(Crackle Streaming, April 2017) Some things are difficult to appreciate until they’re gone, and as a cinephile I do rather miss the steady stream of Asian-influenced martial arts action movies of the early 2000s. Following the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (exploiting a trend a decade in the making through the home video market), American theatres received a steady stream of Asian action movies for a few years, and it was easy to believe that it would go on forever. Except that it didn’t, and today you’d be hard-pressed to find any of those movies at the multiplex. Interestingly, this may make then-overlooked movies more interesting to watch today. I’d given a miss to Unleashed at the time, but seeing it today probably makes it look a bit better than I would have felt back then. Not that the movie is particularly bad in itself: Jet Li stars as a gifted fighter raised like an attack dog by a London criminal, and Unleashed predictably follows what happens once he’s adopted by a kindly blind man and his daughter. You can write the rest of the story yourself and wouldn’t be far off from the result (Luc Besson actually scripted the movie and it’s a slightly above average script for him). But the point of the film (despite a performance by Morgan Freeman as the blind man) isn’t the story or the action as much as it’s the action sequences directed by Louis Leterrier and performed by Jet Li. The camera moves well, captures the action nicely and does allow for the grittiness of the premise to be counter-balanced by the comfort found by the hero with his new family. Bob Hoskins also turns up in a memorable loan shark role. While Unleashed isn’t a classic for the ages, it holds up generally well. Twelver years later, it also has the advantage of looking more original than it did back then.
(On Cable TV, October 2016) There are two movies competing for attention Grimsby, and one of them is far better than the other. There’s the somewhat energetic spy thriller, featuring Mark Strong doing what he does best as a no-nonsense special operative trying to stop a terrorist plot. That part of the movie is directed with glee and energy by Louis Leterrier (a veteran when it comes to special-effects-heavy spectacle), goes by smoothly even as it doesn’t reinvent the genre. But then there’s the other movie, the crude gross-out comedy that focuses on Sacha Baron Cohen usual brand of comic vulgarity. Racing to the bottom of offensiveness, Grimsby features … well, I’m not going to describe it if it’s going to either disturb or intrigue you. Suffice to say that as the film uses the spy-movie framework for lowbrow gags, Grimsby becomes increasingly dispiriting. If there’s a case to be made about wasted time, money and effort in the service of something that makes the world worse for existing … yes, this is a serious contender for worst-movie-of-the-year status. Or would be if it wasn’t for the few sequences that manage to shake off its particularly revolting humour in favour of some solid action beats. Oh well; at least the movie was a box-office failure, mitigating the risks that we’ll ever see a sequel.
(Video on Demand, September 2013) I really wished I liked this film more than I actually do. After all, I’m a near-addict to the kind of fast-paced, slick commercial filmmaking that Now You See Me represents at its best, and I’m fond of thematic parallels between stage magic and thriller moviemaking. The story of four skilled magicians involved in a revenge caper that they don’t entirely understand, Now You See Me is fun to watch and filled with interesting actors: Jesse Eisenberg is perfecting his alpha-nerd persona, Mark Ruffalo is fast settling as a dependable protagonist, while Woody Harrelson has some of the best lines in the movie as an arrogant hypnotist. Having both Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman as supporting actors really doesn’t hurt. (Too bad about Isla Fisher’s bland character, though.) When it clicks, Now You See Me blends beat-perfect editing with skillful visuals and great audio material. Director Louis Leterrier loves to move his camera around in order to make even the most ordinary moments seem exciting, and his action scenes are impressively choreographed. So what’s the problem? Well, essentially, a lack of restraint: The film often uses blatant CGI trickery in order to fake what are supposed to be real-time stage magic tricks, and in doing so basically blows away its own suspension of incredulity: When the smallest details are so obviously fake, it’s tough to be impressed by the film’s bigger magical set-pieces. Now You See Me’s plot dynamics are also as overblown as to minimize the impact of its last narrative revelations: by the time the final sequence is supposed to blow our minds with an unexpected reversal, an excess of previous twists is bound to leave viewers’ reaction divided between “That makes no sense” and “Oh, whatever”. The caper plot is also very unlikely, but that’s part of the charm of the sub-genre. Despite its flaws, Now You See Me is an enjoyable piece of commercial filmmaking, and I even look forward to the announced sequel.
(In theatres, April 2010) Sword-and-sandal epics are worthless without an overwrought sense of melodrama, and that’s the single best reason to recommend Clash of the Titans despite a weak script, inconsistent directing and lacklustre performances by actors who should know better. Three words from Liam Neeson to convince you: “RELEASE THE KRAKEN!” (Thesis: All movies are improved by a character shouting “RELEASE THE KRAKEN!”) I don’t recall the 1981 original in enough detail to make useful comparisons, so let us consider this remake on its own terms: a mishmash of Greek mythology, action-movie sequences, and blockbuster fantasy trappings. Among several better actors playing the pantheon, Sam Worthington doesn’t have much to do drama-wise as Perseus (he gets a team and loses it almost as quickly), but after Avatar and Terminator: Salvation the film should do fine in polishing his niche as the guy to play non-entirely-human action heroes. He gets to run around in a tunic, fight scorpions, cut the head of Medusa, and all the other things a demigod is expected to do. Direction-wise, Louis Leterrier’s action scenes are uneven: The scorpion fight takes place in clear sunlight with decently long cuts, but the Medusa and Kraken sequence are a bit of an overcut mess even though the CGI feels a bit better than average. Still, the fun of the picture lies in the arch leaden quality of the dialogue and the fact that everyone seems to be playing the material as straight as possible. It’s not great art, it may not even be great entertainment, but it does what it has to do, and that should be enough.