(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) If you had asked around 2005, McG would have been identified as an up-and-coming director capable of handling big blockbuster productions: After Charlie’s Angels and its sequel Full Throttle, McG had proven his ability to deliver the kind of action comedy that Hollywood can never get enough. But then his movies got worse. Never a prolific director (one every three years), his career suffered the back-to-back-to-back blows of Terminator Salvation, This Means War and 3 Days to Kill, neither of which were particularly well received nor did much box-office business. So what’s a Hollywood outcast to do? Turn to Netflix, of course, and that’s where we find The Babysitter, a smaller-scoped action comedy in which a teenager discovers that his babysitter leads a demonic cult and intends to sacrifice someone. Like, while he’s supposed to be sleeping. The next hour or so has the predictable running-around-the-house, ganging-up-with-the-neighbour, taking-down-the-Demonists stuff, handled with a nice little edge of self-awareness and fast-paced frame-breaking. The blend of comedy and horror is generally successful, although the film occasionally feels a bit too vulgar and gory for its own good. McG’s fluid direction is a return to form for him, while Samara Weaving does just fine as the titular babysitter. The Babysitter is not a respectable or profound film—but it’s exactly the kind of exploitation horror comedy that popped up in the more self-aware 1980s, and it’s quite a bit of fun to watch.
(On Cable TV, November 2014) By now, anything with Luc Besson as a screenwriter should come with its own warning: “Stupid stuff within.” The problem isn’t that Besson’s name is usually associated with dumb scripts: it’s that the same issues keep coming back: dumb anti-establishment rants, moronic plotting, blatant misogyny and a striking lack of tonal unity that has the films jumping all over the place. With 3 Days to Kill, writers Besson and Adi Hasak end up reprising the worst aspects of From Paris with Love: no skill in blending comedy with violence, dim-witted characters and plot-lines that would have been laughable thirty years ago. Here, a CIA agent suffering from a fatal disease is manipulated in executing “one last job” while caring for his estranged daughter. What follows is an unlikable blend of torture played for laughs, uncomfortable comedy, fish-out-of-water parenting and a portrayal of espionage that makes James Bond movie feel sophisticated. The film hits its worst moments when it asks us to believe that a character would forget about violent torture in order to help his torturer bond with his daughter… moments after being electrocuted. Such uneasy blend of jokes in-between deathly serious violence show the tone-deaf sensibilities of either the screenwriters, or fallen-from-grace director McG, whose Charlie’s Angels heydays are nowhere reflected in his recent work –it’s not this or stuff like This Means War that make him look better. While 3 Days to Kill does briefly come alive during its action sequences (in particular, a chase sequence besides La Seine), much of the film is just inert, flopping aimlessly and failing to get its audience’s sympathy. Surprisingly enough, Kevin Costner doesn’t emerge too badly from the ongoing train wreck –he’s able to display a certain weary stoicism through it all. Once really can’t say the same about Amber Heard, playing dress-up as a would-be femme fatale when she’s got the gravitas of half a beach bunny. (Her character may be badly written, but the way she plays it make it seem even worse.) It’s refreshing to see Connie Nielsen in a motherly role, but Hailee Steinfeld may want to re-think playing such unlikable brats flouncing without reason. 3 Days to Kill redefines “scattershot” in the way its scenes don’t seem to flow along in the same film, and how it usually privileges the dumb answer to just about any plot question. The predictable plot twists, stomach-churning “comic” violence really don’t help… but what else have we come to expect from Luc Besson?
(On Cable TV, November 2013) On paper, This Means War has a terrific (if risky) premise: What if two spies vied for the same woman? What could they do with the resources of the state at their disposal if the goal was all-and-out romance? It’s a promising idea, tempered only by the balance required to tone down the unbound misogynistic stalkerism inherent in the premise. But that’s asking far too much of director McG’s rather silly take on the idea, as he’s barely able to present the basic idea in an entertaining fashion. The fault, to be clear, isn’t in leads Chris Pine, Tom Hardy or Reese Witherspoon: All three are capable actors more than able to use their established screen persona to elevate the film above its true weight. But it’s just not a good script, and McG’s execution doesn’t do much to make it better –to the point where it’s easy to wonder what happened to the guy who delivered two relatively successful Charlie’s Angels film in the more or less the same vein. It’s easy to blame a mid-sized budget: This Means War was visibly shot in Vancouver (all the US Post boxes in the world can’t hide the Vancouver Public Library, President’s Choice breakfast cereal, or transform an HMV store into a video-rental place) and its obvious Hollywood gloss (spies in shiny high-tech offices, implausible apartments, CIA having access to priceless paintings, a foreign national working for the CIA… aaaagh.) only make it a lazy, contemptuous film. The most infuriating thing about it may be how it makes a mess out of a can’t-miss idea, a director who’s done good things in the past, and three actors who basically show up to play their usual kind of role. (Tom Hardy is particularly wasted given his chance to riff off his violent-guy persona into something more accessible.) While there are a few suitable scenes of mayhem, a few good quotes and the occasional directorial flourish, there’s very little in This Means War that works on a sustained basis. It’s the kind of Hollywood film that gives a bad name to Hollywood films, and the fact that they shot a film set in Los Angeles in Vancouver may be all that is required to be said.