(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) Sometimes, you don’t fully appreciate what you’ve got until it goes away, and that’s a bit how I feel about xXx: Return of Xander Cage considering that it’s a blatant throwback to the kind of silly overblown action movie that they were making in the early 2000s with the original xXx and xXx: State of the Union. Those movies kind of went away while we weren’t looking, replaced by grittier, meaner, shakier but not necessarily better Bourne knockoffs. And now here are Vin Diesel and xXx: Return of Xander Cage, unapologetically renewing with the style and content of the first two films. Our xXx hero, as it turns out, never died despite misinformed reports to the contrary: He just travelled around the world and stands ready to be reluctantly recruited once more when hacky-wacky mumbo-jumbo stuff needs fixing once again. However, this time he gets to team up with slightly-less grandiose archetypes in order to fight for freedom and all that good stuff. So it is that we don’t just get Vin Diesel, but the always-watchable Ruby Rose as a sharpshooter, action sensation Tony Jaa, Nina Dobrev in a very cute nerdy-girl role, Toni Colette and Samuel L. Jackson walking on and off the screen to make sure the plot mechanics are set up properly, and none other than Ice Cube back in a return engagement through an absolutely classic introduction featuring his own music. If you’ve read this far without realizing that xXx: Return of Xander Cage is not a great movie, I question your attentiveness. It is, however, an increasingly enjoyable film especially if you saw its predecessors. Diesel and Cube both try to out-surly each other, while the supporting cast knows that they’re not going for subtlety. The action sequences are just fine thanks to director D. J. Caruso’s competency with the form. (It had been a while since he helmed good genre movies; it’s good to have him back.) Of course, the conscious decision to ape the original film’s methods means that xXx: Return of Xander Cage does feel like a throwback to 10–15 years ago. But there’s no school like the old school, and as a fan of that particular era of action filmmaking, I truly had unexpected fun watching it all happen again. I’m not necessarily demanding another sequel, but I’d be good with it.
(On Cable TV, October 2017) It takes a long time for Fist Fight to even become likable. Part of it has to do with it ludicrous set-up, in which two stressed-out high school teachers in a bad school end up planning to fight each other after the last day of classes. In order to get there, you have to posit a school (and not even a particularly downtrodden school) in which both students and teachers seem to exist in a hellish post-apocalyptic bacchanalia. If anyone wondering when pedophilia would become a major comic point in a Hollywood comedy, well, wait no longer. (Also; if you were waiting for Christina Hendricks to flip that scene from Lost River and tell someone “You need a knife… You need to cut him from his forehead all the way down to his chin,” then Fist Fight is there for you.) Then there’s Charlie Day, whose comic persona is irritating at the best of times—putting him up against a stoic Ice Cube as the antagonist is asking for divided loyalties in which we wish for the so-called protagonist to be beaten down hard. It takes a long while, using the most basic emotional drivers, for us to actually start caring about the so-called hero. While Fist Fight does manage to compress its plot in a scant few hours, its innate meanness can be hard to take at times. Fortunately, a bunch of those problems resolve themselves by the time the third act comes by and the two teachers eventually do (after a few false starts and fake-outs) starting hitting each other. While the result isn’t high art, it may be enough to make you forgive the hard slog of the film’s first hour. Ice Cube, as usual, glides through the chaos with an intact persona. Jillian Bell makes the most of a reprehensible character, which is saying much considering that most of the characters are irremediable. Otherwise, there isn’t much here to remember. R-rated comedies tend to blur together these days and Fist Fight doesn’t escape the trend.
(On Cable TV, August 2017) I’ve been curious about Lottery Ticket all the way since seeing its trailer back in 2010, but it took until now to finally have a look at it. Having done so, I’m not going to pretend it’s anything more than a hood comedy featuring high financial stakes, as a young man with a variety of issues wins a gigantic jackpot and has to hold on to his ticket for the next three days. Most of the time, Lottery Ticket plays according to the standards of so-called black comedies: depiction of ghetto life, stereotypical humour, threats of thuggery and so on. That it takes place near Atlanta rather than in Los Angeles isn’t particularly important. As such, what you get with Lottery Ticket is roughly what you can expect from it. It could certainly use more tweaking, though: there’s often a tonal mismatch between the silly comedy of the protagonist’s entourage with the more violent scenes that come later on, or the middle section that deals in lavish excess. The jokes are merely fine, the film does indulge in its own depiction of the male gaze given its treatment of female characters, and there is little doubt as to what role each character has to play in the plot. At least there are known faces in the mix. While rapper Shad “Bow-Wow” Moss is featureless as the protagonist, Ice Cube has a small but important role as an ex-boxer, Terry Crews has a typically very funny small role as a reluctant bodyguard, and Leslie Jones shows up for a line or two. Lottery Ticket isn’t a particularly memorable or significant film, even as the black comedies subgenre goes, but it’s likable enough to be watched without too much effort.
(Video on Demand, July 2016) It’s not that much of a surprise nor a contradiction if Barbershop: The Next Cut, fourth movie in the Barbershop universe, ends up tackling issues of community and gang violence. While the series’ best moments have almost always been the comic banter between the characters, its most satisfying entries (I’m not looking at you, Beauty Shop) have also highlighted the central place of the barber shop as a community hub, a forum to air out and resolve differences peacefully and a voluntary haven distinct from the outside world. To see this fourth film tackle gang violence in South Chicago and the choice between taking a stand or walking away feels appropriate. More entertainingly, the integrated barbershop is a step forward for the series, showing and profiting from the male and female perspective. Even the belated nature of this instalment, coming ten years after its predecessor, works to its advantage as things have or have not changed in the interim for both the characters and their world. Writer/star Ice Cube knows how to blend the inconsequential with the meaningful, and Barbershop: The Next Cut is as good as any pop-culture indicator of the state of the black community at the end of the Obama administration. (Guess who shows up after the credits roll?) As far as acting is concerned, there is a lot to like here: Ice Cube, Cedric the Entertainer and Regina Hall are up to their usual standards, while Eve, Common and Nicki Minaj both impress with natural performances. The result is an enjoyable blend of comedy, drama and social criticism, carefully calculated to balance each other. Sometimes, the most interesting commentary doesn’t come from loudspeakers, and Barbershop: The Next Cut is able to deliver some good material while looking as if it’s talking about nothing particularly important.
(Video on Demand, April 2016) Anyone who goes into Ride Along 2 should expect nothing else than a watered-down re-thread of the first film. It’s in the nature of comedy sequels to play it safe and keep doing the same, so it’s not surprising to find out that this sequel does exactly that. Once again, the chemistry between Ice Cube and Kevin Hart remains the best reason to see the film, with much of the humour stemming from their respective characters interacting. Otherwise, it’s the kind of cop-comedy made countless times before—including the Miami locale. Even acknowledging this built-in tendency, Ride Along 2 is not particularly well executed: the set pieces are routine, the plot isn’t that intriguing and the film doesn’t have as much in store for surprises. Perfunctory and barely meeting expectations to the point of not warranting any extended discussion, Ride Along 2 will go the way of most comedy sequels: forgetfulness, followed by endless bundling with the first film in DVD collections.
(On DVD, April 2016) By their third instalment, comedy series usually understand their chosen comic groove, and need to evolve in order to survive. Friday after Next shows both by reprising the stoner-buddy dynamics of the first two films, but transplanting the action again, this time to a strip mall and then the protagonists” apartment. Written, co-produced and starring Ice Cube, this third instalment isn’t all that different from the first two, but it does slip and stumble more often. Most noteworthy would be a homosexual assault sequence that feels out of place in the generally amiable Friday universe—fortunately, Terry Crews” career recovered from that misstep. (There’s also an abuse-toward-the-elderly gag that really doesn’t play well.) Otherwise, the film does set up a number of promising plot possibilities, but somehow fails to make the fullest use of it. From the thieving Claus to the denizen of the strip mall, to a third half-hearted love interest in as many movies, Friday after Next often seems to be going through the motions without focus or wit, occasionally recapturing the tone of the series but just as often losing it for no good reason. It’s a disappointment despite a decent number of laughs, and it may reflect what happens when a series becomes a bit more complacent than self-assured. It’s still not a bad film (if you’re watching the DVD set, don’t stop at the second disc), but it could have been more even without trying to be different. A fourth Friday film is shooting even as I write this review—let’s hope it’ll conclude the series on a more positive note.
(On DVD, April 2016) The Friday series moves from the hood to the burbs in this bugger-budgeted follow-up, and the result may not necessarily be better overall, but it’s certainly funnier. Ice Cube stars as a young man who, following the events of the previous film, finds himself exiled to a cousin’s house for his own protection. Of course, mayhem both awaits and follows as Latino gangbangers live next door, and the first film’s antagonist is in hot pursuit. Slicker, slightly grander and more consistently funny than the first film, Next Friday may not have the hood/comedy juxtaposition effect running for it, but it’s a decent comedy in its own right. The laughs are there, the crazy characters abound, the rhythm is sustained (easily improving upon the first film’s laid-back approach to plotting) and the conclusion feels as if it gracefully ties up its plot threads. Mike Epps does well in a film that asks him to substitute for Chris Tucker, while Lisa Rodriguez does surprisingly well in a role that doesn’t require much more than being held in the centre of the male gaze so obvious to the film. Next Friday isn’t an overly ambitious film, and whatever social commentary value it has comes organically from Ice Cube’s perspective, but it’s a decent-enough film as a silly comedy and that’s all it needs to be.
(On DVD, April 2016) If Friday is a minor classic of its genre, it’s largely because it managed to ride the ’hood-movie trend of the mid-nineties and turn it into a stoner comedy without betraying its origins. Famously co-written by NWA-founder/Boyz n the Hood lead actor Ice Cube (who also stars in the film), Friday doesn’t mean to be anything more or less than a day in the life of the ’hood, celebrating the absurdity of its environment while looking at it fondly at the same time. Much of the film is surprisingly retrained to a single street, with the two protagonists of the story (Cube and Chris Tucker in an early role) sitting on their porch and watching the world coming to them. Soft drugs are consumed, with amusing consequences. Much of Friday, especially its first half, is laid-back, almost amorphous in the way it accumulates plot elements. Fortunately, it all leads to something in the end. There is some suspense in the film, but most of its violence (including a shootout) is handled with comedy in the form of intentionally awkward pauses and character quips. Friday remains most noteworthy for showcasing a young Ice Cube in a comic role, something that would occur again with some regularity in the course of his career, but also was the debut feature film for F. Gary Gray (who would later get a reputation as an action director, and direct Straight Outta Compton which portrays Ice Cube writing Friday). Meanwhile, John Witherspoon seems to be acting in his own kind of demented universe, to further comic effect. Despite its obviously low budget and slack pacing, Friday is still enjoyable today—see it alongside Boyz ’n the “hood for maximum contrast.
(Netflix Streaming, February 2016) I remember that xXx: State of the Union got terrible reviews upon release, but watching the film lately is enough to make anyone wonder why the reviewers were so vexed. Of course, time has been kind to lead actor Ice Cube, who seems even more iconic today thanks to his anointment in Straight Outta Compton: Part of State of the Union’s charm comes from seeing his gruff demeanour clashing with the usual nonsense of a typical dumb action movie. It’s worth highlighting that Ice Cube has personality and the film distinguishes itself (even a decade later) by featuring it as best it can. There is some daring in State of the Union’s premise of a coup building against the US government, and a sprinkling of action sequences (especially a purely nonsensical but fast-paced bullet-train sequence at the climax of the film) are enough to keep things interesting to the end. Under Lee Tamahori’s direction, State of the Union is not a film that takes itself seriously, and so becomes one of those movies in which absurdities act as features rather than problems. It’s easy to feel some odd affection for it, especially if you’re already an Ice Cube fan and find much postmodern fun in contemplating an NWA founding member saving the US government from rogue elements.
(On Blu-Ray, December 2015) There have been so many imitators and spiritual successors to Boyz n the Hood (all the way to 2015’s Dope) that it can be hard today to see the film as it must have appeared in 1991, abruptly bringing South Central L.A. to the suburban multiplex. But revisiting the film is more than worth it even twenty-five years later, because John Singleton’s debut feature has the kind of depth and subtlety that most of its imitators forgot about. It’s a film dominated by crime, for instance, but it is not primarily a criminal film: The drama is strong, multifaceted and the film never loses sight that its authority figure (Lawrence Fishburne, in a terrific role) is right in counseling his son to stay away from even the slightest disregard for the law. The rest of the cast is fantastic, from Angela Basset to Ice Cube to Cuba Gooding Jr. to Nia Long. The film stock grain is obvious on the Blu-Ray disc, but the film is shot cleanly and features a number of sly visual jokes, from the first STOP sign to Reagan references. No doubt about it: Boyz n the Hood remains an impressive piece of work despite time and imitators.
(Video on Demand, January 2015) At this point, following the successful streak from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie and now 22 Jump Street, who isn’t impressed by writer/director Christopher Miller and Phil Lord’s ability to take on the most hopeless projects and turn them into gold? No one expected anything good from TV adaptation 21 Jump Street, and yet they delivered a fairly successful crime comedy. Nobody expected anything from 22 Jump Street, and here they are, delivering not only another successful crime comedy, but one that comments upon the clichés of the genre, and indulges into a lot of meta-commentary on movie sequels. It’s surprisingly effective, playing off our knowledge of the characters and the genre they’re working within. Some of the best moments of the film come from seeing characters react to each other, with Ice Cube being integral to two of the movie’s funniest comic set-pieces. Meanwhile, Jonah Hill is more or less up to his usual persona, while Channing Tatum continues to impress with his comic persona. The end-credit montage by itself is practically worth the time watching the entire film. While occasionally vulgar and easy and cheap, there’s quite a bit more running under the motor than most typical sequels, and it’s that extra effort that makes the film so endearing. And while good enough should be left alone, meaning that there’s no need for a 23 Jump Street, it’s going to resist seeing what Miller/Lord have in mind when it inevitably arrives.
(Video on Demand, December 2014) By now, the mismatched-buddy-cop routine is old, so it’s more a matter of execution than originality of premise. Here, Kevin Hart gets to play a diminutive motor-mouth trying to impress a grizzled police officer in order to earn his approval to marry his sister. It’s all familiar stuff (and no one will go see Ride Along in order to make sense of its criminal subplot), but fortunately it’s sufficiently well-made to carry viewers along for the ride. Ice Cube as a gruff cop is now practically typecasting (although there’s a pretty funny flash-cut with a Cypress Hill sting), and he plays it as well as anyone could. Hart himself is also funny in a role that easily could have turned annoying. The film is by-the-number (in fact, so by-the-number that you can find an admiring mention of its early script in the 2004 formula-screenwriter’s-bible Save the Cat!) but unobjectionably charming in its own mass-market sanitized way. It may not amount to much, but it’s a decent time-waster.
(On-demand video, July 2012) I really did not expect this movie take on 21 Jump Street to be any good: Eighties nostalgia leaves me cold, I’m still dubious about Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum never struck me as a comedy lead. But the film’s reviews were generally positive and I was in the mood for some silly stuff… So it is that, surprises of surprises, 21 Jump Street proves to be a clever and hilarious action-comedy, perhaps the most satisfying take on the 21 Jump Street concept possible given today’s movie-comedy zeitgeist. Crucially, this movie version acknowledges the shortcomings of the original’s concept and then proceeds to maneuver away from it by taking on a quasi-parody of high-school movies and inverting traditional archetypes. So it is that the jock discovers that the nerds have taken over, that the nerd is forced in a jock role, and the old rules don’t apply. The screenwriters clearly have fun with the source material, going as far as casting Ice Cube as a police sergeant, put together a hilariously un-heroic car chase, and killing off characters from the TV show. Mind you, the comedy isn’t all hilarious: in keeping with today’s current R-rating comedy shtick, profanity is pervasive and a significant fraction of the film’s gags revolve around male genitalia. Still, there’s enough humor delivered at such a fast pace that a good joke will almost always follow a lame one, and the snappy direction accounts for much of the film’s fun and forward momentum. Channing Tatum proves himself to be a charming straight man, while Jonah Hill gets one of his least-annoying roles to date here. The rapid-fire end credit sequence suggests a number of cut subplots, but the result on-screen is more than fun enough… even for people with no affection or knowledge of the original series. A surprise comedy hit, 21 Jump Street is a bit more than just a nostalgic re-hash of a familiar concept: It succeeds best once it becomes its own comedy vehicle.