

The romance between Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) elicited the most emotion out of this reviewer. The Guardians of the Galaxy team up with Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and we delve a little deeper into the relationship between Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and her estranged adoptive father Thanos.

It seems like Markus and McFeely really enjoyed writing the Guardians, nailing the voices of each character. There’s a consistency which feels organic and yet must’ve been challenging to achieve. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and Doctor Strange/Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) butt heads and egos, while Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) faces more struggles in getting control of his alter ego, the Hulk. A good portion of the film is set in Wakanda, which in Black Panther, has just opened itself to the outside world, its people getting more than they bargained for here.

It wasn’t really that long ago when we thought we’d never see Peter Parker in the MCU, so it’s a genuine thrill to see Holland’s Spider-Man interact with so many characters and feel like he was always meant to be in this line-up.

Thanos feels like an actual character rather than just an obstacle our heroes must overcome. We get just enough back-story and there is respectable gravity to the proceedings. There’s a lot of fantastic acting on display from everyone involved. This is not a movie in which the spectacle does all the legwork.

Avengers: Infinity War is a staggering work of virtuosic audacity. Its filmmakers play the audience like a fiddle. The ending is either a howl-inducing gut punch or sheer genius – maybe both at once. You’re probably going to be frustrated at some point or another, but there will be gasps, there will be cheers, there will be laughter, and depending on how fragile the audience at your screening is, there might be open sobbing.

Given the nigh-insane parameters the filmmakers were working within, Avengers: Infinity War is the best movie it could’ve been.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

For F*** Magazine

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2

Director : James Gunn
Cast : Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 2h 16min
Opens : 27 April 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

Pop the tape in the deck and pump up the volume, ‘cos Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Pratt) and company have returned. Our loveable gang of a-holes crosses the cosmos in an adventure that brings Quill face-to-face with his biological father, Ego (Russell) the Living Planet. That’s not the only family reunion taking place: assassin Gamora (Saldana) and Nebula (Gillan), the daughters of Thanos who have long been at each other’s throats, cross swords again. Jolly big guy Drax (Bautista), cantankerous cybernetically-enhanced raccoon Rocket (Cooper) and wee sapling Baby Groot (Diesel) are along for the ride. The team makes a new ally in the form of Mantis (Klementieff), an alien empath raised by Ego. They also make a new enemy: the haughty High Priestess Ayesha (Debicki) of the Sovereigns, who has put a bounty on the Guardians’ heads. In the meantime, Yondu (Rooker) is in danger of being displaced, as Taserface (Sullivan) leads a coup against him within their gang of Ravagers. The fate of the galaxy once against rests on the wildly different-sized shoulders of our ragtag heroes.

Before Guardians of the Galaxy’s release in 2014, several industry watchers were predicting it could be the first high-profile misfire for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Following its rollicking critical and commercial success, director James Gunn was feted as having accomplished the nigh-impossible. Now that the first Guardians film has become a juggernaut and Chris Pratt is an established movie star, that dark horse sheen has worn off. We can imagine Gunn having a mini “now what?” crisis as he was prepping the sequel. He certainly had his work cut out for him, and Vol. 2 retains much of the wacky charm that made the first film as distinctive and enjoyable as it did, while further exploring what makes this colourful cast of characters tick.

Gunn stated in a Facebook post that he dislikes sequels bringing characters back to square one. In Vol. 2, we see arcs progress, and everybody gets their moment in the sun. It’s a precarious balancing act, and at times the push/pull between far-out spectacle and exploring motivations and backstories is palpable. As with several MCU outings before it, there’s the danger of the humour undercutting the drama. However, that’s not as big a problem here, because this is the funniest MCU movie yet. Since there are so many jokes, some don’t land, and the more juvenile innuendos might make parents nervously hope their kids won’t ask for explanations about them later.

In hyping up the film, Pratt promised Vol. 2 would be the “biggest spectacle movie of all time”. As much as Gunn continues to do his own thing, Vol. 2 is noticeably working overtime to top the first one, and this can sometimes be exhausting. The set-pieces are varied and thrilling and the visuals are dazzling, but sometimes there’s a little too much going on – this is most noticeable during the finale. The visual effects work is splendid (apart from one iffy de-aging job), and the environments are consistently mesmerizing. Production designer Scott Chambliss, whose credits include Star Trek (2009), Star Trek Into Darkness and Tomorrowland, has outdone himself with the cosmic-Rococo palace which Ego calls home. Vol. 2 of Quill’s Awesome Mixtape is the right degree of eclectic: the opening credits unfold to ELO’s Mr. Blue Sky, while the lyrics of Looking Glass’ Brandy become a key plot point.

Gunn’s dialogue preserves the voices of each returning character, and the principals reprise their roles with entertaining aplomb. Pratt has the ‘fun action hero’ thing down pat and yes, gets another gratuitous shirtless scene.

Saldana struts about with utmost confidence, and pulls off a potentially ridiculous scene in which Gamora wields a ludicrously oversized cannon. Bautista continues to prove that he is a gifted comedian, showcasing timing sharper than the daggers Drax brandishes.

Cooper gets some of the film’s best lines, delivering them in the vocal approximation of mange. If you thought Diesel was overpaid for saying the same line repeatedly in the first one, he doesn’t even sound like himself here. Anyone could have voiced Baby Groot. Still, that doesn’t detract from how adorable the character is, those limpid eyes and that plaintive expression sure to elicit “aww”s aplenty from the audience.

Russell is a big get, and if there’s anyone who should play the father of a daring spacefaring scoundrel, it should be Snake Plissken/Jack Burton himself. He’s enjoying himself, and to Gunn’s credit, this doesn’t become an endless string of references to the iconic entries in Russell’s filmography. Like Star Wars before it, Guardians trades in mythical archetypes. This is the tale of a god, the mortal he fell in love with, and the progeny they bore: think Zeus, Danaë and Perseus. The ‘team-up with long-lost dad’ device has been employed in everything from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to Aladdin and the King of Thieves. Therefore, even given its fantastical trappings, Vol. 2’s take on things is fairly predictable.

Debicki, looking like she’s escaped the clutches of Goldfinger, is yet another underwhelming MCU villain – but it seems like this was intentional this time around. Rooker gets some surprisingly emotional notes to play amidst a pirate drama in which Yondu gets displaced by mutinying Ravagers. We gain more insight into the rivalry between Gamora and Gillan’s steely, formidable Nebula, and the soap opera-ness is a safe distance from being too cheesy.

Klementieff’s Mantis is a naïf to the nth degree, and jokes are had at her expense while we’re meant to empathize with her. The character’s convoluted backstory in the comics has been handily distilled, and she makes for an interesting addition to the team. Sean Gunn, brother of James, gets an increased part that, if one is being cynical, can be chalked up to nepotism. It’s hard to stay cynical while watching something like Vol. 2, though.

Keep your eyes peeled for several cameos beyond the standard Stan Lee moment, and take a quick glance around the hall to see the cognoscenti nodding in approval when an obscure Marvel character pops onscreen. Five (count ‘em) stinger scenes are spread throughout the end credits. Vol. 2 might not have the same bold, devil-may-care freshness that its predecessor had, but there’s no shortage of vim and verve. The cutest little tree creature you’ve ever seen doesn’t hurt, either.

Summary: While there’s a bit of a struggle in balancing the spectacle with the character beats, Vol. 2 possesses most of the offbeat charm, visual splendour and knee-slapping humour as its forebear.

RATING: 4 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

xXx: Return of Xander Cage

For F*** Magazine

XXX: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE

Director : D. J. Caruso
Cast : Vin Diesel, Donnie Yen, Deepika Padukone, Ruby Rose, Kris Wu, Toni Collette, Nina Dobrev, Rory McCann, Tony Jaa, Michael Bisping, Samuel L. Jackson
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 47min
Opens : 19 January 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence and Coarse Language)

xxx-return-of-xander-cage-posterAny action star worth his salt has got to keep more than one franchise going, so get ready for more Diesel-powered action with this continuation of the xXx series. Extreme sportsman and elite secret agent Xander Cage (Diesel) has long been thought dead, but his services are needed again as a new threat emerges. Xiang (Yen) and his team of highly skilled adrenaline junkie operatives have gotten their hands on a device called Pandora’s Box, which can be used to crash any satellite in orbit. NSA handler Jane Marke (Collette) draws Xander back into the fray. Xander calls on his associates, including sharpshooter Adele Wolff (Rose), stunt driver Tennyson Torch (McCann) and deejay Nicks Zhou (Wu) to back him up. They are assisted by tech expert Becky Clearidge (Dobrev). They must face off against Xiang and his team, comprising Serena (Padukone), Talon (Jaa) and Hawk (Bisping), as Serena questions where her loyalties lie. xxx-return-of-xander-cage-kris-wu-ruby-rose-rory-mccann-and-vin-diesel

The first xXx film was pitched as a hipper, cooler competitor to the Bond franchise. In the same year, the Bond film Die Another Day tried to pull off some extreme sports action. It was not a good look. The premise of devil-may-care thrill-seekers recruited into a spy program is silly, but in the right hands, it can be the fun kind of silly. xXx: Return of Xander Cage is absolutely the fun kind of silly. From the first scene, director D.J. Caruso practically announces that this is a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously at all. What follows is a string of outlandish stunts and set pieces which, while smaller in scale, almost rival those showcased in the recent Fast and Furious flicks. Anything that was considered remotely cool in the 2000s is, by now, painfully awkward, so xXx: Return of Xander Cage boldly embraces the cheesiness and is all the more enjoyable for it.

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F. Scott Frazier’s screenplay bursts with quips and one-liners of varying quality, but at its core lies a generic spy thriller plot: one team of agents has the MacGuffin, and the other must get it back. There’s globe-trotting, car chases and shootouts, as well as shifting alliances and standard-issue plot twists. Then again, nobody’s going to watch this for the plot. There are enough bells and whistles and a spirited embrace of ludicrousness to lift this above the humdrum formula of many a disposable action flick. You will believe a man can ski through a rainforest and that motorcycles can transform into jetskis to ride ocean swells. The visual effects work is surprisingly competent, and the explosive climax doesn’t look conspicuously phony.

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Diesel’s Xander allows the star to indulge his ego as a coolly laconic, an anti-establishment rebel who lives life on the edge. This was never a particularly grounded character and Diesel seems aware of that. This time, he has an eclectic ensemble supporting him.

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Yen is on excellent form here, the film making good use of his skill set. He’s is charming and menacing as Xiang, but the character is not a moustache-twirling villain and surprisingly, there’s some nuance to him. Yen gets to perform more martial arts here than he did in Rogue One, and he plays off Diesel superbly. Jet Li was originally cast in the part, and it is speculated that he dropped out due to health concerns. We think Yen is a better fit for Xiang than Li might’ve been.

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Bollywood starlet Padukone is counting on this film to help her break into the American market. She’s a serviceable femme fatale, but is far from the most memorable actress to play the archetype.

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It’s Rose who steals the show as the smart-alecky sniper Adele. The epitome of cool, Rose seems right in her element whether she’s handling a rifle or hitting on every woman in sight. McCann, best known as Sandor “The Hound” Clegane on Game of Thrones, puts in an amusing turn as the slightly-unhinged Tennyson. Dobrev plays up the ‘adorkable’ shtick for all it’s worth, but borders on grating as the resident tech geek. Out of Xander’s sidekicks, it’s Wu who makes the least impact as Nicks, who serves no apparent purpose on the team. Each character is introduced with a title card listing their special skills, akin to the ones seen in Suicide Squad. Nicks’ just says he’s “fun to be around”.

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As the no-nonsense boss lady, Collette delivers her many dramatic declarations with gusto, and appears to be having fun being a part of a big, silly action movie, since she doesn’t do those too often. Jaa has his hair dyed blonde and styled into a faux-hawk, and his role is largely comedic. If there’s any big missed opportunity here, it’s that Jaa isn’t given more to do, and that he doesn’t have a fight scene in which he either teams up with or faces off against fellow martial arts expert Yen. Jackson’s reprisal of the Augustus Gibbons role amounts to little more than a cameo, but there are a couple more cameos sure to elicit a reaction from the audience.

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xXx: Return of Xander Cage isn’t particularly original or, god forbid, smart, but it’s good at what it does. Erring on the right side of self-aware without plunging into obnoxious self-parody, this threequel announces “this is silly, and that’s perfectly okay”. If this gang is staying together, bring on xXx IV.

Summary: The rip-roaring third entry in the xXx series put a smile on this reviewer’s face. A big, dumb smile.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Last Witch Hunter

For F*** Magazine

THE LAST WITCH HUNTER

Director : Breck Eisner
Cast : Vin Diesel, Rose Leslie, Elijah Wood, Michael Caine, Julie Engelbrecht, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson
Genre : Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 106 mins
Opens : 22 October 2015
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

Something wicked this way comes, and the only thing that can keep it at bay is the last witch hunter. Vin Diesel plays Kaulder, a warrior of the Order of the Axe and Cross who has dedicated his life to pursuing and incarcerating practitioners of dark magic. Kaulder lost his wife and daughter to the Black Plague and, having been cursed with immortality by the Witch Queen (Engelbrecht), has walked the earth for 800 years. His loyal scribe and handler, the 36th Dolan (Caine), is retiring and passing the torch to the rookie 37th Dolan (Wood). As the evil Belial (Ólafsson) carves a path of destruction through New York, Kaulder must team up with a witch, something he never thought he’d do. The “good witch” in question is Chloe (Leslie), the proprietor of a “witches only” nightclub. As he uncovers an ancient conspiracy, Kaulder must battle the powers of darkness to prevent a new plague from being unleashed in New York.

A “did you know?” factoid about Vin Diesel that always pops up is that he is an avid Dungeons and Dragons player and his old D&D character Melkor was a witch hunter. This might be the ultimate form of wish fulfilment for its star, but few others are likely to get anything worthwhile out of The Last Witch Hunter. A ho-hum urban fantasy adventure film that is content with trying nothing new, this is the very definition of uninspired. Recalling the Nicolas Cage duds The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Season of the Witch, this tale of a mystical warrior waging a secret war that the hoi polloi are oblivious to is as rote as they come. Director Breck Eisner, whose most high-profile film so far is the 2005 flop Sahara, comes off as little more than a hired gun whose ambitions here do not extend past making Diesel look cool.

We’ve seen many films laden with heavy-handed exposition. In The Last Witch Hunter, practically every other line is heavy-handed exposition. The history of the secret order, the different powers witches possess, the tragic backgrounds of various characters, it’s all spelled out with much laziness and little finesse. The film’s screenwriters have a track record of hokey supernatural action flicks: Cory Goodman wrote Priest while Matt Sazama and Buck Sharpless penned last year’s Dracula Untold. The solitary hero, the ancient council of elders, the long-dormant evil about to rise again, it’s all frustratingly derivative. There are plenty of computer-generated creatures and landscapes and technically-speaking, the film is fine, with veteran cinematographer Dean Semler keeping the movie from looking too cheap. The practical makeup effects on the Witch Queen are detailed and creepy, but whether it’s swarms of bugs, swirling flames or thorny roots springing forth out of the ground, we’ve seen this all before in some form or another and there’s nothing really worth getting excited about.

Diesel doing the tortured action hero thing is as yawn-inducing as it sounds. Unlike the character of Riddick, there is scarcely any mystery to Kaulder. This is meant to be someone with a richly storied past, having witnessed things few would believe over his 800-year-long existence. Instead, Kaulder comes across as pretty boring and for an old hand at this witch-hunting business, he falls for some basic traps throughout the film. We get a sense of how noble he is through an offhand comment about how the Salem Witch Trials were wrong, and there are also frequent dream sequence flashbacks to Kaulder in happier times frolicking with his late wife and daughter in an effort to make us feel something for him. It doesn’t work.

Leslie’s Chloe fulfils the role of the woman who gets pulled into the hero’s quest by dint of possessing an item or skill he requires. There are moments when the alluring feistiness Leslie brought to the part of Ygritte on Game of Thrones can be glimpsed, but the character is mostly perfunctory. Through Chloe, Kaulder comes to learn that “not all witches are evil”, yet another shop-worn plot device. Leslie and Diesel also have no chemistry to speak of.

Caine is only in very little of the movie, playing the mentor figure in all but name because Kaulder is of course a lot older than he is. Diesel calling Caine “kid” is kind of amusing the first couple of times, but this dynamic doesn’t get fleshed out. A film of this type needs a charismatic villain, perhaps someone larger than life, but Engelbrecht and Ólafsson are non-presences as the Witch Queen and Belial respectively. Thanks to his perennially youthful demeanour, Wood is still playing the fresh-faced kid sidekick at 34. This is probably the most conventional project he’s taken on in his quirky post-Lord of the Rings career.

A tepid production line affair, The Last Witch Hunter is an attempt at spinning yet another franchise for Diesel, because the tiny indie project that is the Fast and Furious films apparently isn’t paying the bills. The mythos is half-baked and this doesn’t feel like a substantial world waiting to be explored. The Last Witch Hunter isn’t based on a series of books, comics or video-games, but it still smacks of a crippling lack of originality and audiences will return from this hunt empty-handed.

Summary: Vin Diesel fails to conjure up any magic with this generic urban fantasy adventure flick that ought to be far more entertaining than it actually is.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Fast & Furious 7

For F*** Magazine

FAST & FURIOUS 7

Director : James Wan
Cast : Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Elsa Pataky, Lucas Black, Jason Statham, Djimon Hounsou, Tony Jaa, Ronda Rousey, Kurt Russell
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 137 mins
Opens : 2 April 2015

Big wheels keep on turning, the rubber keeps on burning and Dominic Toretto (Diesel) and his crew are rolling, rolling, rolling down the road in the seventh instalment of the Fast and Furious franchise. Dom and his “family”, comprising Brian (Walker), Letty (Rodriguez), Tej (Ludacris) and Roman (Gibson) have been pardoned for their crimes in the previous films. Now, they’re sent hurtling back into their dangerous, high-speed existence when the lethal Deckard Shaw (Statham), looking to make the crew pay for almost killing his brother Owen, comes calling. With the assistance of spymaster “Mr. Nobody” (Russell) and Special Agent Hobbs (Johnson) of the Diplomatic Security Service, Dom and co. ride for their lives, this adventure taking them from L.A. to Azerbaijan to Abu Dhabi and back.

            We’ll get straight to the point – the untimely passing of star Paul Walker has cast a dark pall over a franchise built on pure escapism. What should have been yet another fist-pumping, all-out action spectacular is now a bittersweet affair. Director James Wan, taking the baton from Justin Lin, has managed to create a flick where the audience is reassured up front that it’s okay to have fun, it’s okay to just go along for the ride – and yet Brian O’Conner’s exit from the series is handled with as much grace and sincerity as the series can muster. The film displays a level of self-awareness – early on, Brian tells his young son Jack that “cars don’t fly”. Later in the film, they absolutely dofly. Screenwriter Chris Morgan supplies dialogue that is as overripe and clichéd as ever and yet, there is an undeniable charm to it all. Surprisingly, the 137 minute run time passes at a decent clip.


            There’s something that makes this franchise very different from the Transformersmovies, even though they are aimed at exactly the same demographic and contain cool automobiles, explosions and leery shots of scantily-clad women. There’s an earnestness here as opposed to the cynicism that pervades the Transformers films. This is movie #7 and yet there’s the sense that all involved are still invested and are determined not to phone it in, embracing the over-the-top stunts with all they’ve got.

Wan must’ve broken out in hives trying to devise vehicular set-pieces that would top those of Fast & Furious 6, which involved a tank and a massive cargo plane. Here, we have cars inserted into a treacherous mountain pass via air drop, a Lykan Hypersport sailing out a skyscraper window and crashing into the adjacent building, and a finale in which our heroes are pursued by a stealth attack helicopter and a souped-up Predator drone. Props go to second unit director and stunt coordinator Jack Gill for putting it all together – those cars were dropped out of a plane for real. Unfortunately, as adrenaline-pumping as these signature sequences still are, there is a conspicuous increase in the reliance on computer-generated imagery, especially for the Etihad Towers jump and the helicopter attack. The scenes in which Paul Walker is digitally doubled also stick out. It’s not enough to pull one out of it completely, but it does lack polish.

For all of screenwriter Morgan’s unsubtlety, he’s done a fine job of distributing the spotlight among the ensemble cast. The moments of pathos are cheesy – Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty is still coping with her amnesia – but all parties involved know that’s not why the audience is present. Even then, the loss experienced by the crew following the deaths of Gisele and Han in #6 is palpable and does lend the proceedings an emotional backbone, however slight. The film serves a great swansong for Walker; he gets to go mano a mano with Tony Jaa in two blistering martial arts showdowns. Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson continue to have amiable chemistry as the constantly bickering Tej and Roman, but Tyrese’s comic asides border on the excessive here.  

Jason Statham is a fittingly intimidating villain, essentially Frank Martin from the Transporter series if he had no moral compunction whatsoever. There’s a nice appearance by Djimon Hounsou as a secondary baddie even though the character doesn’t do much. Dwayne Johnson revels in the exaggerated action hero persona the material presents him with, trucking out one-liners like “you’ve earned yourself a dance with the devil, boy” and “I’m gonna put a hurt on him so hard, he’ll wish his mother kept her legs closed.” Ronda Rousey shows up as a bodyguard to furnish the requisite catfight with Michelle Rodriguez, a role fulfilled by fellow MMA fighter Gina Carano in the previous film. The show is well and truly stolen by Kurt Russell. The 80s action icon has still got it and looks like he’s having a ball. When he slips on the night-vision shades and draws twin pistols to get in on the fun himself, prepare to cheer.

As film critics, we hear the “it’s not meant to be Oscar-worthy high art” defence a whole lot. Well, for the Fast and Furious films, especially #5onwards, it applies. We’re not about to give the cheesy dialogue and sometimes-intrusive visual effects work a free pass, but Wan makes sure it all comes together nicely and delivers what was promised – a really good time for action junkies. In addition, the director shoulders the responsibility of fashioning this loud, brash extravaganza into an emotional send-off for its recently-deceased star. Vin Diesel has been open about how truly distraught Walker’s death left him and we do see some of that laid bare on the screen. We’re not ashamed to say we were left misty-eyed and in that respect, Wan has succeeded. There are no stinger scenes during or after the end credits and while this does seem like a great place to call it a day, Universal is intent on doing at least three more. Better to ride off into the sunset while you’re ahead, but that’s not how studios work, we suppose.

Summary: The spectacle is as bombastic as ever and the laws of physics are as irrelevant as ever; the series continuing to entertain. Fast & Furious 7 also manages to provide some genuine heart amidst all that cheese, bidding a fond farewell to Paul Walker.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5Stars
Jedd Jong 

We are fast. We are furious. We are Groot.


Guardians of the Galaxy

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
2014
Director: James Gunn
Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Josh Brolin
Genre : Action, Adventure, Sci-fi
Opens : 31 July 2014
Rating : PG13 
Run time: 121 mins

            Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is drawing to a close, the release of The Avengers: Age of Ultron imminent. With Guardians of the Galaxy, the MCU heads, to quote Dragonheart’s Draco, “to the stars”. Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Pratt), taken from earth as a child, is in search of a prized orb. His treasure hunt sets him on a collision course with some rather colourful characters. These include Gamora (Saldana), an assassin and the adopted daughter of the intergalactic tyrant Thanos (Brolin), Drax (Bautista), hungry for vengeance after his wife and child are slain, Rocket (Cooper), a smart-mouthed, cybernetically-enhanced raccoon and Groot (Diesel), a humanoid tree creature. This unlikely band calls themselves “the Guardians of the Galaxy”, confronting bounty hunter Korath (Hounsou), treacherous zealot Ronan (Pace) and Gamora’s jealous adopted sister Nebula (Gillan) in order to prevent Ronan from getting his hands on a cataclysmic weapon.

            Following the departure of director Edgar Wright and actor Patrick Wilson from the upcoming Ant-Man, murmurs have begun to swirl that the executives at Marvel Studios are exercising too much creative control over their films. That Guardians of the Galaxy even got made assuages those fears at least a little. Producer Kevin Feige says this is the “riskiest movie [he’s] done since Iron Man” and that is not hyperbole. In the hands of maverick director James Gunn, he of Slither, James Gunn’s PG Pornand Troma Pictures fame, GotG is wild, woolly and drastically different from everything else that has come before in the MCU. If Thor, drawing on Norse mythology, was outré, this is certainly even more so. The screenplay which Gunn co-wrote with Nicole Perlman is sharp and consistently funny, irreverent yet far from cynical and alienating (hee) as it well could’ve been.  

            In an age where it feels Hollywood has gotten more and more homogenised, it is refreshing to see a big-budget, mass-market blockbuster that is, well, this refreshing. Spectacle is not in short supply, the world-building on display truly dazzling and electric. For at least a few kids out there, this is going to be their Star Wars: Xandar, Knowhere, the Kyln, the Dark Aster their Tatoonie, Bespin, Hoth or Death Star. These are colourful worlds but they still retain grit and believability. The visual effects work, the character animation on Rocket and Groot in particular, is very commendable. The tree-creature and the talking raccoon both convincingly inhabit the same space as the flesh-and-blood actors, their expressions and movements nuanced and even genuinely moving.

            Chris Pratt is proving himself to be an unlikely but most deserving leading man, shedding the pounds and putting on the muscle to play Star-Lord. His comedic timing and roguish charm combine to make him an ideal protagonist, reminiscent of Han Solo in the best way possible. Saldana continues to hold her own as the capable, commanding action girl of the moment and Bautista brings heart and warmth to the literal-minded, muscle-bound Drax. Taking Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper, arguably two of the bigger names of the cast, and having them provide voices for animated characters can be seen as yet another intentionally unorthodox move on the part of the filmmakers. Saying “I am Groot” repeated ad nauseam may sound like an easy paycheck but Diesel, who broke our hearts as the Iron Giant back in 1999, brings that same basso profundo kindness to Groot – and sounds great angry, too. Hollywood superstars with little real voice-acting experience often “die in the booth” –Cooper does not. As the irascible raccoon, he is amusing but also makes the character far more than the requisite funny talking animal and is certainly a better choice than Adam Sandler or Jim Carrey, rumoured to be attached to the part.

            Unfortunately, the film suffers slightly in the villains’ department. Lee Pace delights in being showy and menacing, Karen Gillan is still a knockout playing against type, even painted blue and with a bald head and Josh Brolin’s appearance as Thanos is but a teaser for his later involvement in the MCU. All quite serviceable, it’s just that their confrontations with our heroes are not as dramatic and explosive as they could’ve been. Still, this is at the expense of character development for the titular team and this is more than forgivable. The eclectic supporting cast including names as disparate as Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro and Michael Rooker add a distinct flavour to the proceedings as well.

            Guardians of the Galaxy is everything this reviewer loves about movies, particularly movies that defined his tastes during childhood. There’s action, adventure, humour, visual fireworks and just enough heartstring-tugging sentiment. The soundtrack is excellent as well, Star-Lord viewing his mix-tapes as precious family heirlooms and the only physical reminder of his late mother he has left. And ultimately, this is a movie about a ragtag bunch that may be far-out but are still relatable and are totally the kinds of people (and raccoons and tree-creatures) you’d want to sit in a cantina with and just hang out. Oh, and the post-credit scene for this one is the biggest treat any hard-core fan of the weirder corners of the Marvel Universe could ever want.


Summary: Out of this world.
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong