by Steve Habrat
In 2004, director Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost wowed genre audiences everywhere with their fantastic rom-zom-com debut Shaun of the Dead. In 2005, Wright and Pegg had brief cameos in George A. Romero’s 2005 comeback Land of the Dead and in the spring of 2007, Wright, Pegg, and Frost contributed the wonderfully spot-on fake trailer Don’t to Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse, the severely underrated double-feature ode to sleaze pictures of the 70s and 80s. Their hot streak continued just a few short weeks later with the release of the cop-slasher hybrid Hot Fuzz, a zippy, bloody, gory, and flat-out hilarious adrenaline rush that found the guys returning to the big screen in a colossal way. Riffing on Point Break, Bad Boys II, and almost every other action movie that Michael Bay has ever made, Wright and his double-trouble duo then drive this flashing police car straight into the whodunit slasher genre with guns blazing. Brimming with winks and nods to everything they love, Wright once again smartly tells a highly original story that turns Hot Fuzz into a modern day action masterpiece. It also has the world’s funniest swan and a gunfight to end all gunfights, so that is also a plus too.
Nicholas Angel (played by Simon Pegg) is the best police office in London. He is so good at his job that he is starting to make the other officers on the police force look bad. One day, Nicholas is called into a meeting with Chief Inspector Kenneth (played by Bill Nighy), who explains that Nicholas is going to be transferred to the rural town of Sanford, a picturesque community that is devoid of crime. Upon his arrival, Nicholas meets Inspector Frank Butterman (played by Jim Broadbent) and his simple-minded son Danny Butterman (played by Nick Forst). Frank partners up the overachieving Nicholas up with the lackadaisical Danny and sends the duo out to patrol the quiet streets. Everything seems to be going okay until a series of brutal accidents sends a shockwave through the town residents. Convinced that there is more to these accidents than meets the eye, Nicholas and Danny launch an investigation that brings them face to face with a hooded killer. With prominent members of the community dropping like flies, Nicholas and Danny race to put an end to the hooded figure’s killing spree, but the closer they get to catching the murderer, the more secrets that are revealed about the seemingly peaceful town of Sanford.
Bigger and badder than Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz has studied the action manual very hard and it knows what we have come to expect. The aesthetic is sleek and shiny, with even the smallest moments spiffed up to make our eyes pop. Early on, Nicholas arrests a handful of underage teens sipping suds in Sanford’s pub and as Nicholas books them at the station, Wright cuts quickly, pulling off several flashy camera tricks and even speeding up or slowing down the action for maximum effect. It’s absolutely hilarious and a very clever nod to Michael Bay and his insistence on stylizing every little detail. When the action goes boom, we get the typical slow motion shot of the heroes walking away from the fiery destruction in the background. The climax finds Wright including everything from police chases to gritty gun battles, all the way to a final mano-y-mano that ends in a sight gag that is simultaneously horrific and hilarious. Once again, Wright manages to carefully balance out the action side of the story with the whodunit/slasher aspect. The murder mystery is fun and it does make for a few good jump moments that will keep you on your toes. In a way, you are left crossing your fingers that the guys might reunite down the line for a straight up slasher movie. I have a feeling that it might be another home run from Wright.
As if the flashy action and the slasher plotline weren’t enough for one motion picture, Wright pumps in a heartwarming buddy-cop subplot. A good majority of the fun comes from watching Pegg and Frost interact with each other, mostly because they are such polar opposites. In Shaun of the Dead, they were on the same dazed wavelength but in Hot Fuzz, they are like oil in water. Pegg excels at the supercop role, never missing a moment to turn his by-the-books Nicholas into a Buzz Killington. He drags the buzzed youth down to the station even though the local-yokels argue that allowing the boys to have a few brews in a local pub keeps them from causing trouble in the streets. When he reluctantly agrees to hang out with Danny outside of work, he refuses a beer and orders a simple cranberry juice. He bottles up his anger when he is sent to round up a runaway swan, one of the film’s funniest running jokes and he sighs through boredom as Danny invites him to his house to watch Bad Boys II and Point Break. On the other hand, Frost’s Danny is sweet and simple, a guy who really could care less about his day job and would much rather be at home getting lost in a fantasy world of exploding cars, gunfire, and mayhem. You practically cheer for him when he gets the chance to pick up some firepower and join Nicholas on the streets for a good old-fashion shootout and you’ll be doubled over laughing when he gets to act out his favorite scene from Point Break.
As far the supporting players go, Broadbent is a riot as the merry Sanford Police Inspector who pairs up Nicholas and Danny. Bill Nighy is perfectly dry as the Chief Inspector who ships Nicholas off to dead end and Timothy Dalton gives a suave performance as Simon Skinner, a supermarket manager who seems awfully suspicious. Interestingly enough, Cate Blanchett turns up as Janine, Nicholas’s girlfriend in a HAZMAT suit and director Peter Jackson stops by for an appearance as the Santa Claus that attacks Nicholas in the opening credits. If there were anything to nitpick in Hot Fuzz, it would probably have to be the length of the film. With so much happening within the plot, the film does run a bit too long and the climax starts to feel a bit like overkill even if Wright is desperately trying to cram in as many action movie staples as he can. Overall, it is clear that Wright, Pegg, Frost, and nearly every other actor or actress in Hot Fuzz is having a ball and their good time does rub off on the viewer. Wright and Pegg’s screenplay never misses a beat and the laughs blast at the viewer like bullets. You may never be able to look at a swan the same way again.
Hot Fuzz is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
In 2004, America had the pleasure of being introduced to Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and director Edgar Wright, a trio of British funny guys who bowed at the cinematic alter of all things horror, action, science fiction, and exploitation. They burst into Hollywood with Shaun of the Dead, a warm and fuzzy romantic comedy…. with zombies. Shaun of the Dead was a surprise hit, even earning praise from the zombie godfather himself, George A. Romero. In the summer of 2007, Pegg, Frost, and Wright returned to theaters with Hot Fuzz, a razor-sharp marriage of the slasher genre and the buddy cop action genre that threatened to be even better than Shaun of the Dead. It was around this time that you started hearing that these films were part of a trilogy that Wright was calling his Cornetto trilogy. After another lengthy wait, the trio have finally brought their Cornetto trilogy to a close with The World’s End, a smashing nod to classic science fiction films from the 1950s all the way to the 1980s. Wright and his starring duo have already proven themselves as experts at mashing up multiple genres of film and The World’s End finds them once again at the top of their game. This midlife crisis comedy flows with laughs, blue blood, brilliant characters, superbly choreographed fistfights, heartfelt drama, and enough beer to have the most seasoned beer drinkers screaming uncle and running for the bathroom.
The World’s End introduces us to Gary King (played by Simon Pegg), a forty-year-old wash up that is stuck living in the past. In his youth, Gary and his four closest friends participated in a pub-crawl called the Golden Mile, which consisted of twelve pubs scattered throughout their hometown of Newton Haven. The boys were unable to finish the crawl, but Gary remembers it fondly as the greatest night of his life. After growing frustrated with rehab, Gary tracks down his four best friends—Andy (played by Nick Frost), Peter (played by Eddie Marsan), Oliver (played by Martin Freeman), and Steven (played by Paddy Considine)—in the hopes of convincing them to reattempt the Golden Mile and this time making it to The World’s End, the final bar in the crawl. Despite having moved on with their lives, the gang decides to join Gary in the pub-crawl. It doesn’t take long for the gang to start bumping into familiar faces from their youth, but it seems that their old friends don’t recognize them at all. After a bathroom scuffle with a group of freakishly strong and blank-faced teenagers, the group discovers that the citizens of Newton Haven have all been turned into robots. Confused, buzzed, and terrified, the group decides to continue on with their crawl in an attempt to blend in, but it doesn’t take long for the group to blow their cover. Teaming with Oliver’s beautiful sister, Sam (played by Rosamund Pike), and a handful of normal locals, the group begins a fight to remain human… and make it to The World’s End.
For those who aren’t cinema buffs or seasoned vets of the Cornetto trilogy, the main focus of these three films has been to pick a genre of film (horror, action, science fiction) that Wright, Pegg, and Frost adore and pay tribute to the classic films within that genre, all while tucking a heartfelt and relatable storyline inside the nods. After giving the viewer a chunk of time to get to know the characters, The World’s End sets its sights on the classic science fiction films from the Cold War/drive-in era all the way to the films like John Carpenter’s The Thing. When the robot-aliens finally make their presence known, the narrative of The World’s End begins to heavily borrow from Don Siegel’s 1956 sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Wright then sprinkles in hints of the 1978 remake, but these lean more towards the visual end. Genre fans should also be on the lookout for nods to The Day the Earth Stood Still and a scene-stealing ode to John Carpenter’s The Thing. Wright smartly understands that these classic films were heavy with politics and social commentary, and he converts these nods into a hilarious comment on modern day conformity. The best use of this commentary comes when the guys start the crawl and realize that the colorful bars that they use to frequent as boys have been scrubbed of their small-town individuality and converted into Starbuck-esque establishments. It’s a running gag that never gets old.
The theme of conformity continues in the characters, especially Andy, Oliver, Peter, and Steven. These guys have tried desperately to distance themselves from their hard-partying days and embraced a happy family, a cozy desk job with a mound of benefits, expensive suits, and a fancy home in the suburbs. We sense their boredom early on and we roll our eyes when they tell the free-spirited Gary to grow up and get serious with his life. Pegg easily gives the strongest performance of his career as Gary, the ultimate party animal who just can’t say “no” to a cold pint and a bag of weed. I really don’t think I have seen Pegg throw himself into a role with this much enthusiasm before and I thought he was a ball of energy in the Star Trek films! Frost breaks away from playing the slouching slacker that he played in both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and takes the uptight route as Andy, who hasn’t had a drink in fifteen years and is flat out appalled by Gary’s loose-cannon behavior. Watching Andy and Gary try to rekindle their relationship is awkward, hilarious, and moving all at the same time. Marsan is another scene-stealer as the geeky Peter, who appears to be petrified of his own family and bottling up pain from being bullied. When he starts downing the brews and the shots, he is an absolute riot. Freeman’s Oliver is your usual businessman with a Bluetooth shoved in his ear and Considine is a fitness nut dating a younger girl. Pike is sweet and scrappy as Oliver’s sister, Sam, who is pursued by both Steven and Gary. Pierce Brosnan also makes a special appearance as Guy Sheppard, an old guidance counselor from the gang’s high school.
Where The World’s End hits a snag is in the final confrontation between the gang and the alien invaders that are hiding out in Newton Haven. Just before the two parties meet, there is a surprisingly emotional heart-to-heart between Gary and Andy that will have a good majority of viewers getting a bit misty-eyed. The dramatic moment is pierced by a drawn-out war of words with the alien force. Wright is slyly paying tribute to some of the lower-key climaxes of the sci-fi films from the 50s, where the all-American hero came face-to-face with the alien invaders and engaged in a heated discussion about the alien’s intentions. While it is smart on Wright’s end, it does throw the film’s momentum way off and it feels like we’ve hit a brick wall for a good ten minutes. Thankfully, Wright recovers with some seriously epic destruction that will get the heart pounding again. Overall, The World’s End may not be my personal favorite film of the Cornetto trilogy, but I still found myself getting wrapped up in the emotional sweep at the climax, laughing at the quick wit, hanging on the action sequences, and beaming over the love letter homages. This is one cocktail that may suffer from a bit of backwash near the end, but will still leave you with one hell of a buzz that is guaranteed to last for days.
by Steve Habrat
Anytime someone asks me to list off a few of my favorite superhero movies, I always make sure to include director Matthew Vaughn’s full-throttle 2010 offering Kick-Ass among my top picks. I am a huge fan of the controversial original, loving it so much that I even included it in my top ten films of 2010 list. I found the film to be a hugely entertaining sugarcoated parody of the superhero genre and a work that had its fingers firmly on the pulse of the new teen generation. Plus, it features two must-see performances from Nicholas Cage and Chloe Grace Moretz. It should come as no surprise that news of a Kick-Ass sequel grabbed my attention and had me very excited. After a little over three years, Kick Ass and his merry band of misfit teen superheroes and super villains return in Kick-Ass 2, a surprisingly rushed and flawed follow-up to the anarchic original. There’s no denying that Kick-Ass 2 is plagued by flat filmmaking, sloppy scenes, one very shaky performance, and way too many characters to flesh out, but the film still manages to be a madcap rush, all while smartly lampooning a generation brought up on the glow of an iPhone screen, social media, One Direction, and bath salts.
Picking up a few years after the events of the first film, comic book fanatic Dave Lizewski (played by Aaron Taylor Johnson) has decided to retire his Kick Ass persona. He shuffles through school in a daze thinking back on his run as a high-profile superhero and considers hopping back in the saddle. After some contemplation, he decides to reconnect with former ally Mindy Macready AKA Hit-Girl (played by Chloe Grace Moretz), who is now in the care of her deceased father’s closest friend, Sergeant Marcus Williams (played by Morris Chestnut). Mindy agrees to help get Dave back on his feet but she is quickly forced to hang up her cape after Marcus discovers that she is still taking to the streets as the ferocious Hit-Girl. It doesn’t take Dave long to discover that his Kick-Ass persona has inspired a slew of costumed vigilantes that are eager to pick up where he left off. Fellow masked vigilante Dr. Gravity (played by Donald Faison) soon recruits Dave to join the vigilante group “Justice Forever,” an organization run by the mysterious Colonel Stars and Stripes (played by Jim Carrey). Meanwhile, Dave’s former superhero partner Chris D’Amico AKA Red Mist (played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is busy plotting his revenge against Kick-Ass. Redubbing himself The Motherfucker, Chris begins recruiting a gang of psychopaths that will aid him on his quest of tracking down Kick-Ass and destroying New York City.
With Vaughn out of the director’s chair and serving only as producer, the Kick-Ass franchise has been handed over to Jeff Wadlow, the man responsible for such films as Cry Wolf and Never Back Down. Wadlow quickly proves that he has a handle on action-oriented sequences of Kick-Ass 2, as the same blood-drenched carnage that cut through the original film quickly comes roaring back with a vengeance. There are a number of stand out scenes including a back alley brawl that manages to capture some of the giddy shock that pulsed through our first encounter with Hit-Girl, back when she hacked through a living room of thugs as the inexperienced Kick-Ass looked on in absolute disbelief and horror. There is also a claustrophobic fistfight between “Justice Forever” and a room of seedy gangsters (capped off with a dog chewing off a gangsters unmentionables), a fiery suburban battle between the hulking Mother Russia (played with gusto by Olga Kurkulina) and a slew of cops (wait for a visual gag including a lawn mower), and a massive final showdown that looks like Wadlow took a bunch of neighborhood kids to see the climax of The Dark Knight Rises, told them to go home and make their own superhero or supervillian costumes, and then take to the streets to duke it out. It’s all very entertaining and guaranteed to put a smile on your face, that is, if you can stomach blood, spit, and chunks of flesh flying across the screen.
While the action is good and gory, Kick-Ass 2 really begins to clutter itself with numerous characters that all seem undercooked. The first time around, Aaron Taylor Johnson was the star of the show and everyone else was just a colorful supporting player, but with this film, he has to share the limelight with Chloe Grace Moretz’s Hit-Girl. Johnson is still bursting with lovable geeky charm and its fun to see him with sharper fighting skills when he throws the green wet suit on, but when Chris D’Amico begins targeting his personal life, his character’s inner struggle with throwing on the mask seems snubbed. Meanwhile, the heavy focus on the fan favorite Mindy/Hit-Girl is certainly welcome, but it seems like it is treading on the toes of Dave’s story. Mind you, Mindy’s plotline is still clever, one that reflects upon her pursuit of a normal life and trying to fit in with the popular girls at school. Moretz is such a talented young actress and she brings real bite when she is forced to turn the tables on the cheerleading clique that dares wrong her. Perhaps the biggest surprise here is Jim Carrey as the scene-stealer Colonel Stars and Stripes, a born again ex-mob enforcer with some foul chompers and a habit of taking a baseball bat to the REALLY bad guys. Carrey is really only in the film for about twenty minutes, which is a shame because you want to know more about him. Instead, his backstory is relegated to a handful of exchanges between other “Justice Forever” members that he has taken the time to mentor.
Perhaps the weakest player in the cast is Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Chris/The Motherfucker. There is no doubt in my mind that Plasse absolutely loves this role, but his over-the-top approach to the character begins to feel cheap after a while. His character is built simply to shock at every turn, making you long for something to really drive his evil scheme. It doesn’t help that his comedic timing seems to be on the fritz. As far as the supporting players go, Faison is on point but underused as the smiley Dr. Gravity, returning cast member Clark Duke has softened as Dave’s best buddy Marty/Battle Guy, Robert Emms is fidgety as the homosexual do-gooder Insect Man, and Lindy Booth is bubbly and sexy as the femme fatale Night-Bitch. Booth’s Night Bitch is established as a love interest for Kick-Ass, but by the end, its gone without a trace. As far as the bad guys go, Kurkulina is pure roid rage as the one-woman-army Mother Russia, Andy Nyman is pure sleaze as The Tumor, Daniel Kaluuya is wasted menace as Black Death, and Tom Wu is filler as Genghis Carnage. Basically, all most of them are asked to do is march behind Plasse and scowl into the camera, although there is a bad ass battle between pint sized Hit Girl and stone cold Mother Russia. The most cringe-worthy character of all is probably Augustus Prew’s Todd, Dave’s dim former buddy who joins sides with The Motherfucker and then acts surprised that he did. It’s about as underwritten as characters get, especially ones that double-cross their buddies.
While some botched supporting characters and graphic violence play tug of war, the intimate moments are the ones that really could have used more attention from the filmmakers. There are times when heartfelt exchanges feel like they were written with graphic novel dialogue and it doesn’t help that some of these scenes feel like Wadlow simply aimed his camera at one of the Kick-Ass graphic novels and hit record. The best of the serious-minded moments comes when the “Justice Forever” team takes turns explaining why they decided to put on masks and fight crime. It may be a slightly lazy double for brief character development, but a few of the stories do strike a chord and have an eerie sense of realism about them. The saving grace to the bland presentation and stiff dialogue is the fact that, once again, the project dares to prod teen culture of today. Overall, amidst the numerous problems that plague Kick-Ass 2, there is still some enjoyment to be found. Carrey hits the crazy button with an oversized Acme hammer and then whispers warm advice that cuts right to the heart of our young heroes, the action is just as crazy/disturbing/cool as it was the first time around, and you just gotta love that Hit-Girl. If you’re in the target audience or willing to keep an open mind, Kick-Ass 2 will make for a passable night at the movies.
by Steve Habrat
Before August of 2009, the summer movie season had largely been an uneventful one. About the only films worth talking about were the spiffed up reboot of the sagging Star Trek franchise and Pixar’s Up, which was a heartfelt tribute to the spirit of adventure in all of us. Then August 14th arrived and the summer movie season received the electric shock that it severely needed. Enter Neill Blomkamp, a little known South African director who had been developing a Halo movie with producer Peter Jackson. With their Halo project abandoned, Blomkamp and Jackson opted to make District 9, a gritty, Johannesburg-set science-fiction allegory for apartheid that was based on Blomkamp’s 2005 short film Alive in Joburg. Celebrated as one of the most original sci-fi films of recent memory, District 9 boasts creativity as far as the eye can see, featuring a breathless pace, gruesome action that isn’t for the faint of heart, imaginative extraterrestrials, alien weaponry guaranteed to make geeks everywhere giddy, and a classic performance from first time actor Sharlto Copley. As if a strong late summer opening and critical acclaim weren’t enough for District 9, the film went on to earn a surprising four Oscar nominations including Best Picture. Not too shabby for a $30 million sci-fi actioner that could have easily been overlooked by the stuffy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
District 9 begins by explaining that in 1982, a UFO came to a stop over Johannesburg, South Africa. After hovering motionless for several days, an investigation team entered the ship and discovered thousands of malnourished aliens fighting for their lives. With the world watching, the South African government rounded up the aliens and moved them to a government camp called District 9, which is located just outside of the city. After several nasty run-ins between the locals and the aliens (the locals refer to them as “Prawns”), the government created Multinational United, a company that is tasked with moving the aliens to District 10, a new camp further outside Johannesburg. The man in charge of this project is Wikus van de Merwe (played by Sharlto Copley), a lowly MNU employee who receives a promotion from company executive Piet Smith (played by Louis Minnar), who also happens to be Wikus’ father-in-law. Wikus and a heavily armed task force arrive in District 9 to serve eviction notices, but while investigating, Wikus stumbles upon a laboratory set-up in the home of Christopher Johnson (played by Jason Cope), a clever alien capable of piloting the massive UFO back to alien’s home planet. While snooping around the lab, Wikus finds a small canister that contains a thick black fluid. After accidentally spraying himself in the face with the liquid, Wikus begins mutating into an alien and finds himself being hunted by the corporation that once employed him. With MNU closing in, Wikus takes shelter in District 9 and seeks the help of Christopher, who agrees to fix Wikus if he agrees to help Christopher get to the alien mothership.
Opting for a “found footage” style over a conventional approach, District 9 is instantly given a much more intimate feel through a series of downtrodden interviews, cinema vértité-esque exchanges and encounters in the field, and stock footage news reports that aid in the exposition. This approach instantly separates District 9 from the rest of the sci-fi bunch (well, except maybe from Cloverfield, which applied the “found footage” style to prey upon our post 9/11 paranoia). The middle section of the film finds Blomkamp largely abandoning this approach only to re-embracing it in the action packed climax. Yet we don’t even notice that Blomkamp has dropped this style because we have completely lost ourselves in this alternate reality. When the whirlwind of action blows through the climax, the breaking news reports and the surveillance footage adds a brutal edge to the violence. People are ripped apart by alien weaponry, spaceships crash into dilapidated huts, alien droids send bullets rocketing back at the MNU forces, and that motionless spaceship begins to move. Through all of this chaos, we hold our breath for Wikus, who is the sole cause of all of this bloodshed.
On its own, District 9 would have had enough creative juice in the tank to allow it to cross the finish line, but Blomkamp made the wise decision to cast his real-life buddy Sharlto Copley as Wikus. Copley, who had never acted before this, throws himself into the role as if he may never get the chance to star in a summer movie again. Believe me when I say that he takes a really good movie and makes it great. The off-the-cuff scenes of Wikus fumbling with his microphone add a bit of humor to a film that is gravely serious and a scene in which Wikus gushes over his wife for the cameras is truly a touching moment. Even though he may be a giant loveable dweeb in the slower scenes, Copley shows he can run with the big dogs when the action explodes. Copley also shares plenty of tender moments with Cope’s Christopher Johnson, a resourceful alien who will do whatever it takes to protect his precocious young son. David James is particularly vicious as Colonel Koobus Venter, the brutal muscle of the MNU tasked with hunting the terrified Wikus down. Eugene Khumbanyiwa gives a grotesque turn as Obesandjo, the paralyzed leader of the Nigerian arms dealers who has a stomach-churning taste for alien flesh. Together, James and Khumbanyiwa form a particularly nasty thorn in Wikus’ side and make for two seriously memorable movie villains. Vanessa Haywood balances out the evil as Tania, Wikus’ heartbroken wife who wonders if she will ever see her husband again.
While District 9 has plenty of action and gee-whiz wonder at its core, the film does have quite a bit of depth to it. It is no secret that District 9 is an allegory for the apartheid era that gripped South Africa during the 1960s and there certainly is an exploration of racism, which allows the film to retain a lasting relevance. The heady ideas are a nice touch and they are smartly balanced out in between the mesmerizing performances, gut-punch action, and the breathtaking pacing. And I can’t forget to mention the impressive special effects executed on a shoestring budget. The aliens are cool and that spaceship that looms over ever shot consistently fills us with sublime wonder. As far as flaws go, there are very few to be found within District 9, although there are a couple of plot points that could have been elaborated on but that would just be nitpicking for the sake of nitpicking. Overall, upon your first viewing of District 9, there is absolutely no way you can walk away untouched by it. It is fueled by pure vision and adrenaline, and this strange brew is spiced up with a performance from Sharlto Copley that genre fans will be talking about for years to come. No matter how many times you see District 9, it is always like watching it for the first time. It deserves to join the ranks of the greatest science fiction films ever made.
District 9 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
In 2009, South African director Neill Blomkamp took moviegoers by storm with his hugely original directorial debut District 9, a grungy science-fiction gift from the gods that acted as an allegory for apartheid in Johannesburg. Made with only $30 million, District 9 went on to make $37 million its opening weekend and earn almost unanimous praise from both critics and audiences for being one of the most unique and human science fiction films to come around in years. District 9 then went on to earn four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, a huge surprise considering it was a summer action movie. After a grueling four-year wait, Blomkamp finally returns to the science fiction genre with Elysium, which finds the director digging deeper into the politics that he hinted at with District 9. While not quite as invigorating as District 9, Elysium still finds Blomkamp at the top of his game, crafting another pedal-to-the-metal sci-fi thriller around heady ideas and left-wing politics. Elysium doesn’t shy away from current hot topics like pollution, immigration, health care, and class warfare, but the film still finds plenty of time to keep audiences hooked with a full story, immaculate special effects, and a handful of extraordinary performances from a group of gifted actors. Did I mention that it is also pretty powerful?
Elysium begins in 2154, with Earth being an overcrowded and polluted wasteland. The human population has been split into two groups: the wealthy, who have fled Earth and moved to the ritzy space community Elysium, and the poor, who are left to fend for themselves in the slums on Earth. Among those living in the slums is Max (played by Matt Damon), an ex-con who is trying to get his life back on track. Max spends his days working a factory job at the Armadyne Corporation, the company that is responsible for building Elysium, and his evenings dreaming of moving to the glamorous city in the sky with his childhood love, Frey (played by Alice Braga). After being exposed to deadly levels of radiation at work, Max learns that he has only five days to live. Desperate, Max hatches a plan to make his way to Elysium, where there exists Med-Pods, which are able to cure human beings of any illness or injury in seconds. Max seeks out his old friends, Spider (played by Wagner Moura) and Julio (played by Diego Luna), who have ways of sneaking Max into the heavily guarded space community. Spider agrees to help Max under one condition: that he helps steal valuable information from Carlyle (played by William Fichtner), Armadyne’s shady CEO. With his strength diminishing by the minute, Spider provides Max with an exoskeleton that gives him superhuman strength to carry out the mission. As Max closes in Carlyle, he realizes that the information Spider is after will change the world forever. However, waiting for Max is Jessica Delacourt (played by Jodie Foster), the iron-fisted defense secretary of Elysium, and her psychotic mercenary, Kruger (played by Sharlto Copley), who will stop at nothing to keep Max out of Elysium.
Ditching the found footage approach that he used in District 9, Blomkamp allows Elysium to unfold in a much more conventional manner. The bulk of it isn’t comprised by expository interviews or shaky news reports from an alien warzone, but rather classic storytelling that retains the same antsy sense of urgency that made District 9 such an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride. Elysium means business and it is bound and determined to give you your money’s worth, especially in the action and effects department. At about the forty-minute mark, Blomkamp sends the bullets and bombs flying, and he does it in the most eye-popping way imaginable. He has guard droids getting blown to bits by exploding bullets in slow motion, spaceships zooming in and out of Earth’s atmosphere with heat seeking missiles hot on their tail, and a climatic fistfight between Kruger and Max that is sure to take your breath away. It should be noted that even though Elysium is a late summer movie, Blomkamp certainly doesn’t soften up his violence. Humans are torn to shreds by an array of advanced weaponry, one character gets a whole blown right into their face, another gets stabbed in the neck with a shard of glass, and the scene in which Max gets fitted with the exoskeleton has a few graphic moments that will make you cringe.
In addition to his refusal to soften on the breakneck pacing and the flesh-ripping violence, Blomkamp also refuses to back down from his politics, which he kept largely subdued in District 9. Ever since the trailer debuted, Elysium has been taking quite a bit of heat from the right wing for its blatant left wing political standpoint. About as subtle as a nuclear blast, Blomkamp tackles hot topics like pollution, immigration, health care, and class division/warfare, things that are currently filling news headlines as you read this. While you may think that this would automatically turn anyone with a right wing viewpoint off, that actually couldn’t be further from the truth. It really isn’t difficult to see where Blomkamp stands on these issues, but it’s the way he places them within the action that is truly admirable. He almost presents them as a cautionary warning rather than an awkward lecture. A few of these topics are wisely pushed to the foreground, mostly implied rather than outwardly addressed, which is nice because it prevents the film from really forcing itself on those who disagree with the side that the film is taking, but perhaps the most controversial topic of all (health care) doesn’t budge. The most relieving aspect of all is that Blomkamp gives these ideas a huge amount of emotional weight, and by the end, it is almost impossible to say that you weren’t shaken up at least once.
As far as the performances are concerned, Blomkamp doesn’t fall back on a group of unknowns to sit behind the wheel of the film. Unlike District 9, there are a handful of A-list thespians headlining Elysium. Damon is in full action mode as our dying hero Max, a guy who longs for a place in paradise. It doesn’t take us long to like his blue-collar ex-con and he has our full support as he fights his way into the sky. Jodie Foster is ice cold as the ruthless defense secretary of Elysium, a cruel and scheming monster who has no problem shooting down shuttles carrying handfuls of innocent Earth civilians. Sharlto Copley goes full crazy and makes off with the entire film as the scene-stealing bad-boy Kruger, a psychotic mercenary who will stop at nothing to carry out his mission. If you thought Copley was fantastic as the bumbling hero Wikus in District 9, wait until you lay eyes on this bloodcurdling performance. After the disaster that was The Lone Ranger, William Fichtner completely redeems himself as the slimy CEO of the Armadyne Corporation. It’s a small role but he plays it with fire in his eyes. Braga is fragile as Frey, the heartbroken and exhausted love interest of Max. Moura is another scene-stealer as the hobbling smuggler Spider, who gets a chance to act as a sidekick to Damon’s ass-kicking Max, and Luna shows off a soft side as Julio, a car thief with a heart of gold.
At a brief hour and fifty minutes, Elysium has quite a bit of storyline to go around. There isn’t a second wasted in its surprisingly brief runtime and you’ll never find your attention starting to wander. It balances every single character and side plot perfectly, all to come together at a hugely satisfying climax that is sure to put your emotions to the test. All of the white-knuckle action is complimented with a grimy electronic score from Ryan Amon, who is able to smoothly shift from rusted synthesizers to swelling orchestral blasts. Overall, Elysium isn’t the game-changer that District 9 ended up being, but then again, that was a tough act to follow. It is, however, a consistent, clever, thrilling, poignant, and self-assured work from a true science-fiction visionary. Here’s to hoping that we don’t have to wait another four years for Mr. Blomkamp to exhilarate us with his wild imagination.
by Steve Habrat
Two years after the abysmal King Kong vs. Godzilla, director Ishiro Honda returned to the giant monster genre with yet another installment in Toho’s Godzilla franchise. Enter 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla, a massively entertaining and thoroughly satisfying monster fight that more than makes up for what Honda delivered in King Kong vs. Godzilla. Once again, the emphasis in Mothra vs. Godzilla is on the earth shaking action and the epic showdown, but Honda dares to let his this film be a bit more thoughtful than the last two Godzilla efforts. With this offering, Honda is attacking big business greed, but he does it in the most colorful and exciting way possible. Thankfully, Honda never forgets why we are watching Mothra vs. Godzilla and this time around, he really makes sparks fly. Unlike the odd-couple pairing of King Kong and Godzilla, this effort actually seems a bit more plausible, mostly because these two hideous titans are coming from the same monster family rather than two separate cinematic universes. No, these are abominations of the bomb, two radioactive gods who mean to dish out some serious hurt and not simply toss boulders at each other while doing the twist.
After a typhoon washes a giant egg onto a Japanese beach, the local citizens descend upon the beach to marvel at its exotic beauty. Among the admirers is news reporter Ichiro Sakai (played by Akira Takarada) and photographer Junko Nakanishi (played by Yuriko Hoshi), who are both determined to get some answers about the big blue wonder from Professor Miura (played by Hiroshi Koizumi), who has arrived to study the egg. It doesn’t take long for local businessman Kumayama (played by Yoshifumi Tajima), a bigwig at Happy Enterprises, to show up and declare that he has purchased the egg. Pretty soon, Kumayama meets with Happy Enterprises CEO Jiro Torahata (played by Kenji Sahara) to draw up plans to turn the egg into a tourist attraction. During the meeting, the two businessmen are visited by the Shobijin (played by The Peanuts), two pint sized twin girls who claim to be from Infant Island. The Shobijin explain that the egg belongs to their god, Mothra, and that they wish to take the egg back to their island. Kumayama and Torahata ignore the Shobijin’s pleas and try to capture them in an attempt to exploit the tiny girls. The Shobijin narrowly escape the attack and they soon bump into Sakai, Nakanishi, and Professor Miura, who agree to help the girls get their egg back. Meanwhile, it appears that the egg wasn’t the only thing washed to shore. To the horror of the locals, Godzilla has re-emerged and is on the rampage. As Godzilla nears the egg and threatens to destroy it, the aging Mothra arrives to protect her what belongs to her.
While it might have seemed like a good idea at the time to bring RKO’s King Kong and Toho’s Godzilla together, the film had a hard time making this viewer buy into the fact that those two giant beasts were mortal enemies. It’s easy to see why Honda and Toho thought it might be a good idea to have these legends meet up (Kong battled dinosaurs in his first solo outing), but the two behemoths were from drastically different cinematic universes that didn’t compliment each other in the slightest. Thankfully, Mothra vs. Godzilla more than makes up for that slapdash effort with solid special effects and a completely plausible union, even for a genre film such as this. The appeal of the Toho monster movies is their tacky special effects, but King Kong vs. Godzilla really pushed it to the limit. Anyone who calls themselves a fan of “kaiju” movies knows to expect some cheese but that effort delivered moldy cheese that had been left out in the hot sun for weeks. With Mothra vs. Godzilla, Honda smartly pulls his monsters out of Japanese cities and has their battle take place largely in the scenic countryside. Godzilla still attacks a military base and he can’t resist crushing a few small villages, but widespread destruction remains on the sidelines. It’s a nice change of pace for the series that has relied on the gimmick of the radioactive dinosaur trudging his way into a crowded metropolis and smashing everything to pebbles.
Another major slip-up in King Kong vs. Godzilla were the monsters themselves, which look like they were done up by a distracted ten year old boy. Kong’s face looked like a swirl of brown and red and the rest of costume looked like it was a crewmember’s old Halloween costume complete with cardboard claws. Here, we have nothing that comes remotely close to that eyesore. Mothra looks spectacular as she soars around Godzilla’s head and grabs at his tail, a ferocious lioness protecting her young cubs. Even the first glimpse we get of her here is pretty chilling, which is surprising because she had a hard time making an impression in her first solo outing. When Mothra’s slimy young come slithering out of their big blue egg, the clash really gets good as they splash their way towards Godzilla, who has stomped off to feast on a handful of terrified school children stuck on an island. They nip on his tail and strategically spit their silk spray on the roaring giant to freeze him in place. As far as Godzilla himself goes, the big guy hasn’t looked this menacing and nasty since we first saw him in his shadowy black and white debut. When he descends upon the scattering villagers, he is welcomed by menacing horns that could easily have influenced the legendary score of Jaws. He is a force to be reckoned with, one that is out to cause serious pain, which allows us to really root for Mothra to put this radioactive abomination in his place.
Just when you think that Mothra vs. Godzilla can’t get any better, Honda decides to neatly tuck a very human story inside all that gloves-off fury. The characters here are very similar to those found in Mothra, but there doesn’t seem to be a bumbling one is sight. Takarada and Hoshi have plenty of chemistry as our two warm and surprisingly heroic leads. They team up with Koizumi’s wise Professor Miura on an exotic detour to Infant Island, which allows Honda to reflect a bit more on the atomic testing. Tajima and Sahara are perfect as the cartoonish money-hungry businessmen, who see a disaster as a quick way to make a buck. Watching them mistreat the pitiful Shobijin really pierces your heart, especially when they try to capture the girls and put them on display. It appears that sometimes, greedy humans can be even more monstrous than any radioactive giant with fire breath. Overall, while it wouldn’t have taken much to really make up for King Kong vs. Godzilla, Mothra vs. Godzilla goes above and beyond to erase all the bad memories of that film from the viewer’s mind. It is well-paced, intelligent, action packed, vibrant, moody, ornate, and carefully crafted for maximum entertainment. This is perhaps the most satisfying Godzilla sequel.
Mothra vs. Godzilla is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
About three years ago, director Robert Schwentke’s geriatric action-comedy RED became a respectable success. It raked in a nice chunk of change, it seemed to charm anyone who went to the theater to see it, and it even went on to earn a Golden Globe nomination in the Best Picture-Musical or Comedy category. While I found RED to be a fairly entertaining comic book outing, it really didn’t win me over like it did with almost everyone else who ventured to the theater to check out Helen Mirren with a machine gun. The absolute last thing that I thought it needed was a sequel, but apparently Hollywood thought differently. Enter RED 2, an action comedy that practically throws its back out to capture the same small, off-beat charms of the first film in a summer blockbuster season crammed with giant robots, monsters, and other, better superheroes. While new director Dean Parisot may have had his heart in the right place, RED 2 is a sluggish and stale shoot-‘em-up that feels obligated to incorporate every action movie cliché imaginable. The returning cast members sure seem spirited and the newcomers are relishing the idea of spending time with Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, and John Malkovich, but after a while, all of them start to seem bored, confused, and, much to my horror, a bit winded. Come on, guys, pick it up!
Former black-ops CIA agent Frank Moses (played by Bruce Willis) is trying to live a normal life with his feisty girlfriend, Sarah Ross (played by Mary-Louise Parker). One day while shopping at Costco, Frank and Sarah bump into paranoid buddy Marvin Boggs (played by John Malkovich), who warns Frank that there are people after them. Frank dismisses Marvin, and moments later, Marvin’s car is blown up. Sarah and Frank attend Marvin’s funeral, even though Frank is convinced that Marvin is not dead, and afterward, Frank is taken to the Yankee White Facility to be interrogated. While in custody, the Yankee White Facility is attacked by Jack Horton (played by Neal McDonough), who is there to find Frank, but right before Frank is going to be killed, Marvin, who turns out to be alive, saves the day. Frank and Sarah go on the run with Marvin, who explains that they were listed as participants in a secret Cold War mission called “Nightshade,” which revolved around sneaking a nuclear weapon into the Kremlin piece by piece. As it turns out, that mysterious weapon is now in high demand. Just when the trio believes that things can’t get any worse, they learn that their old friend Victoria Winters (played by Helen Mirren) and top contract killer Han Jo-bae (played by Lee Byung-hun) have been hired to kill them. As Frank, Sarah, and Marvin travel the world to clear their names, they come face to face with the beautiful Russian secret agent Katya (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones), a deadly assassin called “The Frog” (played by David Thewlis), and the crazy Dr. Edward Bailey (played by Anthony Hopkins), the man responsible for the creation of the weapon.
After getting off to a cloudy start, RED 2 quickly morphs into another seen-it-all-before action comedy. While RED was more humorous than it was flat-out funny, RED 2 can’t seem to deliver a good laugh to save its life. The only one who doesn’t fumble through her one-liners is Mirren, who really knows how to make even the most wooden joke cut like a knife. It is one thing that the jokes come off as lazy, but it’s another when the action can’t seem to ever get your adrenaline pumping. There are the expected car chases through narrow Paris streets, there are the fistfights that are meant to show us that Bruce Willis can still throw a mean right hook, and there are the Gatling-gun shootouts that turn cars and buildings into Swiss cheese, but all of these would-be rushes seem like they were executed by using a how-to manual for action films. The only time that Parisot really adds any personality to all the compact destruction is near the end, when Byung-hun and Mirren hop into a ice blue sports car and swerve around whizzing bullets like they belong in The Fast and the Furious. The entire sequence is anchored by Mirren’s ability to barely raise an eyebrow as cars go flipping end over end behind them. This is basically where the fun begins and ends in RED 2.
The true strength of RED lied with its all-star cast of energetic veterans who really made the film something worth talking about. While the cast of RED 2 is clearly having a good time with each other, their performances are a mixed bag. As far as the returning cast members go, Willis is the one headlining the mayhem and he looks to be right at home while doing it. He jumps, shoots, kicks, punches, and bleeds like a champion, but as the story progresses, he almost seems to be loosing interest in saving the world for the hundredth time. As Marvin, Malkovich dials back some of his acid-flashback craziness, which is a shame because his character relied on the idea that he had more than a few screws loose. Parker is clearly enjoying the fact that she is surrounded by a handful of legends, but she probably gives the laziest performance in the entire film. She basically just constantly gets mad at Frank for having dated Katya several years earlier. Mirren probably gives the best performance of the film as Victoria, who doesn’t remotely seem phased by anything going on around her. As far as the newcomers are concerned, Jones is here to give the film a bit more sex appeal. She is vampy and fun, but we are barely given the chance to get to know her character. Byung-hun turns up as the usual unstoppable hitman who can, you guessed it, kill someone with almost ANYTHING. It appears that Malkovich handed all of his crazy pills over to Hopkins, who jolly-goods his way through a crackers performance as Dr. Edward Bailey. Rounding out the cast is Neal McDonough as Jack Horton, the most boring bad guy ever. Seriously, he even has a boring name!
While the original RED had quite a few positives working in its favor, the film found success mostly because it was released during a slow month at the box office. The film came out at the end of October, with absolutely no competition whatsoever. RED 2 has been released in the middle of July, on a weekend that is usually reserved for a major studio release that is sure to make close to $100 million. It is surrounded by epic releases that almost dwarf it and make it seem like a wimpy effort. While it could be argued that RED 2 offers a nice change of pace from the usual superhero movies and alien invasion blockbusters, the film is still trying to be an action movie without bringing anything new to the table, which is really a shame. Overall, RED 2 isn’t a particularly awful film, but it is one made with absolutely no artistic vision. The tone is flat, the plot is dull, the action recycled, and the acting all over the place. Maybe if the studio shot for a release date earlier in the year or later this fall, these issues may not have been as noticeable. If there is a RED 3 in the works, which I’m sure that there is, maybe they should start rethinking it or hire a director willing to shake things up a bit.
by Steve Habrat
These days, it is extremely difficult and rare for a major Hollywood studio to take a creative risk, especially during the hot and humid summer months when audiences turn out in droves. The suits fall back on time-tested franchises, overdone remakes, comic book heroes with built-in audiences, and winded sequels that guarantee them a major worldwide hit. Take this summer, for example, as we have seen another Marvel megahit with Iron Man 3, a grim reboot of the Man of Steel, two familiar animated sequels (Monsters University and Despicable Me 2), a Brad Pitt led zombie blockbuster based off of a wildly popular novel by Max Brooks (World War Z), and another installment in the Star Trek series. While I have enjoyed all of the films I’ve pointed out here, I’ve still craved something fresh and creatively stimulating. Enter Guillermo del Toro, a man with a vivid imagination and a knack for serving up some seriously zesty cinematic efforts, both big (Hellboy, Hellboy II: The Golden Army) and small (Cronos, Pan’s Labyrinth). After a lengthy hiatus from the director’s chair, we finally have a new summer blockbuster from del Toro and that film is the astonishing giant monster-giant robot mash-up Pacific Rim, a pulpy blast of rainbow science fiction that is exactly what the cinema doctor ordered. Seconds, please!
Pacific Rim begins by explaining that giant monsters known as “Kaiju” have crawled out of a portal beneath the Pacific Ocean and stomped into our cities. Unable to bring them down with the weapons we already have, the world develops a new weapon called “Jaegers,” which are giant robots capable of tossing around the raging “Kaiju.” After several exhausting years of battle, the “Jaegers” grow less and less effective in keeping the “Kaiju” at bay. The united governments of Earth grow weary of the giant robots and they decide to cut funding for their construction. The remaining “Jaegers” are shipped off to Hong Kong, where they are left to rust away and fade from memory. The remaining “Jaeger” program is left to Commander Stacker Pentecost (played by Idris Elba), who is determined to keep the “Jaegers” fighting the good fight. Stacker approaches washed-up “Jaeger” pilot Raleigh Becket (played by Charile Hunnam), who piloted the American “Jaeger” Gipsy Danger but quit when he watched his brother die in combat, about rejoining the program in a final attempt to prevent the imminent apocalypse. Raleigh agrees and begins training to find a suitable co-pilot, which he finds in the scrappy “Jaeger” test pilot Mako Mori (played by Rinko Kikuchi). Meanwhile, bickering scientists Dr. Newton Geizler (played by Charlie Day) and Dr. Hermann Gottlieb (played by Burn Gorman) have assembled a machine that allows them to establish a mental link with the “Kaiju” and discovered that the giant monsters are in fact genetically-bred weapons sent to wipe out the human race so that their masters can colonize the planet.
While many will be quick to label Pacific Rim as a Transformers wannabe, the film has so much more to offer than one of those Michael Bay abominations. This candy-colored gem is an exhilarating ode to Toho Co., the Japanese production company that is responsible for releasing giant monster movies (called “kaiju” movies, which is Japanese for “giant monster”) like 1954s Godzilla. While Pacific Rim certainly tips its hat to Godzilla and his family of rampaging atomic beasts (Rodan, Mothra, etc.), del Toro’s vision is something completely singular. The story line is carried by the myriad of colorful characters, which consistently stand apart from the astonishing special effects and towering action sequences that are loud enough to wake up the two people sleeping through The Lone Ranger in the neighboring theater. In the vein of Toho, the action is relentless, especially the neon fist-fight between a handful of “Jaegers” and a couple of seriously nasty “Kaiju” in the middle of downtown Hong Kong. It’s a rock ‘em-sock ‘em moment of pure adrenaline ecstasy that will have adults and children cheering in delight. But the thrills don’t stop there, as del Toro keeps uping the ante and powering up his beasts for a show-stopping underwater brawl boosted by a nuclear fizz.
While the heavy metal CGI action is a must-see, Pacific Rim is a very human film and one brimming with performances that will beckon you back for more. Del Toro proves that you don’t necessarily need a Brad Pitt, Robert Downey Jr., or Johnny Depp in the thick of the action to keep the audience absorbed in what is playing out before them. All you need is colorfully drawn characters with fragile emotion tucked delicately inside the layered armor. The relatively unknown Hunnam is out for blood as Raleigh, and I mean that in the best possible way. He is the all-American good guy—one that is nursing deep wounds but is eager to deliver a one-two hit to the massive monsters that wade through the Pacific. His chemistry is exceptional with Kikuchi, who isn’t the same old love interest (It is hinted at but never addressed outright. Perhaps in the sequel.). Kikuchi is heartwarming as the girl with a shy crush, but she is a lightning bolt of vengeance when we are allowed to glimpse inside her broken heart. These two animated leads are kept on a short leash by Elba’s no-nonsense father figure, who pops pills for a life-threatening illness and delivers pulse-pounding speeches about meeting the “monsters that are at our door” and “canceling the apocalypse.”
While our three leads do an incredible job, the supporting players are certainly something to behold. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie Day is a quirky and fun choice as the tattooed “Kaiju” scientist Newton, who rambles and shakes like a hipster lunatic in oversized specs. Surprisingly, he isn’t here simply to act as the comic relief, which really is a testament to his talent. Burn Gorman is great as Day’s uber-nerd partner Hermann, who pounds on a chalkboard and hobbles around like a comic book Albert Einstein with high-waisted pants and a cane. Clifton Collins Jr. is a treat as Tendo Choi, an Elvis-like greaser “Jaeger” whiz who is determined to spice up the role of the guy who simply sits behind the computer screen and acts as a guide to the heroes in the field. Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky are great tough guys as Hercules and Chuck Hansen, a tough-as-nails Australian father-son duo tasked with a beast of a mission. The pint-sized Mana Ashida is fantastic in her minor role as a young Mako Mori. She basically just cries and wanders around with a shoe in her hand, but she sent chills down my spine with her raw emotion. Last but certainly not least is the always-welcome Ron Perlman as Hannibal Chau, a blinged-out black marketeer in sinister goggles who tracks down and deals “Kaiju” organs. He shares some wonderful moments with Charlie Day’s twitchy scientist.
Considering that Pacific Rim is a tribute to Atomic Age creature features, there are numerous nods to Godzilla and many other Toho releases. I certainly smiled when Hong Kong citizens were locked into an underground shelter and huddled together as “Kaiju” footsteps boomed overhead, something that called to mind the original Godzilla. There is also a sly little tribute to the flare tactic used to keep Godzilla away from a blacked out city in Godzilla Raids Again and there is a magnificent aerial moment that sung praises to Rodan and Mothra. If there is something I absolutely need to criticize, there are a few moments where the action was a bit incoherent, but these moments are few and far between. Overall, while Pacific Rim doesn’t ever get as political and poetic as those post-World War II efforts did, there is still something deeply personal about del Toro’s vision. It is coming from the heart and it is a beautifully written love letter to the monster movies that del Toro loved as a kid. This film is a labor of love, a carefully crafted summer epic that earns its action sequences and doesn’t ever forget to remain human.
by Steve Habrat
Just under seven months ago, Quentin Tarantino proved that there was still some life in the western genre with his bold and brutal Django Unchained, which nabbed two Academy Awards and a nomination for Best Picture. Not only did it leave this viewer hankering for more from Mr. Tarantino, but it also left me hoping that more westerns would gallop into theaters. Now we have director Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, a bloated, erratic, and downright frustrating summer blockbuster from Disney, a studio that should have stayed far away from this title. For many months now, I have felt that most critics and audience members have been eager to approach The Lone Ranger with knives drawn, which I thought was a bit hasty and unfair. I thought the trailers showed potential even if it did seem like Disney was forcing this project to be another Pirates of the Caribbean, which was a huge mistake. The truth is that The Lone Ranger isn’t nearly as awful as some are claiming it is and that there is, in fact, quite a bit of potential here, but there are a myriad of problems with the film that should have been addressed before Disney gave it the okay. The biggest flaw is that Disney just couldn’t settle on a tone for the film. Is it supposed to be a dark and violent ode to Sergio Leone and the spaghetti westerns of the 60s and 70s, or is it supposed to be a winking action movie with heavy doses of slapstick camp? You just can’t have it both ways.
The Lone Ranger picks up in 1869, with mild-mannered law student John Reid (played by Armie Hammer) returning to Colby, Texas, by train to visit his brother and Texas Ranger Dan Reid (played by James Badge Dale). Also aboard the train is the sadistic outlaw Butch Cavendish (played by William Fichtner), who is being transported to Colby to be hung by Dan, and a mysterious Indian named Tonto (played by Johnny Depp), who has been tracking Cavendish. After Cavendish escapes from the train with the help of his loyal gang, Dan makes a vow to railroad tycoon Latham Cole (played by Tom Wilkinson) to track down the outlaw and bring him to justice. Dan recruits John as a Texas Ranger and together, they set out to find Cavendish, but they soon run into a trap set by the Cavendish gang and the Reid brothers are both gunned down. Several days later, Tonto discovers the bodies of the Reid brothers and he begins an elaborate Indian burial ritual. Near the end of the ritual, Tonto is shocked to find a white “spirit horse” standing over John’s grave. As it turns out, John is still alive and Tonto is convinced that he is a “spirit walker” sent to aid him on his quest to track down Cavendish. Tonto explains that John can’t be killed in battle and that he must wear a mask to strike fear in the hearts of their enemies. Together, they join forces to capture Cavendish and make him pay for his horrific crimes.
The Lone Ranger opens with a crackling train robbery that really gets the viewer’s adrenaline pumping. It has hints of the humor that was found in Pirates while never skimping on the rollicking action we’ve come to expect from Mr. Verbinski. It seems like everything is balanced but once the sequence ends, the tone splits off into multiple directions, never to come together again. There are scenes that are effective grotesque and sinister, especially a scene in which Cavendish slices out a man’s heart and devours it, only to be followed up by a some cutesy joke from Depp’s peculiar Tonto. This duel continues on for two and a half hours, and it concludes with a finale that is so mad cap, it almost feels like it belongs in another movie. While one could point the finger at Verbinski, it really should be pointed at Disney, who seems like one day they would tell Verbinski to make the film a bit edgier and then get cold feet about the decision the next day. When things do get dark, it feels more like Verbinski’s heart is in it, but when he is forced to pull back, the whole project seems to flat line, which yanks the viewer right out of the moment. It’s just exhausting.
Then we have the storyline, which suffered from multiple rewrites during the rocky production stage. While I’m sure the rewrites contributed to some the awkward shifts in tone, it also feels like the writers are unnecessarily trying to convolute the film with hazy side plots that could have been trimmed out and saved for the director’s cut Blu-ray. There are glaring plot holes (How did Tonto break out of jail and track down the Reid brothers?), obvious plot twists that you can see coming a mile away (There is one character in particular that you know is up to no good), and a slew of characters that, yes, are very colorful but ultimately useless in the grand scheme of things (I’m looking at you, Helena Bonham Carter). It is the same problem that plagued the second and third Pirates movies and you’d think that Disney would have learned their lesson, but I guess not. Mind you, The Lone Ranger never hits the confounding heights of those films, but it seems like the filmmakers are allowing it simply to trick the audience into thinking there is more depth here than there actually is. In a way, you hope that this is Disney’s way of really making the film worth the ten bucks you paid to see it, but I seriously doubt that Disney is being that generous.
Perhaps the biggest draw to The Lone Ranger is the performances, especially from the eccentric Depp, who also serves as executive producer here. While Depp’s name has been used to draw audiences in, the real star here is newcomer Armie Hammer, who made a name for himself in David Fincher’s The Social Network. While it was risky to cast someone like Hammer for the role, he does a fine job with the material he is given. The problem is, the material makes his character highly unlikable and extremely difficult to root for. His character doesn’t really do much, and he is constantly at odds with killing someone, even though the man he is tracking is a known psychopath with a taste for human flesh. While it is nice to see a character grapple with the decision of taking another human being’s life, I don’t think anyone under the sun was going to blame him for putting a bullet between Cavendish’s eyes, especially when he is threatening an innocent little boy. As far as Depp goes, he fares okay as Tonto, but for all the enthusiasm that he showed for the project, it is tough to really see it in his performance. As far as the supporting players go, Cater has some fun with her pointless role as Red Harrington, a brothel maid who packs heat in her ivory leg. Wilkinson is the usual burly business man as Latham Cole and Fichtner steals nearly every single scene he is in as the bloodthirsty Cavendish, a villain that is way too evil for a film that plays a nice as this does. Ruth Wilson also turns up in a small role as Dan’s widow, Rebecca, who is here to give the film a puny and pathetic love story.
For all of its problems, The Lone Ranger still has some brilliant little nods to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. There are two particular sequences that brought to mind Once Upon a Time in the West and the close up shots of scarred, sweaty, and thickly hairy gunfighters are evocative of Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy. The score from Hans Zimmer is also pretty atmospheric—something that I’m sure would make Ennio Morricone smile. There are also a few funhouse moments, especially a kaleidoscope detour into Hell on Wheels, where fire-and-brimstone preachers shout about the apocalypse and sideshow barkers plead with drunken railroad workers to step right up and marvel at a parade of freaks. I guess it is the little moments that really make the movie. Overall, while the credits of The Lone Ranger say, “directed by Gore Verbinski,” the film feels like the work of several different parties, all of which were on completely different pages. It is too dark to really appeal to children but too goofy to fully appeal to adults. If the Lone Ranger and Tonto do end up returning to a theater near you, let’s hope that they make the wise decision to get serious and remain consistent.