(On Cable TV, July 2018) I frankly wasn’t expecting much from a return to the Jumanji universe: The original is uneven enough (something not helped at all by its copious but primitive CGI effects) that a sequel seemed unnecessary—it felt even less necessary when it became obvious that it was going to focus on videogames, a topic as overexposed as could be. But I’ll be the first to admit that I was unexpectedly charmed by the result: Anchored by the likable Dwayne Johnson, supported by the careful use of often-grating comic actors as Kevin Hart and Jack Black, and further enhanced by a great performance from lesser-known Karen Gillian, the cast is up to the film’s surprisingly witty script. Not only revisiting the Jumanji concept through familiar videogame mechanics, Welcome to the Jungle wrings comedy out of shifting character relationships, body identity questions, and videogame tropes addressed with some wit. While the structure is schematic by design and some plot developments can be seen well in advance, much of the film’s interest is in the moment-by-moment beats. It does deliver a bit more than expected, which is already not too bad considering the tendency of modern reboots, sequels and rip-offs towards mediocrity.
(Video on Demand, October 2016) As much as I like Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson as comic performers, there’s something off with Central Intelligence that makes the film feel smaller than their combination would suggest. To its credit, the film does veer off in less simplistic territory than you could expect from the first few minutes: there’s a layer of uncertainty to Johnson’s character that makes the story a bit more self-challenging than expected, even though the ultimate outcome of the various twists is never in doubt. Unfortunately, it’s that same uncertainly that so often prevents the film from snapping fully in focus. Johnson’s character is pushed to such extremes that it’s tough to suspend disbelief that he would exist even in the film’s reality. It doesn’t help that Central Intelligence, in much of the same way as other contemporary action/comedy hybrids, veers back and forth between persona-based improvisation and strictly scripted madcap action scenes. The uneven pacing is an issue, especially when the result runs close to two hours. At least the two lead actors deliver more or less what’s expected of them. Johnson is ready to try anything for a laugh and his charisma helps the film hide some of its more inconsistent problems, but Hart seems a bit held back by the place taken by his co-star and the demands of the production—he’s usually better in more free-flowing films. As for the rest, director Rawson Marshall Thurber keeps things going during the action scenes, perhaps further highlighting the two-speed inconsistency of the film. Still, if you’re in the mood to see Johnson and Hart goof on their respective personas, Central Intelligence will do … although it’s not hard to be disappointed by how much better the film should have been.
(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 Cable TV, October 2015) I remain astonished at Kevin Hart’s gift in consistently transforming what would be an obnoxious persona into solid comedy gold. In The Wedding Ringer, for instance, he takes up a hustler role specializing in grand-scale deception and somehow makes it funny. The basic plot has something to do with faking best men for a groom without much of a social life, but the real point of the film are the comic set-pieces, the characters, and seeing Kevin Hart speak as fast as possible. It shouldn’t work (and, at times, it doesn’t) but Hart is at his best and manages to elevate the rest of the material. Compared to him, most other actors are a bit dull, including Josh Gad as the nominal lead of the story. Some plot points are fuzzy (such as the overheard conversation that crystallizes the film’s ending, which barely makes sense) but the set-pieces are fun. There isn’t much more to say about the film: It’s fun, hits more or less the right spot for anyone expecting that kind of comedy and it even pays itself a short homage to The Usual Suspects. That could have gone much worse.
(On Cable TV, August 2015) Grudge Match isn’t an unofficial remake of Rocky Balboa, but is sure does feel like it at times, as a retired boxer played by Sylvester Stallone takes up the gloves once again to face an old rival. But while Rocky 6 tried hard to keep up the serious underdog tone of its series, Grudge Match thankfully seems willing to let the natural comedy in its premise run free. Or so it seems for a while, it bits and pieces –because far too often, Grudge Match lets go of its comic premise and muddles down in emotional sequences that take away from its strengths. It doesn’t help that the film is deeply conventional – it’s not so bad when the characters are exchanging barbs or indulging in easy physical comedy, but when Grudge Match gets serious, it also gets dull. Still, there is considerable entertainment in seeing Robert de Niro take up old glories (although this does nothing to calm critics claiming that his twenty-first century output so far has been almost entirely riffing on his previous career), and Stallone arguably plays a better take on his Rocky Balboa character. Alan Arkin once again plays crusty-old-guy better than anyone else, much as Kevin Hart can somehow remain a non-obnoxious motor-mouth. It’s also good to see Kim Basinger again in a substantial role. The laughs rescue the film from rote emotional familiarity –there is, in particular, a single-shot silent gag involving a bridge, jogger, a scooter and careful composition. Still, Grudge Match is pretty good entertainment, especially for anyone in the mood for a solid way to pass the evening.
(Video on Demand, July 2015) There is something almost irresistibly promising about the premise at the core of Get Hard: What if a privileged naïf, framed for white-collar crime, had to ask for help in facing being locked-up? What if the tough-black-guy asked for help was just as innocent as the convicted man? Give the two main roles to Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart and you can almost imagine the film itself. There’s even some room for social commentary, populist rage and racial-divide commentary. But what do we actually get in Get Hard? Alas: Racist, homophobic and just plain mean humor. While a little bit can go a long way, the film is wearying in is near-constant carpet-bombing of the same jokes, repeated without much variation. Rape isn’t funny, and neither is specifically homosexual prison rape, so it’s distressing to see the film reach for the same joke every five minutes or so, even in watered-down forms that look a lot like plain homophobia. Much of the same can be said about the film’s lazy approach to racial stereotyping –setting a sequence inside a white supremacist headquarters can’t hid the fact the Get Hard doesn’t allow for much racial nuance in how it portrays its non-leading characters, and that the seemingly unconscious racism is used as a crutch instead of wittier material. While Ferrell and Hart are adequate in their roles, they’re not fed very interesting material and the result feels like a waste of two talented comedians; at best, they rescue a script that would have led to a disaster in the hands of less likable performers. While not entirely unfunny (thrown enough jokes at the screen and a few are bound to stick), Get Hard feels more juvenile than funny and while you may laugh once or twice, you may not necessarily like yourself for doing so.
(On Cable TV, March 2015) I wasn’t expecting much from this low-profile romantic comedy (a remake of a 1986 film based on a 1974 David Mamet play), but I should have suspected otherwise given that it stars the enormously likable Kevin Hart, Regina Hall, Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant. Set in downtown Los Angeles, About Last Time details a year in the life of four young people, during which they meet, fall in love, break up, reconcile and change careers. Almost immediately charming, it’s a film built on dialogues and performances, and all four main actors truly knock it out of the park, with particular mentions for Hart and Hall, both of whom play the uninhibited comic relief couple to the more conventional Ealy and Bryant. (Elsewhere in the film, Paula Patton has another great but too-short turn as a romantic antagonist.) While About Last Night isn’t particularly original, it’s slickly-made, modern, almost constantly funny and features intensely likable actors. It’s hard to ask for much more from a romantic comedy
(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.